What happens when our convictions clash with the convictions of other believers?
Paul dealt with this question in two key passages that inform our understanding of how to answer this question today.
In 1 Corinthians 9, Paul argued that he enjoyed the God-given right to earn income from his ministry, enough to support himself and a wife. The text, though, is part of a larger section that deals with the contentious issue of eat offered to idols. Some Christians wanted to enjoy their freedoms; others took offense at the idea. Paul used the illustration of his rights to make an important point: Christians are called to limit their freedoms for the sake of their brothers and sisters.
The decisive issue isn’t whether we have the right to do something; the decisive issue is whether our actions are helpful and beneficial to other believers. We should be prepared to curtail our freedoms if our freedom damages others for whom Christ died. “Freedom too often is abused in the direction of self-interest rather than expressed in terms of concern for others and for the progress of the gospel,” observes Gordon Fee. Freedom should always take a backseat to love for others and the spread of the gospel.
in Romans 14, Paul addressed the issue of disunity within a church over differing convictions over what to eat. Some observed Torah’s dietary restrictions, and some didn’t. How does one function within a church with clashing views? Agreeing to disagree isn’t enough when you’re sitting down to dinner with fellow believers who object to what’s being passed down the table.
Paul takes sides, but then makes it clear he has a bigger concern: the church should refuse to divide over such issues, and must learn to love one another and refrain from judging. Refuse to take any action that would cause a brother or sister to stumble (Romans 14:13-23), and help the weak (Romans 15:1-6). Both sides have to stop judging the other. “Strong” Christians should curtail their freedoms for the sake of others and tolerate the consequences of others, and both sides should welcome the other without judgment.
What are the pastoral applications for the church today?
First, rights should take a back seat to our concern for each other. Paul demonstrates that rights is a legitimate category, but then he argues that it’s not an important one. Our rights and liberties should always take a back seat to the good of others. Every believer should be prepared to give up their rights for the sake of other believers and the spread of the gospel.
Second, both sides must shift their focus from who’s right to how to welcome and love the other. Instead of judging the other side, our focus must be learning to serve the other side without judgment. Both sides must also recognize the danger that exists on their side. The seeds of heresy exist on both sides, observe Andrew Naselli and J.D. Crowley.
The ideal situation is when a believer says, “I’m not concerned about getting things my way. I’m concerned with those people over there.” If a church is characterized by only one view on a contentious issue, it’s a sign that that church has failed in this area.
Paul leaves us with a lot of wisdom, but none of it is easy to apply. Right now we face issues like masking and vaccinations. Conflict comes easily. But we’ll continue to face other issues in the future too.
What’s more important than the issues is how we view those who disagree. Our focus should be on our willingness to love and serve them, not on how we can push our agendas and views. In other words, Paul leaves all of us with a lot of work to do.