Thoughts On Disputable Matters: Identifying A Problem

This essay can be viewed here.

Geoff Thomas is a preacher at a church in Great Britain. He presented a sermon in 2006 to the congregation at Alfred Place Church. He entitled that sermon “Judging Disputable Matters.” I found the sermon by searching the Internet because I was lost in disputable issues and wanted freedom. In prayer I have sought such freedom. Mr. Thomas’ teaching impressed me and I am using his message as an outline for this essay.

Romans 14:1-2
Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters . One man’s faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables.

The people in the Roman church were not being immoral. We don’t have reason to believe any of the church there was advocating unholy living. As far as we should concern ourselves the people at the Roman church were doing their best to live Godly lives. The commandments, the Royal Law, the teachings of the Apostles all of these and more were being lived out in the daily lives of these folks at the Roman church.

A reminder here, that these disputable matters were not between Believers and unbelievers; between Christians and those not Christian. This was not a dispute between orthodoxy and heresy.

What was the problem, then?

It was a trivial matter and basic. It was about clean and unclean food. There are references to vegetables. There is a reference to wine. Special days are discussed in this chapter (Romans 14).

These are ordinary, daily living kinds of disputes. There is no great theology behind them.

The division centered around the question as to how should we live our lives as Christians in Rome? A particular group in the congregation was overly sensitive about eating meat and drinking wine. These people, each good and striving to please God, were sensitive to certain days of the year and held those in esteem.

Their personal preferences became their orthodoxy. Their consciences became seared with their spiritual aversion to eat meat or to drink wine. They were convicted and they were convinced by their belief.

Who were these people? The church in Rome was a diverse church. Its membership included all kinds of folks from multiple cultures. The group in question may have been saved from idolatry. The rules of Judaism, the rituals of the Temple were being cast off in the freedom given by belief in Christ, but remnants of their past cultures remained.

Think of it. These people had for years taken animals to sacrifice at the Temple for the atonement of sins. Now they live lives free of the burden of their sins. It became offensive, highly offensive, to eat the meat sacrificed to idols.

The Gospel had become so precious to them, that eating meat, drinking wine, or keeping certain days holy became stumbling stones to them.

These people may have been saved into the Bride of Christ being rescued from Stoicism and asceticism. They may have been high minded people who hated gluttony and found the debauchery of Rome to be too much to bear. These people refused to eat meat. They did not take wine.

These good people are aware of the saving grace of Christ and they are offended. They take seriously The command, “Be holy because I am holy.”

These men and women have taken up their own cross for Christ and could not bear any reference to past living. After all is said, these people believed in Christ’s admonition to pluck out the eye that offends you.

The offended persons may have been the kinds of believers that emphatically believed in keeping the Law. No less than Jesus told the rich young ruler to keep all of God’s commandments and to give all he had acquired to the poor.

It is true that Jesus was stressing the need to keep God’s commandments by confession and repentance. There is not a means to salvation that can be purchased by giving all our possessions to others.

Nevertheless, the commandments of our Lord held great sway among many. His commandments were taken literally and it was expected those commandments would be followed explicitly.

Unfortunately these good people with good intentions had little balance. They were strict and feared Christian liberty. They were more conscious of a potential of backsliding than they were of gathering the harvest laid before them. So they kept rules. They refrained from eating meat. They refrained from taking wine. They kept special days for feasting. Most significantly, they believed others of the Christian faith should live the same as they lived.

There may have been a group in this mix that were Christians saved from the peril of Judaism. Their whole theology was influenced by Jewish Temple rites and rituals. They would not eat pork of any kind in any fashion. They would not eat shell fish, even that caught in the Mediterranean Sea.

These are the kinds of peoples that would declare the Levitcal prohibitions would encourage good health.

Levitical laws defined the practice of animal slaughter. There were specifics to follow. The Law was given for the benefit of mankind they would say. These kinds of believers would encourage Gentiles to refrain from eating meat not properly, religiously prepared or butchered.

Remember the Roman church is a diverse group of people. These are groups present in the day this controversy arose. These various groups of believers would attempt to bring pressure on the whole community based on their respective theological understanding. Each group would advance their deeply held convictions regarding the eating of meat and the use of drink. Each group would stress the significance of their understanding of holy, feast days. Some days for communion. Some days for prayer. Some days for meditation.

Before long each group is engaged in a moral crusade. They are convinced of their way that others are shunned for the lack of adherence to their beliefs and practices. The number of people adhering to their particular belief and the numbers of varying beliefs would be the majority. There would only be a minority in the Roman church to stand against these influences.

The church would easily become a congregation known for its vegetarian practices. It would be known as that “tea-totaling” non-missionary body at the corner of Main and 1st Street. The pressure to abstain from meat, drink and to keep feast days would soon keep new believers outside their doors until they could comply with the rules and regulations of the “ordained” body.

There are dangers in this. Recall the rise of charismatic influences in the church at the beginning of the 1900’s. Men and women were convinced of their charismatic power and of their duty to demonstrate their power. Remember how deeply convicting those charismatics were. Thousands upon thousands if not even millions of good people were convinced they could have heavenly spiritual power too.

Remember the admonitions of the charismatic leaders. “If you are truly serious about your relationship with Christ, then you, too, will share these extraordinary experiences!”

“Do not grieve the Holy Spirit!” these men would shout.

“Surrender to the power of the Holy Ghost. Give and receive!” was a mantra of the day. “Don’t you really want God’s blessing on your life!”

These charismatics were not the last, but just a continuing line of preachers with their perceived good intents to bring the community of Christians around them. There are Charlatans in every group. There are men and women of every stripe who are intent on usurping God’s authority and fleecing the flock. Those kinds of people are not the focus here so please do not include them.

What happened in the early 1900’s was no different than what was happening in the days of this letter to the Romans. A single minded and influential group of men in the church shouted down the truth for the sake of establishing their own brand of taboo.

“If you are truly serious about relationship with God then you will not eat meat,” the Judaizers would preach. “If you really want the blessings of God you will keep the feast days.” “Do not grieve the Holy Spirit and fail to keep the Law!”

The liberty provided by Christ would become slavery to traditions of men. People would separate themselves one from another because of their fast held beliefs.

Is there much different today? Are the traditions of men prevailing over the simple basic Word?

How does Paul address the problem?

We’ll look at that question in more detail in a future essay. For now though please recognize there are good men and women who are our brothers and sisters in Christ who hold doctrines that do not comport with your own.

Remember, too, that once the poorly constructed or even the false doctrine was uncovered it was addressed in love. The love of God is pure. His Truth is pure. The traditions of men, the cultures we bring to our Christian walk and our pride push us to expect others to believe as we believe. It is shameful to ignore those folks. It is not glory to our Father.

About Jim Barnes

A man seeking to please the Lord. A man striving to abide in Christ Jesus. A man whose hope is to see just one more come into the fold.
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