How Embracing Others with Differences of Conscience Protects Church Unity
In my last post, I introduced this subject of dealing redemptively with so-called gray areas in the church.
In this post I want to continue the discussion by unpacking the gist of the gospel grace of welcoming that helps preserve unity in this challenging area of church life.
The gist of welcoming is an ongoing determination to embrace others in spite of differences over morally neutral matters. Paul speaks in Romans of two different categories of believers.
In 14:1 he refers to those weak in faith. In Rom. 15:1 he talks of we who are strong. Notice he counts himself among the strong by using the 1st person plural we. What does he mean?
He gets very concrete in 14:2 – One person believes he may eat anything (the strong), while the weak person eats only vegetables. Over the issue of food, these believers fought, probably not from a nutritional perspective but from a religious one.
The vegetarians probably worried that eating meat might make them guilty of idolatry, if that meat came from offerings to idols (see 1 Cor. 8 for similar concerns in that fellowship).
The meat eaters lost no sleep over that so-called problem at all.
In verses 5ff Paul introduces another area of controversy plaguing the church – One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike.
In both matters of eating and day keeping, he categorizes the opposing positions in terms of strong and weak. By strong, including himself, he means the spiritually mature, fully able to enjoy their Christian liberty, completely emancipated from un-Christian inhibitions and taboos.
By weak, he means the spiritually immature, not yet fully liberated by the gospel and its call to freedom (Gal. 5:13), but rather constrained in their conscience not to do certain things for fear of displeasing God.
Jim Boice used this example of strong vs. weak:
Charles Spurgeon was the greatest preacher of his age, but he was frequently criticized for being funny. When one woman objected to the humor he inserted into his sermons Spurgeon told her, “Madam, you would think a great deal better of me if you knew the funny things I kept out.” A young man asked what he should do about a box of cigars he had been given. Spurgeon solved his problem. “Give them to me,” he said, “and I will smoke them to the glory of God.” On another occasion Spurgeon was criticized for traveling to meetings in a first class railway carriage. His antagonist said, “Mr. Spurgeon, what are you doing up here? I am riding back there in the third class carriage taking care of the Lord’s money.” Spurgeon replied, “And I am up here in the first class carriage taking care of the Lord’s servant.”
Both sides, strong and weak, judged one another. Consider Rom. 14:3. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats.
The Greek word for despise is a strong word. It means to consider as nothing, to treat with contempt. The strong who ate judged the weak who didn’t as legalists; the weak who abstained judged the strong who didn’t as libertines.
That built walls between them in the community. That created chasms in their fellowship. And to that Paul strongly objected giving this command: welcome one another.
The word is proslambano – literally, take to oneself. It means accept or receive. I like the word embrace. Perhaps one of the best concrete biblical examples we have of the spirit behind the word comes from Acts 28:2 – The native people showed us unusual kindness, for they kindled a fire and welcomed us all, because it had begun to rain and was cold.
To welcome is to draw someone into your fellowship and companionship, to treat them gently and kindly, irrespective of their views on morally neutral issues – and not, by the way, for the purpose of disputing about those things according to v. 1 – welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions.
Forget that! Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind (Rom. 14:5). Mine is not to change my brother’s mind; mine is to embrace my brother, strong or weak, eating or not, drinking or not, smoking or not, movie and theater going or not, and a host of other doubtful things, principles of conscience, for which the Scripture colors no black and white.
So the gist of welcoming as a grace of gospel-shaped community is an ongoing determination to embrace others in spite of differences over morally neutral matters.