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The Rev. Dr. John H. Pavelko


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24th Sunday in Ordinary Time

Romans 14:1-12

Learning to Judge Without Being Judgment


Religous Prudents

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.

Acceptance

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.

Distinguish

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.”[1] 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.

Fully Convinced

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 eye.”[2] 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.



[1]   “Anywhere Goes,” HomeliticsOnline, September 15, 1996 available by subscription [online] www.homeliticsonline, accessed September 9, 2005.

[2]   The Letter to the Romans. Edited by Barclay, William, lecturer in the University of Glasgow. The Daily study Bible series, Rev. ed. Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 2000, c1975.

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