Saturday, September 20, 2014

Quarreling over Opinions

Quarreling over Opinions
Romans 14:1-12[1]
I don’t know about you guys, but when I take a look at our society, it seems to me that we’ve gotten really good at arguing with each other. I don’t mean that we have good and productive arguments by “fighting fairly.” It’s my impression that we’re quick to take offense, quick to get angry, and quick with a comeback that is demeaning or offensive. I guess I should really say that we’ve gotten really bad at arguing with each other! It seems that every significant issue facing our society at least potentially leads to a fight. In fact, as some have observed, our country may be more divided at this time than in any other part of our history--even the Civil War![2]
If you think that’s not the case, all you have to do is look at people’s opinions about the last two presidents. It seems there’s no middle ground: people despise one, insisting that he brought our country to ruin, and they respect the other, and think he took our the country in the right direction. But whichever side of that divide you’re on, all someone has to do to make your blood boil is mention a name and express an opinion different than yours. We’ve gotten to the point where we can’t even express different opinions without getting hostile toward one another.
I think part of the reason for this is fear. We’re more afraid now than perhaps ever before. We’re afraid because the things we used to count on for security in life seem to have evaporated. And we’re afraid because the forces that control our lives seem so much bigger than they once did. And all that fear converts into hostility. And as much of a “techie” as I am, I’m afraid social media like email and Facebook have only poured fuel on the fire. When you get on the internet, there’s a false feeling of anonymity that induces us to say things we’d never dream of saying in person. And so the divisiveness and the arguing continue, and they just make the hard feelings worse.
But in our lesson from St. Paul for today, the Apostle tells us that it ought not be so, especially in the Body of Christ. We might be tempted to think that the church in the days of the New Testament was much more spiritual, and didn’t have arguments like we do in our churches today. But that’s not the case. In fact, in just about every book of the New Testament the Apostles had to deal with some kind of dispute or another. But as St. Paul tells Timothy, “wrangling over words ... does no good but only ruins those who are listening” (2 Tim. 2:14). He goes on to tell Timothy to “have nothing to do with stupid and senseless controversies; you know that they breed quarrels” (2 Tim 2:23). 
And so it should come as no surprise when St. Paul tells the Church at Rome that they are to avoid “quarreling over opinions.” But if you read between the lines, you might be surprised at the “opinions” about which he was urging them to practice tolerance. When he refers to some people having the faith to eat everything while the “weak” only eat vegetables, he’s referring to the way meat was processed and sold in that day.[3] A significant amount of the meat sold in the open-air market was left over from a sacrifice that was offered at a pagan temple that morning. So to eat meat in that context could be construed by some as participating in the worship of false gods! And yet others had a strong enough faith to recognize that all things come from God, and so they ate meat. And on an issue of this potential significance, Paul urges tolerance!
We might wonder how St. Paul could make such an apparently offensive compromise as to allow the eating of meat that had been used in the worship of a false god. To some in his day, he was essentially turning a blind eye to at least an indirect participation in idolatry.[4] How could he encourage behavior that some viewed as a violation of the command, “You shall have no other gods before me”? I think that at least part of the answer is that he realized that whether or not eating meat constituted the practice idolatry was a matter of interpretation, and therefore a matter of opinion. And St. Paul didn’t want the Body of Christ divided over matters of opinion. Rather, Paul urged that Christians take the attitude that, even when we disagree about significant issues, we all “belong to the Lord” (Rom. 14:8). And in case there is any doubt about whether we can all belong to the same Lord and disagree with one another, he makes it clear that we have no place passing judgment on other “servants of the Lord” (Rom. 14:4).[5]
So how do we translate this into our day and time, when we are debating matters like the Middle East, or gay marriage, or immigration policy. How are we who live together in the community of faith to relate to one another when we disagree over strongly held opinions? Part of the problem is that when we in the church are seen so visibly fighting with so much hostility toward one another, we invalidate the message of the Gospel in the eyes of those around us. It seems to me that in this community where we all “belong to the Lord,” we have to start with the conviction that our connection to one other in the Body of Christ supersedes all of our opinions.[6] Hopefully, we all seek to serve the Lord to the best of our ability. Ideally, we all strive to submit matters of conscience to God’s judgment.[7] It seems to me that means that there simply is no place for “quarreling over opinions” in the Body of Christ. Rather, this is a community in which mutual respect and love must always trump differences of opinion. [8]

[1] © 2014 Alan Brehm. A sermon delivered by Rev. Dr. Alan Brehm on 9/14/2014 at Hickman Presbyterian Church, Hickman, NE.
[2] See Dave Bryan, “Jerry Brown: California, Country Facing ‘Regime Crisis’ Similar To The Civil War,” CBS Los Angeles 10 April 2010; accessed at
[3] Many scholars suggest that part of the problem here was an expulsion of the Jews from Rome which some ancient historians recount. After some years, the Jewish population began to trickle back into Rome. However, whatever accommodations there may have been before the expulsion for the proper processing of meat according to Jewish food laws would likely no longer have been in place. This would have created a crisis for Jewish Christians who felt obligated to follow those laws. See James D. G. Dunn, Romans 9-16,  801, 810-11; Robert Jewett, Romans: A Commentary, 838.
[4] Cf. B. B. Blue, “Food Offered to Idols and Jewish Food Laws,” in Dictionary of Paul and his letters, edited by G. F. Hawthorne, R. P. Martin & D. G. Reid, 306-310.
[5] Cf. Paul J. Achtemeier, Romans, 215, where he observes that “The danger of self-righteousness lies in its tendency to make one’s own convictions the measure of the validity of the convictions of all others.” He also says (p. 217) in connection with the temptation to “set oneself up as judge” in the place of God that “The danger of self-righteousness is therefore closely allied to the danger of self-idolatry.” Cf. also Edgar Krenz, “Relationships Count,” The Christian Century (Aug 28, 1996): 811. He says that St. Paul “is not a weak-kneed Christian who has no standards. But his concept of judgment is shaped by his knowledge of the judge. Christians are ultimately responsible to their Lord.” See further Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics 2.2:725: Christians holding different opinions cannot judge each other “Because both are servants, each serving the Lord with their better or less good faith, each finding in the Lord his own Judge and Saviour. They cannot exclude each other when God has accepted both and will judge their faithfulness or unfaithfulness by His mercy.” Cf. also Jewett, Romans, 843.
[6] Cf. Achtemeier, Romans, 216: “Paul does not take sides on whether the ‘weak’ or the ‘strong’ are more correct. He is intent rather on meeting the threat to Christian unity posed by the attempts of one of the groups to make its convictions about conduct the sole and exclusive measure of true and faithful response to God’s gift of his Son. The advice to both groups is the same: Respect the convictions of the other group.”
[7] Cf. Achtemeier, Romans, 218, where he points out that Paul urges both tolerance on differences of opinion as well as the intention to “do everything one does to the honor of God.”
[8] It would seem that Paul would endorse the maxim, “In essentials, unity; in non-essentials, liberty; and in all things, charity.” On the history of this often-quoted phrase which is erroneously attributed to St. Augustine, see James J. O’Donnell, “A Common Quotation from ‘Augustine’?” accessed at quote.html and Hans Rollman, “The Pre-History of a Restoration Movement Slogan,” in Restoration Quarterly 39.3, accessed at rollmann.html

No comments: