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On dealing with differences in the church

I love the way stand-up comedians observe the details of life with fascination and wonder. For example:
(Language warning.)

In any community, any society, there are things that are things for me that wont be things for you. And that can cause all manner of problems for us as we run into one another. The second half of the 14th chapter of Paul's letter to the church in Rome speaks to this issue of dealing with differences.

I'm refreshed by its honesty. I like when my friends feel they can argue in front of me... no hiding and faking. People sometimes say they can't believe in Jesus because Christians disagree and break into denominations etc. But, the Bible is upfront and honest, we disagree. What interests me is, what next? 

How to deal with the differences...

Most of the issues are questions of ethics. Of ordinary life. About eating and drinking and working and shopping and music.

The Bible could say: here's the long list of how to live, submit now. That would solve the problems of unity by imposing uniformity. Thankfully it doesn't say that...

Instead, we get a relational word from a relational God to relational people, speaking to our hearts, to our conscience, calling us to live as we see fit in view of the mercy of God. The result appears inconsistent and contradictory at times.
  • In Romans 14 Paul tells people to abstain from eating foods for the sake of those who think they shouldn't. Good.
  • In Galatians 2 he confronts Peter for doing the same thing, for different reasons. Bad.
  • In Galatians 5 he says that if you get circumcised you're being cut off from Christ. Bad.
  • In Acts 16 he gets Timothy circumcised. Good.
In Romans 14 Paul says I'm convinced, persuaded, that no food is unclean. And he's right, because Jesus said so, and because nothing in this good world is unclean.... unless you think it is. Paul elevates conscience. Some puritans said that the conscience is god in the heart. Conscience is shaped by all sorts of things, and violating it could cause someone great harm.

And so:
  • Accommodate other people. There's a danger when someone becomes a Christian that we expect them to immediately submit to some kind of Christian lifestyle. The Biblical reality is more like tuning a piano. You have to do it slowly or you break the strings. Sometimes there is radical-in-the-moment-change, but not usually. Sometimes, like the piano I grew up playing, you never get it in tune. Ours ways always a semi-tone flat. I'm not sure if that's why I can't sing in tune today...
  • Act for outsiders. Don't trip up those in the church community, but don't do the same to those who might come in. How dare we build walls around the Christ whose arms are open wide? We should consider how we meet, when we meet, what we do, where we are... so that people might more easily come to Jesus. No softening on who Jesus is, but very much flexing on everything else.
We invite people to come to Jesus as they are, not as we are.

The Christian life isn't really a matter of being good people, its more about being generous people. Being a Christian isn't about what you do or don't do, it's about a changed character, a life lived in the Holy Spirit, a new inclination to do others good, toward mutual upbuilding and peace. So that, like Israel, we can say: come with us we'll do you good.

  • v14 Live in view of God’s mercy. Be persuaded. We bow to Christ, accountable to him – v11. It matters how we live. So get persuaded by the Bible about how to live.
  • v15 Run with the grain of Jesus’ work: v15 Consider Christ died for you and them. v20 Consider God’s work – don’t destroy it.
  • v21 Run with the grain of those around us. Nothing is more painful than fingernails on the blackboard… pushing against people’s consciences is like fingernails on the blackboard in people’s hearts.
9:33 Some stumble over Christ – he should be the only stumbling stone. The conscience needs, as Christopher Ash says in Pure Joy, to be re-calibrated to Christ:
“The story is told of a well-known painter who used to keep a number of highly coloured stones on a shelf in his studio: an emerald, a ruby and so on. When asked why, he said, ‘All day long I am working at my canvas with mixed, impure colours, and my eye is apt to lose its keenness. So every now and then I stop working and feast my eyes upon these stones. And my sense of colour is restored.’ (p159, Pure Joy, Christopher Ash, IVP)
So it is for us. Our conversation with Paul in Romans 14 is like talking with the painter. He lifts the lid on what he does and invites us to come to Christ again.
  • Picture yourself, weaker. Not feeling that you can eat all food. Paul says, no one will force you to do it. And Jesus will call your brothers and sisters in the church family to accommodate you. Doesn't that soften your conscience to ask whether your big issue should be such a big issue for you? Come again to Christ.
  • Picture yourself, strong. Rightly convinced about a matter of freedom, realising that something that’s not an issue to you is so painful for someone else. Isn't your conscience softened to love them? You too were once not free, and Christ came and set you free. Come again to Christ.
The message here isn’t just don’t worry about differences, no: treat them seriously. But don’t get caught up in them. Rather, in view of God’s mercy: let us go to Jesus and see how we can live in light of him, how we can honour him, love one another as we live in view of Jesus in all the ordinary things of our lives.


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