Espousing nuclear disarmament; listening to rock music (“Christian” or otherwise); supporting public schools; attending movies at the mall cinema. What do these apparently unrelated items have in common? Each is a “gray area” under debate in some contemporary Christian community.

Gray areas are anything but novel. The early church at Rome was fractured by two prominent controversies: arguments about diet and arguments about holy days. The so-called weaker brothers favored a vegetarian diet, while the “stronger” believers boasted that any food was right to eat (Rom. 14:2). Similarly, the weaker brothers revered certain days more than others, while the stronger ones considered every day equally important (or, perhaps, equally unimportant).

Today, most Christians dismiss these controversies as irrelevant. In their place, however, some have substituted controversies over contemporary music, dress and hair styles, and (I hear of at least one European fellowship) the drinking of Coca-Cola. But before we move quickly to cast our votes on these controversies (or to judge our fellow Christians), it is worth noting two things:

First, in Scripture, “weak” does not necessarily mean “bad,” and “strong” does not necessarily mean “good.” In another context, Paul admitted, “For we are glad when we are weak and ye are strong” (2 Cor 13:9). Perhaps the best translation for “weak” would be “dependent,” that is, dependent on the structure provided by regulations.

Second, after explaining both sides of the diets-and-days controversies, Paul neither condemns nor condones the beliefs of either the strong or the weak. While we, along with first-century believers, want to know the right choice in every situation, the apostle seems more interested in other things: the unity of the church as well as the viability of individual preferences and convictions in the body.

We can be sure that similar controversies will exist until the Lord returns. But if the contemporary church is to cope effectively with these differences of opinion, it must learn from the experience of the early church recorded in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8. These two chapters give us the wisdom we need to face three tragic failures.

Alternatives

The first failure we must face is our failure to teach alternatives within the faith.

Consider four basic positions that are usually offered as “alternatives” in a discussion of a “gray area.” (I will use, as an example, the choices many of us face when subscribing to cable television and bringing into our homes material that may be more questionable than the Disney Channel. If you have your mind made up about that one, just substitute the more arcane controversy over Coca-Cola.)

First comes the mature participant, the one who says, “I have a clear conscience about having a mixture of good and bad programming coming into my home. I believe I can make good choices while avoiding a superior attitude toward other believers who do not share my conviction.”

Second is the mature nonparticipant. This person says, “I do not have a clear conscience about subscribing to these cable channels. I do not trust my own self-control. However, I try not to condemn those who permit it.”

Third is the immature participant, the one who says, “I watch any cable TV movie that I please. The church does not have the authority to tell me what not to do.”

Fourth comes the immature nonparticipant. This person says, “I don’t watch any movies on TV. In fact, no true Christian would ever bring such material into his home.”

From Romans 14, we can see that only the two viewpoints we’ve labeled “mature” are alternatives for the believer. Unfortunately, it is often the dominant rule of the immature positions that threatens personal freedom and retards maturation among believers. The church must assist its members in comprehending the broad range of acceptable options, encouraging “divergent learning” (considering all viable options) in the place of “convergent learning” (accepting only limited, predetermined responses).

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The early church father Gregory Thaumaturgus recounts his own training under Origen: “No subject was forbidden us, nothing hidden or inaccessible. We were allowed to become acquainted with every doctrine, barbarian or Greek, with things spiritual and secular, divine and human, traversing with all confidence and investigating the whole circuit of knowledge, and satisfying ourselves with full enjoyment of all pleasure of the soul.”

While these church fathers distinguished between truth and error, they made a point of investigating everything. We must also, for the spirit that investigates never becomes unduly narrow, while the soul that seeks only safe answers fast becomes pinched and primly pious.

Our spiritual forefathers learned the secret of implementing the maxim “All truth is God’s truth.” To emulate their example, we must strike a balance in two areas:

First, we must maintain a tension between “investigation” and “experimentation.” On the one hand, believers do not need to experience drunkenness to know it is sinful. In grayer areas, however, some experimentation is warranted.

Second, there is a tension between acknowledging the boundaries of one’s personal convictions and adjusting those beliefs—either more rigidly or loosely—in light of other believers’ convictions (a balance between the “individual” and the “corporate”). For instance, I knew a woman who was convicted about reading a popular news magazine because of its consistently liberal world view, which often conflicted with her Christian standards and values. She refrained from reading this literature until she discovered her pastor subscribed to it. Encouraged by his example, she once again attempted to read the weekly publication, only to experience further conviction. In time she realized that the solution to her dilemma was not to dismiss her commendable desire to be informed about world events, but to substitute for her present reading a more conservative news publication.

Convictions

The second failure with which we must deal is our failure to encourage personal convictions. The philosophical tendencies of our society encourage personal decisions, but often without reference to the question of truth. It’s a matter of “what works for you.” Without getting lost in this existential morass, Christians must learn to ask, “Given all the options within the boundaries of faith, what do I believe?” This challenge requires a commitment to help others make faith choices.

Making personal choices is never easy, for there is the constant temptation to mimic blindly someone else’s beliefs. “I follow what my pastor preaches” and “I observe what my parents taught me” are not adequate responses for the mature believer, since these attitudes betray a failure to analyze the why and how of personal convictions.

What does the apostle say about making personal faith choices? Four significant themes can be cited from Romans 14.

First, Paul says, “Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind” (v. 5b). The root word for fully persuaded suggests literally a container filled to the brim, and metaphorically a person thoroughly convinced. Paul employs the same word to describe Abraham’s faith in God’s promises (Rom. 4:19–21).

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Second, Paul makes an explosive statement: What may be appropriate for one person may be totally inappropriate for another. Situational ethics? No, but Paul realized (like Jesus in Mark 7) that evil is in people, not so much in things. So he writes, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself” (Rom. 14:14a). Yet the author adds, “But it is unclean for any one who thinks it is unclean” (v. 14b). This seeming contradiction was resolved in Paul’s mind when each believer exercised his God-given freedom in discerning the limits of his own conscience.

The third theme Paul raises is the blessedness of the person who is fully convinced in his belief: “Happy is he who has no reason to judge himself for what he approves” (v. 22b). “Happy” (as makarios is rendered in the King James and Revised Standard versions) is an unfortunately narrow translation, since Paul’s phraseology (“Blessed is he who …”) is typical of the way the Jewish wisdom tradition spoke of the objects of God’s favor and their resulting well-being. Elsewhere Paul uses the same word to speak of those who have their sins forgiven and those who endure temptation (hardly a “happy” situation). For Paul, then, the person who is fully convinced and acts on his convictions is the one who finds God’s favor and experiences well-being.

Finally, Paul claims that the person who has doubts about a “gray area,” but who participates anyway, is actually condemning himself (v. 23a).

I knew a young man (I’ll call him Steve) who was an extraordinarily talented musician. After his conversion, several of us from the congregation regularly encouraged Steve to adapt some of his contemporary music for our church services. Steve routinely balked at the invitations. But one day this new convert gave in to our requests. In the lobby following the evening service in which Steve contributed his skills, I noticed he was despondent. From the dialogue that ensued, I learned that Steve was not so much offended by the contemporary music per se, but by the sinful practices that had accompanied it in his previous lifestyle. We had selfishly and unwittingly pushed this young Christian to a point of self-condemnation by denying the significance of his own convictions before God.

The critical feature of Paul’s statement in Romans 14 is not that the person has sinned through his overt behavior (in this case, eating meat), but from his lack of conviction that it is good to act this way. He did not act on his own faith, but on the faith of another. It was surrogate faith. Or it was unstable faith, as James wrote (using the same word for doubting), “He who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind” (1:6b).

For Paul, a person is either possessed by a settled faith or by fluctuating doubts. Sin is not in things (like food or days), but in people. Sin is not only in overt actions (for some acts are indeed harmful), but in lack of conviction, as he writes, “For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23).

Thus the church must emphasize to its members the importance of making personal faith choices. And the cultivation of decision-making skills must be a substantial part of the educating process.

Responsibility

The third failure is the failure to couple freedom with responsibility. Unrestricted freedom leads to anarchy and irresponsibility. In Romans 14, the apostle describes two kinds of restrictions: duties based on our relationship to God and duties imposed by our responsibility to others.

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Part of our duty to God is to avoid usurping his roles. Thus, Paul writes, we must respect God’s action in four areas: First, regardless of a believer’s choice with respect to a given gray area, “God hath received him” (v. 3b). Next, all believers are ultimately responsible to God—not to one another. Paul asks, “Who art thou that judgest another man’s servant?” (v. 4a). We are to mind our own business, and let God mind his. Third, God will assist each believer in standing up for his own convictions (v. 4b). Finally, it is Christ himself who is Lord of the church (v. 9). We must let him rule it.

Paul also asks us to respect other believers in four ways: First, just as God has accepted all of his children (regardless of their stands on gray areas), believers must also accept one another (v. 1). We must deliberately learn to trust other believers, especially those who select ethical positions that differ from ours. That is the positive attitude to which Paul calls us. Next comes the command to abandon a negative attitude: believers must stop judging those who have alternative convictions (vv. 3, 13a). Third, Christians must give the benefit of the doubt to fellow believers (vv. 6–7). No believer should be so presumptuous as to think he is the only one dedicated to the work of the Lord. Rather, he must believe that people on both sides of gray issues take their stands in service to their Lord. Finally, Paul stresses the need for a Christian to avoid becoming a “stumbling block” (vv. 15–21).

Paul’s statements about stumbling blocks have triggered much discussion. “What constitutes a legitimate example of a stumbling block?” we want to know. In the two critical passages, Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8, we find five critical components that combine to form a stumbling-block chain of events:

Component 1: The stronger believer performs an activity that may be ethically questionable for others, but is permissible for him (see 1 Cor. 8:3–8).

Component 2: The weaker brother observes the stronger one participating in this activity, which he himself does not have a clear conscience to indulge in (1 Cor. 8:10a).

Component 3: Desiring the same freedom, the weaker brother follows the lead of his stronger counterpart (1 Cor. 8:10b).

Component 4: Because the weaker brother has not acted upon his own conviction (but upon the conviction of his stronger model), his conscience is “wounded” and he becomes “grieved” (1 Cor. 8:12; Rom. 14:15). The word translated “grieved” is the same word used to describe the disciples’ reaction when they heard Jesus say he would be betrayed by one of them (Matt 26:22). And the same word described Jesus’ own experience in Gethsemane (Matt. 26:37). Clearly, the stumbling-block sequence is more than a superficial difference of opinion. It involves a severe emotional disturbance on the part of the weaker Christian.

Component 5: The stronger believer is informed (probably by the weaker Christian) that he is responsible for the condition grieving his brother.

Only when all five components are present is a stronger believer becoming a stumbling block to the weaker one. And in these cases, there are two obligations. The weaker is obligated to let the stronger know how the questionable behavior is affecting him. And the stronger has the obligation to curtail his liberty for the sake of the weaker one’s conscience.

Pursuing Peace

In ancient Rome and Corinth, interpersonal differences obscured people’s vision of the big goal God had set for them—the need to value and promote harmonious relationships in the body of Christ. Concerns over diet and holy days made them forget the importance of church unity and their responsibilities to maturing believers. It would be sad indeed if we—who have the benefit of apostolic wisdom—let petty controversies cause us to miss the big issues.

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Jesus said that the world would know his followers by their love for one another. Exercising love today certainly means educating believers about the breadth of options; it certainly means encouraging believers to come to personal convictions; and, without doubt, it means letting our respect for God and our respect for fellow believers limit our personal freedom. Exercising love this way will help us reclaim “unity in diversity” and enhance our witness to a watching world.

Ronald T. Habermas is associate professor of educational ministries, Liberty University, Lynchburg, Virginia.

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