In our current climate of sickness, lock downs, re-openings, and “new normals,” we also have new questions to think through—especially in terms of how we relate to each other now that there are many different opinions about the issues COVID-19 has created. Just to highlight two: Must people wear masks all the time? Should Christians insist on meeting together when the virus is still out there?
The other day Chris Lieberman texted me:
“Is Romans 14 going to become a really important passage in Christian circles soon? Re: Masks, etc…”
I responded that it was a great point he had made. Then I suggested he write about it for the blog. I recommend you go read that passage. In fact, all of Romans 14:1-15:13 is important territory for us in these times. Chris is right, and this is a perfect example of one way the bible gives us guidance. At the end of his letter to the church in Rome, Paul addresses some issues that Christians were debating and disagreeing about. The issues themselves aren’t relevant to our situation at all—they’re not the things we’re debating. But the directions Paul gives about how the church was to handle the issues are supremely relevant. They distill scripture’s teaching about how brothers and sisters are to disagree about things on which God hasn’t given explicit directions, and they give us easily applicable instructions for our time.
Chris agreed to write the post, and below are his thoughts. I recommend them for all of us to consider.
Thoughts on Romans 14 as it applies to our current situation…
As our nation debates issues of reopening and public health, naturally the Church is also facing tough questions about where to go from here. Is it biblical for us to stop meeting for this long? Should we gather in defiance of government orders? Is it okay for us to meet in one another’s homes right now? When we do meet, should we hug one another? Should we wear masks? Limit gathering sizes? Exclude those who are at risk?
Unsurprisingly to anyone who’s been paying even slight attention for the past 4 years, the national conversation is polarized, politicized, and contentious (it’s hard to remember the last national conversation that wasn’t polarized, politicized, or contentious). Those on the “re-open” side are accused of valuing money over human life and endangering the public, while those who want to exercise more caution are told they are living in fear, buying into hysteria, and allowing tyranny.
This behavior is to be expected of the world, but the Body of Christ should be different. Yet even among genuine Christians seeking to be biblically faithful on this issue, there’s disagreement. Both groups want to do what’s right and honor the Lord. Both look to Scripture and the wisdom of the Holy Spirit to guide their convictions. But some come to the conclusion that we should follow the guidance of government and health officials, while others believe that the Church should, at least in part, defy these commands in order to be faithful to Christ. Both groups act out of a genuine conviction that what they are doing is right, with proof texts and justifications such as, “Love your neighbor,” “Don’t forsake gathering together,” “Submit to authorities,” and, “Obey man rather than God.”
When Christians disagree, there are two possibilities. The first is there is a clear teaching of Scripture on the matter, and one group has failed to obey it, due either to a misunderstanding of what the Bible is saying or a willful disobedience to the Lord. But the second possibility is that it is an issue that lacks clear biblical guidance. I would submit that many of the questions we are facing now fall under the latter category.
While unfortunately the Bible doesn’t give us step-by-step instructions on what to do if a global pandemic and ensuing government orders upend the Church’s ability to meet, it does have some teachings on what to do when Scripture doesn’t tell us what to do. In Romans 14, Paul addresses the issue of “doubtful things.” The early Church had disputes about a variety of issues, with faithful Christians on both sides passionately believing that their side was the biblical one. Now Paul was writing Scripture. God could have inspired him to tell them who was right and who was wrong, and that would have been the biblical teaching on these issues. But instead, Paul taught them how to handle issues when Christians disagree and there is no clear biblical answer.
Romans 14 is a rich text that I would encourage everyone to read and pray through as we navigate these tough issues. While there is no doubt much more that could be said, I want to highlight three key principles from this text:
1. When Scripture is unclear, do whatever helps you best honor the Lord with a clear conscience.
The two main contentious issues Paul brings up in Romans 14 are whether or not Christians should eat meat (possibly referring to meat sacrificed to idols, or perhaps a reference to keeping the Jewish dietary laws) and keep the Sabbath and other Jewish religious holidays. Rather than a simple yes or no, Paul tells them, “Let each be fully convinced in his own mind” (verse 5). In other words, Paul is saying that either choice is acceptable and that they should follow their convictions. He then clarifies in verse 23, “But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because he does not eat from faith; for whatever is not from faith is sin.” While in Christ there is liberty to act either way, Paul warns that for the person who is unable to exercise that liberty without conviction, what he is doing is sin.
A helpful guide to deciding what we should do is found in verse 6: “He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it. He who eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he who does not eat, to the Lord he does not eat, and gives God thanks.” For some Christians, religious holidays were a chance to set time aside to focus on the Lord. For others, there was no need to treat one day any different than others. Every day should be a day to worship. Some saw refraining from meat as an act of worship. Others saw meat as a gift from God to give thanks for (I know I do). Paul exhorted the believers to do whatever was most beneficial for their walks with the Lord.
For some of us, following stay-at-home guidelines and practicing social distancing is an act of loving your neighbor and submitting to the authorities God has placed over us. For others, meeting together as the Body of Christ and living without fear is a matter of being faithful to God’s command to gather, obeying God rather than man, and living out the Gospel message that Christ has defeated death and we need not fear it. Are you convinced that following orders and worshipping at home is the right thing to do for your walk? Then do that. Do you believe that you are best honoring the Lord by gathering with other believers and living out the humanity God intended? If you are able to do it in faith, then do so. Live according to your convictions in whatever way you can best glorify God.
2. Don’t judge others on their convictions. God will take care of that.
One of the reasons Paul wrote this passage is because both sides of these arguments were passing judgment on their brothers and sisters in Christ on the other side for their convictions. Those who ate meat looked down on those “weaker” Christians whose conscience wouldn’t allow them to partake. Those who refrained from eating meat passed judgment on those who they thought were living in sin with their indulgence.
To this, Paul responds that we all will give an account before the Lord for our actions (verses 10-13). We are all God’s servants, and it is for Him to decide whether the actions and motives of our hearts are right before Him. When a believer is in clear violation of the commands of Scripture, we have a duty to rebuke and correct. But in matters of “doubtful things,” we lack both the clear biblical directive and knowledge of the other believer’s thoughts and intentions to rightly give judgment. That being the case, Paul’s command is to entrust judgment to the Lord rather than take it upon yourself.
In all of this, the possibility remains that there is a right and wrong answer. Perhaps those who are meeting together are sinning by disobeying the authorities. Perhaps a pandemic is not a valid excuse for Christians to stop meeting. But absent of a clear command of Scripture or knowledge of the hearts and intentions of others, there is no room for fellow believers to judge one another on their convictions in such matters. All of us will stand before the Lord to give an account for our own thoughts and actions. Our job is to make sure we are honoring the Lord with our own lives and trust the judgment of others to Him.
3. Remember that the love and unity of the Body of Christ are more important than your opinions.
The issue Paul is really addressing in Romans 14 was not the disagreement itself, but the Roman Christians’ response to the disagreement. Those who were at liberty to eat meat were intentionally flaunting their liberty in front or those who felt convicted about doing so, causing them to stumble in their convictions. Likewise, those who refrained passed judgment on the believers who were exercising their Christian liberty. To this, Paul responds that convictions are great, but maintaining the love and unity of the Body of Christ is even more important, and in this regard he leads by example (verses 14-21).
Paul’s personal conviction was that it was fine for him to eat meat. However, to him it was more important to love his brothers and sisters in Christ, and so he had determined not to eat meat if it would cause someone with different convictions to stumble. In fact, in 1 Corinthians 8:13, he writes that he would never eat meat again if he knew eating meat would cause another believer to sin. He was willing to forgo his Christian liberty if it helped another believer in their walk. After all, the people on the other side were brothers and sisters for whom Christ (verse 15). Verse 20 really puts things into perspective: “Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food.” Christian liberty is great, but it’s not worth disrupting the love or unity of the Body. Rather, he exhorts both sides to “Pursue the things which make for peace and the things by which one may edify another” (verse 19).
For those who don’t believe in following the guidelines, there will be temptation to look down on those who do and perhaps flaunt your Christian liberty. Pride may cause some to revel in not wearing a mask or meeting together with fellow believers. Those who believe in keeping these rules may seek to distance themselves from Christians who violate government orders and accuse them of not loving their neighbor and risking public health. No one denies the importance of these questions, but one might ask if they are worth dividing the Body of Christ. The people on the other side are your brothers and sisters in Christ. Should we destroy the work of God for the sake of masks?
Perhaps both opinions exist because the Church needs both opinions. If everyone in the Church wanted to rush to meet again, we would potentially risk endangering others and defying God-ordained authorities without the proper biblical warrant. If we all thought we should wait to gather, it could have serious consequences on the spiritual health of the Church. By putting Christians of both persuasions side-by-side, perhaps the Lord is teaching us how to handle disagreement with Christian love and balance both views toward the best possible solution.
I don’t claim to know everything about this situation. I don’t know that all my views are correct, or that my solutions are best for the Bride of Christ. But I do know that when this crisis is over, we will still be the Church. We are all still brothers and sisters in Christ. As we navigate these issues as one Body, let us support one another in our convictions. Let us not pass judgment or use our liberty to stumble one another. Rather, let us work in Christian love and unity toward our common goal, to glorify Christ and see His Name magnified on earth.