Sunday School Notes: Romans 14:19-20
19 Therefore, then, let us pursue the things of peace and the things of one another’s edification. 20 Do not tear down the work of God on account of food. On the one hand, all things are clean, but for a man who eats with offense [to another, to eat is] evil.”
We started this section with an exhortation (“Let us no longer judge one another…” v. 13), and we now start wrapping it up with an exhortation. Notice that it is a very general statement, after all the specifics about food and special days. Now Paul speaks of “things” of peace and edification. He clearly recognizes that church unity, like the Kingdom of God, is about more than food and drink–it has to do with our attitude on all secondary issues. We should be about peace, righteousness, and joy. And while we should certainly pursue peace with God, I think Paul’s focus here is peace within the church, between brethren.
There was some discussion of the kinds of things that might be included within the general “things of peace,” and the kinds of secondary issues that tend to raise hackles and cause disunity. One subject that came up was the so-called “worship wars”–piano and/or organ versus guitars and drums, traditional versus contemporary, and so on. Some people are very wedded to particular forms of singing, either through theological conviction, or tradition. Biblically speaking, there is no warrant for such disputes. We find all kinds of instrumentation and song-types spoken of and practiced in the Bible. However, those who don’t believe we have such freedom in our presentation of song can become very militant about their views. And those who exercise freedom in this area can be very insensitive and careless with regard to the convictions of their brethren. This is unnecessary, and a lot of love and grace on both side can go a long way to resolve these issues.
Someone in the group noted from experience how worship style can be dramatically different in a foreign culture. Christianity doesn’t impose Western song styles on African tribes. A changed heart will find expression within its cultural traditions, and only step outside of those cultural trappings when the gospel necessitates. One of the things that marks Christianity out as unique, especially compared to Islam, is the fact that Christianity transcends culture. A Christian woman in a Muslim country can wear a burqa, and it will not affect her faith, because Christianity is about inward change that then filters through to outward action. Islam, on the other hand, is a religio-political (or politico-religious) system, so for it to function properly, there has to be an external conformity, imposed by rule of law. This is one of the struggles Muslims in the West have, because there isn’t an overriding Islamic government to enforce adherence. The Christian doesn’t need this–he or she has a changed heart, the Word of God, and a Spirit-sanctified conscience.
We also talked about how liberal churches fall into the trap of believing that “peace” is cultivated by minimizing doctrine–primary and secondary–and emphasizing love and acceptance. This is why these churches down-play, or even completely jettison, the authority of Scripture, and allow the prevailing secular culture to dictate what is acceptable for the church to do and believe. This often spells disaster, which is why many mainline denominations who go this route are dying. Peace with the brethren and peace with the world is never at the expense of the gospel, and honoring God’s Word. On the contrary, the only way the church can have true unity is by uniting on the gospel, and upon the standard, biblically-based foundational truths of the faith. It’s only by recognizing these that we can identify our brethren, co-labor for the sake of the Kingdom, and see peace within the church.
Coming back to the text, Paul speaks of “things of edification,” or things for building one another up. The Greek word he uses here, oikodomê, from the verb oikodomeô is a construction term. It has to do with building some kind of structure or edifice. The church is, metaphorically, a building, with Christ as the chief cornerstone, upon whom the entire structure rests. Our conduct toward one another in the church should be geared toward building one another up, and putting each other’s needs first. This means disagreeing in love, and not being judgmental, gossiping, or belittling. When we interact with one another, we should ask ourselves, “Is my conversation edifying my brother/sister? Am I truly pursuing peace?”
In the next verse, Paul says they should not “tear down the work of God.” The verb here, kataluô is the opposite of oikodomeô, and literally refers to tearing down buildings. It’s like the verb we saw before (14:15), apollumi, which means to “destroy.” As with apollumi, one might wonder if Paul is suggesting our attitudes could cause a “weak” brother to fall into apostasy–i.e., to “lose” his or her salvation. As I noted before, I don’t think this is what Paul intends, especially given all he has said about the irrevocable nature of salvation in the first part of the letter. As before, I think he is talking about undermining the ministry and effectiveness of a believer, rendering him essentially useless in the church because of people’s attitudes toward him. While the verb isn’t as severe as it may sound, we shouldn’t lose sight of the passion and seriousness behind Paul’s word choice. To “tear down” a brother is not a light offense in Paul’s eyes, as we shall see.
To what does Paul refer when he speaks of “the work of God”? The “weak” brother? The church? The ministry of that brother? I think Paul has the person in mind primarily, since he is, like all of us who are in Christ, a work of God. His salvation is of the Lord, and his sanctification is in the Lord’s hands too. Whatever his reasons are for imposing restrictions on his diet, his calendar, or whatever else, this is all part of God’s dealing with him. Instead of asking what we need to do to “fix” him, we need to ask how the Lord might use us in the person’s life to bring him to where God wants him to be. One of our group who teaches counseling told us that when encountering a person who has put up some kind of fence around himself, instead of trying to tear down the fence, he encourages his students to ask the person why the fence is there. There might be a perfectly legitimate reason for the fence (e.g., avoiding bars because of an alcohol problem). We need to learn to exercise grace, and seek to be a useful instrument in the Lord’s hands, not go off on our own with our pre-conceived judgments.
I think “the work of God” could also extend out to all that the Lord is doing through that person in terms of ministry, and then ultimately to the church. The way we treat one another will affect the whole body. And both our individual ministries, and the entire church, are works of God. Dare we attempt to come against what God is doing because we think our judgment of a person is superior to His?
Paul re-affirms his position on the first issue: “On the one hand, all things are clean.” Paul acknowledges that the “strong” are theologically correct in their assertions regarding our freedom in Christ. There are no ceremonially unclean foods on account of Christ’s fulfillment of the Law. However, he goes on to say, “for a man who eats with offense, evil.” That’s about as literally as I can translate the Greek, and as you can see, we have to supply a number of English words to make sense of it! The gist of what Paul is saying is if you eat just to cause offense to another man, that’s evil. If you are ignorant of your brother’s particular convictions on the issue, then you can’t be held accountable. But if you know he has a problem with this, and you exercise your liberty in this area to spite him, then Paul says that’s evil. The word in Greek is kakos, and while it can just mean “bad,” I think given the tenor of Paul’s teaching so far, the translation “evil” is closer to what he intends. If your liberty in a secondary issue will cause your brother to stumble, then exercise the freedom to refrain. To do otherwise is evil. The peace of the church and love for the brethren should always trump exercising our freedom on secondary matters.
Christians should always be putting others before self. The idea of doing something just to “stick it” to a fellow believer, or just to spite someone, should never even enter our thinking. We should be constantly looking for ways to build one another up, not tear each other down; to encourage and unite around our common gospel faith, not to push away and build barriers.
We’ll pick up with verse 21 next time.