In our last post, we looked at Romans 14:1-15:2 for some best practices to help us read the Bible better. In those chapters, Paul is addressing issues of conscience in the church at Rome. Jewish and non-Jewish believers differ on whether or not Christians should eat meat (that may not have been slaughtered in a way that was acceptable to Jews, or have come from a pagan temple), or observe holy days — the Sabbaths, feats, and fasts from the Jewish scripture. For those who were scrupulous about these things, they weren’t matters of opinion — even though Paul calls them exactly that. He calls their faith “weak” because it doesn’t “allow them to eat anything” or to skip the observance of special days. It isn’t strong enough that they understand that Jesus has given them freedom. They’re what we might call more conservative readers of Scripture.
Keep in mind that the “weak” Christians aren’t trying to be difficult or judgmental, and they don’t necessarily have anything against Gentiles. Their standing with God, salvation through Jesus, or share in the Holy Spirit aren’t in doubt. They’re not weak in love, or holiness, prayer, or good works.
Paul tells those stronger in faith, for whom eating meat or observing holy days isn’t an issue, that they should “accept the one whose faith is weak.” They shouldn’t quarrel over “disputable matters.” (14:1) He writes, “Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord…and whoever abstains (from meat) does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God.” (14:6) For those of stronger faith, “It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall.” (14:21)
We made three connections as a starting point to help us in our own reading of the Bible:
- We can be absolutely convinced that we’re interpreting the Bible correctly, and be mistaken.
- We should always read Scripture according to our consciences: “if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean.” (14)
- Reading Scripture together requires some “bearing with.” (15:1) Reading in community is important, but not easy.
In this post, I want to add to those connections, again, in hopes of helping us to read Scripture more effectively in community, with people who will of course sometimes see things differently:
- We can cause brothers and sisters in Christ to sin by our interpretations of Scripture — even when we’re correct! Paul is convinced that in Christ “nothing is unclean in itself.” But he’s just as certain that “if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean.” Interpretation of Scripture is not just hypothetical. It leads to action, action that can cause others doubt or uncertainty. “None of us lives for ourselves alone.” (14:7) So Paul cautions those who are stronger in faith not to “do anything…that will cause your brother or sister to fall.” (14:21) He writes, “whoever has doubts is condemned if they eat, because their eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.” Sometimes we may “distress” our fellow Christian and even “destroy” God’s work in them for the sake of winning an argument, and that’s not acting in love. (14:14-15) Before we consider arguing with someone who we regard as “too rigid,” we need to make sure they understand that we love and honor them and support their desire to please the Lord. They need to know that they don’t have to change any conviction they have to be accepted and loved. We should rather be limited by someone else’s convictions than to exercise our freedom and hurt a sister or brother. (14:20-22)
- Our attitude toward others can cause what we know is good to be spoken of as evil. (14:16) This is counter-productive. Often, disputes about the meaning of Scripture escalate to personal squabbles, passive-aggressive behavior, even character assassination. When that happens, the issue under discussion in the first place gets lumped in with the way the discussion is carried out. If you’re convinced that it’s OK for Christians to drink alcohol, but you belittle those who have stricter convictions, you make it even less likely for them to hear your case. I recently heard a believer with a strict Calvinist viewpoint question non-Calvinist believers’ Christianity; that did nothing to sway me toward his theology. There is a place for discussion, learning, convincing. Just don’t do it in a way that undermines the very thing you’re supporting.
- In many situations, our attitude toward God is everything. You’re not going to be on the right side of every argument. You’re going to get some things wrong. Paul believes there is a right and wrong answer about the dispute in Rome, and yet he writes, “Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God.” (14:6) He says, “each of us will give an account of ourselves to God. Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. (14:12-13) We can apparently come out with the wrong answer for the right reasons, and still be all right with God. We stand or fall to our own Master — and thankfully that Master is at work in us to help us stand. (14:4) Let’s also assume that our sisters and brothers in Christ are trying to please the Lord at least as much as we are.
- Judgment can and does flow from right to left and from left to right. Paul reframes the argument in Romans 14 and 15 — it’s not about being right or wrong, it’s about love and looking out for one another. He asks, “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant?” (14:4) Again, “Why do you judge your brother or sister?” (14:10) He says, “Let us stop passing judgment on one another.” (14:13). Three times in the space of ten verses — “Let’s not judge each other.” And yet that’s the first thing that goes out the window when we disagree about the Bible. And it can go from right to left — from more restrictive to less restrictive — and it can go the other way, too. Conservative Bible readers judge more liberal Bible readers. More liberal Bible readers do the same to those more conservative. Whether we dismiss someone as not caring about what God says, or dismiss them as uneducated or legalistic, we’re still dismissing them. There’s almost always someone we can snicker at for their lack of sophistication or rail against for their lack of true belief. We need to snuff out both impulses.
- We need to know what the Kingdom is “about.” Paul’s point in 14:17 is that when we’re arguing with and judging each other over persnickety points of Bible interpretation, we’ve lost focus on the real work God is doing: creating “righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.” We end up leaving no room for the Spirit, miserable instead of joyful, actively working against peace, and treating each other unjustly and unfairly.
- Finally, Don’t be too settled in your reading of the Bible. Where you’re too liberal or too restrictive in your reading of Scripture, you’re mistaken. We all have those areas where we need the grace of God. And God, in his grace, can help us to understand better. But not if our views are set like concrete. We can always learn from each other, and ultimately through the enlightening power of the Holy Spirit. May we be open-minded and open-hearted, always eager to learn and grow.