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Legalism vs. Liberty – at Home and in the Church

  • Dr. Gary Reimers Today's Christian Preacher Magazine
  • 2005 14 Jun
Legalism vs. Liberty – at Home and in the Church

“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.


First, although Jews followed strict dietary laws, they were not typically vegetarians. Second, even pagans had their own holy days. The real clincher is that in the second example Paul has dropped the weak and strong designations. In this case neither side is right or wrong. They are just different. What is most surprising is that Paul expects the difference to continue indefinitely. He says: “Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.” How can that be?


The key to understanding verses 6–8 lies in the words unto and to that recur in this passage. Whether eating meat or not or observing a special day or not, each person follows his conviction to or unto the Lord. So the basis for one’s choice should be the Lord’s glory—what would best benefit the cause of Christ. Rather than asking what would please their parents or what would please themselves, God’s people must base their decisions on what would please the Lord. According to verses 8 and 9, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s, and He is the Lord of the living and the dead. So whether we live or die, we are to do everything serving Christ’s purpose.


One more matter needs attention here. If believers commit themselves to living for the Lord, they must assume that the Lord will direct their decisions regarding personal convictions. Then how is it that believers arrive at different conclusions? The answer: the Lord must be directing them differently. Why would He do that? Perhaps because He plans to use them in different places of ministry to reach different kinds of people.


Choose what receives Christ’s approval


Paul closes this paragraph by providing some strong motivation for God’s people to obey (vv. 10–12). Portraying a somber courtroom scene, he reveals that every individual believer will stand trial at the judgment seat of Christ. Two questions on that day will be particularly pertinent for the issues at hand. First, Christ will ask you to explain the criticisms you expressed against fellow believers whose personal convictions were different from your own. You knew that such judging violated Christ’s command, so why did you do it? Second, He will ask you to explain the standards you adopted. Were you striving to please yourself or God? Flimsy excuses will not work on that day. You will be compelled to tell the truth. With such a prospect, we should be well motivated to submit ourselves to Christ’s control now.


A pastor’s goal should not be to have everyone in his church conform to his own personal viewpoints. The goal is to have them conform to Christ’s expectations, even if that produces some differences within the church family. Diversity is good, as long as Christ is the source and unity is the result. For church activities the pastor may need to set specific guidelines, but in church members’ own homes Christ will provide direction to those who seek it.


For parents the goal is the same. It would be okay for your children to adopt some convictions that differ from your own, as long as they are earnestly seeking to please the Lord. Again, while they are in your home, you can set the standards; but when they establish their own homes, entrust them to the Lord. Of course, a child should consider very carefully before deciding to depart from a parental standard. A young person does not choose his parents. The choice is entirely God’s, and children should assume that He wanted His choice to have lasting influences. Likewise, church members should value highly the personal convictions of their shepherd. Even so, pleasing the Chief Shepherd counts the most.


Dr. Gary Reimers teaches expository preaching, theology, and New Testament Greek in Bob Jones University Seminary. He is also senior pastor of Cornerstone Baptist Church in Greenville, South Carolina, which he planted in January 2002.

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