Understandably, we in the church are pretty wary when it comes to tolerance. As so many college freshmen, we’ve had the idea (really, the doctrine) of tolerance preached at us from most corners of our society. And we rightly push back, rejecting postmodern tolerance as the license to sin that it often is. But are we throwing out the baby with the bathwater? Does the Bible have something to say about the practice of tolerance in the church of Jesus? As it turns out…
Last weekend, I led a group of college students through a study of the doctrine of Christian liberty and the liberty of conscience, a subset of Christian liberty. After first defining both terms, using Scripture and the Westminster Confession (ch. 20), we discussed Romans 14–one of the famous passage about the weaker and stronger brothers–and what principles God gives there to help us live lovingly with those in the church who disagree with us. Here are some of those principles and applications.
Romans 14 is given to instruct you about your relationship to others in the church…not for you to use to instruct them about their relationship to you. Why is this important to point out? Because Romans 14 could easily be abused by both the “weaker” and “stronger” Christians against each other, when the whole point is for each to love the other.
There are weaker and stronger Christians in the church. Again, maybe an obvious point…but one we forget or purposefully neglect. We are all at different points in our walk with Christ. Understand that and you’ll begin to be a lot more gracious to people who are simply at a different point of Christian maturity than you.
Young Christians need to be protected from “quarrels over opinions” (v. 1) Is there anything more exciting than someone beginning to walk with Jesus? Is there anything more dangerous and obnoxious than other Christians immediately trying to win them to their side on every political or theological issue? They need to learn how to pray and worship, not how to write reports to presbytery.
We have a responsibility to know people well and to treat them accordingly. I play basketball differently against my young sons than I do against men a foot taller than me. Loving people well means loving them individually and uniquely…which we avoid because it is, simply, harder to do.
Paul is not arguing that we are ethically autonomous. The point of this passage isn’t to give you the freedom to hold convictions that are wrong. Even in the example he uses (eating meat, presumably sacrificed to idols), he’s elsewhere stated which position is right and which is wrong (1 Cor. 10:25). Right and wrong are still right and wrong. The question is one for your heart: how do you treat those who hold (what you think is) a wrong position?
Better to be faithful to a wrong conviction than unfaithful to a wrong conviction. If someone thinks it’s a sin to eat meat, then they shouldn’t eat meat. Regardless of the fact that their conviction is unbiblical, if they break that conviction, they’re expressing a heart of rebellion against God. That’s how something not sinful becomes sinful when someone thinks it’s sinful.
Your relationship to those who disagree with you reveals how much you trust Jesus. If you believe that Jesus is that person’s Lord and Judge, then you won’t feel as much pressure to change them yourself. In fact, judgmentalism against a weaker/stronger brother is us trying to take Jesus’ place in their lives. Put simply, disagreeable-ness = not trusting Jesus.
So choose very carefully which matters to address with others in the church. Paul’s admonitions don’t mean that we refuse to confront someone in clear and egregious sin. There are things that must be addressed immediately; and there are lots of other things that, while important, can be left for the right time and place and person to work through the matter.
The weakest conscience is not allowed to rule the church (v. 16). This whole chapter could be abused by those “weak in faith” to demand that the church acquiesce to every demand of their conscience. While we must carefully love those weak in faith, allowing them to subvert the church is simply a different form of oppression (and one easy way toward a legalistic congregation).
Our operating principle is love. Ultimately, we are called to love one another like Jesus loves us. If the way we live our lives hurts someone else, we have the freedom and power in Christ to change for their sake. Even if the way someone else lives their life is distasteful to us, we have the freedom and power in Christ to love them without demanding they live according to our conscience. If we put into place each of the principles above, but have not love, we are only resounding gongs.
If you’re not convinced, if you’re not interested in the truly hard work of caring for other Christians through loving tolerance, please stay away from our congregation; we have enough problems already. If you’re not willing to overlook many minor offenses, if you know just the way the church should be and are ready to tell everyone you meet about that, if you think that loving others means getting them to agree with you about each and every thing, feel free to worship at home on Sunday, because that’s where you’ll eventually end up anyway. But if you want to learn how to love others–genuinely, carefully, with understanding and a Jesus-like heart, please join us. We have plenty of people who will help you exercise your tolerance.
(Super-great picture from these guys.)