Issue #562 -------
January 25, 2013
We do not need to uplift our hands towards
heaven, or to beg the keeper of a temple to let
us approach his idol's ear, as if in this way our
prayers were more likely to be heard. God is
near you, He is with you, He is within you.
Seneca the Younger (5 B.C. - 65 A.D.)
William Hazlitt (1778-1830), a British writer, artist and philosopher, once observed, "When you find out a man's ruling passion, beware of crossing him in it." Our personal passions and cherished convictions are often perceived, at least in our own minds, as virtually inviolate. One confronts and challenges them at one's own peril, as some have discovered the hard way. This aspect of human nature was certainly on the heart and mind of the apostle Paul as he penned the advice found in Romans 14. He speaks of "disputable matters" (vs. 1), about which disciples of Christ have varying strong convictions. The challenge to the church, of course, is for brethren to accept one another in spite of these differences in perception, preference and practice. This is easier said than done, as Paul knew only too well. We humans have a tendency to equate our own convictions with divine truth, which quickly leads to a concerted effort to impose these convictions upon those around us, and to castigate and condemn all who refuse to submit to our "superior spiritual insight." Much of the discord and division within the One Body of Christ can be laid at the feet of this human tendency.
I have done a number of previous Reflections on the timeless principles presented in chapter 14 of Paul's epistle to the Roman brethren, one of which is: "A Safety Valve for Steamed Saints: Biblical Advice for Avoiding the Big Bang" (Issue #120), which I would encourage you to reexamine. There is much wisdom contained in Romans 14, and the people of God would be well-advised to be well-read and well-informed as to its very practical teaching. One of the more interesting statements in this chapter, to which I have alluded many times, but to which I have never devoted an entire issue of Reflections, is: "The faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves. But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and whatever is not from faith is sin" (vs. 22-23, NASB). These are the final words of this great chapter, and they truly sum up very well the message of the whole text. Paul speaks of the differences that exist between those disciples who, with regard to various matters of our daily spiritual walk, have varying levels of understanding. Some, for example, have strong convictions, and thus their faith is settled on the matter; others, however, still have doubts, and thus their faith is unsettled. In such "disputable matters" (things about which God has not given any direct direction nor uttered any specific commands, either for or against) we each have come to conclusions with regard to belief and practice: conclusions that have formed into studied convictions. Living by these convictions is a good thing, and, as long as such does not violate any known divine principle or precept, we are approved and accepted by God.
Not everyone has come to the same conclusions, however. What may be acceptable for one disciple, may well be unacceptable for another. The distinction lies not in divine decree, but rather in the level of discernment of each disciple. Paul, for example, did not have a problem with eating certain foods that may have been presented previously before an idol. Others, however, had not yet arrived at that point of discernment. Thus, what Paul was able to do without violating his conscience, other disciples could not do. "As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean" (Rom. 14:14). This becomes critical in daily living, for those who knowingly violate their conscience (i.e., their convictions before their God) have sinned. "The man who has doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin" (vs. 23). What this means is: two people may engage in the very same act, and yet one is sinning while the other is not. Thus, it is not the act itself that is the problem, but the heart of the person engaging in the act. This is why it is important to become settled in our convictions with respect to such matters about which our God has given no specific direction, so that whichever position we take on the matter (either for or against), we do so for the glory of God. "One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God" (vs. 5-6).
Paul's convictions were strong and settled in this area, but that was not the case for some of his brethren. "But not everyone knows this. Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat such food they think of it as having been sacrificed to an idol, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled" (1 Cor. 8:7). The charge to those of unsettled faith/conviction, therefore, is to refrain from those acts that would violate their conscience. On the other hand, the charge to those of settled faith/conviction is to show love and consideration and sensitivity in the exercise of their freedom in Christ in such matters (1 Cor. 8:9). Liberty is not license to do as we please regardless of who it hurts; with liberty comes the obligation to behave responsibly toward others. The challenge of those who are free is to learn to lovingly accept those who are still bound by legalistic limitations. The challenge of the latter is to cease judging and condemning those who are free. It is, in large part, the failure of many in both groups that has led to the divisiveness in the church today. "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. Who are you to judge someone else's servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand" (Rom. 14:1-4, NIV). Yes, our faith on such matters may be as diverse as night and day, yet we each are accepted by God. Our task is to learn to accept one another!
In the passage before us in this issue of my weekly Reflections -- Romans 14:22 -- the advice of the apostle Paul is specifically for those who are strong/settled in their faith/convictions. "The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God" (RSV). "Paul is directing his counsel chiefly to the strong, since it is the strong person who is warned to act on his confidence privately, where God is his witness" [The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 10, p. 149-150]. "The verse is addressed to the strong. The faith that he has is an enlightened faith" [The Expositor's Greek Testament, vol. 2, p. 706]. Paul informs those of settled faith and conviction that they are truly "blessed" (vs. 22b), yet he cautions them not to flaunt their faith in the faces of those who do not yet have the same degree of spiritual discernment. They must be motivated by "charitable self-restraint," realizing that "the fullest freedom must be balanced by the fullest sense of responsibility to God" and others [ibid]. Keeping my convictions between myself and God does not mean I am sneaking around hiding my perceptions and practices, or that I am seeking to keep them secret before my fellow believers. This phrase simply means that I, out of love for and sensitivity to my brethren, do not fling my freedom into the face of those whose faith is still weak. In short, we must "not display it ostentatiously in public where it may do harm" [Dr. Charles Ellicott, Commentary on the Whole Bible, vol. 7, p. 261]. "The 'strong' may act in accordance with his own convictions in his own private life, whenever his example will not be a snare to the 'weak.' The 'strong' is not ostentatiously to parade his views before those whose scruples are different from his own" [William G. T. Shedd, A Critical and Doctrinal Commentary on the Epistle of St. Paul to the Romans, p. 402].
Drs. Jamieson, Fausset and Brown write, "Of course, this is not to be over-pressed, as if it were wrong to discuss such points at all with our weaker brethren. All that is here condemned is such a zeal for small points as endangers Christian love" [Commentary Practical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, p. 1179]. Paul is certainly not forbidding those who are settled in faith from sharing their convictions with others; what he is forbidding is the imposing of those convictions upon others and also the flaunting of those convictions before others. By all means, discuss your differences, perhaps even debate them, but do not divide over them, and do not denounce and defame those with whom you differ. Further, the strong must never allow the weak to dictate unto them the parameters of their own walk with the Lord. "For why should my freedom be judged by another's conscience? If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for?" (1 Cor. 10:29-30). If my fellow disciples choose not to engage in some activity because it would violate their conscience, that is their right. Indeed, I applaud them for this resolve. However, if they seek to bind their scruples upon me, they will be met with resistance. Our liberty must never be forfeited. It was won at too high a price! "It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery" (Gal. 5:1). Paul spoke of "some false brothers who had infiltrated our ranks to spy on the freedom we have in Christ Jesus and to make us slaves," and he declared emphatically, "We did not give in to them for a moment!" (Gal. 2:4-5). Neither must we. There is a vast difference between those who are unsettled in their faith, and those who are calcified in their convictions, playing the "weaker brother" card in order to get their way. To those in the former category we show sensitivity in the exercise of our freedom; to those in the latter category we never defer for even a moment. A perfect example is when Paul circumcised Timothy (Acts 16:3), yet did not circumcise Titus (Gal. 2:3). Different crowd; different concerns.
Albert Barnes (1798-1870), in his classic Notes on the Bible, wrote the following analysis of Paul's statement in Rom. 14:22 -- "Do not obtrude your faith or opinion on others. Be satisfied with cherishing the opinion, and acting on it in private, without bringing it forward to produce disturbance in the church" [e-Sword]. The strong brethren, these "men of liberty, are to show their strength by gentleness, and their liberty by self-sacrifice" [The Pulpit Commentary, vol. 18, Romans, pt. 2, p. 419]. In other words, although you are free, yet you are to "have tender solicitude for your weak brother's conscience. ... For while faith, liberty, strength, are good, the best of all is love!" [ibid]. "The stronger brethren were not required to make a concession of principle or to renounce the truth; all that was asked of them was that they use their liberty in a considerate and charitable manner. ... It was not to be paraded to the injury of someone else" [Dr. Paul E. Kretzmann, Popular Commentary of the Bible, The NT, vol. 2, p. 76]. Paul states the principle thusly: "Everything is permissible, but not everything is beneficial. Everything is permissible, but not everything is constructive" (1 Cor. 10:23). Thus, view your liberty through the eyes of love! In so doing, you will recognize that there are times when exercising your freedoms publicly may cause harm to others who are unsettled in faith. This is not to suggest you should forever cast off your liberties, but merely suggests you should show sensitivity and consideration in the exercise of them. Paul didn't stop eating meat, he just didn't eat it around those who struggled with such a practice. In this way he kept it between himself and God, rather than flinging it in the face of his brethren. Charles Swindoll, in his excellent book "Insights on Romans" (which is one of the volumes in the set "Swindoll's New Testament Insights"), says that when we who are settled in our faith are in a public setting, "don't restrict yourself unnecessarily, but be aware of the potential effect your actions have on others. Be sensitive to reactions and graciously adjust your behavior accordingly" [p. 299]. He refers to this as "compassionately limiting our freedom for the sake of someone else's weakness" [p. 298]. No, do not give up your freedom when the obstinate "get in your face," but also do not flaunt your freedom in the face of those with a differing faith/conviction. Sometimes the better part of wisdom is to simply quietly possess your convictions between yourself and God, and continue your daily journey in His grace and freedom, not allowing others to impose limitations upon your walk, yet being gracious enough to self-limit some aspects of that walk out of loving consideration for those honest souls still struggling to embrace the fullness of their freedom in Christ. Therein lies the path of LOVE.
From a Minister/Author in California:
I received your CD (Autobiographical Photo Journal), and it was an excellent autobiographical presentation! I thoroughly enjoyed viewing all the photographs of your life and family and ministry. Al, thousands appreciate so much the spiritual edification and scriptural explanation that you continually give us in your writings. Thank you!
From a Reader in Texas:
I just listened again to the sermon you preached on Sunday, December 9, 2012 -- "If I Were Preaching My Final Sermon" -- which you have on your congregation's Sermons Page. I would love for my sons to hear it. They are victims of legalism, and, sadly, have no use for God or the church. Your sermon just might make them have second thoughts. It is certainly worth a try! Also, I loved seeing all your family pictures in your Autobiographical Photo Journal. God's blessings on you for the wonderful work you are doing.
From a Reader in Korea:
Hello from Korea. I hope all is well with you and Shelly. I am on deployment for the next year to Korea, and where I'm located there are no English speaking Churches of Christ. I was hoping you could send me some of your audio sermons. I meant what I said the last time we spoke: you are the best minister and mentor I have ever had the privilege to call my friend. You have taught me a lot in my spiritual walk. Thank you for always having an open mind and heart.
I informed this dear brother and friend (who served as one of our deacons for a number of years) that I would be happy to send him all of my audio sermons (which are contained on a number of CDs) to help him in his deployment. I will make the same offer to any military person deployed to a remote area or to the war zone -- if you would like to have these audio sermons on CD, simply write to me and request them (and provide your APO or FPO address), and I will send them to you free of charge. It is a small token of my thanks to you for your sacrificial service to our great nation. -- Al Maxey
From a Minister in Tennessee:
Al, I just spent the last several days at the Church of Christ in -------, Florida doing a seminar for them. I noticed while there that the minister had one of your books in his library. It was on the subject of divorce and remarriage (Down, But Not Out). I didn't have time to read it, but I noticed the Foreword was written by Olan Hicks, making me realize that you and I are probably kindred spirits on this topic. Please keep holding the torch high here. As we communicate the TRUE grace that is in Jesus, HE will become more and more compelling to this hurting world. Blessings to you, brother.
From a Minister in Tennessee:
I found a copy of a paper or article that you had written a number of years ago in an old folder that a professor let me borrow. It was an analysis of the King James Version. I was just wondering if you have that article in any kind of digital format. If you do, and are willing to share it, I would love to have a copy. Thank you.
That study may be found online (and therefore in a form one may share digitally with others) in Reflections #88 -- The Bible Used By Paul: An Analysis of the King James Version. -- Al Maxey
From a Reader in Afghanistan:
Thank you so much for your prayers and your wonderful advice and your very kind words in your latest issue of Reflections, which you wrote in response to my questions regarding the Lord's Supper. I hope it helps others as much as it has helped me. I am going to set up a meeting with the chaplain this week to go over my concerns, but I take comfort in the fact that God looks to the heart, and that He knows my desire is to serve Him with a pure heart. I really do appreciate all of your help, advice and your prayers, brother!
From a University Professor in Georgia:
I have gotten behind on my reading, but when I read your last Reflections ("Confused Circling of Cups") it reminded me of just how much I enjoy your writings! You are an excellent writer, and one of the most prolific I have ever known! You address some controversial issues, but always in a very logical way. Even when I disagree with you (which is not very often), you do not make me mad. Thank you so much for all of your research, hard work, and your willingness to share your insight with others.
From a Reader in Oklahoma:
Al, you are starting off the new year well with a couple of very insightful articles! Thank you for your service to our Lord, and I'm looking forward to your upcoming Reflections in 2013. Soldier on!
From a Reader in South Carolina:
AMEN! "Confused Circling of Cups" was a wonderful article! Please keep up your good work.
From a Reader in Florida:
"Confused Circling of Cups" was a GREAT Reflections. Another one "well done."
From a Reader in Texas:
Thank you for taking every opportunity to teach the Truth! We love you, brother.
From a Reader in Connecticut:
I wholeheartedly agree with you: some traditions are worth keeping, as 2 Thess. 2:15 reminds us. However, when those traditions obstruct or divide us, or those traditions are elevated to divine command, we must be strong and mature enough to recognize it. To do something only for the sake of tradition comes dangerously close to worshipping in vain. I had to laugh when you pointed out that, all too often, people engage in tradition who cannot logically defend or justify the "why" of their tradition. There was a time when I would never have believed that my own views would have evolved to the point they have! Your article is truly a sad reflection on my own former life in legalism. Thank you for clearing away the smoke for me, and for many others!
From a Minister in New Mexico:
Many of our brethren in the "Restoration Movement" have gone astray, completely missing the point of those who began this very worthwhile effort to achieve unity among all disciples of Christ. It was not about restoring the practices of the first century church; it was about seeking to restore unity. Our brethren in the Churches of Christ need to understand that "restoration" is, or should be, about accepting, rather than judging, those who disagree over disputable matters. We should be having fellowship with our Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, etc. brethren, rather than thinking God is more willing to forgive our shortcomings than He is theirs. Disciples within the various denominations still cherish the Bible, and they still seek to follow the precepts of Christ and His apostles. They often, however, differ over disputable matters (Romans 14), which are, according to the apostle Paul, to be kept between self and God. Your article ("Confused Circling of Cups") illustrates the problem we face in overcoming divisive human traditions as we strive for restoration of unity throughout Christ's church.
From a Minister in Missouri:
Traditions can be a bear. I grew up in a very narrow one-cup congregation in central Missouri. In the late 40's it was decided that they would go "multiple cups." My great aunt said that if they did she would never darken the door of this church again. As she was quite elderly, it was put on hold for about a year. After she died, the very next Sunday the congregation switched without a word being said ... and there were no problems. I don't know where I heard the following, but somehow I think it applies to many traditions: "Stupidity is nature's favorite resource for preserving consistency of opinion."
Although this quote has been used by many over the years, it came from Walter Bagehot (1826-1877), a British businessman, essayist, Social Darwinist and journalist. The full quote is: "Stupidity is nature's favorite resource for preserving steadiness of conduct and consistency of opinion." -- Al Maxey
From a Reader in Oklahoma:
Your response to the brother about wine and grape juice ("Confused Circling of Cups") brought tears to my eyes! Why can we not all be as gentle and loving, yet still truthful to each other, as you were with this brother?! A very warm and deserved salute to you, Al.
From an Elder in Texas:
On the subject of Communion tradition, our congregation last month started using new trays with the bread in the middle and the cups in the outer ring. Thus, we take both elements at the same time. I'm sure that step would have caused a major stir in many churches. But, I was proud of our folks, because I didn't hear a single complaint. Maybe we're finally learning the difference between tradition and gospel.
From a Reader in [Unknown]:
There are so many things I appreciate about what you say in your Reflections. The following, in which you speak of our Christian faith, is one of them: "That is the beauty of it. It is not frozen in time and place, but is a vital, vibrant force in any society or culture, whether primitive or modern. This is a truth many missionaries tragically failed to perceive as they sought to convert 'the savages' to a more modern cultural expression of faith of these missionaries' own time and place. It proved to be an elevation and veneration of culture over Christ, and it made a mockery of the message of truth they sought to convey."
From a Reader in Georgia:
Just read your article "Confused Circling of Cups." I'm guilty of this myself. I've been to churches where instead of being served the Communion in the pew, one was required to go stand in line and dip the wafer in the cup. At other places the "juice" tasted a little strange. Reading this current Reflections reminded me of how much we (and that includes me) are made content with the comfort of habit. It would probably be very good, although roundly criticized, if churches would "mix it up" a little and do things differently. At least people would notice and have to actually think about what it was they were doing. Once again, your thoughts were a timely wake up call, brother!
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