It is said that in polite society, we do not discuss politics or religion. Today, I am going to do both, at the same time. As residents of the United States, we find ourselves in a veritable morass of political, racial, and economic divisions that reach across all religious beliefs and practices. I am not interested in mounting a soapbox and making my case about what convictions we hold. I am much more concerned about how we come to our convictions and how we express and exercise them. Even though the news has been calling our current times as unprecedented, the writers of the Bible do not seem to be strangers to conflict and controversy, even among believers. We would do well to consider their words.
It matters what we believe. Both Matthew and Luke record words of Jesus that are as relevant in our no-absolute-truth culture as they were in the first century:
Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock. And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded on the rock. Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and it fell—and great was its fall. Matthew 7:24-27.
No one can avoid all the storms of living as a fallen creature in a fallen world; but building our lives on the foundation of Christ as the Way, the Truth, and the Life can enable us to avoid at least many of the pitfalls of these storms. Yet Scripture does not give us a blueprint for what that looks like. The Christian life is not about religious performance; nor does Scripture provide a flow chart for us. The Christian life is about cultivating a growing and intimate faith relationship with the Lord of the universe and then expressing that relationship in what we do and how we treat others.
Romans 14 has become one of my favorite passages in the New Testament. I would encourage you to spend some time reading it and processing the words of the Apostle Paul. In this epistle, Paul is addressing a dilemma that is causing controversy among believers living in the very secular city of Rome. At issue is the eating of meat sacrificed to idols and/or eating meat of unknown origin, that might have originated from pagan worship practices. Some believers are so horrified at the thought any association with idol worship that they are choosing to avoid meat altogether and eat only vegetables. Others see nothing wrong with eating meat sacrificed to idols in whom they do not believe and who, according to their faith, are not real. Some of us may be surprised to see Paul take the position of freedom: he sees nothing wrong with eating meat sacrificed to idols who do not represent anything that is spiritually material.
But Paul is not pronouncing his position in order to prescribe appropriate Christian behavior. He does not denounce those who are abstaining from meat; nor does he exhort those who hold his “freedom” position to straighten their brethren out. Instead, he uses the division of opinion to teach two important principles. The first is that each believer is responsible for living before Christ, with the help of the indwelling Holy Spirit. We are to develop and practice our convictions in the context of our dynamic relationship with the Lord. Our convictions are the outworking of our faith and walk in Christ and often reflect our personal history, experiences, and maturity of faith. The conviction held by one believer may not be appropriate for a brother or sister to hold! So while there is the absolute truth of Christ, there is not necessarily one right way to translate that truth into our lives. The second principle is that we are not to regard our convictions as a standard to be used to judge one another or to feel superior to someone who holds a different—and sometimes contradictory—position. We are to be sensitive in our interactions with and behavior toward one another so that none of us is caused to stumble or is the cause of stumbling. Paul warns us that as important as convictions of faith are, using them to achieve self-righteousness is utterly. un-Christian.
In his letter to the Philippians (the well-known Chapter 13), Paul reinforces these thoughts by reminding the believers in Philippi that doing great things in Christ has no eternal value if they are not done out of love. If we speak in tongues, if we prophesy with power, if we move mountains in faith, if we give all we have in ministry, and even if we die a martyr’s death, such activity will fail to advance the work of Christ and His kingdom if it is not generated by our faith relationship with Christ, manifested in love, and expressed as the outworking of the indwelling Holy Spirit.
Paul calls the body of Christ to unity: There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free man, there is neither male nor female; for you are all one in Christ Jesus. (Galatians 3:28). In these days of division, in the United States I would love to add that there is neither Republican nor Democrat; neither black nor white; neither Hispanic, Latino, Asian, nor White. Paul underscores his point with this admonishment a bit later in his letter: For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word, in the statement, “YOU SHALL LOVE YOUR NEIGHBOR AS YOURSELF.” But if you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another. Galatians 5:13-15.
Jesus told His disciples that the world would associate His disciples with Him not by their strident convictions, not by their self-righteous behavior, but by their love: By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another. John 13:35.
Our God is a God of restoration, reconciliation, and redemption. This is illustrated no more powerfully than in Jesus’s death to cover our sins and restore our relationship with our loving Creator. While the conflict, controversy, and division of these times could be used as tools by Satan to rip us apart, they also represent opportunities for the members of Christ’s body to prosper the work of the Holy Spirt in us and among us, to deepen our love for one another so that as a body, we may manifest God’s goodness and glory to a world desperate for genuine Good News.