Should Christians: Celebrate Christmas? Participate in Halloween? Go dancing? Drink alcoholic beverages? Get a body-piercing? Smoke? Play cards? Read Harry Potter?
These types of question are what Romans 14:1 calls disputable matters or opinions. They are the secondary issues, the non-essentials, the gray areas. What all these things have in common is that the Bible does not directly address whether these things may or may not be done.
How we deal with these kinds of issues places us in the realm of Christian liberty, that is, what do we have the freedom to do in Christ? The strong/weak distinction in Romans 14 is not a general evaluation of a person’s spiritual life but it is issue-specific (that is, weak in a particular area). Since there will always be diversity in the church, there will always be differences of opinion about what the will of the Lord is regarding these kinds of beliefs or practices. How are we to deal with these differences and maintain unity?
Romans 14 answers that question in two broad principles which each have some implications for you as you seek to build a theology of Christian liberty and practice.
Verses 1-12 deal with giving others the freedom to be different
Verses 13-23 deal with limiting your freedom for the good of others
This article deals with verses 1-12.
Paul begins by stating the general principle concerning disputable things: accept rather than judge. Then he uses two examples of disputable matters from his own cultural situation – food and holy days. Paul’s response to these disputable things is that they have to do with the attitude of the heart. For those who feel greater freedom in regard to these things, the temptation is to feel contempt for those who don’t feel that freedom (to treat people with disrespect so as to shame or humiliate them). For those who feel less freedom in regard to these things, the temptation is to judge those who feel greater freedom (to be critical so as to discredit in a demeaning way). Both responses are sinful because each of them sanctifies its own view as the standard; you become the arbiter of what is right. But you are not the master (vs. 4); the Lord is the master and only He can set the standard. Both those who feel freedom and those who do not are accepted by God; they have received justifying grace from the Lord – vs. 3, 9-10. Since Christ their Lord has accepted them, He commands you to accept them as well.
Let’s face it – it’s hard to accept something with which you disagree. But the good news is you don’t have to. The acceptance called for here is of the person not of the practice. This is a key principle that is often missed. You are not called to condone what you believe to be wrong. You are called to accept others without making a disputable issue one which causes division between you and them. This calls for the grace of Christ because our natural tendency is to draw back, criticize and throw up our defenses. Rather, we are called to have the heart of a servant willing to grant grace to the ones with whom we disagree.
Why does God accept both points of view? He accepts them because each person is holding his/her position “for the Lord” and with thanksgiving (vs. 6-8). The issue here is the Lordship of Christ. Am I doing these things under His control, living by the filling of the Spirit? This is what each person must be convinced of in his own mind (vs. 4-5). This is so serious that you will give an account of yourself before God in this area (vs. 12).
You cannot appoint yourself to be the Holy Spirit in the life of another person. It is not a position that is open or available. The motive of the heart is key. When someone has a desire to please the Lord, even if the manner of their desire to please Him is not one you would choose for yourself, you must accept them by giving them the freedom to be different.