Passage: Romans 14:1-12
I’m sure many of us could tell a story or two, of the knowledge of people being thrown out of congregations or having their name ridiculed to others for not towing a particular traditional line over a preference or disputable matter. But when we consider the biblical teaching over how to handle disputable matters, we see a grave warning on passing eternal judgments over them.
Nothing is new under the sun. The fact that the church has had to deal with disputable matters and preferences has been a reality since the dawn of the people of God; and certainly the new covenant era is no different. The 1st-century church in Rome had to deal with the fact that there was meat being sold in the market place after it was sacrificed to false idols. Some Christians were purchasing it and eating it, some were not (and became vegetarians). The ones who were not were then critical of those who were; and those who were, were critical of those who were not. There were also special days for some; but not for others; and they were obviously arguing over them as well.
But it was more than simple argument or disagreement over preferences. It was deeper than that. Apparently the arguments in the church reached the point where people on either side of a matter were passing eternal judgments on the other. And this is where Paul stepped in.
Paul realized that in some things we have no clear directives. The Lord has not spoken on some (many!) disputable matters and traditional preferences. So then, if you are “fully convinced in [your] own mind” (v5) and you do it for and to the glory of God (v6) on either side of a disputable matter, then let that rest; because the Lord knows the hearts of men. The Lord knows why, and what thoughts are going on, and what kind of heart and mind are involved in a certain decision to do or not to do something by preference.
Here is the reality: The Word of God was not given to us to answer every single nit-picky question about life and practice. What God has given us in His Word is sufficient. An in this sufficiency are matters he is VERY clear on as well as matters that he just leaves to freedom (or, in one way or the other is not necessarily right or wrong). God has allowed for freedom in some things, and in that freedom are undefined, "grey" areas pertaining to life and the Christian walk.
[Note: I would consider disputable matters to be second or third order issues; whereas first order issues are not disputable. For what I mean, see this article on the need for a doctrinal triage.]
And so the warning comes in v10: “You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat.”
Notice where Paul brings the reader here. If we judge to a level of utterly despising or rejecting a brother or sister (synonymous to casting an eternal judgment on them in your mind) because of a difference of belief or preference on a disputable matter, are we prepared to face the same in the end?
Again he reminds us: “So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God,” (v12). Paul is being clear that passing such a radical judgment upon someone over a disputable matter means that in the end the one doing so will face the same level of judgment. In other words: we better be really sure we are correct in our eternal judgments on disputable matters (if we make them); because if we’re not… well… as Jesus taught: “For with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you,” (Matt 7:2).
This is a silly example, (and quite ridiculous when compared to what those in Rome were dealing with); but I heard a story of a person who was basically kicked out of a Christian community because he would not condemn those who worshiped with instruments. While he was very clear that he preferred a-cappella and wasn’t keen on instruments, he maintained that he could not condemn others for using them. In effect, he could accept that in this disputable matter, he could be a-cappella to the glory of the Lord; and others could use instruments to the glory of the Lord. Each could be convinced in their own mind as the NT teaching on this is not clear, and the Lord knows the hearts of all involved and will judge accordingly.
But this was not good enough for others. Because this individual would not condemn others for using instruments, HE was then condemned, ostracized, and expelled from the area.
So, Paul would ask: Are they who passed an eternal judgment upon this brother (utterly despising and rejecting him) simply because he would not pass an eternal judgment on others over a disputable matter prepared to face the same level of judgment by God Almighty? Am I? Are you?
This is where Paul, by the Holy Spirit, takes us in regards to disputable matters: to the Throne of God.
Notice that Paul doesn't argue against having held beliefs or preferences regarding debatable issues. There is nothing wrong with that at all. What Paul warns against is using those beliefs or preferences regarding debatable issues as eternal determiners.
And thankfully, we always have the Gospel. And for those who have passed an eternal judgment on another over a disputable matter, there is still the cross and the empty tomb. Therefore, apologize to your brother or sister, admit the fault, repent to God, and such will be the gracious measure to you in the end.
Rest in this peace. The Good News always wins.