Editor’s Note: Tom Beutel, a regular contributor to PeaceSigns, is Professor Emeritus of Computer Science at Mount Vernon Nazarene University in Mount Vernon, Ohio. Balancing Acts is a monthly feature of PeaceSigns and appears the second week of each month.
by Tom Beutel
It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother or sister stumble. Romans 14:21 (NRSV)
On the face of it this verse from Romans 14 seems obviously applicable to peacemaking. After all, if we seek the well-being of others, particularly of other Christians, it would not be an act of peacemaking to engage in behaviors that cause them to stumble in their faith.
This verse is part of Paul’s dealing with a specific problem in the church of Rome where some converts (of Jewish heritage) believed that it was a sin to eat meat sacrificed to idols and other converts (formerly pagans) did not. This second group, having been freed from idol worship had come to understand that idols are not really gods and, therefore, sacrificing meat or anything else to them was of no real significance.
Paul’s goal in this disagreement is two-fold; first, to re-establish unity in the fellowship, and second to emphasize that love, not knowledge is at the heart of the Christian faith.
A thorough and thoughtful reading and study of Romans 14 reveals a complex yet specific answer to the problem of differences among Christians with respect to practices, more specifically religious or possibly cultural practices. It is probably safe to say that within the church today many if not most disagreements and divisions are a result of differences in understanding about practices.
Practices, in particular practices related to our faith, can include such things as how one is baptized, what type of music is sung, how we dress in church, how we pray; in general, how we worship together in church, even how we do personal devotions.
In the case of the issue being addressed by Paul, there are three main points that are emphasized. First, “those who eat meat must not despise those who abstain.” Throughout Romans 14 Paul treats this group as “more enlightened” and even as “stronger” in their faith. Even so, his admonition to them is not to “despise”, or as translated in the NIV, “look down on” those who refrain. (v. 3). Today we might say that those who embrace certain practices are “clinging to the past,” too conservative, close-minded, unwilling to change. Paul says, don’t look down on those whose practices are more constrained!
Second, Paul commands that those who do abstain (the “weaker”) “must not pass judgment on those who eat.” This is the other side of the coin. In today’s climate those who eat, might be branded as “liberal,” disrespectful of teaching and tradition, lax, “talking the talk, but not walking the walk.” Paul says, don’t condemn those whose practices are more free.
One might say that by giving these two commands, Paul is “separating” the disputants, figuratively sending them to their own corners. Having done so, Paul now gives the decisive pronouncement, ” Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another.” (v. 13) This, says Paul, is acting out of love. And how does he propose for this to happen? By having the “stronger” refrain from their more enlightened behavior! So, in the context of Romans 14, in the presence of a “weaker” brother or sister, do not eat meat sacrificed to idols.
So far, so good. If we have differences with respect to religious practices, we must neither look down on nor condemn those who have different practices, while always pursing peace by refraining from our more “enlightened” practices if those might cause spiritual harm to another Christian.
Note that this is not carte blanche to tolerate or nurture differences within the church. On the contrary Paul is seeking to unify the church in its love for one another. And, where necessary, take the more “conservative” view, willingly giving up our freedom out of love.
It should be said that, as with all scripture, applying Romans 14 must be done with care. Paul’s way of handling differences in this passage deals specifically with differences in religious practice, not differences in theology or morality. Differences in these are dealt with elsewhere in scripture, by Paul and others.
It should also be said that Paul assumes that the differences in religious practices are not simply personal preference or opinion, but are based on scripture (or the apostles’ teachings which would become scripture). Issues such as the color of carpeting or the style of seating would not fall into the category of scripture-based religious practices. It would be difficult to argue that a choice in carpet or seating could affect the spiritual well-being of another person.
Issues to which we might apply the lessons from Romans 14 might be: the style of baptism: immersion vs “sprinkling,” tithing, conservative dress in church, style of music, or behaviors during worship, among others. Style of baptism is probably a fairly obvious example of a religious practice where there are differences today. Paul’s admonition would be do not look down on those who baptize by immersion and do not condemn those who don’t. If in a group of Christians with mixed views on this, perhaps at a summer camp, go with the more conservative view out of love.
I include dress, music, and behaviors in the list of examples because these are very “hot” issues today. If we allow that differences in these practices are scripture-based, not just personal preferences, then we can look to Romans 14 for guidance. Like the issue of baptism, if we are in a group that all affirms a certain practice, or perhaps in private, Paul says to follow our conscience. However, in settings where views differ (including most congregations) we should neither judge nor look down on those with whom we differ, and, out of love, we should refrain from practices that might offend and therefore be a stumbling block to Christian brother or sister.
No web links this month, but the issue of how we deal with differences in religious practice is certainly a peacemaking issue. For actions, think about practices in your own church and follow Paul’s teaching as to the proper way to handle them. The goal, as always with peacemaking, is not just to calm the waters, but to seek the well-being of the other while honoring God. This is the balancing act!