Love over Liberty

“Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble. The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:13–23 ESV).

Keep the Main Things the Main Things

You may say, why should I even care about all this? The key verse here is verse 17,

“For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17).

Paul says to the strong, your priorities are all messed up if you make this about eating and drinking. The kingdom of God is about so much more than kosher foods and sabbaths. When Christians go to war over Christian liberty issues, it trivializes the really important stuff, which he lists here as “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” How much damage has been done in churches when we make things of really minor importance occasions for major arguments? Have you been in church meetings like this? Yelling. Neck veins popping. Over what? The virgin birth? The nature of Christ? No. It’s who chairs the committee or who picks the color of the carpet.

This leads to the question, what things should we go to the wall over and what things do we, for the sake of peace, not get too worked up over? Many years ago, my mentor in ministry Kimber Kauffman, developed what he called the concept of the inverted pyramid. Note that it is not exhaustive.

Everything rests on the person and work of Jesus. The first two lines are the ones we take a bullet for. Many Christians in history have. These are essential. In terms of Romans 14, anyone who God welcomes must believe in these.

Next are really important tiers of doctrine that urge our best contemplations, but that people can disagree on and still be welcomed by God into heaven.

As you move up the levels, these are representative of a class of issues that books are written on and perhaps denominations founded on but that are still within orthodoxy. Finally, you have a level of mostly personal preference type stuff that within the same church, small group, and even marriage there are differing opinions, but hey, we can easily get along.

We call it weighted theology. Not everything is equally important. On the top level, we are called to gospel flexibility. Glory-of-God flexibility. Best-for-my-brother flexibility. When I’m flexible on the unimportant, I’m showing respect for what is really important.

This is imperative lest Romans 14 tap into the spirit of the age in which pluralism says, everything is opinion. No truth is absolute. Everything is subjective. All religions are basically the same. Any church that calls itself Christian must be fine. No. Not on this level. Deny the person and work of Jesus Christ and the Bible calls it heresy. But let’s not call a different faithful translation of the Bible heresy. Let’s not have vein-popping arguments over hot dogs at the potluck.

What too often happens is this:

The things that don’t matter are what we divide over and the things that matter eternally are assumed or trivialized into obscurity. This was the danger for the church at Rome and is the danger for every church. We think of our contemporary context where matters related to COVID or interpretations of viral statistics are sufficient for some Christians in America to go nuclear.

Put a virus and PPE on this chart. Where does it fit? Masks vs. resurrection? Same level? I doubt they’re anywhere on this chart at all. But this is how things take on a life of their own and people get swept up and minor things become major things. The next time there’s a blowup in the church about something, ask yourself, where does this fit in the inverted pyramid? Love is the mortar that keeps all these things together and us together in them as well.

I’ve heard this story told a few times:

Once I saw this guy on a bridge about to jump. I said, “Don’t do it!” He said, “Nobody loves me.” I said, “God loves you. Do you believe in God? “He said, “Yes.”

I said, “Are you a Christian or a Jew?” He said, “A Christian.” I said, “Me, too! Protestant or Catholic?” He said, “Protestant.” I said, “Me, too! What franchise?” He said, “Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Baptist or Southern Baptist?” He said, “Northern Baptist.” I said, “Me, too!

Northern Conservative Baptist or Northern Liberal Baptist?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist.” I said, “Me, too! Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region, or Northern Conservative Baptist Eastern Region?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region.” I said, “Me, too!

Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1879, or Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912?” He said, “Northern Conservative Baptist Great Lakes Region Council of 1912.” I said, “Die, heretic!” And I pushed him off [the bridge].”[1]

A favorite commentator made a helpful point here. The more we are amazed and rejoicing in the main things, the less likely a minor thing will be elevated to a main thing. They say, don’t go grocery shopping when you are hungry. You’ll pay full price for anything and everything. It all seems important. But when you are satisfied, then the Ho-Ho’s and ice cream bars aren’t as enticing.

Why must our church remain nourished and satisfied in the gospel essentials? One important reason is that when the gospel truths are the big deal, nothing else threatens to become the big deal. Nobody but Jesus is the big deal. When a church focuses on other things, it’s because they are grocery shopping hungry. They think the kingdom of God is eating and drinking stuff. That’s the trivial stuff.

What would God say to the Christian today who hasn’t read their Bible much, hasn’t thought about God much, hasn’t served God much, yet their hours dedicated to the presidential election are hard to count? The thoughts about culture wars fill the mind. The worries and fears all relate to what’s happening in the world around us. What might God say to a Christian like that?

The kingdom of God is not worried about who is president, who is on the Supreme Court, electoral college ballots or the all-important county coroner election. Don’t trivialize your soul by being consumed with the things of a world that’s passing away.

The kingdom of God is the redemptive reign of God through Christ. The kingdom of God is where it’s at for us. Don’t trivialize your life and your soul with worrying about lesser things. Be a faithful citizen in the kingdom of man for sure, but don’t turn the pyramid upside down. Your soul was made for so much more than these minor things. Don’t settle.

I want to keep this wonderful summary of what I’m saying before us: In essentials, unity. In non-essentials, liberty. In all things, charity.

Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

© 2020 by Steve DeWitt. You are permitted and encouraged to reproduce and distribute this material in any format provided that: (1) you credit the author, (2) any modifications are clearly marked, (3) you do not charge a fee beyond the cost of reproduction, (4) you include Bethel’s website address (www.bethelweb.org) on the copied resource.

[1] Emo Philips, “The Best God Joke Ever—and It’s Mine!” The Guardian, https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2005/sep/29/comedy.religion, September 29, 2005.

To hear the message of this excerpt in its entirety, click here

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.