Friday, November 19, 2004

Disputing the indisputable

There is historically some disagreement on the application of Romans 14, and it appears to be a dispute over what Paul means when he writes about receiving brothers who hold "disputable" opinions. In verses 1-3, he writes:

    "Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things. For one believes he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats only vegetables. Let not him who eats despise him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats; for God has received him."
Verse 5 shows that in matters where there are differences of understanding, we are each to be convinced in our own mind without binding our brother to the conclusions we have personally reached:
    "One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind."
The underlying principle is one of love and respect for our brother with whom we disagree. Verse 13 says:
    "Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother's way."
The "correct" view is that it is OK to eat the meat. Technically, we could say that the brother is an "erring brother" if he abstains from meat under the belief that God doesn't want him to eat it. But Paul says in verse 18 that both men are accepted before God in spite of their divergent views.
    "For he who serves Christ in these things is acceptable to God and approved by men."

But the idea is suggested that this chapter only applies to matters that God has not legislated on--matters where God is indifferent. (I don't like the term "legislated," because I don't consider the New Testament scriptures to be legislation. But that is a topic for another time.) In other words, we can each hold our divergent opinion in peace only if it is a matter that God is indifferent to. That makes some sense on the surface, but then we're left with a catch 22. Isn't the question of whether God has legislated on it or not what makes it disputable in the first place?

The reasoning is circular. It demands that we agree that a matter is indifferent to God before we classify it as "disputable" and open to multiple interpretations. But once we agree that the matter is disputable, it is really no longer in dispute, because we all agree that God hasn't legislated on it.

Look at the actual situation that Paul was writing about. One Christian concluded God had legislated that meat was forbidden, while another concluded that God allowed it. Must these two brothers agree that the issue is indifferent to God before they can forebear each other and "worship" with each other? Of course not, that is the whole point of this chapter. It's the very fact that the matter was in dispute that caused Paul to write to them to practice patience and forbearance.

Remember verse 19:

    "Therefore let us pursue the things which make for peace and the things by which one may edify another."
The inspired lesson here is that believers clearly should de-emphasize disputable issues that have nothing to do with salvation in order to pursue peace, and emphasize the things that lead to the edification of our brother. That's not "compromise," that's a direct command.