We live in a very intolerant world. Although tolerance is held up as a virtue, it is not practiced in reality. Tolerance is used as a weapon against those who think differently. Christians are constantly being berated for being intolerant, while those doing the accusing have no tolerance for sincerely held Christian beliefs.
This wave of intolerance has washed into the Church. There are many, along the complete line of orthodox Christianity, who feel that anyone who interprets this faith journey differently than they do is wrong and should be avoided. Instead of loving one another as brothers and sisters in Christ, we cast stones at one another. Is there room, within the body of Christ, for different views on certain matters?
There are certain foundational components of the faith that are just not open to debate. John hits at the heart of this in 1 John 4:1-3. Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world. This is how you can recognize the Spirit of God: Every spirit that acknowledges that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is from God, but every spirit that does not acknowledge Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you have heard is coming and even now is already in the world. In order to be a follower of Christ, we must accept certain foundational truths such as the existence of God, the authority of the Bible, the reality of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus and the salvation by faith in Christ alone.
When it comes to the practice of our faith in everyday life, we enter into a different level of experience. It is clear that the Bible forbids certain immoral behaviors. The acts of the sinful nature are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. (Galatians 5:19-21) On the other hand, there is a wide array of behaviors that are neutral by nature, where we have the freedom to pick our course.
Paul confronted this issue in Romans 14:1-8. Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. One man's faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him. Who are you to judge someone else's servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.
One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.
Here is the catch in what Paul writes. We all believe we are the stronger brother, therefore, the burden to be open and accepting falls on our shoulders. It is a sign of spiritual weakness when we cast stones at those who view disputable matters differently than we do. Many in Paul’s day would have loudly protested that these are not disputable matters. Paul is making the point that these are not issues of salvation, but personal responses to our environment. Whether a person eats meat or not is not a salvation issue.
Let’s bring this up to where we live. One of the saddest developments in the contemporary Church is what has been called the worship wars. At first, it centered around styles of music. It has now expanded to the format and presentation of worship. Some people like more traditional music and more formal styles of worship. Some people like more upbeat music and more informal styles of music. Some people believe a worship service should be solemn and reverential, while others believe worship should be energetic and celebratory. Both sides tend to develop tunnel vision. Both sides find fault with the other. Yet, in reality, neither is right or wrong inherently. Each has the potential to reach a different group of people with the truth of the Gospel.
As committed followers of Jesus, we need to be careful that we don’t confuse method with message. The message of the Gospel is true and unchanging. We should never compromise the Gospel of Jesus Christ to fit in with the world around us. The methods we use to communicate the Gospel are dynamic, flexible and constantly changing. In order to win a hearing from a secular, unbelieving world, we need to be able to connect with them. If our method of worship alienates them or leaves them cold, then we have lost our opportunity to speak into their lives. On the other hand, if our method becomes more important than the message, we have slipped into the world of entertainment. We live in a dynamic tension of firmly holding onto the message and loosely holding onto our methods. The message can never change. Our methods must change.
Paul lived in the uncomfortable battle zone of relating the unchanging message of Jesus to a diverse and ever changing world. Paul challenged Timothy to stay true to the Gospel message. In the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who will judge the living and the dead, and in view of his appearing and his kingdom, I give you this charge: Preach the Word; be prepared in season and out of season; correct, rebuke and encourage--with great patience and careful instruction. For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths. But you, keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry. (2 Timothy 4:1-5)
At the same time, Paul modeled flexibility in his method of presenting the Gospel to his world. Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God's law but am under Christ's law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all men so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings. 1 Corinthians 9:19-23
Satan loves it when Christians get caught up in internal arguments about non-essential things. We can go a long way to improve our image and advance the Gospel, if we will agree to disagree on these “disputable matters.”