There have been many instances in church history where Christians have differed in their interpretations of certain Scripture passages or about certain issues.
The day for worship is one example. Growing up, I was taught not to work on Sunday. For the most part, all the Old Testament stipulations concerning the Sabbath were applied to Sunday. Yet the first day of the week is not the Sabbath, nor is there any command to transfer the Old Testament Sabbath regulations to it.
Other examples include dancing, drinking, smoking, attending movies, playing cards, manner of dress, gambling, listening to non-Christian music, and attending sporting events on Sunday.
Our differences over such matters can be attributed to various things: tradition, parental teaching, preacher or teacher instruction, culture, or even what we were taught in school. Usually, these interpretations are passed down, almost genetically, until someone breaks the chain by saying, “I don’t see it that way.” It is not really important who taught us what or why. The more essential matter is whether our conclusions align with what the Bible teaches.
Jesus was fond of saying, “You have heard it said…but I say.” So much of what the people had been taught—and from religious authorities—was wrong because they neglected the inner motive. They bound people by traditions with the same intensity as they did God’s Law.
So where do we draw the line in being sensitive to other’s interpretations of the Bible or tradition when they conflict with our own? And how do we handle those issues the Bible is silent on? Are we responsible for changing our lifestyle or beliefs because someone believes differently?
In Paul’s day, some were eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols and was now being sold in the marketplace. Some believers had no issue with this since idols were not real. At the same time, their doing so offended other believers. Should they abstain? Immature and legalistic believers can be nitpicky, so how far does God expect us to bend when we encounter similar situations?
It takes a great deal of wisdom to make this call, but we do know God wants unity among his people and this requires sensitivity. Little if any good is ever served when God’s people divide over issues that are not doctrinal. We must respect those who disagree with us, especially in matters the Bible is not clear on. Perhaps an old adage is pertinent: “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in everything, love.”
It is important to remember that believers are at different stages of spiritual maturity, and their actions reflect this level. Not only are we at different stages, but we also have different experiences in our background, either before or after coming to Christ. Combine this with family and church tradition, and it is easy to understand why we disagree on some things.
Paul says we must accept fellow believers who are weak in the faith while not arguing with them about what they think is right or wrong. Arguing leads to further divisiveness and is never a good witness to the lost or those young in the faith.
“Variety is the spice of life” is a familiar saying, and it can enhance our relationships, helping us grow spiritually when approached or handled with a Christlike spirit. We can accept, listen to, and respect others without accepting their belief or opinions. There is a history for why they believe as they do, and normally no amount of arguing will convince them otherwise. God has to take care of this. Another familiar saying is, “A person convinced against their will is of the same opinion still.”
Division arises when we try to force our opinions about inconclusive matters on fellow believers and then make them rules for association. Where the Bible is clear, stand firm, but where it isn’t, give openness for differences. A further problem comes when we encounter those who take matters that are not biblically clear and make them clear simply because they are in our mind.
Both weak and strong believers can make two mistakes. The believer who understands their liberty in Christ can look down on the weaker Christian, while the weaker Christian can fall into censoring, criticizing, and judging.
Paul relates some examples. The first deals with eating and specifically relates to meat sacrificed to idols. Some background is important for understanding this passage. In Paul’s day, the ancient practice of animal sacrifice was at the center of religious, social, and domestic life. Sacrifices were made to a god in a pagan temple, but only a portion was burned. The rest was sold in the marketplace.
When buying meat, it was impossible to determine whether the meat fell into this category unless one asked. The same was true when eating with friends or acquaintances. Some believers would ask, and if it had been sacrificed to idols, would either not purchase it or not eat it with friends. Some chose to be vegetarians.
The weaker Christians had a problem eating meat sacrificed to idols. The mature believer recognized idols were nothing, so the fact that the meat had been used in pagan worship was of no consequence to them.
A further example concerned one day of the week being more holy than another. Paul was certainly not saying the Lord’s Day was unimportant, but the question is whether we worship the day or the one who made it. Jesus said he was lord of the Sabbath, and he demonstrated several times that meeting a need on the Sabbath was not work as the religious leaders taught. Rather it was the right thing to do.
One’s personal conviction is important and should be observed as well as respected by those who don’t agree. But suppose you attend a church where the majority of the parishioners do not share the same convictions as you. Should you require them to change, or should you find somewhere where most of the people share your convictions? This is one of the reasons for different denominations. We don’t differ so much on doctrine as we do on church polity and liturgy.
Paul says not to look down on those who don’t share our opinions as long as we are not compromising an explicit teaching of Scripture. Rather than us informing people they are wrong, we are to leave the matter up to God. He will tell them whether they are right or wrong, and it is his power and his alone that will convince otherwise.
Those who are immature in the faith and hold immature opinions are sincerely trying to please the Lord by the way they live just as the more mature believer is. But we must remember that we can be sincere and still be sincerely wrong.
Our part is not to condemn or look down on others who believe differently. Each of us will stand before the judgment seat of Christ. Paul uses a quote from Isaiah 45:23 to support his conclusion.