By Kevin Wiebe
When you believe you are right about something, how do you behave? How do you treat those with whom you disagree? I’m not talking about issues of sin, here. There are a great many things the Bible very clearly defines as sin. So, what of disputable matters, issues that are not very clear? Sure, there are folks who try to make every kind of sin into a “disputable matter,” but like it or not, there are in fact some things that are not as clear-cut in the Bible as we would like it to be.
Romans 14 directly instructs the church not to quarrel over issues that are labeled as disputable matters (NIV), “doubtful disputations” (KJV), or a “quarrel over opinions” (ESV). This chapter then lists a few different hot-button topics of the day.
Stronger and Weaker
One interesting thing is that Paul talks about the people who hold a particular stance as having a stronger faith, and the people of the other position as having the weaker faith. What this can indicate to us is that there are some stances on disputable matters that are stronger and some that are weaker. Yet even in this, Paul instructs all people to refrain from condemning one another. Furthermore, in Romans 14:5 Paul goes on to say that, “Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind.”
So, while Paul declares which of these stances on the various issues are stronger or weaker, he also encourages everyone, even those whose faith he calls weaker, to be fully convinced of their convictions on these matters. Paul isn’t trying to change their minds. It appears that Paul would rather see the two perspectives learn to live together in peace and unity rather than to change everyone for the sake of uniformity.
This is where I get myself into trouble, and I suspect that you might as well. If I am fully convinced of my own convictions, as Paul instructs, I will naturally think that my position is stronger than that of those who hold differing convictions. What then becomes a temptation is to be condescending towards those of the opposing conviction. We may look down on them, criticize them, condemn them, or even call them names. Suddenly I feel the urge to mistreat others because of my “stronger” conviction.
No matter which side of an issue you land on, both sides are to be convinced of their own position. Both sides think that they have the stronger position and the stronger faith—and all too often this leads to quarrels and infighting and a tremendous lack of unity.
Both Positions Can Glorify God
The thing about these disputable matters is that no matter which position you hold, neither is inherently sinful and both positions can be used to bring glory to God through our lives. Yet how we respond to others because of our convictions about such matters often becomes sin. We gossip and slander. We drive wedges in congregations or even families. We treat others with contempt and hate instead of with love. We take something that is not a sin issue, and we use it as an excuse to justify sinful behaviour.
A Question Came to Mind
As I was pondering this, a question came to my mind: what if on every disputable issue I would choose to view myself as the one with a weaker faith, instead of viewing myself as the one with the stronger faith? Even while remaining fully convinced of my own convictions, how would that simple change of perspective change how I approach others in such situations?
If I am the weaker brother, instead of flaunting my superior theology I will be asking for grace and patience from others to bear with me in my convictions, by which I do my best to bring glory to God. Instead of being condescending towards those with different beliefs, I will humbly seek to live in peace with them instead of pummeling them with my own convictions. Instead of continually trying to make others “see the light” of my position, I might simply ask for the freedom and space to live out my convictions peaceably.
This kind of approach is not unprecedented in the Bible. In fact, in Mark 10:43 Jesus instructs his disciples that “whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant.” Even in the life and example of Jesus, we read in Philippians 2:7 that Jesus “made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant.” Another passage popular in Anabaptist circles is 1 Thessalonians 4:11, which tells us to “make it your goal to live a quiet life, minding your own business” (NLT).
For the Sake of Clarity
For the sake of clarity, let me say again that I am not referring to things that the Bible clearly and consistently defines as sin—that is an entirely different conversation. Sadly, Romans 14 sometimes gets misapplied. Even still, there is this entire category of things that Paul refers to as disputable matter.
In Galatians 5:15, Paul writes an interesting statement: “If you bite and devour each other, watch out or you will be destroyed by each other.” This seems like a redundant statement. If we devour each other, of course we will destroy one another. Yet how often do we forget this basic and simple truth?
A Weakness Can Show Strength
On these matters, there may very well be a stronger position or one that demonstrates a stronger faith. We typically think the stronger one is our own position—why else would we hold to it? Yet we have a choice. We can choose to view ourselves and behave as the stronger sister or brother, or as the weaker one. We must also remember that what our world considers strong is very different than the greatness described by Jesus. In behaving in ways our world would typically think of as weak, we are more likely to demonstrate the hallmarks of a strong faith.
Think about it this way: does viewing yourself as having the stronger faith or the weaker faith aid you in living out the fruits of the Spirit? Is it easier to demonstrate “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” if you view yourself as the superior one or if you view yourself as the weaker one (Gal. 5:22-23)?
Which view of ourselves makes it easier for us to bite, devour, and destroy one another, to give into the works of the flesh like hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions” (Gal. 5:20)? Which view of ourselves helps us to better, “serve one another humbly in love” (Gal. 5:13)?
So, I ask: how would your attitude, disposition, and approach to other believers change if you would view yourself as the one with the weaker faith? Even though you fully believe in your position, how would seeing yourself as the weaker sister or brother change how you treat others in these situations? Are you willing to view yourself as weak? If so, then you might just help the Church to be strong.
Kevin Wiebe, BA, is the senior pastor of New Life Christian Fellowship that meets in Stevenson, Ont. A longer version of this article first appeared in Mennonite World Review in October 2018.