DEALING WITH DIVERSITY
by Steve Zeisler
One of the things I appreciate most about this church is the diversity that
God has allowed us. Many of the members of this church family were born
in different nations and speak different first languages. Probably most
of the continents of the world are represented here. We have known the Lord
for more or less time. Our diversity is something that we ought to actively
appreciate more than we do.
The great advantage of a diverse community is that it gives us frequent
opportunities to practice loving one another. If everybody in a church is
exactly the same, you can adopt habits in your treatment of one another
that don't require you to extend real love. But if you encounter somebody
whose life experiences, habits, and ways of going about things are a little
different, you have occasion then to change, to try new things, to learn,
to grow, and especially to express yourself in love.
The last one-third of the book of Romans, chapters 12-16, is supremely about
living together in Christ, and the theme word of this whole section is love.
Paul has said that love should be genuine, without hypocrisy. Love is the
debt we owe inexhaustibly. This passage is about loving people who are different
from us, whose habits are not congenial to ours. It is particularly about
loving people whose expression of their Christian life and whose freedom
or lack of it strike us as peculiar or requiring change.
We will encounter two major ideas in this passage. First, we must not overextend
ourselves into the lives of other people so that we assume too much influence
over them. We must not meddle, tweak, change, and pressure other people
to become like us or reject them if they won't. Second, we must not move
too far the other direction; that is, ignore our influence on other people
and care not at all that we can hurt them by not paying enough attention,
not seeing that our expression of freedom needs to be limited by love. We
can be either too meddlesome or too unconcerned. Neither of those is loving,
and each will come under some examination in Romans 14.
Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on
disputable matters. One man's faith allows him to eat everything, but another
man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. 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. Who are you
to judge someone else's servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And
he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.
This is the first of two sections we are going to look at. It concerns over-doing
attempts to change people, meddle in their lives, and pressure them. We
must not take the role of master that only Jesus should occupy in someone
One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers
every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. He
who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat, eats
to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to
the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives to himself alone
and none of us dies to himself alone. If we live, we live to the Lord; and
if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to
For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might
be the Lord of both the dead and the living. You, then, why do you judge
your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand
before God's judgment seat. It is written:
"'As surely as I live,' says the Lord,
'Every knee will bow before me;
every tongue will confess to God.'"
So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God.
Before we try to unravel Paul's argument, I would like to describe the issues
a bit. These are not completely unfamiliar to us, but what Paul is highlighting
here does not have the same effect in our time as it did in the first century.
One of the concerns is disagreement between people as to what should be
eaten at meals.
Fellowship at the Table
We have what Paul will call the weak and by implication, the relatively
less weak (we'll come back to that shortly). And in the first argument one
person says only vegetables should be eaten at meals, while another is completely
free to eat meat at meals. Now, you may have decided not to eat meat because
of concerns for your health, the environment, animal rights, or any number
of other things that are not in view here. The issue here was whether God
was offended if they had meat (or a certain kind of meat). This issue surfaced
because the church in Rome was a multicultural church, just as we are. Specifically,
various Gentile groups and Jews were together in the church. The Jews, have
dietary laws that some take very seriously (contemporary orthodox Jews still
keep a kosher table). They won't eat pork, and they won't eat certain kinds
of food with other kinds of food, according to restrictions given in the
Old Testament. These dietary laws become habits over a lifetime. So eating
pork for a Christian Jew in the first century would have been a struggle:
"Am I permitted to do this? It feels wrong to me, I'm uncomfortable."
Further, we know from 1 Corinthians 8 that there were pockets of Gentiles
who had problems with food, too. Many of them had been raised in the dark
and demonic worship of idols, and it had ruined them. Idol worship had made
them act in degrading ways. It was a painful experience to remember. Idols
were worshiped by sacrificing animals on their altars and selling the meat
in the marketplace. Some Christians who felt great anxiety about touching
the meat that had been offered to idols because they remembered what idol
worship had done to them.
So all this disagreement about food was ultimately a disagreement over whether
they were offending God, whether there was a spiritual taint somehow to
the choices they were making as to what to eat at meals. There were some
with more freedom and some with less freedom, and they were crashing into
Something similar was taking place regarding sacred days. Jews, of course,
had a series of holy days that they kept throughout the calendar year: the
Sabbath every seventh day, the Sabbath year every seventh year, and so on.
Gentile groups had other days that were holy for various reasons. Again
they found themselves disagreeing as to when the church should meet, what
kind of prayer should be said on what kind of occasion, and so on. There
were people with more freedom to worship anytime and people with less freedom
who felt constrained to worship on certain days in a certain way.
Both those whom Paul calls the weak and those who will take the role of
being less weak have a problem of accusing each other. Look at verse 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...."
Each group found themselves thinking, "People who live like that really
ought not. I may have to grin and bear it; in public I may have to be at
least civil to them. But deep down I completely reject their choices."
We do this ourselves all the time, perhaps subtly and unconsciously. The
younger group says, "Those old geezers drive me crazy! They haven't
had a new thought in years. They're completely bound up; there is no freedom.
They do things the same old way at the same time over and over again. God
can't be pleased with a life that is so routine and so lacking in creativity.
I guess I have to put up with them, but I sure don't like it." Those
who are sitting across the table in fellowship say, "These young people
are playing fast and loose with everything God cares about. They say they're
free, but, by golly, they're not free; they're just using this as an opportunity
to live fleshly, self-indulgent lives. I know what they're really doing.
And God can't be pleased with the way they're acting." We need to look
hard at how we treat each other over issues that are the business of the
Master judge and to change.
Let's talk a bit about what it means to be weak or relatively less weak
as Paul is describing them here. It is clear that he intends for the people
with the most freedom to be understood as those who are farthest along in
faith. Verse 14 says, "As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully
convinced that no food is unclean in itself." The people who are recoiling
from eating certain kinds of food are misinformed; there is no spiritual
taint attached to any kind of food. People who live with outward restrictions
in their lives don't really have to live that way. If they were farther
along in faith they could learn freedom. I remember when I first encountered
this argument I was surprised by it. My earliest pictures of Christianity
suggested that the people who were most like God were those who lived with
the most severity in their lives, had the fewest freedoms, and said no to
the most things. They were the truly advanced Christians.
But Paul is arguing from the opposite direction. He is saying that real
maturity comes from being controlled inside, from having the Spirit of God
himself be so important in our lives, and our thinking be so much captured
by him, that we are completely free to do anything. We choose over and over
again to do what is right, courageous, creative, and holy because we have
been changed from within.
We can imagine someone who has just entered into the Christian life, and
we hope they will have barriers and protections lovingly provided around
them, because all the old habits of their lives are so deeply ingrained
in them that they need to say no to a lot of things; they need to flee environments
they can't handle. But we can also imagine people way at the other end of
the maturity scale who have walked with the Lord a long time, and they have
his character formed in them to such a degree that there are very few places
that they are unwilling to go or things that they are unwilling to encounter.
That is why Jesus was so free to go to the homes of arrogant Pharisees and
to parties with drunks and harlots. There wasn't any setting that he was
unwilling to go into; because when he was there he changed the setting,
it didn't change him. He went in as the Lord, as the one who would bring
his influence on that place, not fearing that it would influence him.
An odd picture came to mind as an illustration of this: If you were to see
Mother Theresa visiting a crack house, what would you assume had taken place
inside? My assumption would be that she had gone into that environment as
God's servant to care for the people who were throwing their lives away,
just as she has gone into scores of other such environments. But if you
saw someone who was a week old in the Lord and had had a twenty-year cocaine
habit exiting the crack house, you would draw a different conclusion. You
would be worried that they had gone into a setting where they couldn't handle
Paul knows that there are some whose faith is still in the growing process,
who will choose restrictions for themselves because they need the protection
that comes with them. Yet he recognizes at the same time that growth occurs,
and with growth comes freedom to go wherever the Lord would send us.
There are two ways in which weakness is set aside. One is learning. Sometimes
we are weak because we just don't know very much. The Spirit has touched
us, and we want to live lives pleasing to God, but we don't yet know what
it is that is pleasing to him. We may have heard the Ten Commandments and
said, "If that's what God wants then I'll attempt to live that way";
but unfortunately we have been given a hundred other things that we think
God cares about as well that are of no concern to Him. What we need is for
someone to instruct us about the things that really matter to God so that
we can live lives that please him.
There are people who were raised in very conservative, controlling religious
environments who were rightly taught that sexual sin is an abomination to
God, but were also taught that in order to avoid sexual sin you should avoid
sexuality entirely; it should be feared and run from and repressed. This
of course is not true; God delights in sexual pleasure and intimacy for
those who have given themselves to one another in marriage for a lifetime.
The misunderstanding is that because adultery is wrong, sexual pleasure
must be wrong. One can be taught the truth and so be strengthened as a result.
Some who have been raised in fundamentalist backgrounds have been taught
that liturgy and ritual in Christian experience is something that should
be avoided, because it has been abused so many times in hierarchical churches.
Of course it has been abused, but that doesn't mean that there aren't times
when grandeur, silence, meditation, ritual, poetry, and all of that might
not be a very great thing to experience in worship. So we learn that the
things that we are familiar with are not the only things that God approves.
We can be set free and strengthened as a result.
You may have been raised to think that only the experts can do Bible study,
that you need three Ph.D.'s before you dare open the Bible and think an
original thought for yourself. Of course you can learn that is not true;
the Bible was written for everybody, and the Spirit of God teaches us as
we read it. You can have the joy of discovering the Scriptures for yourself,
and someone can strengthen you by teaching you what you didn't know before
about what pleases God and what is true.
Secondly, every one of us has temptations that have regularly tripped us
up and made us vulnerable. These temptations also make us weak. If greed
or love of money has been a particular weakness that has driven you into
places where you don't want to be and ruined your life, as you grow in the
Lord you can become strong in this area where you are now weak.
You can learn to say no to the destructive power of anger in your life.
There are many whose lives have been terrorized by anger flaring within
them and hurting people around them; they don't know how to control it,
and it has wrecked things again and again. So they have learned early in
their Christian life to live with restrictions about where they will go,
what they will say, or who they will associate with because they don't want
their anger to come back. But eventually, as you crucify those responses
and hand them to the Lord, as his character is formed in you, you can learn
that anger doesn't have to control you, and you can become strong where
you were weak.
So Paul is writing about the experience of having restrictions that early
in one's Christian life are to be expected and may be necessary and helpful.
But eventually, as we are taught and as our character is formed, we required
them less and less. Eventually we can get to the point where we experience
new freedom and realize no offense is taken by God at all.
The Master Will Judge
With all that in mind, now let's look at Paul's argument. The problem he
discusses in verses 1-12 is judgment. I have already said that it is true
of both groups sitting across the table from each other. He says in verse
3, "You must not look down on the person who is different from you."
In verse 10 he makes the same point: "Why then do you judge or look
down on your brother?"
Verse 1 makes a more subtle point, that of acceptance that has a hook in
it. Paul's unqualified statement is that we are to accept the one who is
weak in faith. And the possible qualification that he warns against is that
we will accept someone with the intention of changing them. You welcome
a brother, embrace him, and invite him to join you, but the whole point
is to make sure that he is more like you when you get done with this association.
That is a subtle hook that appears to be open-hearted but is in fact controlling.
That we must not do.
The alternative, as the argument unfolds, is to recognize that Jesus is
the Master of everyone. We are not capable of being the lord of another
or of fixing their lives. We don't know enough.
Let me ask you to think for a moment about some of the contemporary issues
that would be analogous to eating meat offered to idols in Rome in the first
century. Wealth can cause division among believers. The rich look at the
poor and say, "If these people weren't so irresponsible, if they would
just take life seriously and get out of the mess they're in, it would be
more honoring to God." On the other hand, the middle range look at
the rich and say, "How can they justify buying such an expensive car
and taking such an extravagant vacation? Who do they think they are, anyway?"
We are unwilling to let God fix them; we would rather fix them ourselves.
I have seen a real difference in this congregation between people who are
comfortable using the language of modern psychology and those who are not.
Some will say that the language of Scripture---justification, sanctification,
glorification---describes the processes by which God gives life to the dead.
We ought to continue to teach the Bible just as it was given to us. This
is what the Lord intends for us. Others will say, "If the contemporary
culture uses words like co-dependent, dysfunctional, and so forth, we will
use the language of the culture, infuse it with biblical thinking, and teach
the truth that way." Each group questions whether the other is free
to teach the way they do. Again, the master in this is Jesus. We must urge
everyone to do what is right before the Lord rather than to say things as
we ourselves say them.
Worship and Family Life
Music is another area where there is disagreement over what is to be approved
for Sunday worship. Whose tastes ought to dominate? What is important and
There are correctional fads of all kinds that sweep through Christian groups.
Perhaps in the kind of prayer meeting that is in vogue for the moment people
hold hands, have silence, then raise hands, read a psalm, and read something
in Latin. But others contend that the right way to have a prayer meeting
is maximum spontaneity with no planning ahead. People advocate what is current
or what is not current in methods for Bible study, conducting small group
meetings, and evangelism as well. All of these come with booklets and lesson
plans on how to do them, and people are either for them or against them.
In the last ten years that I've been walking through issues with people
in our congregation, probably the most difficult issues have had to do with
family style: How should people raise their children? Should both parents
work? What kind of schooling should their children have---a Christian school,
private school, home-schooling, or the public schools? You make a decision
that you've thought through, knowing your child, trusting your Lord, and
doing your best as you decide together as a family. Then you find yourselves
unable to believe that God could allow other people to come to a different
conclusion, because you have worked so hard at deciding this and prayed
so much about it. And so we subtly divide ourselves, perhaps remaining polite,
but not really giving other people the right to be different.
All of that is exactly what Paul is wrestling with in Romans 14. And we
have to accept one another and let the mastery of Christ reign supreme.
He is the one who is able to make his servants stand. Our efforts to meddle
in another person's life are going to fail because we are not wise enough,
strong enough, or far-sighted enough.
We may decide that it's time for our Christian brother to learn to stop
swearing. We're sick and tired of it. However, on God's agenda, which is
dealing with deep fears and longings and the condition of the man's heart,
he will get to the swearing eventually, but that is not the main point right
now. His own Master will make him stand. Jesus is good enough at sanctifying
people that he will get everyone there. He doesn't need us wedging ourselves
into others' lives and taking over where we don't belong.
An important perspective that comes out of the last sentence in verse 5:
"Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind." And then
again in verse 12 he says, "So then, each of us will give an account
of himself to God." One of the reasons we meddle in the lives of other
people, judge them, and pressure them is that we are running from issues
in our own lives. We need to think hard about what we believe, what our
calling and responsibility are, and what changes God should be making in
our lives. We need to become fully convinced in our own minds, because someday
we are going to have to answer for ourselves at the judgment seat. God is
not going to ask us about anybody else on that day.
First Things First
The way out of this business of judgment and condemnation of another, becoming
overly involved in what the Lord is doing in another person's life, is to
major on the majors, not the minors. It is to take seriously the important
things, such as thankfulness. If you are eating meat, are you eating it
with thankfulness to God in your heart, or are you resentful for some element
that is not there---some person or some circumstance? Or if you're not eating
meat, are you grateful not to have it? "Thank you, Lord, for the vegetables.
I'm delighted with what I have been given and who I am, living for the glory
of God." That is what he means when he says, "If we live we live
to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord." Are you caught up
in thinking of ways that you can live your life for God's glory?
Are we sure that Jesus died, was buried and was raised again? Are we sure
he is Master of all, and is going to judge all? Do we have a big picture
of Jesus Christ in our lives? Is he someone of magnificence and importance
to us, or is he an errand boy in our thinking? If we decide to be thankful,
to live to Jesus' glory, and to have a great Savior at the helm of our lives,
and those things are what we pay attention to, we are not going to have
the time, energy, or inclination to pay attention to things that do not
matter very much.
Let's move on now to the second problem Paul discusses: that of improperly
ignoring the influence we have on others, running over them, hurting them
inadvertently, not paying enough attention to what we are doing because
we are just looking at ourselves and our own interests. Verses 13-18:
Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead,
make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother's
way. As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no food
is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for
him it is unclean. If your brother is distressed because of what you eat,
you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy your brother
for whom Christ died. Do not allow what you consider good to be spoken of
as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking,
but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who
serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by men.
In this case freedom is being exercised, but it is being exercised recklessly.
I am maturing in Christ and throwing off restrictions that once hung me
up because I no longer need them. I am someone in whom the Lord is building
himself. He is giving me joy and opportunities to go places where I once
couldn't go and to do things I once couldn't do. But I retain the responsibility
of not hurting the one next to me with my freedom. I can't choose to exercise
my rights if the exercise of my rights is destructive to someone else. The
language used here is strong: "Do not put a stumbling block in front
If you have been watching the Olympics, you have probably seen people take
some horrendous headers, whether on the ice or on the snow. Someone is moving
forward toward a goal that they have trained for for years if not decades,
and this is the high moment. They are competing at the grand level, pressing
for the prize---and all of a sudden they hit some little pebble in the snow
or nick in the ice and have a horrible crash, and it's all over. They stumble
and fall, and all hope is dashed.
Paul is talking about the case in which our exercise of our liberty is seriously
destructive to another person. In verse 15 the New International Version
says, "If your brother is distressed...." But that would be better
translated grieved. It is as if your actions have the effect of causing
grief as at the death of a loved one. Then you are out of bounds in the
exercise of your freedom. If your exercise of freedom has the result of
putting someone you care about in the condition of sensing themselves near
what is evil, then you are acting out of bounds. If their heart is overcome
with a sense of dread and wickedness, as if God is remote from them because
of what you have done, then you have no business acting that way. We can
put a stumbling block in front of our brothers and sisters when our freedom
leads them back into what was once terrible for them. It is when, for example,
our cheerful, God-be-thanked glass of wine at dinner can send someone back
into a life of alcoholism. We must not engage in the freedom in this case.
Not Letting Weakness Dominate
But Paul also uses strong language because it is important that we recognize
what he is not saying. He is not saying, "Don't be an irritant
in the use of your freedom." There will be times when the use of our
freedom will be irritating for people around us, and it may be necessary.
If some stuffy, hidebound person in your fellowship cannot abide the way
you laugh with your kids, take vacations, drink wine with your meal, have
friends who aren't Christian, and go around with grease under your fingernails,
it may well be that you need to irritate them this way in order for growth
to take place in them. The restrictive lives of the weak shouldn't control
all freedom, growth, and maturity of everyone else.
Playing board games is one of our family habits. I remember when our children
were little, we played Candy Land until our eyes were ready to fall out.
It is an endlessly repetitive, completely boring game. But when children
are little, that is the most they can do. They are inexperienced; they don't
have any more to operate with. But it would be terrible if we played Candy
Land forever and never moved on to Monopoly or Scrabble. There would be
no growth, change, creativity, or anything new. Spiritual immaturity (weakness)
shouldn't be reinforced too long, either.
Verses 17-18 are a ringing reminder that nothing important is at stake in
giving up our rights. Learning to love those who are different and may be
difficult is a worthy cause, and deserves our attention. But whether or
not we are able to exercise freedom in what we eat, what kind of music we
listen to, where we go, who our friends are, and whatever else it occurs
to us to do; nothing eternally important is at stake. All that is important
is always ours anyway: "For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating
and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because
anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by
Catalog No. 4357
February 20, 1993
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