Liberty and Love
Preached Sunday morning, January 23, 2005
New York Avenue Church of Christ
Yesterday a man I know told me about his grandfather, a Church of Christ minister in west Texas. His grandfather, he said, preached what my friend called “narrow-door Christianity.” That’s an interesting choice of words. Clearly my friend considered it much too narrow. But the phrase really interested me. In one sense, the entire Christian walk is “narrow-door.” In Mt. 7:13, for example, Jesus calls us to “Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” The way of righteousness is narrow only in comparison to the way of sin, which is so wide and diverse. It’s also narrow because at some level every one of us prefers to run around in the wide open fields of sin rather than walk the path of faith and obedience. With that said, it’s important that we don’t try to make God’s narrow way any narrower than it already is!
Here in the fourteenth chapter of Romans we see that Paul is dealing with narrow door issues among the Christians in Rome. The particular points at issue are whether or not Christians should celebrate special days, drink wine, or eat meat. Clearly there were those among the Roman Christians who believed in taking the stricter approach. Under certain circumstances, these restrictions might be helpful for Christians. But some in Rome apparently thought that following the rules on these matters was necessary for making it through the gates of heaven. Paul knew they were not, but what was the best way to settle the dispute?
Today’s passage is part of a larger section on love and liberty in Romans 14 and 15. The message of Rom. 14:1-12 is essentially, “No judging.” Rom. 14:13-23 can be summarized as “No tripping.” Rom. 15:1-3 implores us to bear with the weaker brother, and Rom. 15:4-13 encourages Christians to praise God and be filled with joy and peace . We’ll touch on all four of these sections here but focus on the first part–no judging.
One interesting point at the outset: Notice what Paul calls the doctrinally hardline here? Weak. They’re weak because they don’t understand Christian liberty. All of these things—days, meat, wine—really are not essential one way or another to Christian discipleship, regardless of what the weak Christians believe. But notice what Paul does. He doesn’t try to change anyone’s minds or practice. Siding with either party in this case would add the weight of Paul’s evangelistic authority to mere matters of preference. That would be a victory for legalism and a loss for both sides . Paul also doesn’t take the soft, squishy road and suggest that both sides simply agree to disagree and celebrate diversity. No, he does something much more powerful. He takes the opportunity of a church disagreement to teach the Romans what love really looks like in practice.
First of all, Paul gives the church a lesson against “watchdog Christianity.” By that I mean Christians whose main focus is finding fault with other Christians. Preserving the purity of the gospel is important, but it’s also important not spend time on things God doesn’t seem to spend much time on. Is it possible for a Christian to be wrong on matters of faith and practice and still be saved? I certainly hope so, because if our salvation depends on being correct on every possible point of doctrine, I don’t think any Christian who ever lived would be saved. So if watching is not the focus of discipleship, what should it be? We’ll see later in chapter 14.
We also see that “sameness” is not a Christian ideal . As one writer has noted, “Christians are not clones” . Paul has already explained that the church is made of members with a diversity of talents (Rom. 12:4). At the same time, the church has no place for an “them & us” mentality in which those who follow a more strict code of personal morality look down their noses at the more free—or vice-versa . The same thing could be said, by the way, for the terms being thrown around among our congregations today. In light of Rom. 14, “liberal” and “conservative” are political terms with no place in the church.
Beyond simply co-existing in the church, Christians are called to welcome those with whom we disagree—and not just so we can make them think like we do (Rom. 14:1). In fact, neither the strict or the free, the weak or the strong, are to pass judgment on the other: “Let not him who eats despise him who abstains, and let not him who abstains pass judgment on him who eats; for God has welcomed him” (v. 3). There are some pretty powerful implications for that idea when you think about it.
The essence of the issue is this: Don’t argue about debatable matters. Don’t make distinctions where God hasn’t. Look at verse 4: “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Master is able to make him stand.” Notice that who’s right doesn’t even enter the picture here? The focus is on God, who will make us stand faithful in him whether or not our doctrine is correct on every point.
Of course in trying to put these ideas into practice, an age-old problem arises: what issues are debatable and which essential? Are kitchens in the building an expediency or matter of salvation? What about drinking wine? Worshiping with instruments? Practicing homosexuality? Don’t look at me to answer those for you. The answers are in the Scriptures; that’s one reason it helps to know them.
What about issues that are not debatable? Are there some doctrines where being on the right side of the issue really is necessary? Most of us in the church of Christ are probably familiar with Jude 3, where Christians are called to “contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints.” Some brethren try to include everything imaginable within “the faith once for all delivered:” smoking, instruments of worship, one cup or many, etc. But Jude was only talking about two things: “ungodly persons who pervert the grace of our God into a license for immorality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ” (Jude 4).
Romans describes a few non-negotiables, too. To be Christian, it’s essential we understand that all human beings sin & fall short of glory of God (Rom. 3:23), and that we deserve death for that sin (Rom 6:23). We must repent of our old way of life (Rom. 2:4) to be saved by the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ (Rom. 4:16). We are to be baptized into newness of life (Rom. 6:3), offer our bodies as living sacrifices to God, and be transformed by the renewing of our mind (Rom. 12:1, 2). We are to love one another (Rom. 12:10; 14:15) and boldly proclaim the word of life (Rom. 10:14-17).
Loving one another—that’s an important part of our call as Christians. We aren’t called to call others down, but to live purely ourselves, in the freedom of God’s grace. Through the centuries, legalism in a variety of forms has all too often dominated Christian teaching. As one preacher has said,“This is why many people will not touch the church with a 25-foot pole, even though they are fantastically interested in the gospel” .
The lesson on Christian responsibility in Rom. 14 is very clear. We are not responsible to each other, but to God. God gives us liberty. If we think we shouldn’t do something—smoke, eat fatty foods, drink wine, watch R-rated movies—then we are sinning if we do. If we think it’s OK to do all these things. . . well, then things are a little more complicated.
That’s because, in our freedom, our standard of obedience to God is actually higher, not lower, than that put forth by legalistic codes. We are bound, you see, by the standard of love. Look at what Paul says in verses 14-16:
I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for any one who thinks it unclean. If your brother is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died. So do not let your good be spoken of as evil.
Sure it’s OK to eat meat. It’s even OK to drink wine. But it might not be a good idea to do either one. Paul sums up this line of thought in verse 21 when he says that “it is right not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother stumble.” That’s because “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (v. 23).
Do you see what Paul has done here? He tells those who understand Christian liberty not to take advantage of that liberty if it causes the weaker brother or sister to stumble; Jesus had already warned that drowning in the ocean would be better than to let that happen (Mk. 9:42). And Paul tells both weak and strong not to argue but to leave judgement to God. That’s the way not to uniformity, but to unity.
In the idea of unity we are coming very close to the underlying theme behind this section of Romans. Paul brings that theme out into the open in Rom. 15:5-7:
May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Welcome one another, therefore, as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”
Harmony among Christians is more than just a way of getting along with each other. It is intimately connected with glorifying the one God who saves every member of his church.
Paul concludes this section with these words: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope” (Rom. 15:13). God’s first concern is not with our behavior, but with our hearts. And what does he want for our hearts? Hope. Joy. Peace. Power.
That’s what the Kingdom of God is really about: “not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17). In other words, focusing our attention on rules about food and drink and days is a waste of time. It distracts us from the real heart of our relationship with God and each other. Yes we, like Paul, have to go back to these issues from time to time, especially when we start thinking they’re more important than they really are. But we should stay there only long enough to move into the heart of the discipleship: righteousness, peace, joy.
So what can we take away from this discussion? What do Paul’s ideas look like in practice today? First, we need to remember that some matters really are essential for a healthy Christian discipleship. Most, I think, are not. The fact that we have no equivalent in the New Testament to the book of Leviticus supports this idea. Christians are saved to freedom—not license, but freedom. Our obligation in our daily lives is actually higher than the most stringent, legalistic codes of morality. We are obligated to put love into practice.
When we do put it into practice, that love will do two things. Those of us who think we know the higher standard of Christian behavior—in personal morality, worship, whatever—will back off and let God be the judge of those who disagree. Those of us who understand our freedom in Christ will back off from our insistence on exercising that freedom at the expense of our fellow Christians’ faith. And none of us should be arrogant or look down our noses at the ones on the other side.
“The Kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” Righteousness, peace and joy—those are intangible conditions of the heart. How do we find those things? Following the rules on eating and drinking is something we know how to do. But how do we change our hearts?
We don’t. Changing our hearts is God’s job. Jesus Christ himself is our righteousness, our peace, our joy (1 Cor. 1:30). Our job is to seek him—in Scripture, in prayer and meditation, in worship, in service. If we do, we know we’ll find him (Mt. 7:7-8). And when we have Jesus Christ, we have it all.
1. Bob Deffinbaugh, “Love and Liberty: Liberties Love Won’t Take (Romans 14:1-23),” online study at www.bible.org.
2. Anders Nygren, Commentary on Romans. Philadelphia (Fortress): 1972, p. 444.
3. Nygren, 443.
4. Morris in Jack Cottrell, Romans, vol. 2. College Press NIV Commentary. Joplin, MO (College Press): 1998, p. 389.
5. Lawrence O. Richards, The Teacher’s Commentary. Wheaton, IL (Victor Books): 1987, p. 836.
6. Ray Stedman, “On Trying to Change Others,” online sermon text at www.pbc.org.
Copyright 2005, A. Milton Stanley