Religious prudents are often the brunt of comedians’
jokes. In the longest running sitcom, MASH, Frank Burns was constantly in the
line of fire from Hawkeye, Honeycutt and BJ for his narrow minded religious
attitudes that were contradicted by his immoral escapades with Hot Lips. I
still cringe over the favorite response of the SNL Church Lady to a guest's
irreverent statements, “Well, isn’t that special!” And public statements from
the leaders of the religious right constantly supply Jay Leno, David Letterman,
and Ron Kimmel with material for their late night monologues. Religious
prudents are regularly portrayed as judgmental, legalists who are worried that
somewhere, someone is having fun.
This is a sad commentary on the witness of the church.
Jesus did not tell his disciples that the mark of followers would be their
strict adherence to a set of religious rules but rather, their love for one
another. The apostle Paul also spends a great deal of attention in his letters
instructing believers not to judge one another on the topics of eating meat,
circumcision, keeping certain days sacred and other disputable matters. His
attempt is to emphasize that since we are saved by grace, we must display a
great deal of liberty and freedom in our relationship with one another. Simply
because a religious practice is beneficial to you does not make it a
requirement for everyone else.
Unfortunately in response to this a general laxness
infected a great deal of the general church population. Not wanting to be seen
as fundamental extremists, the general population in many a church has become
just a little too accepting and just a little too tolerant. A fellow pastor
told me that he was asked by an elder not to say anything when a member of the
Board of Deacons won a wet T-shirt
contest at one of the local bars. The elder was afraid that the pastor and the
church would be viewed as too judgmental.
This was not Paul's concern when he cautioned the churches
in Rome about
“...passing judgment on disputable matters.” Paul throughout his letters always
advocated for a code of conduct that applied to moral and ethical behavior. The
church has always believed that the teachings of Christ require us to perform
deeds of charity and not to commit uncharitable deeds. In our baptismal vows we
ask the parents or the candidate for baptism to renounce evil and the ways of
sin and to turn to Jesus Christ. The
religious pendulum can swing in both directions and the excesses of both the
legalists and the tolerant are beyond the original intent of Scripture.
Within Paul's letter he provides several guidelines that
the church should use in its attempts to avoid the pitfalls of intolerance or
laxity. The first is contained in the opening verse of the chapter when Paul
tells us to “accept the person whose faith is ...Paul says weaker, I will say
different. His advice is obvious but our application of it is not. The PCUSA is
undergoing a very stressful time over the matter of sexuality. Some are arguing
that our sexual orientation is a matter determined by God and we should be
allowed to express it in whatever way is comfortable and fulfilling. Others
believe that humanity was created male and female because true sexual, psychological
and spiritual fulfillment can only be found when two become one flesh. Still
others wonder if we should consider this a “disputable matter” to preserve the
peace and unity of the church. The real difficulty is that it is such an
emotionally charged issue. Dialog is nearly impossible. The debates on the
floor of presbytery were once very contentious arguments. Both sides accused
the other of demeaning attacks and manipulative arguments. Now they have become
meaningless. Few people speak. Attendance for the Sunday school class that I
held last year on the subject was rather low. Both examples illustrate that the
subject is difficult to discuss. However, the particular issue is not the most
important component in the debate.
Issues come and go. Over the years the church has debated
the Christian response to many issues including but not limited to slavery,
serving in the military, the role of women in society, civil rights and even
the more trivial matters of attending movies, smoking and drinking. Many church
members have been lost during these debates not because the debates are not
important but because of the way we treated one another in the debates. Seldom
do opponents extend hands of acceptance. Seldom are they able to work together
in serving Christ. Seldom do they accept one another.
In their ordination vows, elders and deacons are called
upon to preserve the peace, unity and purity of the church. How does purity
exist without peace? How can unity exist in a contentious and hostile
environment? We deny the very gospel we proclaim unless we are able to maintain
an atmosphere of acceptance.
Paul advises the believers in Rome to be more accepting by not passing
judgment in disputable matters. In this admonition the apostle to the Gentiles
reveals a second element of wisdom in church matters. We must learn to
distinguish the disputable from the indisputable. “Let us be clear: Paul is not
suggesting that "anything goes." The list of reprehensible actions
and attitudes Paul cites in Romans 1:29-31 draws some stiff lines between right
and wrong behavior. Those who practice slander, maliciousness and deceit are
beyond the pale of Christian behavior.”
Our challenge is to determine if a matter is disputable or not.
During a committee meeting, the mood in the room became
rather tense as one side pressed for a particular issue that another group
opposed. Finally, a member of the neutral party asked, “Will any one die if we
do not do this or will any one die if we do it? Is this really a life and death
issue?” She was not arguing in favor or in opposition of the project. She was
simply trying to put things into perspective. Too often, the church gets into
arguments over matters that have absolutely no bearing on the eternal destiny
of anyone. Paul instructs the people of faith to separate the indisputable
issues from the disputable. What issues are of eternal importance? What have
only temporal value? However, even in our pursuit to distinguish, we must be
careful. John Stott states in his commentary on Romans that we must not turn
church into a debate chamber.
The questions can only be resolved amicably if we consider
Paul's third piece of advice. In verse 3, he writes “Each one should be fully
convinced in his own mind.” Whatever lifestyle we may choose, one thing is
clear for Paul, we must not choose it based upon convenience, peer pressure or
the latest fad. How we live and what we believe must be chosen based upon clear
convictions. This requires carefully, well thought out reasons. These reasons
require diligent study of both the Biblical material and scientific data.
The mindless fundamentalist that says, the Bible says so I
believe is as equally upsetting to me as the scientist who makes some bold
speculative statement about the evolutionary composition of the earth based
upon a shed of evidence. Both display an intellectual laziness. We cannot allow
our biases and prejudices to dictate our beliefs and values. We cannot be thoroughly
convinced unless we are willing to study and analyze the subject.
The session has decided that sexuality and ministry is not
a disputable matter when they relate to the ordination and installation of
elders and deacons. They will not ordain or install anyone who is not faithful
in a marriage between one man and one woman and celibate in singleness but do
we really understand the issues or have we made a decision based upon our
latent fears and prejudices. I do not believe that you can be accepting of
another person unless you have thoroughly studied the issue so that you have
heard your opponents position.
Let us not be afraid to distinguish the indisputable but
let us do so with a fully convinced and informed mind.
We Belong to The Lord
The final matter that Paul wants the church in Rome to recognize is that
they are not independent beings, but that they belong to the Lord. Each day we
live in the presence of Christ. Each moment Christ is looking over our
shoulders seeing what we see, feeling what we feel. “All life is lived in his
I wonder what difference it would make if we really considered that in every
debate, every tense conversation, or every argument Christ himself was
listening. I would hope that we would return to Paul's first insight and convey
and deeper acceptance of one another.
The world will continue to take potshots at people who
dare to stand as witnesses against our ‘anything goes’ culture. They will not
be satisfied until we turn our acceptance into our endorsement. That will only
be possible in disputable matters, but we will not know the difference unless
we are willing to devote time and attention to studying Scripture and the
latest books and articles on the subject so that we safely conclude that we are
fully convinced. Only by following Paul's insight will we be able to deflect
the comedians jokes. Only by listening to Paul's words will we have an
intelligent and authentic witness to the world of the love, compassion and
righteousness of God.