Today is the first post in a series of three on how to respond when other Christians annoy you.
In Romans 14:1 Paul talks about ‘disputable matters’ – issues that are not central. In Rome those presenting issues included whether Christians could eat meat which had previously been offered to idols and whether they should observance a Jewish-style day of Sabbath. Paul has his own view of those issues, but he’s more concerned that the church should accept the diversity within the congregations. Modern disputable matters include things like baptism, charismatic issues, worship styles.
But I think it will help us apply this passage to ourselves and our church if we think of it in these terms: What do you do when someone in the congregation frustrates you? This will help us bring home the truths in this passage. Because that happens, doesn’t it! We do frustrate one another. Different priorities, different personalities, different parenting styles, different political views – and that’s just the Ps. Or never mind explicit differences. We frustrate one another in the day-to-day rubbing up against one another. Sometimes we feel let down. Sometimes we feel jealous. Maybe someone is invited over for a meal and we feel left out. What do you do when someone in the congregation frustrates you?
Our frustration is a form of judging. We convene the court, appoint ourselves as judge and come to our verdict. It all takes place in our heads, but that’s what we’re doing. Look at verse 10: ‘You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister?’ Or look at verse 13: ‘Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another.’ Stop passing judgment.
But how can we do this? How can we check ourselves when we feel frustrated? How can we stop being judgmental? After all, we don’t normally decide to be judgmental. Nobody says, ‘I think in this situation, I’m going to be judgmental.’ No, we slip into it. It’s not something we can simply un-decide to do. It’s more visceral than that. It’s a gut response. But neither are we victims. There are some things we can do when we find ourselves feeling frustrated.
1. Remember Christ died for them (14:13-23)
Look at verse 15: ‘If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died.’ Paul didn’t need to add that. He could have said, ‘Do not destroy someone by your eating.’ That would have been sufficient. So this is a deliberate, significant addition. This person who frustrates you is someone for whom Christ died.
Here’s the logic of Paul’s argument. Look at verse 14: ‘I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean.’ In other words, meat is neither clean nor unclean. Eating it doesn’t bring you nearer to God and it doesn’t move you further from God. It’s not an act of obedience and it’s not an act of disobedience. But if you think it’s unclean then in a sense it becomes unclean for you. Why? Because if you think it’s an act of disobedience then by doing it you’re choosing to disobey God.
Imagine you’re a mother. You enter the room saying, ‘There’s something on the table for you.’ But, even as the words are forming in your mouth, you see your child trying to hide a half-eaten biscuit. Has that child been disobedient? In one sense, No, because you put the biscuit there for them. But in another sense, Yes, because they thought they shouldn’t eat it and yet they did.
Paul imagines a Christian who, like Paul, thinks eating meat is fine. This free Christian says, ‘It’s so annoying that we can’t meat because of your ridiculous scruples. Why don’t you just get over it. An idol is just a lump of metal. Go on – it’s fine.’ And so they pressure their brother to act against their conscience. They pressure their sister to disobey God. Not only is that leading them into sin, but it’s also deadening their conscience. (Not only that, but verses 16 seems to suggests that this kind of action will damage the reputation of the gospel.)
Look at verses 22-23: ‘So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves.’ In other words, good for you if you approve of eating meat. ‘But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.’
Here’s Paul’s point. Christ died to bring us out of condemnation. That what Paul said back in 8:1: ‘Therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.’ So don’t lead people back into condemnation.
So when you disagree over disputable matters and indeed every time someone frustrates you: remember Christ died for them.
It’s good to have convictions. Paul is not suggesting we settle for a relativism in which anything goes. One of our emphases in this church is one pastoring one another in the context of daily life. We want to be a community that is ‘speaking the truth in love’ to one another (Ephesians 4:15). We want to be helping one grow to be more like Christ. So it’s right to exhort and to correct one another.
But Romans 14 gives us a clear test for this: Are you being constructive or destructive? Are we building people up or are we pulling them down? If you speak out of frustration then you’ll almost certainly be pulling people down. Shortly after Paul says ‘speak the truth in love’ he goes on:
‘Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice.’ (Ephesians 4:29-31)
Out goes bitterness. In comes building others up. Anything else grieves the Holy Spirit.
The language of Romans 14 is very strong. Look at verse 15: ‘Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died.’ Or look at verse 20: ‘Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a person to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble.’ I don’t think we condemn people to hell in this way. But we unpick God’s work of sanctification in their lives. God is re-making them in the image of his Son and we’re pulling the pieces out.
Imagine a child has built a beautiful duplo or lego building. And then a sibling comes in like some mini-Godzilla and destroys it. What happens next? Some of you have had to handle the aftermath of that kind of situation on many occasions.
‘Do not destroy the work of God,’ says Paul. ‘Do not … destroy someone for whom Christ died.’ God is building something very beautiful and very precious in your brother or sister. And he is building it through the blood of his own Son. He’s building it with his own sweat and blood. Remember that next time your brother or sister frustrates you. Yes, they’re a work in progress. But make sure your contribution helps that progress rather than hinders it. Don’t destroy the work of God. Horatius Bonar said:
We are God’s workmanship says Paul in Ephesians 2:10. It pictures God as a craftsman, shaping us into the image of his Son. But we are no inanimate marble, ready to be sculptured. We are complex beings with distinct personalities, diverse histories and a great variety competing influences. This is the substance which God works and which he fashions through the course of a lifetime, without violating our will and yet without fail, into the image of his Son. (Horatius Bonar, God’s Way of Holiness, Evangelical Press, 1864, 1979, 5-6.)
God is very patient in that work. Don’t be impatient with God’s timescale. God does use the church in the process. We are to challenge, exhort, encourage one another. But imagine a sculptor who picks up his chisel when he’s angry or impatient!
Next time you’re frustrated with someone remember that Christ shed his blood for them. Next time you’re tempted to say something out of frustration remember you may be destroying the work of God.