We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves.
As we see in Romans 15, one of the distinctions God makes within the Body of Christ is the distinction between the weak and the strong, or the mature and the immature. The difference is not due to one group having received more, but rather to their recognition of that which all have received in Christ.
One earmark of the immature is the assumption that some work of mine can have an effect, positive or negative, upon that which has been accomplished for and in me via the completed work of Jesus Christ. In the first century, there were some immature ones who felt that the food they ate could have such an effect.
How are the more mature brothers and sisters to deal with such an attitude?
Romans 14:1, 2
Him that is weak in the faith receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations.
For one believeth that he may eat all things: another, who is weak, eateth herbs.
Although certain foods may have an effect upon one’s physical health, they have no effect whatsoever upon one’s righteousness. The mature Christian recognizes this. And yet we are instructed not to dispute (argue) with the immature regarding such opinions. Why? Because no amount of argument can change the heart.
When a Christian insists upon continuing in (or refraining from) some work of the flesh (such as eating certain foods) due to the assumption that such works affect their standing with God, this is more than simply a matter of behavior. It is a matter of faith. And faith is an issue of the heart.
Any number of rewards or punishments are effective in changing behavior. But the testimony of God’s Word makes it clear that God is not so much interested in the outward actions of His children as He is in the reasons for those actions. Yes, the Scriptures do go into great detail regarding the manner of life that the Christian should lead, but such a life can only be genuinely and consistently lived by one who has no doubt regarding the new identity imparted in Christ.
External pressure will never accelerate genuine spiritual growth. It may, in fact, hinder it. The change will only occur in response to right doctrine. And any true, heart-level response takes time.
Please note that in the case of sinful activity, it is always “open season,” and those of us who truly love our brothers and sisters will note that sin, reprove it, and do our utmost to restore the individual who has been overtaken by it. But how are differences to be handled when it comes to other, non-sinful activity?
Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not; and let not him which eateth not judge him that eateth: for God hath received him.
The more mature Christian (who does not adhere to dietary standards for any spiritual reason), knowing that the immature ones are fully righteous in Christ, might still be tempted to look down upon those individuals due to their immaturity. This would be in violation of the many clear Scriptures that tell us how we are to think of one another, without exception. (See, for example, Philippians 2:2, 3.) Thus, such a reaction would constitute sin.
On the other hand, the immature, because in their hearts they still believe that their actions affect their righteousness, might view the careless eating of their brothers as a sign of less righteousness. This judging would also be sinful.
(While considering verse 3, we might note that Paul, writing by revelation, is not hesitant to point out the existence of both mature and immature in the church, and both groups are addressed. Furthermore, both groups are subject to reproof. According to the Scriptures, reproof is not simply acceptable, but is vital to spiritual life and growth. This runs contrary to the opinions of many who hold the unbiblical belief that reproof is a thing to be avoided.)
Obviously, the message of this chapter goes beyond issues of food. The true significance, and its application to us, lie in the recognition that works of the flesh can neither enhance nor diminish the new creation. In today’s church, the issues may be different ones. Modes of prayer, styles of music, preferences in dress, schooling of children … the list goes on and on. In all such matters, no work of mine can affect my relationship with God. Nor can refraining from such works.
For in Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth any thing, nor uncircumcision; but faith which worketh by love.
This verse deals specifically with circumcision, but once again we see that application can be made to differences which are more specific to our day and time.
You’ll note that, according to this verse, neither circumcision nor uncircumcision can accomplish anything of spiritual value. Just as we may sometimes encounter those who feel that some activity can add to their status with God, we may also encounter the opposite. This second group, observing the hypocrisy of the first, seeks righteousness by deliberately refraining from that activity. God declares both approaches invalid, for the focus of both is, ultimately, the flesh.
What approach is, then, of value for the Christian? Faith that springs from love.
But why dost thou judge thy brother? or why dost thou set at nought thy brother? for we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ.
Although every Christian has already been judged righteous in Christ, we shall each appear before our Lord for a judgment regarding our conduct and service here on earth. In that day, we shall be rewarded not for what we produce, but for the love and faith with which we produce it. (See, for example, II Corinthians 5:10.)
So, how then are we to handle differences in the Body of Christ? With faith and love.
Faith and love are reflected not only in how I think of other Christians, but in how I behave toward them. In this matter, the greater burden falls on the shoulders of the mature. For the mature ones can and should recognize that their freedom to perform certain actions also includes a freedom not to perform them – especially when such actions would be a stumblingblock to my brother or sister.
Let us therefore follow after [pursue] the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another.
For meat destroy not [do not throw away] the work of God. All things indeed are pure; but it is evil for that man who eateth with offence.
It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing whereby thy brother stumbleth.
More than anyone else, those who have truly grown up into Christ recognize how much they still need to grow. They recognize the amazing mercy and longsuffering that God has shown toward them along the way. They are best equipped to show this same mercy and longsuffering to others.
They are able to see the inestimable value that one brother or sister holds in God’s sight, even if that individual does not yet see it clearly.
Therefore, rather than pursuing opportunities to exhibit our freedom, let us pursue opportunities to demonstrate peace—the peace of Christ, which has demolished all enmity between God and man and all fleshly measurements within the Body of Christ.
Ephesians 4:2, 3
With all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love;
Endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.