“You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat.” Romans 14:10
I remember being puzzled as a teenager when baptized females wore jewelry. I spoke with the pastor about that and my argument was, “how can these people love God and wear jewelry, knowing it is against his will and it makes him sad?” Interestingly enough, years later I found myself in a similar situation but on the other side. One student coworker approached me with a very serious voice and said, “Petr, I know you study theology and love God. You prayed for me and blessed me. But one thing is really puzzling me. How can you have a wedding ring if you know how it makes God sad?” That was an interesting twist. For me, to wear a ring with my wife’s name on it has been a symbol of being married to a treasure sent by God and a clear sign to anyone around about my commitment to her...
Towards the end of his letters, Paul usually dealt with practical issues related to everyday Christian life, and so he did in the letter to the Romans. After reminding them of the importance of loving relationships and warning against immorality in Romans 13, he wrote about mutual acceptance in spite of differences (Rom 14:1,4,10,13,22,23).
When the Christian community grew diverse, and people with different cultural and/or religious backgrounds joined, the unity of the early church (as described in Acts 2:42–47) was “threatened.” At least this is how a number of people might have perceived it. One way to deal with this threat was to address the theological and religious issues. Apparently some believers in those days tried to do that. They showed their love by pointing out what is wrong with the others (at least according to their opinion). Before long, quarrels “over disputable matters” (14:1) were in place.
Paul mentioned two examples of disputable matters—clean/unclean food and sacred day/days. These two topics not only sound familiar but get pretty personal. Where I grew up, Seventh-day Adventists were known (if they were known) as those not eating pork and observing Saturday. What a coincidence. I am glad Paul brought these two items not in heated theological discussion (against or for), but to promote the important Christian virtue/value of not judging others/oneself for theological or religious differences.
From Paul’s words it appears that not judging or accepting other people was not really a common practice, but it was something unique Jesus modeled. And Paul pleaded with the believers to follow the example of Jesus Christ (15:5). Not theological or religious uniformity but worshipping God and the Lord Jesus Christ together was a foundation for true unity (see 15:6). Corporate worship of God has been the ultimate value that united believers and provided the basis for accepting one another (15:7). Christians were encouraged to strive for peaceful harmony and corporate growth (14:9). Meeting/accepting each other was for the good of growing together (15:2).
But not to judge is not so easy or is it? Sincerity does not necessarily prevent us from judging. Zealousness and religious fervor will not stop us from passing destructive criticism. So how do we answer questions asked in Roman 14:10? For some, condemning may come out of the lack of understanding of other people or circumstances; for others, such behavior may flow out of conviction and religious duty or as a learned behavioral pattern, particularly in a spiritually abusive environment. Judging others may also happen subconsciously as an inner defense mechanism. Treating people with contempt may be fuelled by fear, guilt, hurt, or be simply a sign of personal insecurity.
As Christians and followers of Jesus, we are all more or less on a journey of healing. It is hard to stop judging and condemning, whether knowingly or unknowingly. But we can ask God to help us to experience his unconditional loving acceptance every day in order to live more in balance. Living in balance (spiritual, emotional or physical) is a way to learn to accept others with whom we may not share the same theological views, cultural values, or religious opinions.
Personally, I find myself in a more critical/judgmental to others mode when I am out of balance:
- physically (lack of sleep, lack of exercise, lack of fresh air, etc.)
- emotionally (depressed, rejected, fearful, insecure, etc.)
- spiritually (feel guilty, unforgiving, disconnected, etc.)
To live as accepting people, and not judging those we may not agree with, requires a wholesome balance (spiritual, emotional or physical).
As a missionary to secular atheists in the Czech Republic, I learned the power of accepting and loving those we were trying to reach out for Christ but did not share beliefs with. We mingled with those, who would most probably never come to church, who grew up in a culture very critical to church, where the majority was angry with God. At one point, a handful of students in my English class showed interest in starting a Gospel Choir. They liked the genre and they did not mind the religious content because it was not their native language. In the last eleven years, the choir grew from seven to over 100 singers. Although for a long time these people did not attend worship service or a corporate Bible study, a close-knit loving community developed united in singing beautiful religious songs worshipping God and Jesus. The last song of a recent concert (December 16, 2017), with a guest singer from Andrews University, was an amazing experience demonstrating the long-term outcomes of accepting and loving people most of which do not share our beliefs and/or theological views (here is the video: https://youtu.be/CZzOwxwv1vc).
Petr Cincala is assistant professor of World Mission and director of the Institute of Church Ministry at the Seventh-day Adventist Theological Seminary on the campus of Andrews University.
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