Interim Pastor Doug Marshall
Christians exist to demonstrate to our culture that true freedom is being yoked to what
is true – Jesus. Stanley Hauerwas, in The Door Interview
Christian Freedom – from Things Indifferent
Church is supposed to be the place where we worship God, where we grow in our faith, and where we love each other. Unfortunately, that doesn’t always happen. Sometimes the conflicts of the world are mirrored in the church. I have Christian friends, liberal and conservative. Sometimes their arguments about issues gets nasty. Christians are passionate about the topics that matter to us, which is good. But when our passion is combined with hatred and meanness, it turns into conflict that is not what God wants.
Sharon Church knows this all too well. The conflict that happened here a few years ago had a significant impact on the people of this church, and on the congregation as a whole. I sense that we have moved beyond the worst of the conflict, though I’m sure there are still issues that have not been completely resolved. We are moving into a wonderful new future, though that will include other disagreements and differences. What I’d like to suggest this morning is a new way to think about the topics over which we disagree, and share a few ideas about how we might handle these issues differently.
Many of our disagreements are not worth fighting about, at least at the level of intensity we tend to argue. Most issues are not right or wrong, black or white. Tanya and I had our first fight after we were married about French toast. She was making it one way and I had a different understanding of how it ought to be made. The level of intensity started building up until we realized, we were talking about French toast. It wasn’t worth destroying our marriage and each other over something so idiotic.
In our passage from Romans Paul talks about “quarreling over opinions” (Romans 14:1). The Greek word for opinion is “dialogue,” which literally means two words. There are two different thoughts about the same issue, two different ways to understand the situation. That is not always the case. There are some issues that only have one answer. Paul is very adamant about some topics.
Let me suggest that there are only two issues that all Christians must agree on. These issues were decided in the early church, at least by the fourth century. The first has to do with Jesus. By definition, all Christians believe that Jesus is fully God and fully human – the doctrine of the incarnation. Jesus died for our sins and was raised from the dead. Salvation is found in and through Jesus. The second issue has to do with the Trinity, that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. All three are God yet there is only one God.
On every other topic it is okay to disagree because there is more than one right answer. John Calvin, the 16th century reformer, called those issues “things indifferent.” Here is the good news that I hope will help us as we face other issues. We have freedom in things indifferent. We can disagree about these issues and that doesn’t make one of us right and one of us wrong. These issues are not essential to the gospel.
Paul mentions two issues that caused conflict in the early church . The first was food. Are Christians allowed to eat anything and everything, or are there foods that Christians should not eat? The second group only ate vegetables. This wasn’t the modern debate about being vegetarian or even vegan. It had a religious and spiritual aspect.
Two thousand years ago, if you wanted to eat meat you didn’t look at the ads and see what was on sale or go to Giant Eagle to see what looked good. You went to the market, which was located right next to the temple. As part of a worship service an animal would be sacrificed to whatever the god was being worshipped in that place. Part of the animal would be burnt on the altar. Part of it would be given to the priest to feed his family. Part of it would be given to the person who brought the sacrifice, to feed his family. If there was any left it would be taken to the market next door and sold.
Therefore, if you bought meat from a market you were probably buying meat that had been sacrificed to an idol in a service of worship. Some Christians believed that it was okay to eat this meat. Others believed that it wasn’t – it was idolatry. It was participating in the worship of that other god. Paul didn’t have a problem eating the meat, but he didn’t condemn those who held a different perspective.
The second issue Paul talked about had to do with whether some days are holier than others and ought to be celebrated, or whether all days are equally holy and important to God. Exactly what Paul was referring to is not clear. The early church included Gentiles who had grown up with certain pagan holidays. They may have wanted to keep some of those traditions. Some of our Christian holidays, like Christmas, are pagan holidays that have been Christianized. There were also Jews in the early church. They had a variety of holy days – the Passover and the Day of Atonement. They also had the sabbath, with all the laws that described how people were to keep the sabbath holy. Paul may even have been referring to the shift that happened in the early church from worshipping on the sabbath, which was on Saturday to worshipping on the Lord’s Day, which is Sunday. Whatever the issue was, Paul’s message is that it doesn’t really matter what you think about certain days being holier than others. We can disagree about that, especially if we keep our focus on using those days to worship and give thanks to God.
Throughout history worship has probably caused more fights than any other topic. Not only what day of the week should we worship. What is the meaning of the Lord’s Supper, how should we celebrate it, and who is allowed to participate? In recent years churches have fought what are called “worship wars” which have to do with what type of music do we sing in worship. We think this is new but it has been around for hundreds of years if not longer. I spent 9 ½ years at Beulah Church. While I was there we had people who only wanted to sing hymns, not these contemporary songs that had guitars and maybe even drums. About 1.5 miles away is the Hebron Church, which split off from Beulah more than a hundred years ago because some people believed you should only sing Psalms and others wanted to sing these fancy new hymns.
Of course, Christians have argued about other topics. Is it okay for Christians to drink alcohol, go dancing or play cards? Today we may not argue about these issues but they have caused plenty of conflict. While I was in my church in Colorado I read through the session minutes. At one point, I think back in the 1920’s, the session recorded in their minutes that they had called a member of the church before the board to examine him on the rumors that he had been playing cards and going to dances. Good Christians did not do those things, and if he was going to continue these practices he would no longer be allowed to be a member of the church. We laugh at that now, but people were passionate about those issues. Today we have just as much passion. It’s just that the issues are different. Over the past forty years the Presbyterian Church has argued about sexuality and homosexuality, and a variety of other topics. Every General Assembly we bring up new issues and argue about them.
Let me suggest three ways to deal with situations when we find ourselves disagreeing with others. First, we need to start our conversations with the areas that we agree. Start with those things we have in common. In other words, start with Jesus.
I have a colleague in ministry who is a wonderfully talented pastor. She and I disagree about one of the hot-button issues in the Presbyterian Church, homosexuality. I tend to take a more conservative view of what is right and wrong in thinking about sexuality and she takes a more liberal view. However, I am convinced that Christ is at work in her life and ministry. We have shared our stories of faith and even though we disagree on this one topic, there is no way we will allow it to divide us.
When we start with who Jesus is and what he is doing in our lives, and we know that Christ is at the center of both our lives and faith, we have the freedom to disagree on things indifferent. We can disagree without destroying the relationship.
Second, we must be guided in our lives and in our beliefs by the Scriptures. As we dialogue and argue about these topics of disagreement we must seek to follow the teaching of the Bible, which is God’s Word. Every week we say it, “This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.” If we believe that this really is God’s word, we must read it, seek to understand it and obey it. In other words, we are not free to make our own decisions about these topics. We are called to seek God’s word and follow what God wants.
As Christians we ought to use our minds to study the issues. Science can teach us a lot about how we should act and what we should do. Our traditions are another good source of guidance as we seek to discern what God wants. Our own feelings and desires are also worth exploring. However, the ultimate authority for our lives is God’s Word, the Bible. When we are arguing about something, whether it is homosexuality, racism, the Lord’s Supper, the music we use in worship, or any other issue, we must always seek to understand what God wants by turning to the Bible.
Third, as we use our freedom in things indifferent, we must use it in love, not in a way that harms others, even if we disagree with them. This is what Paul said in the passage from 1 Corinthians. We are free to eat food that has been sacrificed to idols. There really is only one God. Jesus is Lord, so food that is sacrificed to some other god is insignificant. It won’t hurt us and isn’t idolatry. However, if we use our freedom to eat food in a way that hurts someone else because they think differently about eating the food, we are in the wrong.
We shouldn’t use our freedom for our own benefit, but to help others. I think a modern parallel is alcohol. I believe it is okay to drink alcohol, at least in moderation. However, if someone else has an alcohol problem and struggles with alcohol, and if our drinking causes them problems, we should use our freedom to drink by not drinking, so that the other person is not harmed. We must use our freedom in love.
These ideas won’t stop the conflict in our world. The problems of our world are far deeper and the solutions far more complex than I can understand, much less explain. I simply offer these ideas as ways we can respond to the disagreements in this church and in our own lives, the arguments, the conflicts about things indifferent. As we deal with our problems let us start with where we agree, start with our faith in Jesus. Second, as we discuss the issues let us search God’s Word and seek to understand what God has to say about the issue. Third, as we disagree let us use our freedom in love. Let us love each other, as we have been loved.