At the Anglican Future Conference, Brian Rosner led a workshop called Disputable Matters: What to Do When Christians Disagree. This is a lightly edited outline of the content of his workshop.
Rev Dr Brian Rosner is Principal of Ridley College and President of EFAC Victoria.
With respect to disputable matters, in Romans 14-15 Paul stresses the need for personal convictions, flexibility, not judging or despising those who disagree, and the goal of peace and edification. As it turns out, the theological foundations of his teaching on disputable matters are remarkably profound.
Disputable matters in Romans 14:1-15:7
Some matters are beyond dispute, of “first importance” (1 Corinthians 15:1). Other matters are “disputable” (Romans 14:1)
1. Weak and Strong: Mosaic laws to do with diet (14:2, 21) and calendar (14:5).
Two groups are mentioned: ‘the weak’ and ‘the strong’. Whereas “the weak” in the church (probably mainly Christians from a Jewish background) kept Jewish kosher laws and observed the Sabbath, “the strong” (mainly Gentile Christians) did not. Paul actually counts himself among the strong (15:1) and is convinced that the Christian believer may “eat anything” (14:2). Peter Adam says: “If I had been writing Romans 14, I would have told those who were weak in faith, and still kept special days, to sort themselves out, and to know that they are justified by grace through faith, not by keeping special days of Jewish practice. Paul, on the other hand, told the strong in faith to accept the weak in faith, and the weak in faith to accept the strong in faith. Both the strong and the weak are answerable to God, not to each other. So we must allow people to act differently in matters that don’t contradict the gospel.”
2. How were the two groups behaving?
“The one who eats everything [the strong] must not despise [exoutheneō] the one who does not [the weak], and the one who does not eat everything [the weak] must not judge [krinō] the one who does [the strong], for God has accepted that person” (14:3). In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus also warns about judging and despising other believers. “Do not judge, or you too will be judged” (Matt. 7:1). In his application of the commandment not to murder, he states: “whoever says to his brother, ‘Fool!’ will be subject to the Sanhedrin. But whoever says, ‘You moron!’ will be subject to hellfire” (Matt. 5:22, HCSB).
3. Paul’s instructions and his reasons
Paul’s basic instruction is to accept, rather than judge or despise one another: “Accept those whose faith is weak, without quarrelling over disputable matters” (14:1). “Accept one another, just as Christ has accepted you” (15:7). In response to Christians judging and despising each other, Paul reasons that each person is responsible directly to God, an accountability based on the status of all believers as belonging to the Lord Jesus Christ: “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall” (14:4a). Paul explains that personal convictions are needed, for “those who have doubts are condemned if they eat, because their eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin” (14:23). “Everyone should be fully convinced in their own mind” (Romans 14:5b).
Christian leaders may teach a position on a disputable matter: “I know and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself” (14:14a), but not insistently: “Still to someone who considers a thing unclean, to that one it is unclean” (14:14b). In Paul’s view, at least in the case of the strong, some flexibility may be needed. Speaking to the strong, and including himself, Paul reasons that we may need to vary our practice in certain settings. We are not just “to please ourselves” (15:1). Rather, “each of us should please our neighbours for their good, to build them up” (15:2). In doing so we act in imitation of Christ, who “did not please himself” (15:3).
4. What was at stake?
Firstly, the health and happiness of the church: “For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (14:17).
Secondly, the progress of the gospel. For Paul’s mission to succeed he needs the Roman Christians, both Jews and Gentiles, to accept one another, and not to squabble, so that with one mind and voice they might glorify God (15:6).
Thirdly, the glory of God. Paul’s ultimate purpose in dealing with the quarrels in the churches in Rome is not to ‘smooth things over’; it is that “the Gentiles might glorify God” (15.9; cf. 15.6, 7).
With respect to disputable matters, in Romans 14-15 Paul stresses the need for personal convictions, flexibility, not judging or despising those who disagree, and the goal of peace and edification. As it turns out, the theological foundations of his teaching on disputable matters are remarkably profound. Doctrine matters. Paul appeals to the lordship of Christ, the imitation of Christ, justification by faith, and the work of the Spirit in the Kingdom of God. To behave badly will damage the health and happiness of the church, impede the progress of the gospel and diminish the glory of God.