A Word of Caution
by Herb Geeslin, Pastor of Adult Ministries
My years at Oregon State University proved to be a time of intense personal spiritual growth through a dynamic college group at Northwest Hills Baptist Church. Since OSU is a land-grant and sea-grant university, it draws students into the fields of science and engineering from around the world. Our college group of several hundred students displayed remarkable unity, despite the vast diversity of backgrounds among us. There were students from around the nation, the world, and, yes, even a couple of us from Texas! That unity within such diversity made a huge impression upon me.
However, within any local church, there exists a wide variety of personal opinions, which is understandable in light of the differences in ages and personalities, as well as a host of social and economic factors. Furthermore, congregations include people at different points of spiritual maturity. Of course, differing opinions should not concern core truths of the faith, but it seems they do involve just about everything else! In other words, we should expect to find a wide range of opinions among our brothers and sisters in Christ, even though we are united in the basic tenets of the faith.
As noted by the biblical scholar, Leon Morris, “The church was never meant to be a cozy club of like-minded people of one race or social position or intellectual caliber. Christians are not clones, identical in all respects.” Indeed, within every local church, there are fellow-believers who do not share the same opinion when it comes to the interpretation and application of certain Christian truths.
The fact that we have varying opinions among us need not be an issue. Yet, problems often arise when our opinions are held with a dogged absoluteness that seems to place our views on the same level as divine revelation. And even when discussing a passage of Scripture with others, we can morph into a “my-view-is-more-spiritual-than-yours” mode on the basis that we hold a certain opinion with respect to the application of God’s Word.
This is not a new phenomenon within the local church. Paul addresses the subject at length with the Corinthians in his first letter to them, 10:23-11:1. He also emphasizes the matter in his letter to the Roman believers. In Romans 14-15:13, the apostle issues a word of caution to local assemblies: do not let division over opinions destroy the unity, love, and spiritual growth that is to characterize Christ’s people.
That word of caution is especially pertinent to us now as we grapple with our navigation through the COVID-19 crisis that has taken center stage in our country. I have spoken to many of you recently, and so I am aware that some of you hold some very strong opinions about what we are currently experiencing, as well as how we as a church should respond to it. A large part of the reason we have such divergent opinions on the matter is rooted in the fact that we lack solid epidemiological data concerning the exact nature of this virus. In addition, we hear various political voices that seem to be ever-changing with respect to the “proper” response to the COVID-19 crises.
The result is a lack of clarity. That lack of clarity is a breeding ground for the birth of many differing opinions. Lack of clarity also fosters frustration, and frustration (a polite term for “anger”) can easily lead us into fleshly behaviors.
Paul exhorts the Roman believers to “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfill its lusts (i.e., its desires, its passionate longings).” His next sentence addresses our situation: “Now accept (i.e., receive, accept in your fellowship) the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions”(emphasis mine).
Various English renderings of “opinions” (NASB, ESV) include “doubtful disputations” (KJV), “doubtful things” (NKJ), and “disputable matters” (NIV). The point is that Paul is talking about non-sin issues when he urges us not to rush to judge/condemn/despise the opinions of our brothers and sisters in Christ. Some fellow believers will live out their faith in a way that contradicts our own opinion with respect to a given situation. In these circumstances, we are to fully accept such a person into our fellowship, because God does. Thus, Paul bluntly reminds us that the goal of our fellowship is much greater than merely trying to change people’s opinions.
Throughout the New Testament, it is crystal clear how important harmonious relationships are within the family of God. And a large part of that harmony is founded on the principle that we are to stop judging others merely because they hold a different opinion than we do. Really, the only way to have complete unity of opinion in a church is to reduce that church to one person!
Paul addresses all Christians in Romans 14-15:13, regardless of their “maturity,” whether they are considered “weak” or “strong” in the faith. He is not talking about their standing before the Lord, just their application of biblical principles in daily life. And both groups can find themselves guilty of attitudes that say, “My faith is better than yours.” So, in Romans 14:1ff, Paul gives some concrete examples of varying “opinions,” but he also lays down some divine principles by which these issues are to be viewed.
One of those principles is seen in Romans 14:6: “He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God.” Which position a person held was not the important thing to Paul. Paul’s concern was that each believer should be fully convinced in his own mind, examining his own heart, that he is doing what the Lord would have him to do (14:22). In others words, both applicational opinions are aiming to glorify God.
A second principle that we can take from this section of Romans comes from verse 8: “For if we live, we live for the Lord, or if we die, we die for the Lord; therefore whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.” All believers have one Lord. Whether “weak” or “strong,” we all belong to Him.
And in 14:10, we are reminded of a third principle, namely that it is He, the Lord Jesus Christ, and not us, that will judge His people: “But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.” All of us have a common judgment seat.
Indeed, all of us have these three things in common: the same aim, the same Lord, and the same judgment seat. So, with respect to one another’s opinions, let us not rush to judgment: “Therefore, let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this—not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way” (14:13).
Furthermore, condemning others is the opposite of loving them: “For if because of food your brother is hurt, you are no longer walking according to love. Do not destroy with your food him for whom Christ died” (14:15). Or, as Paul states it later, “Do not tear down the work of God for the sake of food” (14:20).
Bottom line with respect to diverging opinions: do not let division over opinions destroy the unity, love, and spiritual growth that is to characterize Christ’s people.
Let’s bring these truths to our interaction with the COVID-19 situation. First, we can have varying opinions among us, and we can listen to one another with respect and tolerance. Arguing with one another will not produce any positive outcomes.
Second, when the time comes to return to our gathered worship services, let’s not make attendance of them a test of spirituality. Some folks will have good reasons in their minds to continue watching on-line for a while. Again, given the uncertainty surrounding this virus and our concern for others who might be severely affected by it, we will see different opinions emerge.
Third, continue to pray for your elders. It is not an easy assignment to balance all aspects that affect our entire congregation. There are logistical challenges upon opening our services; there are serious considerations of our community witness; there are clear biblical directives concerning our interaction with civil authorities; and there are numerous obstacles that must be considered in continuing our corporate spiritual growth and worship.
Finally, let’s keep Paul’s instructions before us, so that the big (eternal) picture is not lost in the noise around us. The circumstances surrounding us with respect to the pandemic provide plenty of opportunity to respond in a fleshly way, even though we may try to couch such responses in “spiritual” terms. Strongly held opinions provide fertile ground for sinful responses.
Certainly, church history has proven the veracity of Morris’ statement: “It is easier to put our trust in Christ for salvation than to solve the hard problems that confront us when we try to live out the implications of our faith in a society that is not Christian. Paul gives us advice as to how we are to live with others who love the Lord, but who do not see what we are doing as the ideal way of living out the Christian faith.”
Paul’s way may not be the easiest, but it is obviously the way that best honors the Lord. Let us continue to walk through this time together, loving and encouraging one another, preserving unity, knowing that we all indeed live for the same aim, the same Lord, and in the same accountability before Him.