Teach this to your Church
A debatable or disputable matter (Romans 14:1) is an area of behavior, doctrine or tradition on which Christians disagree because a specific biblical absolute does not regulate it. It is therefore a matter of personal preference not divine command. These matters belong to the category of Christian freedom or liberty.
When a behavior, doctrine or tradition is not addressed in Scripture by a specific moral absolute commanding or forbidding an action, it belongs to a category of freedom. In areas of freedom, Christians are encouraged to establish their own convictions but are not permitted to judge or ridicule those who do not share their conviction (Romans 14:3).
Teach this to your Church (Did I already say that?)
When believers don’t handle debatable matters properly division threatens their fellowship and witness. The challenge regarding debatable matters is addressed most extensively in Romans 14-15. The instruction is offered in relation to two different groups found in most Churches.
Two Groups found in most Churches
- The weak in faith- (Romans 14:1;15:1) – Those who feel bound to abide by rules and traditions that are not required by God’s absolutes. Faith is used with reference to convictions about what they believed the faith forbids and allows. They are not weak in character but in conscience.
- The strong in Faith – (Romans 15:1) – Those who do not feel bound by rules and traditions outside of God’s absolutes.
- Romans 14:1-3: “Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. One man’s faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him.” Romans 15:1: “We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves.”
Relating in unity with those who do not share your convictions
Believers are free to establish their own conviction in areas of freedom, but they are clearly not permitted to condemn those who do not share their opinions. If God has not specifically addressed a behavior, custom, activity, or doctrine, we are not allowed to manipulate biblical data to suggest that God has been specific on the matter.
On the other hand, a believer is clearly not permitted to ridicule or look down on other believers who feel constrained in areas of freedom. These are required attitudes that must become matters of accountability in our Churches and fellowship groups. Leaders must instruct the people often about handling debatable matters.
A common example – “Be not conformed to the world” (Romans 12:2)
How can we identify the activities or practices that violate this standard? A church in our area answers the question by offering detailed requirements in their “Rules & Discipline” document. Consider their applications:
“Members shall not indulge in the world’s methods of pleasure seeking, amusements and entertainment, patronizing or taking part in fairs, parades, circuses, moving picture shows, theaters, drama, public bathing resorts, organized contesting ball teams, dancing, card parties, races, various forms of gambling, scavenger hunts, mystery suppers, hayrides and such like.Inasmuch as our automobiles, as well as all our possessions, are gifts from God, they should be in keeping with Biblical modesty and separation, and the use of them should always glorify God. The more expensive cars, cars with contrasting colors, sports cars as well as sports features on regular cars, and all striped tires, shall be avoided.The appearance and use of all our vehicles shall be consistent with these principles and regulations. Because of the effectiveness of the radio to propagate evil and increased end time deception, thereby destroying true spirituality in the home and church, its use is not permitted. Because of the evils of television, those who are responsible for the sale or use of the same forfeit their membership. Video cassette recorder (VCR) entertainment systems shall not be used. We likewise sense the dangers of the news media such as daily papers and magazines in the home (Psalm 101:3; Psalm 1:2).”
According to these standards, most confessing Christians are living in conformity to the world and violating the command of Romans 12:2. Wherever I read this list to a group, I hear a distinct laughter of surprise and incredulity from the crowd. It’s possible that you also consider this list ridiculous. Yet it’s not any more ridiculous to them than your list is to you.
Based on Romans 14:3b-13a, these believers are permitted to set for themselves standards as they have done. But they are not permitted to force others to conform to these rules. If someone chooses to be part of their group, he should live by the house-rules of the group. But if believers at this fellowship use their list of rules to condemned other Christians, they are violating the teaching of the apostle.
House rules or Rules of order
An exception to the general teaching on debatable matters applies to those under authority (children under parents, citizens under governors, and members of organizations or institutions). I call these exceptions “house-rules” or “rules of order.” These are rules regarding behaviors belonging to the category of debatable matters.
For those under authority, unless they are being ordered to do things that disobey God, they are responsible to submit to the rules. Children, for example, must obey their parents’ rules– even on debatable matters. College students must abide by the rules of their institution even if such rules are not specifically addressed in Scripture. Societies and governments sometimes establish rules of order in areas not specifically addressed in Scripture. Since believers must submit to governing authorities (unless they are being asked to disobey to God), they must obey the laws— even on debatable matters. But in such cases, it’s wise to distinguish these standards from explicit commands of God.
Groups of believers or families are permitted to establish in-house rules. But they are not permitted to judge the spirituality of other believers unless their standards are explicitly required by God. If parents set standards for their homes in areas where the Bible doesn’t explicitly speak (as they should), their children are commanded to obey their parents (Ephesians 6:1). Other families in the Church (who do not share their convictions) should not ridicule them. And more conservative families should not condemn others for exercising their freedoms on debatable matters.
We need to teach the required attitudes of Romans 14:3 to our children to protect them from becoming little pharisees.
Does this make you feel uncomfortable?
Some Christians feel uncomfortable with the fact that certain behaviors and activities are “permitted or left to free and responsible judgment according to the best of our knowledge and conscience.” Desiring simplicity and security, these believers want everything to be understood as clearly commanded or clearly forbidden. They want everything to be labeled right or wrong. This is legalism.
The Modus Operandi of legalists
If God has not given specific instruction on an issue, legalists put an interpretive twist on a more general command to make it a matter of right or wrong. These same people also mistakenly believe that the only way to maintain unity in the church is to offer detailed legislation on each debatable issue. This is artificial unity which ultimately destroys the fellowship and influence of a church.
Uniformity of opinion or unity of relationship?
“Part of God’s design for the church is that it should successfully manifest unity in diversity. It was His intent that people with divergent personalities, nationalities, gifts, abilities, tastes, and backgrounds should become unified in Christ without sacrificing personal distinctiveness (1 Corin. 12:12-27; Colo. 3:11).”
“Accordingly, God does not view differences of opinion in the area of freedom as a bad thing. The inevitability of such variance of thought is not seen as a flaw in an otherwise beautiful plan. It rather represents one more situation in which the supernatural character of the church, and its observable distinctiveness as a living organism, may be manifested before the world (John 13:35; 17:20-21).”
“What God desires, then, is not uniformity of opinion but unity of relationship (Romans 15:5-7). And so, instead of trying to eliminate divergence of opinion, the Holy Spirit has given specific instructions to guide our response to it” (Garry Friesen, Decision Making and the Will of God).
Avoiding Extreme Responses
“On the one hand, there is the Christian who relishes his freedom and appreciates his direct accountability to God. He basically ignores the opinions of others, and lets the chips fall where they may. If others get offended by his enjoyment of Christian liberty, that’s their problem.”
“The other extreme is represented by the sensitive saint who values his position in the body of Christ. Recognizing his accountability to the other members of the body, he bends over backwards to keep from violating anyone’s convictions. If he bends over far enough for long enough, he eventually discovers that he cannot move at all. Most Christians recognize instinctively that neither of these two extremes is appropriate. We cannot ignore our differences; neither can we be immobilized by them” (Garry Friesen).
In areas of freedom, we are called to respect each other and honor and support the efforts others establish for their own godliness. We must never try to force believers to conform to our standards on debatable matters, but work together to do all things to the glory of God.
For the sake of the gospel, we must take the more challenging path and relate to one another harmoniously—with our differences. We are called to be slow to judge in less defined areas (and at times we must refuse to act as judge). We are taught by Jesus to be slow to take offense and always ready for reconciliation.
What doctrines, traditions or behaviors would you put in a category of freedom?
Teach this to your Church and family. Include the six reasons debatable matters are a challenge in the Church