This is serious business. Our actions may destroy faith in another believer.
20 Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a man to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. 21 It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother to fall.
In other words, we are responsible for one another. That brother, that sister, is someone for whom Christ died. Therefore, we have to know one another and that knowledge of that brother or sister in our local church context actually ought to constrain the moral choices that we make.
If you are operating under the law of love, this means that my concern for my fellow brother or sister in Christ trumps my individual freedom and preferences. And because I care for my brothers and sisters in Christ, I will not do anything that would jeopardize their faith in God.
All of this presupposes that we actually know one another. That’s why the church is described as a place where we carry each other’s burdens, and sacrifice for one another, and forgive one another, and consider others better than ourselves, and serve one another. A church is where we rejoice together and mourn together. Church is where your life and my life intersect and we commit to walking this journey of faith together. Not because our personalities necessarily click or we are best buddies, but because God is sovereign and He is the one who brought us together.
And if you do church this way, things get messy. Things are great these days in our church — people are being saved and baptized and commitments for membership, but it is inevitable that some tough times will come. Because as you share life with other believers, things come up. And circumstances beyond our control happen.
Whatever happens, God expects us to work through all our issues, including these moral gray areas, these disputable matters. Because I tell you, how we handle these disputable matters, this is what can make or break a church.
In this text, some consider eating to be a sin. Other say, eating is not a sin. That’s why eating and drinking falls into the in-between, it’s not black, it’s not white, it’s gray.
But the strange thing is that many Christians take these gray areas and make them into absolutes. Taking disputable matters and telling everyone, those are indisputable. Have you seen this before?
Let’s watch out for this tendency. Let’s remind ourselves that as it says in v17 —
17 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit…
The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking. In other words, it is not just a religion where there are hard rules that need to be followed in every circumstance. The kingdom of God is about righteousness, peace and joy. It’s not about moral perfection, it’s about a change in status or change in realms. Before, we were in the realm of the flesh. This is an idea we covered earlier in Romans.
In this realm of the flesh, our chief identity was sinner, we were cut off from God, under His wrath and no matter how hard we tried to please God by being good, moral, religious people, we fall short. Because we were still prisoners of sin. This is Paul’s confession in Romans 7 before he knew Christ. But thanks be to Jesus Christ who saved us. And because of our repentance and faith in Christ, we were transferred to the realm of the Spirit. And now our chief identity is not sinner, but it is a child of God.
And in this new realm of the Spirit, the kingdom of God, we are children loved and accepted by our Heavenly Father. No longer under wrath, but accepted as a father accepts his son or daughter. My son Timothy may make a mess of his life and I might disapprove of what he does and the choices he makes, but I will always love and accept him because he’s my boy. God accepts his children, no matter what. So our relationship to God has changed. Our status has changed. For the believer, the wrath of a Holy God has changed permanentaly to the acceptance of a Heavenly Father.
Also, how we relate with one another changes. We relate to one another as siblings, brothers and sisters in Christ. Problems may arise among us, just as they do in our biological families. But in your family, you work out your differences. You may hate your sister or your brother because they said something really mean, but you eventually work it out. That’s what we do in families. And God expects the same within the body of Christ. He is our Father who forgives and accepts us and we are to forgive and accept one another.
This is what we read in v3 —
3 The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him.
Let’s remember that last phrase. For God has accepted him. Does that make sense? Does that make sense for us to reject and condemn and judge the person whom God has already accepted? No, because God accepts that person, we have to accept that person, that has to be our starting point.
17 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, 18 because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by men.
If you understand the essence of the kingdom, that it is not about eating and drinking, but it is about righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, then two things happen. God is pleased, that’s number one. And number two, we are approved by men. Vertical relationship with God is good and our horizontal relationships with others is also good.
Then, the following verse, v19 —
19 Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.
Peace and mutual edification. Might I add love and unity. Building up the body of Christ. Unity is not some vague, abstract concept. Unity among people you know casually is not real unity. I can have the appearance of unity with Christians from other churches because I don’t really know them very well. It’s easy to maintain unity when you don’t really share life deeply and stay at the chit chat, ladies and gentlemen level. But unity that we see in the Bible is always concrete. It requires commitment, and humbling ourselves before one another, being vulnerable, forgiving one another. Unity is something we all have to fight to preserve. Because sinners coming together to form a church is a recipe for disaster. Because it doesn’t take much to destroy the unity of a church. Unless Jesus is here with us and the Holy Spirit comes and helps us, we will never reach true unity, nor will we be able to sustain unity.
For message #2 in this series, I will be talking about how a judgmental spirit destroys the unity of a church.
Practically, where do we go from here as a church?
First, we must resist the tendency to rely on our gut or our preference or our upbringing to determine moral absolutes. The only source for determining moral absolutes is the Bible. We must go to Scripture to guide us in setting the boundary between what the Bible clearly calls an indisputable matter, or a moral absolute, and a disputable matter, or gray area. Let’s not major in the minor things. Eating and drinking are minor things. We need to major in things like righteousness, peace and joy, acceptance, forgiveness, love.
Second, we have to be careful not to take a moral stance which is in the disputable, gray areas and make it into an indisputable absolute. Let’s be wary of the things that we say and do because those things consciously or subconsciously form a church culture. In addition, we have to be aware that how we handle the gray areas has the potential to destroy faith in another believer whom God accepts and for whom Christ died.
Lastly, on disputable matters, we have to go to our conscience to determine where we stand on a particular issue. But that is not the final determining factor. We also have to consider how our actions will affect our fellow brother and sister in this specific, local context. The last thing we want to do is to destroy faith in someone else. If that happens, God will hold us responsible. He is the judge. We can’t just say, you know that guy, I am more spiritual, he should have listened to me and repented, it’s my way or the highway. We are talking about precious children whom God has accepted and whom Christ has died for. Shouldn’t acceptance of one another and grace be our starting point when dealing with disputable matters? And upon that, may God build up true unity in this place.