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HOW TO HANDLE DISPUTABLE MATTERS

SERMON PRESENTED ON 01-30-10

 

       We know to be identified as a Christian is to be identified as one who understands and embraces the atonement provided by the sacrifice of Jesus.  A Christian is one who is reconciled to God by accepting the free gift of salvation facilitated through what Christ did on the cross.  The word Christian was first used at Antioch as recorded in Acts 11:26.  The word is used twice more in the NT. It simply means one who follows Christ.  What does it mean to follow someone?  Millions claim to be Christian.  We all in this room claim to be Christian. By claiming to be Christian we are in effect saying we are followers of Christ.

       I think we all know what it means to follow Christ.  It means we embrace his sacrifice for our sins and we are in agreement with what he taught.  Recently I gave a lengthy series of sermons dealing with the Sermon on the Mount which pretty must reveals what Jesus taught and what it means to follow Him.  We can pretty much summarize what Jesus taught by quoting the Golden Rule.  Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.  This rule summarizes the Law of Love. It expresses how the Law of Love is to be carried out. 

       It is sometimes expressed that when we accept Jesus as our Savior we make him Lord of our life.  In realty we don’t make Jesus Lord of our life.  He already is and always will be.  His death and resurrection has made Him both Lord and Savior.  A Christian becomes a Christian by recognizing the salvation and lordship of Christ Jesus.  

       Acts 2:36:  Therefore let all Israel be assured of this: God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ."  

       The word Jesus means Savior and the word Christ means anointed one. To say Christ Jesus is to say Anointed Savior or Anointed Messiah.  God the Father made Jesus both Lord and the Anointed Savior over the human race.  It is only as the human race recognizes the implications of what God has done through his Anointed Lord and Savior that we will experience the benefits of this great act of mercy and love for the human race.  Many Christians clearly recognize what it means to be a Christian and direct their lives accordingly.  This is seen in the many acts of kindness demonstrated by those in the Christian community.

       It must be understood that the Golden Rule, as an expression of the Law of Love, is not just a Christian principle in so much that only those who call themselves Christians are able to express this law in their behavior. It should be obvious that during times of difficulty as presently being experienced in Haiti, people from various religious faiths and no religious faith at all respond with deeds of kindness.

        Jesus taught principles of behavior that are of universal application.  When these principles are applied by those who are non-Christian, such folks are behaving according to Kingdom principles and are producing fruits of righteousness.  There are non-Christians performing acts of kindness and living the Golden Rule all over the world including in Haiti as we speak.  Such folks may lack knowledge or understanding of the salvation message at this point in their lives but they are, nevertheless, expressing the Law of Love and to that extant are practicing Kingdom living. 

       The NT makes it clear that what Jesus taught was a way of living which Jesus characterized as the Kingdom of God and that the Kingdom was all about a changed way of thinking which would result in a changed way of behaving. 

       We are all familiar with the many scriptures that tell us what the focus of Christ’s ministry was.  After Jesus spent 40 days in the desert getting close to God and overcoming Satan and after John had been put in prison,  Jesus came into Galilee preaching the good news of the Kingdom of God.

       Matthew 4:17: From that time on Jesus began to preach, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near."

       Mark 1:4-15: After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God "The time has come," he said. "The kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news!" 

       When Jesus said repent He was telling His audience to change their way of thinking.  When one changes their thinking it leads to changed behavior.  Preaching and teaching about the kingdom of God was the major focus of Christ’s ministry.  The standards of behavior He taught throughout His ministry were all about living the kingdom life.  Kingdom living is all about righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit as Apostle Paul clearly wrote in a letter to the Roman Church.    

       The Roman Church at the time Paul wrote this letter was all embroiled in controversy over food.  They were apparently judging each other over what they were or were not eating. After dealing with this issue at some length, Paul summarized the issue by writing:

       Romans 14:17: For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.    Let’s take a look at what led up to Paul making this iconic statement.  

Handling of disputable matters:      

       Romans 14:1-2: Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. One man's faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables.

       Paul instructs these Roman Christians to accept him who is weak in the faith.  He says one man’s faith allows him to eat everything but another man whose faith is weak eats only vegetables.  Some commentators believe Paul is dealing with different factions in the Roman Church relative to the keeping of the Mosaic regulations.  There may have been Jewish Christians in the Roman church who believed one must still keep the dietary laws of the Old Covenant.  Gentile Christians in the group would not have been doing so.  There may have been judging going between the two groups relative to this matter. 

       Squabbling over issues of food was apparently an ongoing issue in the developing Christian community.  Paul had to address it in one of his letters to the Corinthian church and he alludes to it in his letter to the Colossians.  Whether it was Old Covenant dietary regulations that were at issue or whether there were some other issues involving food in the Roman church is unclear.  Whatever it was, it was enough of a problem that Paul felt he needed to address it.

       What is interesting is that Paul is making a personal judgement about this mans understanding about what is permissible and not permissible to eat.  He is saying that the man who has chosen to eat only vegetables is weak in the faith.  In Paul’s mind there is nothing wrong with eating things besides vegetables.  For Paul, to think otherwise, is to be weak in the faith. For Paul, the objective truth is that it was alright to eat things other than just vegetables.  Paul saw no problem with eating things besides vegetables and personally believed it was the right thing to do and felt the man who was eating only vegetables didn’t have all the facts. 

       In essence, Paul was making a judgement about this persons understanding about what was permissible to eat.  Paul believed this person was wrong in his understanding as to what is permissible and not permissible when it comes to eating food.  For Paul, the objective truth was it is alright to eat other foods.  Paul felt the vegetable eater was lacking in understanding of the matter and in so doing wasn’t seeing the objective truth as Paul and other saw it.

       What’s more, Paul openly writes in a letter, that was probably going to be read to the entire Roman church, that a man that thinks it is only right to eat vegetables is weak in the faith. That man or possibly group of men that were only eating vegetables would probably hear this letter read and know Paul’s opinion on the matter.

        We all have opinions on matters and we often express our opinions to others knowing full well they have a different opinion about the matter.  This is done in formal debates all the time.  

       We all agree and disagree with each other all the time based on different perspectives about everything from politics, religion and sporting events to you name it.  Recently my son-in-law Jack and I were trash talking via e-mail over what I felt was Brett Favre’s running up the score in a divisional play off game involving the Dallas Cowboys and the Minnesota the Vikings.  He thought it was perfectly OK for Brett to do what he did while I thought it was inappropriate.  Despite our differences over this matter, we certainly don’t allow such differences to interfere with our overall relationship.  After all, it is a disputable matter and that is exactly how Paul is viewing the matter about eating in the Roman Church. Paul says Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters.

       Romans 14:1: Him that is weak in the faith receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations (KJV).

       We see that Paul has already concluded in his mind that the “him” being discussed is weak in the faith because he apparently believes it is wrong to eat things other than vegetables. Paul has gone so far as to express his opinion in an open letter to the Roman Church.  Paul has made the personal judgement that this gentleman is weak in the faith. But even though Paul has a personal opinion about what this man has concluded about food, he tells the Roman Christians to leave this person alone.  Don’t bug him.  Paul says this is a disputable matter. This is a matter about which there are going to be various opinions. Paul has concluded in his mind that this person has the wrong perspective on this issue.  But Paul also realized this was not an issue to get all bent out of shape about. It certainly wasn’t an issue to get down on a brother about or cause division over. 

       Romans 14:3: The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him.  

       Paul is instructing the Romans to not condemn someone for a choice they make on a disputable matter.  God doesn’t do that.  God accepts this man and so should you Romans.  Paul is saying I don’t agree with him or with this group but this is still my Christian brother.  Our disagreement shouldn’t separate us as brothers in the Church.  Paul goes on to say:

       Romans 14:4: Who are you to judge someone else's servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.

       Paul appears to be really fired up about this issue.  Who are you to judge someone else's servant? Paul asks.  As Christians we are all accountable and answerable to Jesus Christ and the Father. They are the ultimate judge of our actions and the motives behind our actions.  Remember, Paul is addressing disputable matters. 

       Romans 14:1: Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters.

        What are disputable matters?

      The Greek word translated disputable is dialogizomai. It means thought, opinion and reasoning.  It can also mean doubt, dispute or to argue.  The Greek word translated matters is diakrisis which means to distinguish between things but can also mean to quarrel.  These definitions are taken from the Bauer, Arndt and Gingrich Greek Lexicon and this Lexicon translates the end of Romans 14:1 as “but not for the purpose of getting into quarrels about opinions.”  Paul is instructing the Roman Christians to accept those weak in the faith but not so they can brow beat them, belittle them or judge them over matters that amount to opinions.  It was Paul’s opinion that this person was wrong and because he was wrong Paul went so far as to conclude he was weak in the faith and expressed as much to the Roman Church.

       What is an opinion?  Here are a couple common definitions of what it means to have an opinion from several English Dictionaries.  One definition is, “A belief or judgment that rests on grounds insufficient to produce complete certainty.”  Another definition is, “A belief or conclusion held with confidence but not substantiated by positive knowledge or proof:"

       In other words, opinion is provisional understanding of a matter.  Provisional understanding about a matter is understanding based on what is currently known about a matter but also understanding that could change when facts currently unknown become known. There is nothing wrong with having an opinion and even a strong opinion to the point you believe you are right about an issue and you are willing to defend such perceived rightness.  On the other hand, we must always respect the right of another person to have a different position on an issue and acknowledge that some new information could surface that could change the truth. 

       For us humans, all truth is provisional.  As Paul said, we see through a glass darkly.  Only God knows absolute truth because God defines what truth is.  Jesus said God’s word is truth and so it is. Ultimately truth can only come from God.  Our task is to do our best to identify ultimate and absolute truth.  Unfortunately this often leads to different opinions.  This is why it is so important to keep an open mind about things and always be prepared to change our mind if the evidence demands it.   

       There was a time when people thought the world was flat.  New knowledge came along and took care of that idea.  It wasn’t until recently in human history that scientists came to understand that the earth revolves around the sun.  For millennia it was believed the sun revolved around the earth and the earth was the center of the universe.  Copernicus and Galileo came along and showed this not to be the case.  These men met with great resistance from fellow scientists of the day and especially from the Roman Catholic Church.  The church insisted that the sun revolved around the earth.  After all, wasn’t Joshua able to make the sun stand still?  Must it not be true that the sun revolves around the earth?  After all, doesn’t the Bible prove this to be true?  Since we now know the earth revolves around the sun, it should be obvious that the account of Joshua making the sun stand still must be understood in a different way.

       Galileo had to recant his position before the Church hierarchy to “save his soul from hell.”  Yet, as we all know, what Galileo taught turned out to be right and just recently the Roman Catholic Church openly admitted to being wrong in doing to Galileo what they did. 

       Look how tenaciously we defended a number of beliefs in the World Wide Church of God believing beyond all doubt that we were right and everyone else was wrong.  As a fellowship we castigated other Christians for their beliefs as we presented out doctrinal positions to the world as the absolute truth.  Well, as it turned out, not only were many of our doctrinal positions not absolute truth, they were positions that we now see as absolutely bogus. Now many of our friends in off shoot fellowships of World Wide still believes these positions which we have determined to be bogus. Should we therefore castigate them for failing to see what we see?  After all, they are looking at us and seeing us as failing to see what they see and they consider many or our positions bogus.

       So what is the solution to this seemingly ever present difference of opinion that we humans engage in?   The solution is to love each other and continue to seek common ground when holding to different opinions.  This is essentially what Paul is teaching us in his dealing with the Church at Rome.  Paul believed he was right and the vegetable eater was wrong as to the food issue.  Paul even concluded that the vegetable eater was weak in the faith because of his position on food.  But, this didn’t prevent Paul from fellowshipping with the vegetable eater.  This didn’t result in Paul not embracing the vegetable eater and allowing him to continue fellowshipping. 

       Remember Paul is dealing here with matters of opinion which often involves peripheral kinds of issues.  Paul is not dealing with well defined moral imperatives or well defined doctrinal beliefs.  Paul is not dealing with someone committing adultery, fornication or being a thief.  He is not dealing with someone questioning the resurrection of Jesus.   There were a sufficient number of credible witnesses to Jesus being alive after being dead.  This was not a disputable opinion. Paul is dealing with a disputable opinion.  Remember what an opinion is:

       “A belief or judgment that rests on grounds insufficient to produce complete certainty.”  Another definition is, “A belief or conclusion held with confidence but not substantiated by positive knowledge or proof:"

       While Paul personally had confidence that he was right on the food issue, he apparently did not believe his position to be infallible.  He certainly didn’t believe his position on food was so important that not to hold it warranted disassociation from those who held a different position on this issue.  Let’s again look at Romans 14:3.

       The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him.

       Paul is saying that God has accepted him.  Paul is saying God accepts those who have a different opinion about certain issues.  God is not so structured and intolerant that he will reject us because we have an opinion that may be different from the objective absolute truth about something.  There may be many areas in life where absolute truth doesn’t even exist, where circumstances simple dictate a course of action. 

       David and his men, when hungry, eat the show bread in the temple which it was unlawful except for the Priests to eat. There’s no evidence God condemned him for this.  Rehab lied to protect the spies and was considered righteous for doing this.  Am I suggesting all law is relative in its application to a situation?  Am I promoting situational ethics and moral relativity?”  No I am not.  There is a behavior that is clearly identified as sin in scripture for which there doesn’t appear to be exceptions. Such clearly defined sinful behavior is not a disputable matter.  It is important, however, that we distinguish between indisputable sinful behavior and behavior we just happen to disagree with or that we may think is sinful when in reality it is not.   

       God has established the law of love as expressed in the Golden Rule for our good and He wants us to embrace it with our entire Being because God knows obedience to the law of love is the pathway to harmonious living and to righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit as Paul said. Part of exercising the law of love is to be tolerant of differences of opinion about disputable matters.  God does not expect us to be tolerant of behavior that harms us or our neighbor. 

       Sometimes, however, what we think harms us or our neighbor is nothing more than our opinion.  We refuse to give the other person the benefit of the doubt because we treat our opinion as absolute truth when it may not be that at all.  Interpersonal relations are difficult as we all know.  They are difficult largely because we expect people to behave in a certain way and when they don’t, we get upset and relationships suffer. 

       The goal is to strive to be sensitive to the feelings, thoughts and behavior of others.  This means stuffing our human tendency to be self centered and focusing instead on being other centered.  Other centeredness has to do with how we get along with others despite differences of opinion.  Other centeredness is to focus on how what we think, say and do affects our spouse, our children, our parents, our neighbor, our co-workers and our brothers and sisters in Christ.  

       Right about now someone may be thinking of Amos 3:1.  Here’s the KJV of this passage which we formally used to justify our elitism as a fellowship.

       Amos 3:3: Can two walk together, except they be agreed?

       We used this passage to justify our avoidance of getting involved with other Christians and other people in general because after all we had the truth and no one else did so how could we walk together with other people.  Some Christians still use this passage to justify failing to join with others in humanitarian causes   When Barb and I came into WCG in the summer of 1965, I had just graduated from college and Barb and I had been selected to go on a Peace Core mission to South America. We had both previously applied to participate in the Peace Core as we saw it as an opportunity to serve our fellow man.  But the church said no. After all, how can two walk together unless they be agreed? 

         Well, as it turns out, this passage appears to be saying nothing about humans walking or not walking together.  As some of the commentaries point out, this passage is talking about Israel and God not walking together because of Israel’s sin and therefore God has to bring judgement upon them. 

       Amos 3:1-3: Listen! This is your doom! It is spoken by the Lord against both Israel and Judah--against the entire family I brought from Egypt: Of all the peoples of the earth, I have chosen you alone. That is why I must punish you the more for all your sins. For how can we walk together with your sins between us? (LB)

         The Prophet Amos is pointing out that God is asking Israel and Judah how he can walk with them in light of their sin.  God is perfect and God doesn’t walk with sin.  We humans can walk with God only because Jesus made it possible to do so by taking our sin upon Himself so that before God we appear righteous even though we still sin.  This passage is not talking about us sinful humans walking or not walking together.  In actuality, we humans all walk together as sinners before God. 

       If we would just keep that reality before us on a constant basis, it would go along way in preventing us from throwing those stones that Tracy spoke of last week.  It would go along way in preventing us from getting all bent out of shape over trivial matters, over differences of opinion, over differences of perspective, over differences in behavior. While it may be natural and even appropriate to more closely associate with others of like mind, this doesn’t mean we disassociate with others because they happen to have a different perspective or behave in a different manner from what we think is right. 

       Even where another person is clearly engaging in sinful behavior, and I emphasis clear sinful behavior as opposed to imagined sinful behavior, our goal must always be to correct in love and strive for reconciliation.  Jesus forgave the woman caught in adultery and instructed her not to continue this mode of behavior because it was clearly sinful, that is, behavior contrary to God’s law governing human behavior.

       Often human behavior is not sinful but simply based on a different perspective.  Paul had a different perspective about food than did the vegetable eater.  This difference in perspective had nothing to do with sin in the sense of behaving in a manner that separates one from God.  Paul knew this and so he instructed the Roman Christians to be tolerant of this person or group of persons and not to disassociate with them.  Paul instructed the Roman Christians to be sensitive to positions held by others.  Paul said God has accepted them why aren’t you? 

       Let’s be careful to follow the scriptural examples as to how we relate to each other.  Let’s not allow differences of opinion and perspective on disputable matters to cause division or disassociation.  Even where obvious sin is involved, let’s seek repentance, forgiveness and reconciliation. This, after all, is what being a Christian is all about.

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