Pastor David B. Curtis

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Liberty & Unity - Part 1

Romans 14:1

Delivered 11/25/2001

A little girl visited her grand parents who regarded Sunday as the Lord's Day to be set aside as a very holy day. They didn't allow their granddaughter to run and play or laugh out loud on Sunday. It was to be observed as the Lord's Day. It was a day for quietness and rest, a day for meditation, the only book that could be read was the Bible. The little girl was not permitted to run in the pasture and collect flowers or swing on the tire that was hanging from the tree out in front.

Her grandfather took a nap on Sunday afternoon, and she got permission from her grandmother to walk down the lane to the road. As she was walking she came upon the old mule standing at the side of the road just inside the fence. His head was down, his eyes were closed, and he looked like he was in half a daze. She reached her hand through the fence and patted the mule as she silently said, "You poor old fellow, have you got religion too?"

Now some believers would say the grand parents are too strict, that they are legalists. And others would think that the grand parents are right in their convictions. Believers differ in their preferences and convictions. And because of these differences there is a great potential for conflict. Paul deals with this in Romans 14:1 through 15:13. This section is a call for Christian unity based on understanding Christian liberty. Paul's subject in this section is the relationship between the strong and weak believers. Look at the first verse in chapter 14:

Romans 14:1 (NKJV) Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things.
Romans 15:1 (NKJV) We then who are strong ought to bear with the scruples of the weak, and not to please ourselves.

Do you see the contrast in this section between the strong and the weak?

Any church, no matter where it is geographically located or when it exists in time, has the potential for conflict between the strong and weak believers. Our church is no exception. There is a tremendous diversity in our church. We have people in all different levels of life chronologically, from the very young, to the not so young. We have people at all different spiritual ages. We have some very young believers and some very mature believers. We have folks that come from all sorts of backgrounds. We have former Catholics, former Muslims, we have some who came out of hard line legalistic, hair-splitting, super fundamental churches. And we have some who came out of very liberal churches and everything in between.

This is a wonderful thing about the church. 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, and most of us have rejoiced at one time at the contemplation of the rich variety in our brothers and sisters in Christ. But this very variety is potential for conflict. We have every kind of person and personality, yet we all have at least two things in common: 1. We are all God's children by faith in the Lord Jesus Christ. 2. We all still have the sin principle dwelling in us. And with all this unredeemed flesh coming from so many different backgrounds, bumping into each other could create some great problems.

We have people come to our church and say, "We didn't do it this way in our church." I have been asked by people, "Why don't you have an alter call here? Why do you have the Lord's Supper every week? Why do you have instruments used in the church?"

Just this past week I received an e-mail, that really spawned this series on Christian liberty, let me share some of it with you:

Dear Christian,
I have been taught well by the Lord through your human agency (among dozens or hundreds), through your downloadable sermons. Though I see I have to catch up again, I've downloaded all of your past-posted sermons, printed them out, and have been reading them in chronological order over the last few years.
However, (you KNEW this was coming, didn't you?) I was once again puzzled by what I saw as inconsistencies in BBC's approach to worship. Specifically, I'd like to challenge you, Christian to Christian, Berean to Berean, to demonstrate the Biblical basis for:
1) the establishment and use of "praise teams" in corporate worship of the Lord
2) the writing of non-inspired hymns/choruses/etc. (anything other than the inspired Psalms that God has given to His church for all ages) and the use of them (man-made, non- inspired songs) in the corporate worship of the Lord.
3) the observance of man-made holy days (holidays), such as "Christmas" and "Easter".

This man disagrees with some of what we do here. He's not alone. I'm sure there are some of you who disagree with some of the things we do here. Some folks don't like the fact that we sing choruses. I was asked by a man why we sing the chorus, Bring Forth the Royal Robe? He didn't like the line in the chorus that says, "Let's give unto the Lord power and strength." What do you think of that line, is it in some way unbiblical to sing? I asked this man to read Psalm 29:1 which says:

Psalms 29:1 (NKJV) Give unto the LORD, O you mighty ones, Give unto the LORD glory and strength.

Then we have other people who don't like hymns. Some believers think it is a sin for a woman to wear pants, and for men to wear beards or earrings, or for anyone to drink alcohol. I was sitting in a service years ago, and the preacher said, "For a woman to wear shorts is the equivalent of committing adultery." That is strong! And that is wrong! He is turning his personal preferences into sin.

Some Christians wouldn't miss the latest movie, and some Christians wouldn't dare go to the movies for fear that God would strike them dead at the box office like Ananias and Sapphira. We have a tremendous spectrum of people with all kinds of orientations that can potentially cause discord in the Church.

Please understand that what we're talking about here is non-moral areas, preferences, taboo's. The Bible is clear that certain things are sin, there is no debating them , but in Romans 14:1 through 15:13, Paul is dealing with issues of preference, non-moral issues. But these can lead to sin, if they are a cause of disunity. So keep in mind that the issue here is maintaining unity in the Church.

Paul was concerned about the issue of unity, he brought it up in every letter he wrote to a Church. Probably there is no single thing so much insisted on in the New Testament as the importance of unity. Paul told the Ephesians that they should be:

Ephesians 4:3 (NKJV) endeavoring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.

The word "endeavoring" is from the Greek word spoudazo, which means: "to make every effort, to labor, be diligent." Unity takes work to maintain, it is very fragile. We are all aware that unity is a problem to maintain. Christians have had conflicts since Cain and Able. This poem has a lot of truth in it:

To dwell above with saints we love,
Oh that will be glory
But to live below with saints we know
Is quite a different story.

We all need to work to preserve our unity.

The problem in the church is this; you've got the strong believers who are totally liberated, they understand their freedom in Christ and they're enjoying it. On the other hand you have the weak who are still hung up on different things and don't understand these liberties. So the strong are tempted to look down on the weak as legalists - weak people in bondage who hinder the strong from enjoying their liberty. The strong's reaction is to despise that person, to look down on them with the attitude, "Grow up, you baby."

The tendency on the part of the weak is to condemn the strong for doing what they feel is wrong. So you have the weak wanting to condemn the strong, and the strong wanting to despise the weak, and you end up with conflict, disunity, skisums.

The principles that Paul gives to these Roman Christians will teach us how to have unity in our church. We have freedom in Christ, we have great liberty that the Old Testament saints didn't. The preferences and taboo's we deal with are different than the ones they struggled, with but the principles are the same.

In first century Rome this was an enormous problem. You had Jews being saved right out of Judaism and finding it impossible to let go of ceremony such as dietary laws and holy days which all their lives they had held to. You had pagans who came to Christ who also had hang ups from the past.

The weak believer sees liberty as sinful, and the strong believer sees legalism as sinful. In verses 1-12 of Romans 14 Paul tells us that we need to learn to receive one another.

Let me give you a little background before we get into this text: The Jews were raised in a system where special diet and special days were very important. In Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14 you find a listing of the dietary restrictions. One of these restrictions that I'm glad is no longer binding is the prohibition of shell fish:

Leviticus 11:9-10 (NKJV) 'These you may eat of all that are in the water: whatever in the water has fins and scales, whether in the seas or in the rivers; that you may eat. 10 'But all in the seas or in the rivers that do not have fins and scales, all that move in the water or any living thing which is in the water, they are an abomination to you.

Do you remember Daniel 1 where Daniel wouldn't defile himself with the king's meat? All of those dietary laws were ordained by God.

Then you had the Gentiles, and they were used to pagan feast and festivals which were wild drunken orgies. When they came to Christ, they didn't want to associate with anything that reminded them of the former days. We can see illustrations of these in two passages:

Galatians 2:11 (NKJV) Now when Peter had come to Antioch, I withstood him to his face, because he was to be blamed;

Peter was an apostle who had lived with Jesus for three years and Paul boldly confronts him.

Galatians 2:12 (NKJV) for before certain men came from James, he would eat with the Gentiles; but when they came, he withdrew and separated himself, fearing those who were of the circumcision.

James was the brother of Jesus and a leader in the Church at Jerusalem. Peter ate with the Gentiles until the Jews showed up, then Peter would no longer eat ham. He openly and overtly denied the liberty that was his in Christ. Peter knew that the dietary laws were set aside from the vision that God gave him in Acts 10. Peter knew that he was being hypocritical, which confused others. This would cause a fracturing of the Church - disunity.

Galatians 2:13-14 (NKJV) And the rest of the Jews also played the hypocrite with him, so that even Barnabas was carried away with their hypocrisy. 14 But when I saw that they were not straightforward about the truth of the gospel, I said to Peter before them all, "If you, being a Jew, live in the manner of Gentiles and not as the Jews, why do you compel Gentiles to live as Jews?

Peter, you're wrong! You're being a hypocrite! The tendency in the early church was to hang on to Judaism.

So, the Jews had many religious taboos but so did the Gentiles:

1 Corinthians 8:1 (NKJV) Now concerning things offered to idols: We know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge puffs up, but love edifies.

The Church at Corinth was Greek in culture and a part of the Roman Empire. The Romans and Greeks were polytheistic, meaning that they worshiped many gods. Their entire life was interwoven with gods for everything they did. You might recall the goddess of justice wearing a blindfold and holding a pair of scales in her hand. That goddess originates from that ancient period. There was a conglomeration of deities involved for everything, whether it was for love, amusement and entertainment, government and the process of justice, feasts, or special events.

How do they deal with this problem? Paul tells them in:

1 Corinthians 8:2-3 (NKJV) And if anyone thinks that he knows anything, he knows nothing yet as he ought to know. 3 But if anyone loves God, this one is known by Him.

Don't force your knowledge on a person, force your love on them. Love should rule in our relationships.

1 Corinthians 8:4-6 (NKJV) Therefore concerning the eating of things offered to idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is no other God but one. 5 For even if there are so-called gods, whether in heaven or on earth (as there are many gods and many lords), 6 yet for us there is one God, the Father, of whom are all things, and we for Him; and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and through whom we live.

Idols are nothing! There are no false gods. It is offered to nothing at all. Notice verse 6, "...for us there is one God..." In contrast to the polytheism of the Greek culture, the Christian worships only one God. Notice his description of the one God. He is "the Father." Of all of the gods that the Greeks knew and worshiped there was not one that they could have an intimate relationship with. With the term "Father", Paul suggests the family concept and intimates that we are God's children. They feared their gods, they did not know them personally as "Father". He goes on to say that this God is the originator of all the things that have been made. The Greeks had a different god for everything, one made the sea, one made the sky, and so on. Paul says our God is one God, and he made everything. There is also one Lord. To a Greek the word "Lord" was a title of divinity. This one Lord was Jesus Christ. This is one of the clear statements in your Bible that declares the truth that Jesus Christ is God. He is the agent of creation. He is co-equal with God the Father.

1 Corinthians 8:7 (NKJV) However, there is not in everyone that knowledge; for some, with consciousness of the idol, until now eat it as a thing offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.

"However," is a strong adversative. Everyone didn't have the knowledge of those described in verses 4-6. They knew that there is only one right God, but perhaps they had not yet fully grasped the truth that there is only one real God. To many at Corinth, because of their former association with idolatry, there was a religious association connected with the meat sacrificed to idols.

These believers had a weak conscience. The weak person is the person who has not yet come to believe his freedoms. He doesn't understand that he's free to eat it, and if he eats it he'll defile his conscience. The conscience supplies the standard of right and wrong. Conscience is that internal court where our actions are judged and are either approved or condemned. Conscience is totally controlled by your mind- GIGO. The conscience doesn't act independently of what you know. The conscience is a flywheel which is set in motion by your mind. When it is engaged, it moves you.

A defiled conscience is one that has been ignored and violated, and therefore brings guilt. Paul said in Romans 14:23 "whatsoever is not of faith is sin." What Paul was saying there was that whenever a believer does something that he does not have a clear conscience to do, for him to do it is sin. When you do something that you're not sure is right, you are in fact saying, "I don't care what God says, I'm going to do what I want." Don't ever violate your conscience, you'll pay for it if you do.

1 Corinthians 8:8 (NKJV) But food does not commend us to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse.

Food is no issue with God. We are to use wisdom, don't eat what will kill you. Vegetarianism may be healthy, but it is not spiritual.

How do we resolve this problem between the strong and the weak? The strong are right. But the weak are in jeopardy because of the liberty of the strong. How should the strong handle this? They could launch a campaign to convince the weak that they were right. They could simply demand their right to eat, and eat in front of the weak. Paul's solution is this: You need to apply the principle of verses 1-3 to the problem of verses 4-8. That is what he does in verses 9-13.

1 Corinthians 8:9 (NKJV) But beware lest somehow this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to those who are weak.

You that are strong are to be careful that this liberty, this right of yours (the Greek word liberty is exousia, it means: "a lawful power, or right") not cause the weak to stumble. Yes, you have a right, but you shouldn't exercise it if it is going to hurt someone else. Stumbling block is the Greek word proskomma, which is an object in the way, which if one strikes his foot against he stumbles and falls. We are not to put an obstacle in the way of someone that would make them spiritually fall. Your conduct should be governed not by your knowledge but by your love. If you love someone, you will do nothing to harm them. How could you cause a brother to stumble? He gives us an example in the next verse:

1 Corinthians 8:10-13 (NKJV) For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol's temple, will not the conscience of him who is weak be emboldened to eat those things offered to idols? 11 And because of your knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died? 12 But when you thus sin against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.

Don't do what will hurt a brother in Christ. Not everyone has the same knowledge and freedom, so we must be careful to act in love in order to maintain unity. We don't have to worry too much today about eating or not eating meat that was offered to idols, but we face many similar issues today.

The weak person is the one who doesn't understand his liberty. He doesn't believe he's as free as he is. The strong believer understands his liberty. We're not talking about moral issues, sin issues. Christian freedom is not the freedom to do wrong. It is freedom from externals, traditions, and preferences.

Romans 14:1 (NKJV) Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things.

We know now who is weak in faith. He's to weak too enjoy his liberty. He's weak in knowledge of the faith.

John 8:31-32 (NKJV) Then Jesus said to those Jews who believed Him, "If you abide in My word, you are My disciples indeed. 32 "And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free."

It is truth that set us free, and we'll only learn the truth from God's word.

Being weak in faith is not synonymous with being carnal or walking in the flesh. A weak believer can be spiritual. Spirituality is an absolute, at any moment in your life you're either spiritual or carnal. But maturity is a relative thing. Maturity is the end product of the times of spirituality. There are weak Christians who are spiritually minded, they want to serve God with all their heart. They just don't understand their liberty in Christ. On the other hand, there are strong believers who can be very fleshly, high minded and proud.

Paul says that we are to, "Receive one who is weak in the faith" - the Greek word used for "receive" here is proslambano, which means: "to take to one's self and so taking into friendship." This exhortation is directed to the strong. The strength of the plea is indicated by the use of the same term in verse 3 for God's reception of us, and in 15:7 for Christ's reception of us.

Romans 14:3 (NKJV) 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.
Romans 15:7 (NKJV) Therefore receive one another, just as Christ also received us, to the glory of God.

Paul is saying, "Take the weak believer fully into your love." Unity starts with the strong reaching out in love to the weak, being sensitive to their views, or convictions.

Paul goes on to say, "...but not to disputes over doubtful things...." - the word "doubtful" is from the Greek word dialogismos, which means: "a deliberating, questioning about what is true; arguing". And the word "disputes" is from the Greek word diakrisis, which means: "discerning, judging". Don't receive them just to argue with them and try to force your opinions on them; to push them to fast and wound their conscience. The New English Bible phrases it, "...without attempting to settle doubtful points."

Are you strong? Do you have liberty? Love the weak, don't despise them, there's a real tendency to avoid those who don't have the liberty that you have. We are to receive them in love, promoting unity in the body of Christ.

In the Lord's prayer in John 17, Jesus prayed that His disciples would experience unity modeled on the unity Jesus experienced with the Father. This is the high priestly prayer to His Father.

John 17:1 (NKJV) Jesus spoke these words, lifted up His eyes to heaven, and said: "Father, the hour has come. Glorify Your Son, that Your Son also may glorify You,"
John 17:11 "Now I am no longer in the world, but these are in the world, and I come to You. Holy Father, keep through Your name those whom You have given Me, that they may be one as we are."
John 17:21-23 "that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me."

According to these verses, unity among believers verifies Jesus' God-given mission and the Father's love for the world. Over and over Jesus prayed for our unity, because it is a passion of His heart. Unity is our Lord's passion and it should be ours. Christian, don't allow the use of your liberty to cause disunity in the church. Love should rule in all our relationships.

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