Liberty, love, and the Christian journey (Romans 14:1-23)

Some years ago I found myself the leader of a Bible study composed of a group of young adults. One night a young couple came to me to raise a concern. It seemed that the week before, a small section of the group had gone out after Bible study—to the bar area of a local restaurant. Having not been present at this gathering, I can only assume that those who went (1) were of legal age and (2) drank responsibly, at least in the eyes of the state. But this young couple was a bit hurt that a group of Christians would be at a Bible study one minute, and downing glasses of beer the next. And, as I learned, their concern rose not from a background of religious conservatism, but from their prior struggles with alcohol and their desire to remain “clean.”

What was I to say? What would you say?

As Americans we have elevated the spirit of individualism to almost a sovereign virtue. But as citizens of God’s kingdom, we recognize our social obligations within the body of Christ. In his letter to the Romans, Paul addresses what we often call “disputable matters.” We might apply this term to a whole range of issues, but naturally the one that often receives the most attention is the question of Christians and alcohol.

CHRISTIAN LIBERTIES

One of the core challenges of diversity within the body of Christ is the variety of expressions of the Christian faith. In Paul’s day, there were apparently some who insisted on observing certain “Holy days” (perhaps for their Jewish significance) and others who were strict vegetarians (perhaps to avoid eating meat that had been offered to idols). Whatever their reasons, Paul says that when the Bible is silent on such issues, God’s people should be cautious about insisting everyone follow the same rules:

As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. 2 One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. 3 Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. 4 Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.

5 One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. 7 For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. 8 For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.9 For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.

10 Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; 11 for it is written,

“As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me,
and every tongue shall confess to God.”

12 So then each of us will give an account of himself to God. (Romans 14:1-12)

Paul isn’t saying that these concerns don’t matter, he’s saying that we should be careful to distinguish between absolute moral standards, personal convictions, and cultural practices. In Paul’s day, there were those who insisted upon abstaining from eating meat. Ok, Paul seems to say, but don’t pass judgment on those who celebrate their Christian liberty with a porterhouse.

This, of course, is where I’ve seen many young people’s eyes light up. Because it’s usually here that they realize that hey, if they’re of age, they can enjoy a beer or a glass of wine or two. After all, while the Bible prohibits drunkenness, it never labels alcohol as sinful. Hey, even Jesus turned water into wine. So if we apply this text to this issue, we can see how there might be good, Godly Christians who differ on this issue. And that’s ok. What’s not ok, if we hear Paul correctly, is to apply my own standards to someone else. This means that if I choose to abstain from drinking, it’s not ok for me to look down on someone who chooses to have a drink, But it also means—and young people, take notice—that if I choose to drink, that I look down on others as being prudish or uptight. There may be wisdom, after all, in abstaining. You don’t have to look very hard to find people for whom alcohol (and other substances) have had a ruling influence over their life. I knew of one young man who couldn’t even hear ice cubes rattling in a glass without feeling the desire for alcohol. It’s for these and other reasons that Paul makes clear that we must understand personal freedom within the broader framework of our social responsibilities.

STUMBLING BLOCKS

Paul writes that Christ’s followers should go out of their way to ensure unity between one another on these issues:

13 Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. 14 I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. 15 For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died.16 So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. 17 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. 18 Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. 19 So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.

20 Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. 21 It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble. 22 The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves. 23 But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.  (Romans 14:13-23)

It is impossible to be fully human in the absence of other humans, and likewise it is impossible to be fully Christian in the absence of other Christians. Our decisions impact more than just ourselves. Paul doesn’t ask that Christ’s followers cave in to each other’s demands; he’s saying that we should have the sensitivity toward one another not to allow our liberties to do damage to our brothers and sisters in Christ.

How might this relate to the question of alcohol? Consuming alcohol isn’t necessarily morally wrong; harming your brother is. Paul is encouraging his readers to maintain unity even if it means surrendering our “rights.” For love always—always—comes before our Christian freedoms. You will never get me to say that alcohol is inherently sinful, but I fear that many Christians have been quick to celebrate this freedom and slow to consider its implications.

So what about that young couple? To be honest, I don’t remember what I said to them. If I were facing the same dilemma today, this is what I might say:

  • To the young couple, offended by the sight of Christians drinking at the bar: You have every right to desire to shield yourself from behaviors—and substances—that once enslaved you. Your desire for purity from alcohol is, for you, a good and noble thing. But not everyone has walked your road, and not everyone has been in your shoes, for which reason we should all be cautious about drawing conclusions based on others’ behavior. And yes, I know that you may not have wanted to be put in this position, but my gentle challenge to you is that if you are invited to a restaurant with a bar there’s a good chance you might be exposed to the sights and smells of your former lifestyle. There may be wisdom in finding out where you’re headed before you accept an invitation, lest you find yourself here again.
  • To those who enjoyed your liberties, unaware you were causing offense: I get it; you have your liberties. No one has the right to question your salvation because of this issue. But the fact remains: you have missed an opportunity to love your neighbor. We don’t always know the backgrounds of those around us—for which reason we must be cautious about exercising our liberties in a way that causes others to “stumble.” We need one another, and our goal of love should triumph over any personal liberties we might cling to.

I realize, as well, that this is a conversation that demands nuance. Still, the overall principle is clear: we are at liberty with certain choices, but the gospel provokes us to surrender these liberties for the sake of unity and love.

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3 thoughts on “Liberty, love, and the Christian journey (Romans 14:1-23)

  1. The underlying command here for us in considering how to relate to our brothers and sisters in the Lord is to act with a motive of love. We probably all stumble in many ways with this general principle.

    Before reading your post I was meditating on our ideal relationship with God. (And just so I don’t make my comment too long — I’ll make that comment an individual comment.)

    Then when I got on the computer I read an email. And though I have great doubts about the news narrative that I being fed by this former high government official, it is without doubt that there may be great, great risks to “our way of life” that the average person is very unaware of. I’ll probably copy the text of his remarks into another comment still. My motive in doing so is to remind people that what we currently have grave worries about … can quickly change in a crisis. Things we consider so important now, it might not seem important if our electricity isn’t working or there is little food on the table.

    While I don’t see any immediate crisis at hand — there are multiple crises that should be on our radar. In a later comment I’ll offer some thoughts about such things.

    Paul spoke to Timothy about a certain health benefit of drinking alcohol. Yet it is widely believed that Paul (though he didn’t know the science behind all this) realized that some alcohol in water killed pathogens and so he recommended that Timothy add “a little wine” to his water. You could consider this similar to how water purification facilities today add some chlorine or other thing to the water to kill pathogens. So that direct reason to drink alcohol isn’t usually of concern to us today.

    Occasionally some other reasons to drink a moderate amount of alcohol are given some press coverage. In any case whatever the validity of these other findings are … what you say about acting in love should be the primary driver in how we treat each other.

    In another comment or two, I’ll get around to what I thought to write.

  2. What I am about to post is from an email from an older guy who had some important ambassador position during the days of the Reagan administration. My motivation in reposting what he wrote isn’t because I agree … in some ways I find our country engages in a lot of disinformation and isn’t more moral than people of other countries. We are often deceived because people in power too often are afraid to show that we are culpable. And just as one example, we might decry one nation meddling in our election, and not be aware of, or pay no attention to the fact that our nation has meddled in some 80+ elections around the world.

    Yet even if we totally overlook that our country has done anything wrong, there is still a narrative that other nations are “out to get us.” If our nation has done wrong things and other countries are pushing back at our meddling and possibly if we are to “suffer as a meddler” or if our nation has only done good things and the evil or darkness in this world wants to destroy this country because it hates our righteousness — we should be aware that we live in dangerous time.

    It might be wrong for me to post this comment … again I don’t agree with it … but I do agree that we don’t realize how susceptible we are to very dangerous cyber attacks, EMP attacks, sudden financial meltdowns etc.

    Read this or skip it as God leads you.
    ================================
    April 11, 2017—“What We Don’t Know . . .”

    By Henry F. Cooper on March 28, 2017 in China, High Frontier, Iran, North Korea, Russia, Trump

    “It’s ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble; it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.” ~ Mark Twain

    Last Tuesday, I wrote about how dangerous a time we are living through — I consider the most dangerous time of my lifetime. We have a fermenting brew of dangers being stirred by several key players: rogue states Iran and its ally North Korea, which has long been closely aligned with China—all under a boding shadow from Russia and its President Vladimir Putin. I expressed hope that President Trump would make headway in persuading China’s President Xi to throttle back North Korea’s Great Leader Kim Jong Un’s pursuit of nuclear weapons and associated ballistic missile delivery systems.

    Little did I know that, between the main course and desert of the evening meal two days later at President Trump’s Mar al Lago, the President would inform President Xi of his cruise missile retaliation, then under way, against a Syrian air base near Homs from which Syria had launched an attack using chemical weapons that killed women and children. The President had previously warned Russia of the pending attack so they could vacate their presence in the bullseye of our attack.

    This was a welcome game changer, reflecting Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s statement on his recent trip to Asia that the era of “Strategic Patience” had ended. Moreover, he added fuel to that welcome fire by noting over the last weekend that Russia, which was supposed to have gotten Syria to get rid of its chemical weapons, was either complicit with Syria’s retention and use of those weapons or incompetent. And today he is headed to Moscow. I’d love to be a fly on the wall for his meetings.

    Meanwhile, the President ordered the Carl Vinson Carrier Strike Group to patrol off the Korean Peninsula—a clear message of the end of Strategic Patience with North Korea and unmistakable encouragement to North Korea’s long-time supporters in China to get the Great Leader back in line.

    Vladimir Putin’s shadow continues to loom over these events and the long-time alliance between Russia, China and matters of the Middle East, particularly as they relate to dealing with Radical Islamic Terrorism, which President Trump has sworn to destroy. These events do make it a bit hard to believe that Trump is colluding with Putin.

    Meanwhile, ISIS has claimed credit for terrorist attacks killing dozens over the weekend in Sweden and Egypt … while our congress and courts continue to diddle over how the Trump administration and state leaders should deal with refugees we cannot properly vet.

    Stay alert during the most dangerous time of my lifetime. And remember Mark Twain’s observation:“It’s ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble; it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

    ========================================================
    Again, I hate and strongly disagree with some of what ambassador Cooper wrote, Yet I agree that this old man might be correct about this being “the most dangeroud time of my lifetime.”

    I also realize that his quote of Mark Twain is correct, at least as pertains to him. “It’s ain’t what you don’t know that gets you into trouble; it’s what you know for sure that just ain’t so.”

    There are so many narratives out there … there is so much “fake news.” I think everyone can agree that there is a lot of “fake news.” Those who watch the MSM (Main Stream Media) believe alternate media is fake. Those who watch alternate media do so because think MSM is fake.

    Whatever is true there are a lot of deceived people out there and this country is dvided against itself. And Jesus said something about a house divided against itself being in a dangerous condition.

  3. I was pondering while laying in bed that we are to “Love God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength.”

    Please pardon me as I go on thinking about this concept.

    David was called God’s friend. We should love God as a “friend” and be concerned about his concerns and wishes.

    Many scriptures use the term “Father” as he is our protector and provider. He then deserves our continual honor.

    Some scriptures use analogies or parables likening him to our king or employer. So as we follow government decrees and rules we should think that we ought to follow God’s rules, rules or suggestions that may involve prayer, remembrance, thanksgiving etc.

    The hours we spend at work take a number of hours each day. Do we consider that we might also be obligated with our time to serve God?

    Ending early what I envisioned being a long, long comment, I just want to state that in a spirit of not putting “heavy burdens on people” that when we work for employers, we are to rather think that we are working “for the Lord.” Sometimes it might prompt us to give extra effort. At other times we might have some problem of conscience that might mitigate us engaging in behavior that we don’t believe would please God.

    I just don’t want anyone thinking that since they spent ten hours working in a day, that they must then spend eleven hours praying or serving God … or some absurd such thing.

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