Recently, I had the opportunity to speak to some students regarding Paul’s Letter to the Romans. Particularly, we focused on the last few chapters of the Epistle. Part of that conversation concerned “stumbling blocks”:
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. (Romans 14:13-16 ESV)
In these last few chapters, Paul continually tells the Romans to humble themselves, love, serve, accept, and greet brothers and sisters with whom they disagree. Specifically, he lists two “stumbling blocks” to the type of fellowship that the Spirit creates within the lives of God’s children: 1) holding one day as more important than another (Rom. 14:5-6) and 2) eating meat sacrificed to idols (Rom. 14:20-21).
Some may suggest that Paul wanted believers to fellowship in spite of their different beliefs in these two areas because these two items are not as important as our differences today. Today, we hold many different positions: Calvinism vs. Arminianism, infant baptism vs. believers’ baptism, cessationism vs. continuationism, and a plethora of eschatological beliefs. Certainly, these differences are much greater than days and food, right? It is right for us to dis-fellowship ourselves from those who hold to different views than us, right?
In fact, I think the two different views in Romans (days and food) should help illustrate how important continued fellowship is in spite of differences. For example, consider the first difference: holding one day as more important than another. In Rome, during the 1st century, which group of people would have held that one day was more important than other days? The Jews. Why would they hold that belief? Because Scripture is clear that God created the Sabbath to be honored. In other words, those who hold that one day is more important can back up their assertion with Scripture. Certainly, if someone disagreed with their claims, they were disagreeing with the clear teachings of Scripture.
Which group of people would have held that all days have equal importance? The Gentiles. They could also back up their beliefs with Scripture. Again, anyone attempting to hold one day as more important than the others would be disagreeing with the clear doctrine of Scripture. Even Jesus worked and healed on the Sabbath! Plus, Jesus rose on Sunday, given more importance to that day, if any day. However, Paul said that these two groups should accept one another and should not be “stumbling blocks” to the other. Yes, they should hold to their beliefs, but they should not let their beliefs keep them from serving, loving, accepting, and greeting those with other beliefs. Why? Because they were all part of the same family in God through Christ by the Holy Spirit.
Consider the second illustration that Paul uses: eating meat sacrificed to idols. Who would consider it problematic to eat meat sacrificed to idols? Those who associated eating this meat with worshiping a false god. Eating and drinking was part of the rituals associated with showing allegiance to and deference to and respect to and worship to that particular god. Scripture clearly teaching that we should worship no god besides the One True God. Why would anyone argue with this assertion, which is so clearly displayed in Scripture?
But, of course, the other side would argue that there are no other gods. In fact, only one God exists. So, eating and drinking – even food and drink that had been used in some pagan ritual – has nothing to do with deity. God himself declared that all food and drink are clean and that eating and drinking do not make a person unclean. This is very clear in Scripture. Yet, in spite of the fact that both groups could easily defend their positions in Scripture, Paul expected them to serve, love, accept, and greet one another as brothers and sisters in Christ. Yes, they should hold to their beliefs that their conscience requires, but they should not allow these beliefs to separate them from other believers and they should not allow these different beliefs to become “stumbling blocks” to other believers.
I hope you see that these two points were no less significant then than our differences are today. Both sides have biblical arguments for their positions, and they could easily use those arguments to beat sense into the other sides – those heretics who refuse to see the clear meaning of Scripture. But, Paul encouraged them not to do so. I think he would say the same to those who hold differing views of soteriology, ecclesiology, pneumatology, eschatology, or any other -ology.
To Paul, what was important was being a child of God, through Jesus Christ, by the work of the Holy Spirit. Furthermore, he expected our relationship with God to demonstrate itself through our relationships with one another and with the world around us. According to Paul and other authors of Scripture, we do not questions a person’s relationship with God primarily by what they say they belief, but by how they live their life. (Yes, I know there are some beliefs that are given as reason for separation, like believing that Jesus is not the son of God or believing that Jesus did not come in the flesh. But, there are very few of these given in Scripture.)
Today, if Paul were to examine how we treat other believers who differ from us in the areas of soteriology, ecclesiology, pneumatology, eschatology, etc., I wonder if he would be concerned with our relationship with God. He would not be concerned because of what we say we believe. Instead, he would be concerned about how we are treating our brothers and sisters in Christ. He would be concerned that no one was willing to defer to a “weaker brother”. He would be concerned that we are not humbling ourselves before, serving, loving, accepting, and greeting one another because of these differences. He would be concerned that we are living as “stumbling blocks”.
The first eleven chapters of Paul’s Letter to the Romans contain important lessons on sin, grace, righteousness, sovereignty, faith, etc. Through these chapters we see the awesome majesty of God and his work in the world and his people. But, we should not think that we can separate these great truths about God from living the life that God is creating with us – especially when it comes to our relationships with other believers. If we are not demonstrating love and grace in our relationship with our brothers and sisters – if we are living as “stumbling blocks” – then we are not thinking right about God, whatever we profess to believe.