It may be surprising to some, but many issues fall into the disputable matters category. It’s a moral gray area. We can call these personal, moral imperatives or arbitrary absolutes.
Arbitrary absolutes? Hey, wait a minute. That sounds post-modern or relativistic because in some sense it is. What do I mean by an arbitrary absolute? Simply put, this means that one thing that may be a sin to you may actually not be a sin for me. And if you take this a step further, what is considered a sin in one church context may be totally acceptable in another church.
You may be scratching your head at this point so let’s unpack that a bit more. If so many areas are not explicitly laid out in Scripture and they reside in the moral gray area, then how can we determine whether or not something is a sin? At bottom, isn’t that what every one wants to know? What can I do and what should I refrain from doing? Or some may think, what can I get away with? Because you want to have fun and you want to know what is permissible for a Christian. You want to know where God draws his moral line so that you can get as close to it as possible without crossing it.
So how do we determine what to do with these moral gray areas?
Let’s look at a couple of verses. First, v5 —
5 One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.
Rather than food, the debate here is regarding Sabbath observance. Is one day more sacred than another? Attending Sunday worship service is important because we are saying, God, you are the most important person in my life. And I might be overloaded with school work or I have an important deadline at work, but this is an area I will not compromise. I will attend church faithfully. Because God is that important to you. You are willing to put everything else on hold as an act of worship to God.
But we know from the gospels that Jesus said, He is the Lord of the Sabbath. That means, setting aside time to worship at a church on Sunday is important. But, actually, going to Sunday worship is just a token, an expression of our devotion to God because every day is an opportunity to worship God. Because it’s not about the day, there is nothing magical about Sunday, it’s about Jesus. He is the Lord of the Sabbath.
Jewish Christians were still stuck in the old mindset that Sabbath observance was sacred and one should not work at all on the Sabbath and of course, they obeyed this to the tee to the point that you were prohibited from doing mundane tasks like washing wool on the Sabbath. Caltech students may hear that and think, I guess God does not want me to do my laundry tonight!
Notice that Paul does not say to the Jewish Christians, you know, you guys are a bit uptight. Don’t you know that Jesus came to be the Lord not just of one day but every day? Paul doesn’t do that even though their understanding of the Sabbath was flat out wrong. This is significant.
6 He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God.
Whatever you do, eat meat, don’t eat meat, observe Sabbath laws or ignore them, we do it unto the Lord.
When it comes to food, Paul doesn’t criticize their view that certain foods are unclean, but he does give them a little jab in v14 —
14 As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that NO FOOD IS UNCLEAN in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean.
Then he follows up this idea in the latter half of v20 —
20 …All food is clean, but it is wrong for a man to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble.
These are puzzling verses. Paul is clear in his view — no food is unclean. Yet he says, if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean. Why is it significant that Paul clearly states his stance about Sabbath observance and the dietary laws, yet he doesn’t come out strongly and say to the weak or to the strong, it’s my way or the highway?
Because Paul is not looking for uniformity on these moral gray areas. He is looking for unity. That’s significant. The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. The most important thing in a church is not having a uniform moral stance on every issue because many issues are in the gray area, but what matters is unity and love and acceptance and building each other up.
Regarding these disputable matters, Paul says, it’s up to the individual.
5 One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be FULLY CONVINCED IN HIS OWN MIND.
I don’t know if you knew that such a verse existed in the Bible. Each one should be fully convinced IN HIS OWN MIND.
And then a similar idea in v14 —
14 As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that NO FOOD IS UNCLEAN in itself. [Here, Paul makes his stance clear. For Paul, regarding food, he is fully convinced that no food is unclean. Then he goes on to say.] But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean.
Again, the same idea, although Paul is convinced that no food is unclean, if anyone regards something as unclean then for him it is unclean.
On these gray, disputable matters, we are to look to our own moral conscience. It’s between me and God.
Along those lines, Paul even advises in v22 —
So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God.
Why did Paul say this? Because this church is fractured due to people being judgmental and critical and looking down on one another and condemning others and this is occurring for these disputable matters. And because this kind of critical spirit was voiced, it led to a breaking apart of that church. Paul knows the potential for these gray areas to tear a church apart so he says, if you don’t need to speak on these issues, keep it between yourself and God.
Does this mean we should be silent? I grew up in a church in my youth where we gathered to hear a sermon, then we went downstairs to the fellowship hall and we ate donuts and we chit chatted about nothing. How’s school? Have you watched this movie? Stuff like that. Nothing really of any consequence. And then, as I am standing right beside my parents and my parents would be shamelessly comparing me with the kids of other Korean parents — who got the higher SAT score, who is valedictorian in their class, what college is your son going to, did you hear that so and so got into Harvard? UC Berkeley is nice but it’s no Ivy League, that’s the kind of stuff that they talked about.
Basically, they were bragging about how great their kids were. And I suppose into that kind of setting — it was a 1000 member Presbyterian church — it is possible to relate very superficially and nothing really substantive comes up in conversation. Or in some rare cases, even if some dispute arises, it’s easy to keep it to ourselves because when it comes down to it, we are really not that close. Mainly, I am here for a sermon because faith is ultimately just between me and God, right? I kind of have to tolerate people because I guess we are together in the same sanctuary listening to the same sermon. I see you for a couple of hours on a Sunday and that’s the extent of our relationship. Because we never interacted beyond the level of chit chatting over coffee and donuts. Our conversations with our co-workers may go even deeper than that because at least we see them Monday through Friday.
That’s one way to do church. Co-worker, classmate, fellow church member, you know everyone at basically the same level of comfort and familiarity. You are cordial. You are ladies and gentlemen. You are polite. You are friends, kind of. You put your best foot forward. You put on your Sunday best. You might have had the worst week of your life and people ask, how was your week, and you smile back, it was fine. And as you are fake smiling, you keep dunking that donut in your coffee.
I don’t think Paul would call that a church. The church I read about in the Bible is a place where the ethic of love is what governs how we live and treat one another. If you would allow me to substitute the word “church” for the phrase, “the kingdom of God,” then a church is not where we are concerned primarily with matters of eating and drinking. Instead, what matters in a church is the law of love.
You see that in v15 —
15 If your brother is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy your brother for whom Christ died.
That verse lays it out very plainly. Eating and drinking, is that what really matters in the end? Isn’t it loving God and loving our neighbors, who in this case, is the church. If you insist on your individual, moral position, saying I am free in Christ, I am going to do whatever I want and my conscience is clear before God. And concern for others doesn’t even enter into your mind. For example, let’s say for you, drinking is fine, I am free in Christ to drink. But you have a beer with a fellow brother in the church and you don’t really know them well and it happens that they are a recovering alcoholic. Or worse, you knew they were a recovering alcoholic, but you said, come on, I am free in Christ and I think you should also learn to be free in Christ, too, so let’s go have a beer. And through that time of hanging out, the recovering alcoholic slips back into his old ways and gets drunk.
Then, according to v15, you are no longer acting in love. And the Bible doesn’t pull back any punches. The consequences of not acting in love are written out. By you insisting on your freedom and distressing your brother over disputable matters like food and drink, don’t you know that you might even end up destroying your brother for whom Christ died?