Paul’s letter to the Romans brilliantly unpacks the gospel and its implications. He gives a significant chunk of the letter to applying the gospel to potential conscience conflicts in the church.
He particularly has two areas in mind in chapter 14; (2)whether believers should eat meat – not because some vegetarians were squeamish about how it was killed but because almost all meat came from the worship sacrifices to idols in the temples. And the second issue is that of special days and whether to keep them or not. Both are matters of conscience. But there are two groups in the church in Rome, probably divided along Jew/Gentile lines. Those whose conscience is weak and want to avoid the meat and keep the special days, and those whose conscience is strong who happily eat the meat and don’t want to keep special days.
Paul doesn’t focus on who is right or wrong. Notice what he calls this, it’s a “disputable matter”. It’s not a gospel issue, it’s not a non-negotiable, or even a debateable. This is a matter of conscience. What he focuses on here is how the church applies the gospel to this situation. He wants to bring gospel unity by teaching those with differing views how to love each other in that difference. He doesn’t tell them what should be taught to whoever is right or wrong, but his focus is everyone in the church applying the gospel to themselves and one another.
There are times elsewhere when these conscience issues have gone a step further and become gospel issues, when they have impacted the non-negotiables and then Paul swiftly corrects the heresy. In 1 Corinthians 10 some have taken their freedom to eat meat sacrificed in idol temples too far and are actually going to feasts and celebrations at the temples. Paul says they must stop. On the other extreme, in Galatia, some believers take the conscience issue over what they should or shouldn’t eat or do and are saying unless you obey the Mosaic law and are circumcised you aren’t a Christian. Again a matter of conscience has become a gospel issue which must be corrected and Paul moves to correct it. We need to watch our conscience, that we don’t slip into either lawlessness or legalism because that will divide the church.
But here in Rome they haven’t gone that far. But how do we treat those with whom we disagree over matters of conscience? Helpfully Paul’s teaching provides us with 10 principles for how we apply the gospel to our conscience conflicts in church:
- Is this a disputable issue? That’s the first question to ask. Is it a matter of conscience or a gospel issue? Non-negotiable, debateable or matter of conscience? That will affect how we approach the issue and should impact the tone in which we discuss such issues (or tweet about them!).
- Welcome difference (1-3)“Accept” or welcome those whose conscience is different from yours is the instruction. Listen to them, engage with them, let them know they are part of the church family even as you hold different views. Don’t look to win an argument, (3)don’t look down on others or treat them with contempt. Don’t judge. Remember God accepts and welcomes them so how can we do any less?
- Be fully convinced yourself (5)Think through issues of conscience, search the Bible, wrestle with what God says and what that looks like applied to life. Reach your own conclusions and convictions. Ask how do I honour God in this area? Don’t just go along with others.
- Assume others are seeking to honour God too (6-9)Paul calls believers to do what they do, no matter what that is, to the Lord. Everything is to be in service of God. And so we’re to assume the person who works this out differently to us is trying to honour God. We don’t assume we are the only one concerned to honour God or who has the monopoly on how to do that.
- God is judge not you (10-13a)We all hate the idea of being judged by others and yet we’re quick to act as judge aren’t we? Don’t says Paul. God is judge and he’s the one each of us will answer to for how we have obeyed our conscience.
- Don’t be a stumbling block (13b-15, 19-21)You might be thinking this is too hard. I’m just going to keep my conscience to myself. Except we can’t. It impacts our actions. Others watch what you do and determine what you believe. We don’t serve God in isolation and our actions can cause others to stumble. We must work out the gospel in terms of our actions because we might cause someone else to stumble by what we do. Do I love others enough to curb my rights? Will I flex on expressing my conscience if it will cause someone distress or destroy their faith? Act in love(15). Do what builds up(19).
- Pursue righteousness, peace and joy (16-18)To insist on our rights at the expense of others is to deny and destroy the kingdom. The kingdom isn’t about rights or food, that’s the way the world works. It is about righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. We live not to delight ourselves or get our way but to please God.
- Don’t expect everyone to be like you (22a)Don’t try to police others. Don’t set out to convert people to your expression of your conscience. Accept that people will express it differently, it is between us and God.
- Living by faith brings blessing (22b-23)Don’t compromise your conscience, but live by your conscience.
- Mimic Jesus (15v1-4) Bear with each other, flex your expression of your conscience to build others up because that is what Jesus did, he didn’t please himself but lovingly bore the failings of others. And Jesus had no need to do so. He wasn’t short of anything or out to get anything. In love he left the splendour of heaven, in love he took on the nature of a servant, in love he humbled himself, God the Son made man, the creator living in his creation. Experiencing its best and worst. Why? In order to bear our failings.
Jesus bears our scorn and the insults we deserve. God himself associates with us for the sake of God’s truth. If Jesus is our Saviour we are his people and we are to be like him. We will in love bear with others, because Christ supremely set aside his rights to save us. Whatever we lay aside or bear with is not a patch on what Christ has done for us. So we flex on our expression of our conscience for the sake of others because the gospel compels us to.
That’s so helpful isn’t it. Because it reminds us that when we don’t feel like doing that we go back to the cross. We wonder afresh at what Christ did for us, laying aside not whether he could eat meat but heaven. And not just not eating but going to the cross for us.As a church we need to be helping one another align our conscience with God’s word. To learn more and more perfectly how to obey his word. We need to wrestle with scripture and seek to honour God. But as we do so we need to apply the gospel again and again to how we think of and treat one another and express our conscience. Christ is our example of sacrificial love that doesn’t stand on rights but pours itself out for the gospel good of others. May God be glorified as we do so united in the gospel of Jesus who bore our insults.