by Kyle Pope
Synopsis: Reflecting on Romans 14:23, which states, "whatever is not from faith is sin," Kyle offers guidelines for distinguishing between apostolic doctrine and issues of individual conscience.
The tendency has been with man since the beginning. Perhaps out of fear or laziness, for some reason, it seems easier to let someone else decide matters for us. This is harmless enough in matters such as where to eat, or what flavor or color of something to choose. Yet, when we do this with spiritual things, the consequences can be devastating. Who knows how many people throughout time have believed and worshipped in certain ways because others decided for them? This is disturbing because the Bible tells us that we will stand before God as individuals, and be judged as individuals. 2 Corinthians 5:10 says, "For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive the things done in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad" (NKJV).
Sometimes, I fear that in the church, we may have promoted this same tendency without even realizing it. When people conform to the position brother "so and so" takes or believe something simply because a respected elder or preacher does, we are delegating a responsibility to someone else that we dare not forfeit. This responsibility is the individual duty given to "…work out your own salvation with fear and trembling" (Phil. 2:12).
This is not to say that we should not study together and listen to the understanding of respected brethren. Nor is it to say that God has different standards by which He will judge different people. Instead, it means that we will each answer to God for ourselves. In Romans 14:5, Paul was addressing a controversy that was alive in the first century. He instructed the brethren, "Let each be fully convinced in his own mind" (Rom. 14:5). In the same chapter, Paul warned against acting with doubt by declaring, "He who doubts is condemned if he eats, because he does not eat from faith; for whatever is not from faith is sin" (Rom. 14:23). Going against what one believes to be right is sin.
The question arises,What does acting "from faith" mean? Does it imply that whatever a person believes to be true is acceptable to God? Not necessarily! In the same context while Paul urged them to be "fully convinced," he also proclaimed, "Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves" (Rom. 14:22). This tells us that a person can approve and believe the wrong things—things that can actually condemn him. So, what does acting "from faith" mean? A few chapters earlier in the Roman letter Paul explained this. He declared, "So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God" (Rom. 10:17). It is God's word that produces faith, and a person must act based on his understanding of God's word. The standard of judgment will be God's word. In John 12:47-48, Jesus declared, "If anyone hears My words and does not believe, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. He who rejects Me, and does not receive My words, has that which judges him—the word that I have spoken will judge him in the last day."
Since God's word is the standard, what do we do when people draw different conclusions from that standard? If we could fully answer this question, we would, with one stroke wipe out most of the religious division that exists in the world today! I won't pretend to offer such an answer, but here are some parameters to set for ourselves:
1. Draw people to the Word. We must always be careful about the means we use to draw people. It must not be our particular philosophy of life, or "style" of faith (i.e., a slick order of worship or an emotional appeal). We must even be careful not to try and draw people to our understanding of God's word. That is no different than drawing people to us. Instead, we must draw them to God's word itself. By doing this, we show them how to decide for themselves what God would have them to do, and perhaps even help us discover flaws in our reasoning.
2. Stress the importance of Christians being individuals of conviction. Each person must decide for himself what is right. We must always be true to the dictates of our conscience as it complies with Scripture. Far too many Christians sit back and let their preacher or their elders wrestle with some issue of Scripture, and then accept their views because they respect them so much. When we do that, how can we know that the choices they have made are sound? We must feel a compulsion to study matters for ourselves.
3. Never ask someone to violate his conscience. Though it may be hard for us to accept, we must realize that if someone else differs with our understanding of Scripture, the answer isn't simply to have him surrender to our view. If we convince someone to change his thinking at the expense of violating his conscience, we have gained nothing. While following our conscience may be right or wrong (Rom. 14:22), it is always wrong to violate our conscience.
4. Don't hide the truth. We should always work to make all information on a given topic available to people. In doing so, we help them make rational decisions for themselves. While we must be careful in the process not to introduce a false doctrine to the unlearned, we should be honest enough to answer challenges to our views. This is hard to do. It takes courage and preparation. It is much easier to battle falsehood by merely attempting to silence it. However, this usually leads, not the victory of the truth, but greater division. People become unaware of both sides of an issue. If something is true, it can take the heat of battle. If it is false, we must expose it.
5. Avoid laying a stumbling block. While there will be cases in which people ignore what the Scripture says, often people are sincerely trying to follow the Lord to the best of their understanding. When this concerns matters that do not hinder our fellowship with them let us not pass judgment upon them but work to grow with them avoiding any offense to them. Paul said, "Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother's way" (Rom. 14:13). Stumbling blocks may take the form of ridicule that discourages the one with rigid convictions, or harsh rebuke that turns away the one with loose convictions. Neither serves the cause of Christ.
There may be times in which differences are such that we cannot in good conscience continue to work in fellowship with our brethren. Alternatively, we may need to urge them to be more cautious in their conclusions. Even so, we must always bear in mind that, in all such matters, it is the Lord that will judge both matters and both sides.
Author-Bio: Kyle preaches for the Olsen Park Church of Christ in Amarillo, TX. He has written several books published by Truth Publications including How We Got the Bible. The church website is olsenpark.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.