Legalism vs. Liberty – at Home and in the Church
- Tuesday, June 14, 2005
“Mom and Dad, if I don’t choose some of the same personal standards as yours when I grow up, will you be angry or disappointed?” It was a good question, and it needed a good answer. A typical legalist would insist that others must follow his list of convictions because they are “right.” He believes that everything is decidedly either right or wrong. A libertarian would insist that it doesn’t really matter, because no specific standards are “right.” He believes that everything is open to individual determination.
As is often the case with extreme views, both sides are wrong. The failure to find the correct balance, the biblical balance, can cause dissension, strife, and even division in both homes and churches. Romans 14 is one of the key passages in Scripture written to help believers achieve that balance, but it is often misinterpreted, misapplied, or simply ignored. A straightforward look at these verses, however, will provide the answers pastors and parents need to respond to the hard questions about personal convictions. In order to have unity with diversity, we must learn to eliminate some responses that seem to come naturally for all of us.
Do not criticize others’ opinions
In verses 1–3, Paul commands Christians to “receive” other believers who differ, without quarreling over their views, even when those views may be mistaken. Of course, those issues for which we find a clear biblical command are not open for discussion. When there is no command, personal convictions are appropriate, leading to acceptable differences among God’s people. In Paul’s example, the “weak” are wrong: God has not restricted His people to eating only vegetables. Regardless of these differences, both sides must accept each other as they are. And “accept” does not mean merely to tolerate—it implies a warm welcome and intimate fellowship. Why must one accept the other? Because God does.
Do not usurp God’s position (v. 4)
God reserves to Himself the right to evaluate His own servants. According to verse 4, your fellow believers are not subject to your approval. They need only the approval of their Master. Furthermore, God is able to help even a weak believer stand and serve with effectiveness. In fact, both the weak and the strong are dependent on God’s grace, which is always sufficient and available.
Choose standards with conviction (vv. 5–12)
If a variety of personal convictions are acceptable to God, then it might seem that it doesn’t matter what standards people adopt. Many people assume that they have the liberty to choose their own standards according to what suits them best, whether based on parental tradition or personal convenience. However, Paul tells us that that is not good enough. There is a higher standard. Since Christ is our Master and since He will judge what we do, we ought to choose what will please Him.
Choose what serves Christ’s purpose
Paul introduces a second example (the observance of days) in verses 5–9, which sheds some new light on the nature of personal convictions. The usual interpretation of this passage views both the eating of certain foods and the observance of days as highlighting Gentile/Jewish distinctions (the weak were Jewish believers, the strong were Gentile believers). A few factors suggest that Paul has broader distinctions in mind.
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