Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Essentials, Non-Essentials, and Christian Fellowship: Welcome the Weak

Admit it, it is hard to love and accept those who do not share our values or opinions about what should be valued in life or what is culturally acceptable, particularly when there is not a cultural consensus on the issue up for debate. But Paul gives very specific instruction about what the relationships between those who differ in convictions about non-essentials should look like: welcome the weak (Romans 14:1).

As we consider what Paul is saying to this multi-ethnic church struggling to get along because of differences largely influenced by culture and preference, we must take note of the following:

(1) Someone who does not have a biblical view of a non-essential issue is considered weak in their faith. Most of us think we are right about whatever we believe, and no one wants to be considered weak at anything. However, Paul recognizes that it is inevitable that believers are going to have a difference of opinion about non-essential issues, and he considers one group “strong” and one group “weak”. The question then becomes: How do you determine who is who? In this case, Paul is the arbiter who determines who really understands the issue here (diet and days) biblically and who misunderstands the issues.

(2) Being called “weak”, while not flattering and certainly humbling to our lofty opinions of ourselves, is biblical terminology.

(3) There is a good chance that all of us are “weak in faith” on some issue. It is highly unlikely that any of us understand every biblical issue rightly. The reason for this is that all of our opinions and presuppositions about Scripture and God have been shaped by certain cultural and spiritual influences. In other words, we are inclined to believe what our culture practices and teaches is acceptable. We are also inclined to believe what influential spiritual leaders/mentors have taught us. But if these influences are less than wholly biblical, it stands to reason that we may have a “weak” view of certain issues.

(4) Important! The issue of “weakness in faith” is not one of character or desire, but one of faith (14:1). Here is why this is important: In evaluation of these issues and how these issues impact our relationships, we must determine whether or not the perceived weakness is weakness of faith or if it is an issue of morality, self-glorifying desire or character. For example, is it immoral for a person to get a tattoo? Has the person who chooses to get “inked” committed a moral offense against God? Even if you believe that permanently marking your body with ink desecrates God’s temple, is this offense a morally offense biblically? If not this is not a character or moral flaw, then it is an issue of faith. However, let’s say that in conversation with the person who wants to get a tattoo the real motive for a tattoo surfaces. Maybe they want to get a tattoo to rebel against a domineering father. Maybe they want to get a tattoo to draw unhealthy attention to themselves or their bodies. Then this issue has become a moral or character issue. The issue in Romans 14 is not one of morality; it is an issue of conscience and biblical understanding and conviction.

Another way of looking at this issue: the “weaker” brother that Paul is talking about is not the vulnerable Christian who is easily overcome with temptation (ie, the Christian who follows the example of another confessing Christian into sin because they are easily influenced by others); the weaker brother is the sensitive Christian who is indecisive or cautions (perhaps overly) concerning matters of conscience.

Paul signals a clear, specific response to the weak: welcome them. Paul couldn’t be clearer: the prerequisite to the welcoming community is that we welcome other believers with a difference of opinion, not for the sake of converting them to our opinion or arguing, but for the sake of Christ.

Welcoming one another is a powerful testimony to the world of the reconciliatory power of the Gospel to change lives and unite people under one banner. In addressing the relationship between “strong” and “weak” brothers Paul wants to be clear: the respect and honor in which we treat one another is of more importance than being right about non-essential issues.

John Stott makes a great observation about this text. Paul remarkably blends theology and ethics (and thus reveals that good theology should drive good ethics). While dealing with very mundane matters such as what foods to eat and what day to worship, Paul grounds the issues in the truth of the cross, the resurrection, the Spirit and the judgment. Do you see what is at stake here?

In closing two things can’t be ignored about 14:1 (and the entire passage):

(1) Paul makes no attempt to conceal, marginalize or sugar-coat what these brothers and sisters in Christ are. They are weak in faith. He regards them as individuals lacking biblical conviction. He considers them immature about the issues of diet and days. He even believes their “opinion” to be wrong (as will be made clear later in the passage).

(2) Nonetheless, Paul demands that the “weak” be accepted by us because of Jesus. They are not to be ignored or marginalized. Their concerns should be heard and considered. They are not to be asked to repent of their position – even if known to be wrong biblically about a non-essential – before they are embraced into Christian fellowship. They are to be wholeheartedly included. When Paul tells the “strong” to welcome the “weak”, he intends that they do so as one who would welcome someone likeminded into their fellowship with open arms. He is encouraging the “strong” to welcome the “weak” into their heart.

We accept the “weak” because Jesus has accepted them in faith. We accept them without passing judgment on disputable matters. Paul does not want the church turned into a debate hall about non-essential matters. This kind of community is subversive to the cause of Jesus.

What does this look like? How can this be done? Check back for the next post.


At 6:27 PM , Blogger Meredith said...

A couple of days ago I posted on a church that said: "LOL n church w/ Jesus ur BFF." Are signs like that considered non-essentials? It seems to me that telling nonChristians that Jesus is their best friend isn't clear on the true nature of the gospel. First of all, we are enemies of God before we come to Christ. Secondly, godly grief is necessary for real repentance and true salvation. Not LOL. So, even though Internet lingo might be a non-essential issue, would you say the message they are sending is undermining the essential truth of the gospel?

Another example. Another church sign I saw said "Anger is temporary insanity." Is the church's effort to be "cute" a non-essential issue? But if the message is wrong, does it then become an essential issue? If anger IS temporary insanity, then Jesus was very insane when he cleansed the temple, right? And what about righteous anger? Is God insane when he is angry at sin?

So...yeah. When does a non-essential become an essential? Your thoughts.

At 8:54 PM , Blogger Aaron said...

Meredith, I'll work my way backwards.

A non-essential issues becomes an essential issue when it becomes a matter of morality, serious theological error, or it compromises the gospel in some way. Within the context of Romans 14-15, the non-essential issues of diet and days became essential errors the moment that the strong began dismissing and despising the weak for their conservative choices and the weak began judging and condemning the strong for their liberty to induldge (within limits).

I wouldn't consider the church signs as the same kind of issue that Paul is dealing with in Romans 14-15. However, I do believe that both examples could undermine the integrity of the gospel message because they do not convey the whole truth of the gospel - as you've already pointed out.


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