• The Bible Studies for Life lesson for May 31 focuses on Romans 14:1-4; 13-19.
I’ve thought a lot lately about the difference between what is permissible and what is wise. They are not the same thing. Here is an illustration: My husband and I are part of a small group at a public housing community that studies the Bible together. Everyone usually enjoys the cookies we bring. However, one of our friends, who had serious health problems with diabetes and high blood pressure, had lap band surgery.
Suddenly, we realized the weekly cookies were an unnecessary temptation to Larry and bad for his health. Although Larry, of course, could simply say, “No, thank you,” to the cookies, we decided to stop serving them. Certainly none of us was harmed by not eating cookies, but at least one of us was harmed by eating cookies. Why intentionally put Larry in that tempting situation week after week? As brothers and sisters in Christ, we did what was wise even though serving cookies was “permissible.”
Is it wise?
Whether it’s eating cookies, drinking alcohol, going to certain movies, our vocabulary choices, or the conversations we do or do not take part in, the question may not be, “Is it a sin?” but “Is it wise in my context? Am I potentially causing someone to stumble if I do or do not participate in this activity? By doing this thing, am I moving myself closer to the line of what is sin” (i.e., getting drunk or lusting in my heart)? Unlike the absolute truths of Scripture, whether or not to participate in some activities not expressly forbidden presents believers with some gray areas that can be difficult to navigate.
Fortunately, the Apostle Paul helps us out. In Romans 14 he says: “Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables” (vv. 1, 2). We do not know precisely what the “disputable matters,” are to which Paul refers.
Five possible issues
Douglas Moo, the writer of Romans: The NIV Application Commentary (2000), states five possible issues:
- Gentile Christians who abstained from eating meat and drinking wine on certain days of fasting.
- Gentile and Jewish Christians who practiced “ascetic lifestyles,” renouncing material comforts as part of their religious devotion.
- Jewish Christians who believed they should continue to obey rituals in the Mosaic Law.
- Jewish Christians who would not eat meat that might have been offered to idols in the marketplace.
- Jewish Christians who did not eat certain foods forbidden in the Mosaic Law.
Regardless of the exact circumstances, the Roman Christians were challenged by some of the nuances of living in Christian community that sometimes have no easy answers. Paul, then, says we should “accept the one whose faith is weak” (v. 1), and “not treat with contempt” those who believe differently than we do on these matters (v. 3). For example, if one believer is a carnivore and another is a vegetarian as acts of spiritual devotion, they should both “give thanks to God” for the blessing of worshipping him through a practice of which they are “fully convinced in their own mind” (vv. 5,6).
We live in relationship
Paul reminds us that we do not live in isolation but in relationship—to God and to others. As our personal spiritual convictions bump up against one another in our community life, we should be careful not to pass judgment of each other’s decisions made in good faith. At the same time, we must “not put any stumbling block or obstacles in the way of a brother or sister” (v. 13). Paul continued: “I am convinced that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean. If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love” (vv. 14, 15).
After all, residing in the kingdom of God is about so much more than merely what we eat or drink. Differences of opinion about matters like these always will be present in community life. However, true kingdom living is about living in a way that brings peace, joy and mutual edification to our brothers and sisters in Christ.