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Disputable Matters (14:1-12)

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The Apostle Paul teaches us that if we love one another we will not need rules and regulations to restrain our actions. To the followers of Christ in Rome he writes, “Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” (Romans 13:10 NIV)

However, this still leaves us with a problem. Even though we are followers of Christ and do our best to treat one another according to love, we still have disagreements. One reason for these disagreements is that we are all at different places in our knowledge and understanding of Christ. To put it another way, we each have differing amounts of faith. Knowing and following Christ is a growth process. One person may have a very strong faith in one area, yet be weak in faith in another. Our faith becomes stronger as it is tested in various circumstances.

What should we do when our differences in faith and understanding cause us to disagree with our fellow believers? In chapter 14 of his letter, verses 1 through 12, Paul tells us how we should treat each other when we have differences of opinion. “Now accept one who is weak in faith, but not for disputes over opinions. One man has faith to eat all things, but he who is weak eats only vegetables. Don’t let him who eats despise him who doesn’t eat. Don’t let him who doesn’t eat judge him who eats, for God has accepted him. Who are you who judge another’s servant? To his own lord he stands or falls. Yes, he will be made to stand, for God has power to make him stand. One man esteems one day as more important. Another esteems every day alike. Let each man be fully assured in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it. He who eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks. He who doesn’t eat, to the Lord he doesn’t eat, and gives God thanks. For none of us lives to himself, and none dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord. Or if we die, we die to the Lord. If therefore we live or die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died, rose, and lived again, that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living. But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. For it is written, “‘As I live,’ says the Lord, ‘to me every knee will bow. Every tongue will confess to God.’” So then each one of us will give account of himself to God.”

Notice that Paul is not writing about the key teachings of Christ. There are some things which we must believe if we are to follow Him. For example, if we are to follow Christ, we have no choice but to believe that He rose from the dead. Instead, Paul is writing about “disputable matters” – those things which are not central to the faith. Before going forward we should define what we mean by a “disputable matter.” A disputable matter is something about which the Scriptures are silent, or give no specific instruction. In the classic case, there is no command regarding the issue, nor is there a prohibition. In other cases, something is said in Scripture but does not directly apply to our situation.

In all these circumstances we have to exercise judgment. We have to arrive at our convictions and conclusions based on principles and inference. Inevitably, some of our conclusions will differ. For example, some say that practices which are not explicitly sanctioned in Scripture are prohibited. Others conclude that silence on a particular issue indicates permission. Still others say that all such things are matters of opinion and left to individual preference. How can we retain unity and love while, at the same time, respect each other’s conclusions and convictions?

The person who is weak in faith, sees restrictions in God’s word where there are none. He prohibits where God has given liberty. In contrast, the person who is strong in faith has a more mature understanding of Scripture. His conscience has been trained by God’s word. “But solid food is for the mature, who by constant use have trained themselves to distinguish good from evil.” (Hebrews 5:14 NIV) Whether we are weak or strong in faith regarding non-essential practices, Paul writes that we are to accept each other.

Those who are strong must not look down on those who have convictions which are narrower than they need to be. Conversely, the person who does not practice certain things must not condemn those who do. We must not try to bind our convictions about disputable matters on others.

The reason we shouldn’t judge another person regarding disputable matters is that the Lord is the Master of both the person whose convictions allow him to do certain things and the person who has a conviction against those things. We have no right to criticize someone else’s servant. Our focus should be on what the Lord would have us do, not on what we think the other person should or should not do. Since Christ accepts the other person, we should as well.

Remember, that this is only in regard to disputable matters, already defined as those areas where the Scriptures are silent or give no specific instruction. Where Scripture does give clear instruction, we have an obligation to instruct, teach and admonish. “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” (2 Timothy 3:16-17 NIV) When we point out that someone is in violation of Scripture, it is not us passing judgment, but the Lord.

Paul writes that we should be fully convinced in our own minds that our practice in a given area is acceptable to the Lord. In other words, we must follow the dictates of our conscience. Even if something is perfectly alright, if we cannot do it with a clear conscience then, for us, it is wrong. On the other hand, if we can do something with a clear conscience then it is okay for us to do it even if someone else’s conscience will not allow him to do it.

We must also be able to do what we are doing for God and thank Him while we are doing it. Paul’s point is that whether we abstain or participate in any activity, the focus should be on the Lord, not our desires. If we can honestly dedicate our practice or activity to the Lord, then we may go ahead and do it. If, on the other hand, we cannot imagine Christ participating in what we are doing, then we should reconsider. Perhaps what we are doing is not pleasing to Him after all.