By Pastor Glenn Pease
Dr. Biederwolf tells a true story about two Christian women that illustrates how Christians can be foolishly divided through controversy. These two women were both active in the church. They planned socials together, and shopped together. Finally, they even planned a trip to Europe together. When they reached Paris and went to the hotel one of the women told the porter to bring la baggage up to the room. "Oh my dear," said the other, "It is not la baggage but le baggage." "No it isn't," said the first," it is la baggage." "Not in my book," snapped the second, "It's le baggage." They were tired from the trip and irritable, and so they quarreled. The result was they slept in separate rooms; went back to America on different vessels, and divided their church by getting people to take sides. Paul had this same problem in the church of Philippi where he wrote in 4:2, "I entreat Euodia and I entreat Syntyche to agree in the Lord."
Quarrels like this would be funny if they were not so tragic. Nothing is funnier than the human tendency to swallow a camel and strain at a gnat. Even Christians are plague with this tendency to get tripped up on trivia, and to clash over mere words. Paul warned Timothy in I Tim. 6:4 to beware of the man who was always ready to start an argument. He writes of him, "He has a morbid craving for controversy and for disputes about words, which produce envy, dissension, slander, base suspicions." Paul knew from personal experience the folly of angry debate with a fellow believer. He got to angry at Barnabas when they had a dispute over Mark that they split up. Paul, however, had the spiritual strength to swallow his pride and admit he was wrong about Mark, and welcome him back into fellowship as his friend.
Paul knew that strife and quarreling was one of Satan's effective weapons against the church, and, therefore, he did all he could to prevent it. In his letters he is constantly urging Christians to avoid strife. He is seeking always to help them settle their disputes. He wrote to the Corinthians and said they were men of the flesh and not spiritual because there was jealousy and strife among them. In II Cor. 12:20 he tells them he is afraid to come to them for fear of what he will find. "For I fear that perhaps I may come and find you not what I wish....That perhaps there may be quarreling, jealousy, anger, selfishness, slander, gossip, conceit and disorder." He had to warn the Galatians, and even the Philippians, the most loving church of all,
to avoid strife.
Now Paul was not a man to set back and let error run wild without any effort to stop it, and when the Jewish Christians began to impose Jewish laws and customs on his Gentile converts, he withstood them to their face, and through powerful debate made them back down and let Gentile Christians remain free in Christ from the burden of the law. Paul was not opposed to controversy when the issue was a vital one, but he was opposed to strife over trivialities, and even when it was an legitimate issue he expected a Christian to be a gentleman in controversy. Listen to his advice to Timothy in II Tim. 2:23-25. "Have nothing to do with stupid, senseless controversies; you know that they breed quarrels and the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone. And apt teacher, forbearing, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant that they will repent and come to know the truth.
We are going to study an illustration of how Paul follows his own advice on being a gentleman in controversy. The Roman Christians were divided on several issues that led to strife in the church. Paul, as an Apostle of the Master Peacemaker, is going to do his best to reconcile them so their conflict does not hurt their witness for Christ. This passage is of extreme value because it establishes for all time some basic principles for dealing with Christians in conflict. It covers conflicts between conservatives and liberals, legalists and those who stress freedom, and traditionalists and non-traditionalists. These conflicts can all be settled by the principles laid down in this chapter. A good understanding of it will enable a Christian to be an effective peacemaker within the church.
The first thing we need to do is to establish who the contending parties are. Paul speaks of two kinds of Christians: Those who are weak, and those who are strong. It is clear that the majority are the strong, and the minority or the weak, for Paul begins by urging that the weak be accepted. The danger was that the strong majority may just tell the weak minority to get lost. The strong majority are obviously the Gentiles in the Roman Church, and the weak are the Jewish Christians. The conflict arises from the fact of their two completely different backgrounds. This is one of the problems most every church faces. Some of its members come from a background with deep roots in Christian tradition of some denomination. Others come from a purely pagan background with no roots whatever. What one counts as being very precious, the other feels is no big deal at all.
This was the case with the church in Rome. The Gentile Christians had been pagans all their lives until they came to Christ. They had no traditions or laws about eating habits or special days. On the other hand, the Jews who became Christians had a great heritage of tradition on what to eat and what days were important. You can see how people with such opposite backgrounds could have conflict. This issue became serious because of the practice of the Gentiles eating meat offered to idols. Pagan worshipers would take their sacrifices to the pagan temple, and the priest would offer it to a pagan god. Then he would take some of the meat for himself and sell it in the market place at a discount price. The Gentile Christians who had been eating this meat all their lives did not change their eating habits, or shopping habits, when they became Christians. They still went to the market and bought that same meat. This was a scandal to the Jewish Christians, for they said how could one worship the true God and still eat meat that had been offered to a false god? To avoid this they just gave up meat altogether and ate vegetables.
Paul writes to prevent this issue from dividing the church, and he begins by addressing the Gentile majority. He says in verse 1 that they are to receive those who are weak in the faith. Why did Paul call the Jews the weak in the faith? In so doing he establishes a basic principle that any person who is bound by laws and traditions is not strong in faith. The legalist holds on to the letter of the law for dear life, and by so doing fails to grasp the gospel of Christian liberty. Anyone who thinks their salvation is in any way dependent upon what they eat, or how they observe certain days, is clearly one who has a weak faith in the all-sufficiency of Christ.
The strong in faith are released from the bondage of the law, but the weak in faith still lean on the law for support. They cannot trust in Christ alone, but need the crutch of legalism to stand. Paul has much sympathy for these tradition bound Jews, and he urges the Gentile majority to receive them, but he clearly labels them as weak. Paul was not going to be deceptive in this debate. He states his own position clearly that he is on the side of the strong, but he warns the strong of their responsibility toward the weak. Paul pulls no punches, yet he is balanced and a gentleman, and he seeks to satisfy both sides.
What we need to see is that a Christian can be saved by faith in Christ and yet have a weak faith, and have a very poor grasp of the fullness of the Gospel. It is very important that Christians recognize this fact that you can be a poor Christian and a weak Christian with some strange and weird ideas and convictions, and yet still be a child of God. Paul knew this and so he urged the strong to accept and welcome the weak, We are never in the right to reject a believer because he differs with us on a non-essential issue.
If Christians cannot accept the fact that they differ on many issues, and still maintain their unity in Christ, they live on the same level as those in the world. It is a sub-Christian attitude to say, since they don't agree with us we will not have fellowship with them. Paul says that we never have the right to demand of others what God does not demand for fellowship with Himself. If God will accept a man whose faith is imperfect and weak, then we cannot be in the will of God if we fail to accept Him.
If we refuse to have fellowship with any Christian over differences of opinion on anything that is non-essential to salvation, we are acting contrary to Biblical principles. Newell in his book on Romans rebukes those groups of Christians who are exclusive. He writes, "Unless a man pronounces "shibboleth" their way, there is not the thought of receiving him. This is the Phariseeism of the last days. And sad to say it is most found among those most enlightened in the truth, for "knowledge puffeth up, but love buildeth up." Where faith in Christ in the least degree is found, we should be thankfully delighted, and should welcome such believers."
Harry Ironside has an interesting paragraph on this in his book on Romans.
The weak in faith, that is, those whose uninstructed
consciences cause them to be in trouble as to things
indifferent, are to be received and owned as in this
full Christian position and not to be judged for their
questioning or doubtful thoughts. The principle is a
most far-reaching one, and indicates the breadth of
Christian charity that should prevail over the spirit
of legality into which it is so easy to fall. Light is not
the ground of reception to Christian privileges, but
life. All those who are children of God are to be
recognized as fellow-members of the Body, and
unless living in evident wickedness, to be accorded
their blood-bought place in the Christian company.
Wickedness and weakness are not to be confounded.
Notice, that Paul says the weak brother is to be received with a proper motive, and not to be a target of dispute over opinions. Some strong Christians might say okay, let them come in so we can show them how stupid their views are. If we open the door to a brother just so we can clobber him, and prove him wrong, the door is not really open. He must be accepted without any attempt to torment him. Welcome him in Christ even they never do see the issue from your point of view. This is the fundamental principle on which Christians begin to deal with conflict. We are one in Christ even if we are divided on many other things. Accepting this reality is the key to staying Christ like in controversy.