By Pastor Glenn Pease
A cartoon pictures the door of an office in the central government building of Moscow. The sign reads, Commissar for the Electrification of all the Russias. Underneath is a bit of paper on which is written, "Please knock-bell out of order." We can see the humor in the great inconsistency of one who plans to bring electricity to everybody else, but whose own bell is out of order. It would be helpful if we could see it in ourselves as easily as see it in others. The church is the only organization on earth that claims to be able to set the bells of joy ringing in every heart. Yet, the claim is often mocked, because our own bell is out of order. While we claim to be able to give light to all in darkness, our own light often flickers, and even goes out. Kenneth Slack said, "The world cannot believe claims which are denied in the very body which makes them."
For example, in the early church there was a movement among high caste Hindus in South India toward the Christian faith. They found Hinduism inadequate to meet the challenge of modern knowledge. On the very threshold of their baptism, however, they discovered that Christianity was divided, and that if they united all over the country with various missionary societies, they would find themselves in separated parts of the church, which did not cooperate with one another. They quickly drew back, for why, they asked, should we who were united in paganism enter a new faith which is supposedly superior where we will become divided, and less of a unity and brotherhood. The church had said, "come to us, for we ring the bells of reconciliation for all men." But when they came, they saw the small print which told them that the churches own bell was out of order, and they left.
This is the tragedy of a divided church. Is the solution a great giant of a church with all denominations united? This is like trying to make peace among all animals by putting them in a common cage. They might be together, but without bars they would still tear each other to pieces. No external plan can fulfill spiritual ideals. The solution to the problem of Christian unity is for Christians to learn to live according to Biblical principles. It is folly to work for conformity, which is unrealistic. It is wisdom to give heed to Paul's clear teaching that opposites can be the same. Paul teaches that Christians can dwell in unity even though they have opposite convictions. Eating meat, and not eating meat, are opposites. Keeping the Sabbath, and not keeping it, are opposites. Yet, Paul says Christians can be on each of these sides for the same reason; with the same motive, and with the same result-the glory of God.
When two men saw a log one pulls while the other one pushes, and then they reverse. They are always doing the opposite thing from each other, but all the time they are working together for the same end. T. DeWitt Talmage says this idea relates to the church. He writes, "The different denominations were intended, by holy rivalry and honest competition, to keep each other wide awake. While each denomination ought to preach all the doctrines of the Bible, I think it is the mission of each more emphatically to preach some one doctrine. The Calvinistic churches to preach the sovereignty of God, the Arminian man's free agency etc. ..." Each denomination has its unique contribution to make.
If this be so, then it is Billy Graham and not his critics who is on Biblical ground by cooperating with men of opposite convictions. Graham is operating on the Biblical principle that opposites can be the same, that is, that men can have radically different views, but be equally holding those views for the glory of God. The critics object that some of the things believed by certain groups are not Biblical. Paul is fully aware that some Christians may be in error, but he clearly teaches here that a Christian has the right to be sincerely wrong on non-essential issues. In fact, it is better to be sincerely wrong on a non-essential issue than to be indifferently correct, for conviction is what counts in these areas.
Paul knew that the weak Christians were wrong in their attitude on meat and certain days, but he recognized that if they were persuaded in their own minds, they could practice their mistakes for the glory of God. Is Paul saying, Christians can be weak, and have strange, almost superstitious, convictions and practices, and still be pleasing to God? That is precisely what he is saying. I can believe that parents can sincerely believe that having water sprinkled on their child's head will make their salvation more probable. If they believe this, and do not have it done, they are guilty of sin. Therefore, if they act on their conviction, and do it, they are doing so to obey and please God. But if it is not objectively true that such an act helps, is it still pleasing to God? Just as pleasing as not eating meat when God really does not care if you eat it or not.
It is hard for Christians to believe this paradoxical truth that opposites can be the same. That is why so few Christians have a Biblical attitude toward other Christians who hold opposite views. Paul paradoxical principle is just too radical for most Christians. It means a Christian can be right in being sincerely wrong. You can't be sincerely wrong about Jesus and still be right, but you can on a multitude of other subjects. It is, according to Paul, one of the privileges of Christian liberty to risk making mistakes, either by being overly conservative, or by being overly progressive. As long as one stops within the bonds of doing all he does with a thankful heart, and with a desire to please his master, he is free to make mistakes on minor matters, and take positions opposite of other Christians.
Henry Ward Beecher, one of the greatest preachers America ever produced, said, "There are many who are called Christians in whom the kingdom of God is no bigger than a thimble. There are men who have a few ideas, who are orthodox, and who make no mistakes in theology, but woe be to the man who does not make any mistakes. Count the sands of the sea, if you can, without misreckoning....If you have a huge bucket, and a pint of water in it, you will never make the mistake of spilling the water, but if a man is carrying a huge bucket full of water he will be certain to spill it." In other words, if you stay in the shallow water of addition, you may always be right, but greater is the adventure of launching out into the deep of multiplication where the marvels and mysteries of God's majesty will leave your finite mind open to the risk of mistakes. Liberty is always dangerous.
The mistakes the strong Christians made in the Roman church were mistakes of attitude toward the weak Christians, and Paul later teaches them how to correct these mistakes. The weak Christians, however, immediately object that the strong Christians not only offend them by their opposite views and conduct, but they side with the world against others of God's children. This is why the principle of opposites being the same cannot hold water, for what fellowship hath light with darkness. No one can tell us that Christians can agree with non-Christians against other Christians, and still be doing it for the glory of God.
This sounds like a powerful argument against Paul's paradoxical principle that opposites can be the same. As a matter of fact, however, it does not alter the principle at all. It is only opposites among believers that can be equally for the glory of God. Naturally, if an unbeliever takes a position opposite a believer, he is not doing it for the glory of God. Nevertheless, the unbeliever can hold a position that is held by a believer. Some non-Christians are on the same side as Christians on almost all controversial issues. Non-Christians oppose drinking, immorality, drugs and pornography just as Christians do. Christians and non-Christians stand together on all kinds of issues. There are Christians and atheists in both political party's.
The strong Christians in Rome were doing the same things as the pagans. They bought they same meat, and instead of closing up shop on the Sabbath with the Jewish Christians, they work right along with the pagans. They did so, however, not out of indifference, but out of conviction, and Paul says their conduct, therefore, was pleasing to God, even though it conformed to pagan conduct, and was opposite to that of other Christians.
You mean a Christian can take a position opposite of mine, and one that may be held by unbelievers, and still be as pleasing to God as I am? That is exactly what Paul is saying, and John Wesley, a man whom God used to change the course of history, practiced this principle of Paul. He wrote, "Men may die without any opinions, and yet be carried to Abraham's bosom, but if we be without love, what will knowledge avail? I will not quarrel with you about opinions. Only see that your heart be right toward God, and that you know and love the Lord Jesus Christ, and love your neighbor, and walk as your Master walked, and I ask no more. I am sick of opinions."
But an objection arises from the legalist. It is no mere matter of opinion where the law of God is concerned. God commanded us to keep the Sabbath, and also to not eat meat offered to idols. I can be tolerant of other opinions, but how can I tolerate open defiance of God's revealed law? If you say Christian liberty allows one to disregard the Sabbath, then why not disregard all of the commandments to the glory of God? Again, a strong objection to Paul's teaching when carried out to a logical conclusion. The problem is the objector fails to distinguish between law and evil. Evil is that which is in and of itself opposed to God's nature. No Christian can ever do evil and be pleasing to God.
Paul's principle can never be used to justify any evil in thinking or in conduct. However, a law, even a law of God, is something that can be arbitrary, and may not deal with something that is evil in itself at all. A law can be changed or eliminated with no offense to God's nature. There is nothing inherently evil in traveling on the 7th day, or in gathering wood, and any other work. Yet, it was a sin punishable by death under the law. It was not evil in itself, however, and so the law could be eliminated and what was forbidden could then be allowed without allowing anything evil. The same was true with many Old Testament laws.
Just is the case with laws of the land. Not all laws are against evil. They are often to regulate behavior for our convenience, but if they are no longer helpful they can be eliminated. Therefore, according to Paul, if you are convinced in your mind that God no longer holds you responsible to obey the law of the Sabbath, and the laws regulating eating, you are free to disregard them, and be as pleasing in his sight as those who still obey them. If this be true concerning those things that are actually mentioned in Scripture, how much more does it apply to areas that are not mentioned. For example, can it be that the Episcopalian with his rigid formality, and the Pentecostal with his near chaotic informality are both pleasing to God? Who can doubt it, if they are both convinced in their own minds that these ways of worship are the best.
If a man can eat meat offered to an idol which would be a sin for the weak Christian to eat, and yet do it for the glory of God, who can deny that Christians can do many things opposite from other Christians, and do them for the glory of God? Newell sees here a principle to be applied in many areas of life and writes, "Let those of legal tendencies mark this: That a man may regard not what we regard, and do so unto the Lord." Christians do and believe many things which are opposite to what others do and believe, but if they do so with the conviction they are pleasing to God, then their opposites are the same.