Climbing on the Altar
teacher's guide Quarter 3, Lesson 9

Lesson Nine

Mutual Respect Among Christians

Text: Romans 14:1-12

Teachers: the objective of this lesson is to teach a truth as old as Christianity. The problem originated in (1) conflicts between some converted from Judaism and some converted from idol worship and (2) conflicts between some who knew there was only one God and some who thought there were many gods. The first was primarily between some Jewish converts and converts who were not Jewish. The second was primarily between some converted idol worshippers who understood there was only one God and some converted idol worshippers who continued to think there were many gods. Lesson one: respect another Christian's acts of conscience and devotion expressed to honor God. Even if his or her acts of devotion come from spiritual immaturity and yours come from correct knowledge and understanding, respect his or her acts of devotion. Lesson two: do not pass judgment on each other's consciences or hold each other's consciences in contempt.

For congregations today, for the church universal today, few lessons are more relevant or needful. What Christians do to themselves internally within the church is spiritually destructive. In the twentieth century some Christians coupled the concept of restoration with the concept of perfection. Typically, "perfect" was subjectively defined by a local congregation. Locally, some Christians decided if those with whom they disagreed did not meet their standards and criteria for "perfection," such people were not faithful Christians. They were not committed to the restoration of Christianity. Too often Christians internally (within a congregation) attacked other Christians. They ignored Paul's admonition in Galatians 5:15: "But if you bite and devour one another, take care lest you be consumed by one another." Similar problems continue in the twenty-first century.

The great Christian irony: the greatest grief and discouragement experienced by Christians is caused by other Christians. The person who responds to the merciful God declares war on Satan. God's forgiveness is accepted for all past evil. He or she commits self to struggle against evil in his or her thinking, emotions, attitudes, and behavior.

As the Christian wages war against Satan, Satan is adept at using another Christians' lack of spirituality to attack that Christian's devotion.

What courage! Declare war on Satan? Battle evil in one's thoughts, emotions, attitudes, and behavior? Of course, the Christian individual should realize only God's mercy expressed in grace and continuing forgiveness enables him or her to fight Satan and resist evil. Before conversion to Christ, the person was no match for Satan. After conversion, the person is no match for Satan. Mere flesh and blood cannot prevail against evil. The difference between the "before" and "after" conversion is God's merciful forgiveness. Before conversion, the person did not live in God's forgiveness. After conversion, the person lives in God's forgiveness. (See 1 John 1:5-10.)

Christians need this clear and certain understanding: no Christian in his or her humanity is perfect; no human Christian logic perfectly reproduces God's thoughts, value system, and objectives; no Christian knowledge is perfect in its completeness; and no Christian's understanding grasps the totality of God's truth. Every Christian depends every moment of his or her life on God's grace and mercy. Perhaps a Christian is in his or her greatest moment of spiritual crisis when he or she thinks, "I know God. I fully understand God's will. I have a complete grasp of God's mind."

One evidence that a Christian continually must live in God's forgiveness is seen in the way Christians treat each other. Fighting Satan generates enormous heartache. Fighting evil in our thoughts, emotions, attitudes, and behavior produces daily heartache. Seeing what Satan does to those we love deeply troubles us.

The individual Christian's war against Satan is overwhelming and frightening. Each Christian constantly needs God's kindness, patience, and forgiveness. Far too often a Christian's hidden feelings of spiritual inadequacy causes him or her to attack other Christians. Often this is an attempt to divert personal attention from his or her own spiritual inadequacies. When a Christian concludes he or she can minimize personal spiritual deficiencies by focusing on other Christians' obvious spiritual deficiencies, Satan has deceived him or her.

When Christians declare war on Satan, only God's grace and strength enable them to endure. Satan's discouragement is gut wrenching. Christians never need to discourage each other.

Satan specializes in deception. Job thought God was the source of Satan's attacks. Satan's deceptions specialize in discouragement. Consider Job's discouragement. Satan uses those who should be a source of encouragement to Christians to discourage Christians. Consider the ways Job's friends discouraged Job [as they declared they spoke from God's perspective]. Consider this fact: God classified Job's friends, not Job, as evil failures (Job 42:7-9).

Yet they do. They always have. Many Christians are faithful in spite of another Christian. Many Christians serve in spite of another Christian. Many Christians endure in spite of another Christian. From the first century until today, Christians discourage Christians. If we asked Christians of any age for a frank answer to this question, "Specifically, what is the most common source of spiritual discouragement in your life?" the answer would shock us. In each age a high percentage of Christians would cite the same source of discouragement: another Christian.

Many of the epistles make internal discouragement in the early church obvious. Diotrephes loved control and dictated to Christians whom they could and could not receive into their homes (3 John 9,10). Euodia and Syntyche had significant difficulties with each other (Philippians 4:2,3). A group of Judaizing Christians visited congregations Paul established and caused serious problems (Galatians 1:6-10). Some Christians at Corinth attacked Paul's credibility (2 Corinthians 10:10). Paul's stress caused by Christians was so significant that he included the stress of "daily pressure upon me of concern for all the churches" in the list of things he suffered (2 Corinthians 11:28). Peter was afraid of Christians who represented Jerusalem's "party of the circumcision" (Galatians 2:12). His fear of those Christians caused his Christian misconduct. Early in the history of Christianity, some Christians discouraged other Christians.

God is far more merciful to Christians than other Christians tend to be. God forgives; Christians tend to judge each other. God justifies; Christians tend to make other Christians live with their past. God accepts repentance; Christians tend to doubt repentance. God sees a Christian's heart; Christians tend to measure other Christians by subjective expectations. God sanctifies; Christians tend to handcuff other Christians to their past failures.

Christians need to learn how merciful God is. The mercy they extend to other Christians should model the mercy they received from God (Ephesians 4:32). They need to remember Christians will be judged by the Lord in the same manner Christians judge each other (Matthew 7:1,2). They need to remember their personal willingness to forgive those who committed evil against them determines the Lord's willingness to forgive the evil they commit against Him (Matthew 6:14,15).

Remember: the context of the letter to Christians in Rome included a struggle between Jewish Christians and Christians converted from idolatry. In Romans 14 Paul made it quite clear God expected Christians to encourage each other, not cause each other to be discouraged.

One of the serious goals of each Christian should be this: "I will be a source of encouragement to all who believe. My words, my attitudes, my emotions, and my spirit always will seek to encourage those who follow Christ."

The emphasis is striking. Verse 1: accept the Christian who is weak in faith. BUT do not accept him for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions. Evidently his weak faith expressed itself in his opinions. Strong Christians were not to accept this Christian to point out his error.

The fact that Christians with correct knowledge and understanding were to accept Christians with weak faith is noteworthy and significant.

Verse 4: They had no right to judge the conscience of the Lord's servant. Only the Master could judge his servant's conscience. Only the Master's approval or disapproval "counts." The Lord enables a servant weak in faith to stand even as other servants declare him a spiritual failure.

A Christian must never lose awareness of this fact: Christians do not know hearts. The Lord does. An individual Christian's approval or disapproval is often influential on other people "right now," but does not influence the Lord. Only to the Lord is a Christian accountable. Rather than focusing on passing judgment on other Christians' consciences, focus on not allowing your good to have an evil impact on others (Romans 14:16).

Verse 7,8: No servant lives for himself. He does not live for his purposes, objectives, or agenda. He lives for his Master's purposes, objectives, and agenda. Each servant lives for and serves the Lord. The Lord and only the Lord is capable of evaluating His servants' service and conscience. To the Lord [not another Christian] each Christian is accountable (verse 12).

Each Christian is a servant. Each Christian's focus must be on serving. When a Christian allows his or her focus to shift from serving to judging other Christians' consciences, he or she begins to think "other Christians are accountable to me."

The problem among the Christians in Rome is evident. Some Jewish Christians were vegetarians. The Jews lived by dietary guidelines commanded by God (Leviticus 11). If they were "clean" [pure] and qualified to worship, they must eat by those guidelines. At that time, Jewish people had observed those dietary guidelines for almost 1500 years.

It is extremely difficult to find a spiritual issue today capable of generating the emotions of eating sacrificial meat then. The history of eating sacrificial meat in both Judaism and idolatry occurred at worship's most significant moments. The Jews ate the Passover lamb every year to remember God's great act of deliverance from Egypt. Passover worship focused on eating a meal. (Read Exodus 12:1-20.) In some sacrifices, the sacrificer and his family were expected to eat a portion of the sacrifice (Deuteronomy 12:17,18 and 1 Samuel 1:4,5).

To many of these people, eating meat sacrificed to idols was an act of worship. Their consciences could not permit that act.

Jewish Christians and some Christians converted from idolatry regarded eating meat offered to an idol to be especially ungodly. Since eating part of a sacrifice was worship in Judaism and idolatry, these Christians regarded eating part of a sacrifice to an idol as an act of idolatrous worship. Since priests serving idols commonly sold their portions of animal sacrifices in the city's meat market, some Christians were vegetarians. By being vegetarians, they could not unintentionally worship an idol. In devotion to God, as an act of conscience, they ate no meat.

Note the previous comments.

Some converts correctly understood God sanctified all food. (See verse 14; 1 Corinthians 8:4,6,7; 1 Timothy 4:l-5.) With a correctly informed conscience, they could eat any meat. While the Christian vegetarian was weak in faith (verse 2), the meat-eating Christian must not hold him in contempt. Neither should the vegetarian Christian judge the meat-eating Christian (verse 3).

Sometimes factual knowledge cannot erase the emotions of a tender conscience. The Lord knows the acts of a sensitive conscience, and he knows the motives of that conscience. The Lord is quite capable of distinguishing between the acts of a sensitive conscience and the acts of self justification.

The same principles governed Christians' treatment of each other in regard to holy days. This likely is a reference to Sabbaths, Passovers, Pentecosts, and such like occasions [days God commanded Jews to observe].

When a Christian honored God by following his conscience, do not give him grief! Do not discourage him! Each Christian's behavior was the result of identical motivations--a desire to honor the Lord (verse 6).

The Lord never fails to see, understand, and accept Christians' acts of conscience. Christians often fail to see, understand, and respect Christians' acts of conscience.

While eating meat seems to be a trivial religious issue to us, it was a major religious issue to them. Their past spiritual experiences were rooted in religions that offered animal sacrifices to God or to the gods. Eating meat would not be a trivial issue to us if animal sacrifices were an important part of our spiritual past!

Today's Christians often become highly emotional and incensed over matters more trivial than the first century act of eating sacrificial meat.

The point: the Lord knows hearts, motives, and consciences. The Lord and only the Lord is qualified to pass judgment on a Christian's expressions of devotion. Encourage each other! Do not hold another Christian's expressions of devotion in contempt! Do not pass judgment on another Christian's expression of devotion! A servant is not another servant's Lord.

Allow the "heart knower" [the Lord] to judge acts of conscience. May we servants commit ourselves to respecting other Christians and being sources of spiritual encouragement.

Thought question: Why do Christians discourage Christians? Why do Christians tend to be insensitive to each other's consciences? Why is one Christian's expression of devotion often irritating to another Christian? Private question: How do you discourage other Christians?

Thought question: It takes much less energy and effort to judge the weak than it does to serve the weak. It is easier to criticize the weak than to encourage the weak. Correct knowledge tends to make Christians arrogant. Weakness and incorrect understanding tends to irritate Christians. Often we seek to divert our attention from our own weakness [mine should be tolerated and understood] by focusing on the obvious weakness of others [theirs are disgusting and indefensible].

The private question is left to each individual's own thoughts and considerations.

Link to Student Guide Quarter 3, Lesson 9

Copyright © 2001
David Chadwell & West-Ark Church of Christ

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