Summary: Among those who are called and claimed by God, there are a variety of different beliefs and practices, but those differences are secondary. What is of primary importance is living in faith before God.
There’s an old story about a stranger who came into a small town one day and stood in the center of the town square. He had on a very strange coat. It was black, and sewn into it were patches of cloth of all sizes, shapes, and colors. Word quickly spread of this strange visitor, and pretty soon, the townspeople gathered around in curious silence. Finally, a brave soul dared to ask about the significance of the man’s unique coat.
The stranger immediately began to point to different patches and explained that they represented the sins of different people in the town. He proceeded to explain each patch. Embarrassed, some people left the square. Others were indignant, while others shook their heads in denial of the stranger’s accusations. After describing every patch and denouncing every sin, the man turned around and headed out of town. As he went, the townspeople noticed that on his back was a dark patch of cloth that covered almost his entire back. Obviously, the townspeople wondered out loud what, and whose sin that patch represented. As they wondered and murmured, suddenly, a voice rang out loud and clear; “That represents his own sin, for he is willing to point out the shortcomings of others and yet fails to see his own.”
You remember those words from Jesus, “Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye?” The idea is the same here from Paul in these words to the Romans we heard a few moments ago. Only Paul isn’t talking in sweeping generalities. There’s a specific problem of division and judgment among the Roman Christians, and Paul is tackling it head-on. You see, the Jewish people have a deep history of dietary restrictions. They can eat meat, but only certain kinds of meat that has been prepared in very specific ways. So, in order to ensure that they were not inadvertently breaking any of their dietary laws, Jews and Jewish Christians of Paul’s day would often avoid meat altogether, choosing to stick with a vegetarian diet. However, the Gentile Christians did not have such dietary restrictions. So they, even after their conversions, went about eating meat if they desired.
The result of these varying practices was that each camp was being exclusive of the other. They felt that because of “their beliefs”, they were the only true Christians. The Jews excluded the Gentiles because the Gentiles did not stick to kosher meats or a vegetarian diet. And the Gentiles reviled the Jews because of their strict legalism. 2,000 years ago, Christians were fighting about diets. And we’re still fighting about stuff today, aren’t we? By comparison, we can probably think of numerous controversies about which we too are so passionate that we cannot honestly avoid portraying our opponents as misguided and completely confused in faith. In fact, it’s not just that we question the validity of the faith of our opponents on these issues, the opposing views often also become the basis for denying fellowship to those who think differently from us. Do some of those issues come to mind?: homosexuality, abortion, capital punishment, evolution, creationism, ordination of women, and on and on and on. Whatever your stance on such issues, if you see any controversy dividing the church today as a basis for exclusion of fellowship, then Paul is speaking to you.
I hope we are all squirming just a little bit now. Because how many times has someone walked through the doors of the church and we have thought to ourselves, “That person shouldn’t be coming to ‘my’ church”? This is something we are all guilty of doing, just like the Roman Christians. And what Paul said to the Romans and to us is that so-called “issues,” or even “hot-button issues” should not divide us, should not be a reason for judgment and even exclusion. Indeed, there are some beliefs which should be common to all Christians. They are contained in our creeds, they are captured in the questions asked of new Christians wishing to be baptized and join a church. Do you repent of your sin? Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil? Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior and promise to serve him as your Lord? These beliefs speak the truth of the nature of God the Father, the saving work of Jesus Christ his Son, and the continuing power of the Holy Spirit at work in God’s church and in the lives of believers. They don’t speak to the issues of our day because one’s beliefs on such issues are not pertinent to one’s faithfulness as a Christian. John Wesley, the founder of Methodism put it this way: “But as to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think.”