September 19, 2014
Essential or Nonessential
By Skip Heitzig
In Romans 14 and 15, Paul identified two groups of Christians. One group he called strong and the other he called weak. The weak were not weak morally or weak in character, and they were not weak in faith. Paul's words are "weak in the faith" (Rom. 14:1), the embodiment of Christian truth.
The weak are the legalists—those who have a moral conviction that you have to really watch what you eat, what days you worship on, etc. They don't grasp that one can be right with God based solely upon their faith in Jesus Christ alone, not upon their own good works (see Rom. 5:1; 8:1). They're not quite there yet.
So Paul told the strong, "Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things" (Rom. 14:1) and "bear with the scruples of the weak" (Rom. 15:1). Whatever convictions the weak Christian has—be they right or wrong—the stronger believer sometimes needs to correct or admonish and other times to just put up with it and let that be their conviction.
You might say that the weak are oversensitive about nonessentials. They raise nonessentials to the level of essentials, and that's wrong. But it's also wrong—and dangerous—to take essential Christianity and relegate it to a nonessential. There is a line of division. We are to argue vigorously over the essentials and to defend the faith.
We need to recognize the nonessentials and let them slide. Kinds of music, smoking, alcohol, even modes of baptism and speaking in tongues… though these are issues, they are all secondary issues. They are worth talking about but not dividing over. They will not separate a person from God for eternity.
So the principle is for the strong to receive the weak but not to argue over nonessentials. They may not have the same level of spiritual maturity that you have, and they may not agree with you on all the fine points of theology, but you need to make a statement to the world: "By this all will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another" (John 13:35).
Romans 14:3 tells the strong not to despise the weak and the weak not to judge the strong, "for God has received him." One group is not less spiritual—or more spiritual—than the other.
There are things that are just wrong; they're clear-cut, and you don't argue about them. But there are other things that are gray areas. How do we discern between the essentials and the nonessentials?
Test #1: Utility. Is it helpful? "All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful" (1 Cor. 6:12a). Will it help or hinder my walk with Christ?
Test #2: Authority. Does it enslave me? "All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any" (1 Cor. 6:12b). Will it become my master?
Test #3: Charity. Does it help others in the body of Christ? "All things are lawful for me, but not all things edify" (1 Cor. 10:23). Will my actions build up the weak or cause them to stumble in an area they have a conviction about?
One of the old sayings of the Reformation applies here: in essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; but in all things, charity. That's a good balance to remember in our liberty as believers.
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