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The Meat Mattter (And other questionable things)

Romans 14:1-15:7

The early church had a very interesting problem, one that today seems slightly strange to us. Though the specifics of this problem are not directly applicable to us today, the general principles and especially the solution to the problem are very important for our dealings with one another. The church in Rome, and most of the earliest churches, was made up of both Jewish and gentile believers. The backgrounds of these two groups was radically different. The Jews were raised in a strict system of worship of Jehovah. The only God was the God of the Old Testament, the only worship was the temple worship in the manner prescribed by the Old Testament. Many different things were marked as unclean and so the faithful Jews carefully avoided those things. Pork was off limits, meat that was strangled to death was off limits, meat that was boiled in its mothers milk was off limits. The Jews lived under a number of dietary restrictions that had absolutely no meaning to the gentiles. Food was not the only area of difference, there was also the difference of holy days. The Jews respected the seventh day as the Sabbath, they set aside festival days, feast days and sacrifice days. All of these days were special times that the Gentiles had no part in. All of these things were commanded by God in the Old Testament. Even though Christ fulfilled all these things, many Jews continued to observe the law. You probably know how difficult it is to change or give up something that you have always done since you were a child. This is what the Jews were facing.

On the other side of aisle were the gentiles. They came from a background of paganism and worshiping any number of false gods. Many of their key times of worship were nothing more than drunken, immoral carnivals of debauchery. For them there were no restrictions from the gods, but instead a promotion of open wickedness. Now, in Christ they have been brought out of that wickedness into a life of holiness. They are not under the Old Testament law, but for some, because of the background of their life before Christ, things such as meat offered to idols was a potential pitfall to them, so they carefully avoided eating such meat. In the midst of all of this were folks, both Jews and Gentiles, who realized the freedom they had in Christ, and could eat a piece of idol offered pork with a clear conscience. You can imagine the tensions produced in a church with such different groups of people. Today our answer would be for one or more group to leave and start their own work. This is not the Biblical solution.

Let me put in a nutshell the basic principles of the conflict. Both groups of believers had a personal standard of what was and was not allowable to them. This standard was not in areas of legitimate and clear Biblical commands, but rather in matters of the conscience. This basic issue has not gone away, if anything it appears to have grown in the church. The division caused by these differences of preference has split the church in many different directions, and many times wrongfully so. The differences we have in dealing with our personal and even church standards has divided the body of Christ, so that God’s people have no disdain and animosity for one another instead of genuine Biblical love. The big issue for us to consider is how to handle other believers whose standards differ from ours in matters that are not clearly defined by the Bible. Let me give a couple modern day areas of confusion and discord so that hopefully all of us will be on the same page as we think through this passage. Consider television and movies. There are some very plain Biblical principles about what we see, entertain ourselves with or think about. However, in the application of those principles some have completely eliminated TV from their homes, some have allowed TV but no movies, some rent movies but do not go to the movie theater and some go to the theater. On the one hand, we know there are many shows and movies that are clearly prohibited by the principles of the Word. On the other hand is the not clearly defined issue of if we view any movies or television and if so the choice of where and how to view. What do we do with those disagreements? Do we condemn the brother that goes to the movies but not the one who rents? Do we try to convince the one who has no TV that they are really missing out and need to become more culturally in tune? Do we speak ill of someone who has a different standard than us? I realize I have just opened a can of worms for some folks, but that is exactly the type thing that Paul is dealing with, something divisive, personal and difficult. Something that has elements not clearly defined by Biblical command. One more example for the sake of illustration and trouble making, what do we do in the matters of worship in the church? Some like to quietly sing a hymn, others lift up their hands in worship, while others may sway or even clap and few more feel like shouting amen. Some like the piano, some piano and organ, some want a little guitar with their worship and some would love to have a full band. Again, we are not talking about things that violate clear Biblical commands, but rather modes of expressing obedience and worship. Do we laugh at the one who lifts there hands? Do we denounce the quiet ones as not really worshiping? Do we ridicule the sound of an organ or condemn the one playing the guitar? Do we leave because band instruments are on the platform? Do we complain that the music is too boring for our tastes? How do we deal with one another on these very real, challenging issues?

As I get into these things, I need to mention two very important introductory thoughts. First, God has designed His church to be diverse. That does not mean that God likes having 31 varieties of independent Baptists, many of which seem to barely speak to one another. What that means is that God delights in the unity and harmony that is produced when a church functions in agreement together, despite differences of personal preference. I don’t know much about music, but I know this much, the song sounds even better when you have different people singing different notes. Some sing the melody line and others the harmony parts. If we were to sing the hymns in four part harmony, that means that we would have four distinct groups of people singing four different notes, and at times even different words, during the hymns. We don’t consider that a bad thing. No, we enjoy such unified difference. In the same way, the church functions in a delightful harmony when we learn to function differently but all to the same end and all in support of one another. I am not suggesting that we redefine discord as just singing a different part. There is such a thing as discord and dissension. We need to be very careful that we don’t mistake causing division as creating harmony. The second thing that is very important is that these matters are not ones which are plainly defined in the Bible. There is no room for an adulterer to say, “I have the liberty in my conscience to be unfaithful to my spouse.” That is foolishness. On those things the Bible is very plain about, we need to be very plain and unmoving. The matters addressed in Romans 14 are ones that are left up to the individuals conscience, within the parameters of clearly defined Biblical principles. I would suggest that most of what falls into this matter of conscience is the cultural application of Biblical principles. What is most important to remember as we begin this study is we are not talking about excusing the violation of God’s law under the guise of personal liberty.

Let me start with the don’ts of this topic and then we will consider the do’s. The first don’t is don’t dispute with one another. (Him that is weak in the faith receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations.” Romans 14:1) This is directed especially at the stronger Christian, the one who recognizes the freedom he has in Christ. The tendency is for a strong Christian to want to come along a weaker brother and begin to argue with him about his position. Some times this is simply a pride filled desire to show the weaker brother he is wrong. At other times it comes from a compassionate intention to help the weaker brother grow. To put this command in its simplest terms, don’t try to argue someone out of their legitimate convictions or preferences. If what they are doing is not opposed to Scriptures, leave it alone. The things that fall under the scope of Romans 14 are really quite trivial and we do not need to waste time arguing with one another over them.

Don’t dispute with him, and don’t despise him. (Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not; Romans 14:3) Your freedom in Christ does not make you a superior Christian. The fact that you recognize your liberty in that area does not gain you standing before God, nor should it gain you favor in the church. You are all equally sinful, equally redeemed by Christ, and there is no room for exalting yourself in the body of Christ. The despising of a believer with a different standard is a very subtle thing. Despising takes place when we begin to devalue another Christian because they don’t participate in the things we have the freedom to do. We must be very careful not to begin to lessen the value of someone as a brother or sister in Christ because their personal conviction is different from ours. You may know absolutely that they have a freedom they refuse themselves, and yet you must not think less of them for not acting upon that freedom. Paul says in verse 15 that Christ died for this one, why then will you devalue one who Christ valued so much?

Don’t dispute, don’t despise and don’t denunciate. That is just my way of saying, do not condemn one another. (and let not him which eateth not judge him that eateth: for God hath received him. Romans 14:3) This matter of judging another believer has become very mixed up in our churches. One the one hand we have the responsibility to confront sin, to discern fruits and to remove the unrepentant, but one the other hand we are repeatedly told not to judge one another. What then will we do? If we are thoroughly Biblical we will do both. To confront sin, discern fruit and remove the unrepentant requires Biblical discernment, the understanding that someone has fallen into sin and the recognition that sin must be dealt with in the life of the believers. On the other hand we must be very careful not to issue a final condemnation concerning those who have fallen into sin and we must be especially careful not to denounce as ungodly or sinful one who merely has a different standard than us. Paul is here addressing the one who has the higher standard, warning him who does not eat to not condemn the one who has the freedom to eat. Listen to the question of verse four, “Who are you to judge another mans servant?” Remember that Christ is your master, and He is the master of every believer. I am not your master, you are not mine. I have no right or authority to make any judgments about your obedience to your master. You will not stand before me on judgment day, you will not give an account to me for how you served Christ or what you did with the liberty that He has given you. Christ is the master that we will all stand before, and not one of us have been assigned the position of judge over His servants. We need be very careful in our interaction and fellowship with one another that we do not dispute with each other, we do not despise those with less freedom than our own and we do not denounce those with lower standards than we have. The basic principle of love to one another is the standard that must drive our relationships together, especially when we disagree. It is no great charity if you or I to get along with someone with whom we perfectly agree. There is no great Christian virtue displayed when all of our friends have standards that are almost identical with ours. You like the people who like the same things you do, big deal. Christian love is truly displayed when you maintain a God honoring fellowship and friendship with someone whose standards are not your own. This passage is not written for the church filled with those who have and want no one in the least bit different from them in their midst. This passage was written for all churches that really want to have a Biblical fellowship. Do not shy away from those who have different standards than your own. Do not waste your time arguing why your standard is better or more right than theirs. Do not condemn one another, do not break fellowship, do not speak ill of one another, do not treat the other as a lesser Christian. Do not allow these things to be matters that at all hinder your relationship. When you see these differences, consciously and carefully apply the principles of this passage to your relationship so that you may show forth Biblical love and fellowship to other believers.

The instructions for these matters of conscience don’t just pertain to our relationships with one another, they also pertain to our walk in holiness. The first three don’ts, don’t dispute, don’t despise and don’t denounce, all deal with our relationships. The next two principles deal with holiness.. The first don’t of this is to not cause your brother to stumble into sin. (It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor anything whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak. Romans 14:21) The issue at stake is not whether you think something is wrong, it is whether your brother thinks some thing is wrong. Very simply, you must be very careful not to lead your brother into something which would violate his conscience. You can cause a brother to stumble by your example, giving him confidence to do something he is not sure is right. You can cause your brother to stumble by your pressure, pushing him into doing something that he is not convinced is right. We need to be very careful not to cause someone to violate their conscience. Telling them it is alright and to do it anyway is wicked, and will cause that person to stumble. The solution to a weak conscience is not to ignore it, but to teach it. When the conscience needs to be taught, we need to do so very carefully. We need to avoid the first three don’ts already mentioned. We also need to teach the conscience from the Word. Opinion and careful reasoning is not the foundation of our Christian living. The Bible is the foundation of Christian living. If you are wondering about a particular matter of liberty, let me give you briefly the only way to properly instruct your conscience. Go to the Bible, and find out exactly what the Bible says about that particular topic. The easiest way to do this is to get a topical Bible and then study through all the passages related to that area. I know this is a lot more work than just ignoring your conscience, but this comes without the danger of searing your conscience. If you just begin to ignore your conscience, you develop a habit of that will very easily carry over into matters of clear Biblical command. You face the danger of beginning to ignore your conscience when it is telling you that you are in sin. Do not ignore your conscience, do not do anything that will cause your brother to ignore his own conscience, remember that the conscience has been given by God to us for our benefit and growth. Respect the conscience so that you will be protected from sin.

Don’t cause your brother to stumble and do not destroy him. (“But if thy brother be grieved with thy meat, now walkest thou not charitably. Destroy not him with thy meat, for whom Christ died.” Romans 14:15) The word destroy that Paul uses here means to deprive of success, to hinder or to halt. The word was used to refer to travelers that stopped for the night somewhere along the way. Do not stop your Christian brothers growth in Christ because of such a trivial thing as meat and holy days. Part of the problem that we have in this area is that we put to high an importance on earthly things. Is a movie really of more value than another’s walk with God? Is your personal preference more important than someone else’s growth? If you can watch a movie to the glory of God, then I have no business condemning you for that which you do unto the Lord. However, if your watching a movie is going to hinder a younger Christians growth, then don’t watch the movie. We need right priorities in this matter that realizes that the most important thing is the growth of the kingdom of God. In verse 17, Paul mentions three things that are far more important than any food, righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Ghost. We must make the most important things the most important things.

To put this in summary, we each must be very careful that we do not allow our personal standards about unclear areas to hinder our relationship with fellow Christians or to hinder another’s growth in holiness. Do not, under any circumstances value yourself, your rights, your liberty or your preferences over one of these here in this church this morning. The law of brotherly love is to love your neighbor as you love yourself. Do everything for the benefit of your brother, and if it means that you need to stop doing something, then stop dong something.

In Paul’s instructions to the believers on how to relate to one another when there are disagreements about extra Biblical matters, he does not trivialize the importance of these issues, or the positions held on them. Neither does Paul teach that the one with the more sensitive conscience should just get over it. What Paul teaches is that we must receive one another with love. That love is the foundation of the four do’s that define how we must relate to each other in these grey areas. First, he says do exercise your liberty with full persuasion. Paul didn’t say exercise your liberty to its fullest extent, or exercise it with abandon. He said, be fully convinced in your liberty, or don’t do it. Verse five tells us that every man must be fully persuaded in his own mind. As we consider these matters of liberty, we must engage our liberty with confidence that what we are doing is right. Again, this does not suggest in the least that we can violate clear commands of the Bible and claim to be holy because we have a clear conscience in the matter. However, in those matters that are not clearly defined in the Bible, do not exercise your liberty doubtfully. I have already mentioned that under no circumstances should we violate our consciences. This is why Paul says in the last verse of chapter 14 that whatever is not of faith is sin. Having a full Biblical persuasion is of vital importance. If you are doubtful of something, that very doubt makes a matter of liberty a matter sin. Much more is at stake in these issues than just the exercise of some physical liberty. What is most important here is our spiritual condition and our walk with God. When we engage doubtfully in something, we do so without faith. We know from Hebrews that the just must live by faith. That absence of faith- full confidence in God- takes what could be lawful and makes it unlawful. Please, as you consider these principles, do not take these truths or someone else’s liberty as a push for you to do something that you cannot do with full confidence in the Word and God.

Paul also reminds each of us to remember that we are going to be held personally accountable by Christ. This truth cuts two ways, first, as you relate to others with different standards than yours, remember that they will stand before Christ and give an account for themselves. You have no right or place to condemn someone else’s servants. You have no authority to dictate the habits of another’s servants. Remember, even if you disagree with another man’s standards, that man will stand before Christ and give his own account for himself. You will not give account for your brother’s standards, you will only give account for how you related to that person. Each of us will give account to Christ, and that will never change. That judgment is far higher and far more important than any judgment that any man could ever issue. In extra Biblical matters, leave your brother alone, he will answer to Christ for himself and he is under no obligation to answer to you. The second part of this point is you will give an account of yourself, personally, before Christ. As you exercise your liberty, you must do so remembering that you will answer to your Master for how you have used the resources and abilities He has given you. I must remind us that this judgment that the believer faces before Christ is not a judgment of sin, but an examination of service. What this means is that we will stand before Christ to give an accounting of how we have served him and what we have done for the increase of the kingdom of God. This standard alone should do much to curb our natural appetites away from an abuse of liberty. If we live in light of the coming judgment we will strive to do that which adds to the kingdom of God rather than just what feels good and pleases us. When we properly understand the judgment seat of Christ, our minds and hearts will be focused on pleasing our Master above all other things. Whenever I think of the judgment seat of Christ, my mind is drawn back to Christ’s parables of the servants. Each of the servants were given something to use for the benefit of the masters house, and when the master returned he held each servant individually responsible for what how he had used the resources entrusted to him. To plug these parables into our immediate consideration, the servants were not judged based on the specific investment they made, or on the kind of clothes they wore while working for the master. The issue at stake was the increase they brought to the masters house. When we consider our liberty, we need to consider it in light of that final judgment, so that we shape all our actions, even those which are lawful for us, to bring the greatest increase into the kingdom of God.

A third thing Paul says we must do in regards to our liberty is to remember that the kingdom of God is more important than food or drink. (For meat destroy not the work of God. Romans 14:20) The eternal is of far more value than the physical. This is often hard for us to remember as we live in the physical realm right now. We daily face the desires of the flesh, many of which are God given and can be God honoring. The spiritual realm does not have the same immediacy or urgency to it, and so we can very easily overlook the fact that the spiritual is most important. When it comes to the desires of our flesh, their urgency becomes at time so great that we are willing to let all other considerations fall away. When we get tired and sleepy, the desire for rest can become so great that we are willing to drop responsibilities or to respond to people sinfully so that we can get that sleep. When we get hungry, we are willing to let that hunger fill our thoughts and desires, so that me may even stop listening to the Sunday morning message in our desire for food. Have you ever so badly wanted someone to be saved that you were willing set all other things aside? Have you ever been so burdened with a brother’s sin that you could not concentrate on what was at hand? Have you ever been so moved with a need of ministry that you could think of little else? If you were to honestly compare your desires for physical things to your desire for the spiritual, how would they match up? When it comes to these matters of conscience and liberty, they are of secondary importance. To put this in more modern terms, whether or not you have a personal conviction against television sets is far less important than what you are doing for the kingdom of God. Whether you have an electric guitar in the church is much less crucial than if your church is actively training the believers to be doing the work of the ministry. Remember what matters most in these things is eternity, not a personal preference about temporary things.

The last thing Paul instructs us to do is to edify one another. (We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let every one of us please his neighbor for his good to edification. Romans 15:1-2) This one point really gets to the heart of what is most important in this whole issue. You must edify one another. Edification is the building up of each other into the image of Christ. When you seek to edify someone, you interact with that person in an intentional fashion, seeking to help that person be more Christ like. In our relationships with one another, the goal must be to help each other be more Christ like. Now some will very quickly point out that they are seeking to help others grow in Christ by instructing them better on what are the right standards. What Paul suggests here is that kind of instruction is not edifying. What needs to be remembered is the goal of conformity to the clear instruction of the Word. The goal is not that we all look like one another. The goal is not that we all look like a particular pastor or prominent speaker. The goal is that we all look like Christ. We have gotten side tracked into wanting to conform to other people rather than striving to be conformed to the image of Christ. While imitating more mature believers is helpful in our growth in Christ, the ultimate end is that we grow to look like Christ. The standard for Christlikeness is not my personal standards, but God’s standards. Christ gives to us this great example of not pleasing himself but edifying the weaker. As we consider these matters of conscience, the great consideration is how to strengthen fellow believers. Causing another Christian to do something that violates their conscience does not edify. Placing on believers burdens to heavy for them to bear is not edifying. What is edifying is functioning together with Christlike love. What is edifying is helping fellow Christians live in holiness before God. The final essential in all this is simple, further one another in their growth in the imitation of Christ. Edify the believers. Remember, because I may not be able to engage in a certain activity does not make that activity a sin. Because I have the freedom to do something does not mean that everyone should have that same freedom. The standard is not me, it is Christ. As we come together into this church body, we must be working to help shape one another into Christ likeness. Any thing else is a lesser standard.

The conclusion of all this then is that you must work hard to increase the kingdom of and build up your brother. Do not allow such trivial things as pants, meat, televisions or guitars hinder your relationships or holiness. Do keep in mind that there is something coming which far more important than anything of this world. Don’t allow these matters to be ones of contention, division or separation. Do work with one another for the glory of God. No better goal exists that can be set for these meat matters than what Paul’s expresses in verse 6 of chapter 15, “That you may with one mind and one mouth glorify God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus.”