Maintaining Harmony Amid Differences

The recently concluded national and local elections have exposed rifts or divisions among ourselves- fellow citizens, family members, the body of Christ including our own IVCF community. For Filipinos, elections are not just entertainment, they are also a passion. Politics by nature is partisan. Even as I write nagbabangayan pa rin ang magkabilang panig over the election results.

Is there anything that the word of God has to say about this situation? I believe Romans 14 provides some reflections and guidelines regarding differences that we find in the Body of Christ. The main issue that Paul deals here is standing in judgment over against each other over “disputable matters” (NIV; “opinions,” ESV).

Before we look at this, it will be helpful for us to know the context first.

The community in Rome is composed of Jewish and Gentile Christians. They are divided into what the apostle Paul calls “weak in faith” and “strong in faith.”  They are “weak” and ‘strong” relative to whether their faith or conviction (v. 23) allows them to eat certain food only (“weak) or all kinds (“strong), and whether one day is more sacred than other days (“weak”) or they are all the same (“strong”).

I believe that by analogy, we can apply “disputable matters/opinions” to certain things that the Reformers labelled as adiaphora (“things indifferent”).  Things neither commanded nor prohibited by the word of God. Things that do not go against the truth or the clear teachings of the gospel, i.e., doctrinal or moral issues. Things like political beliefs and choices.

What guidelines can we draw from this text? There are at least four, two negatives and two positives.

1. Do not judge or look down on others but instead accept each other

“Judge” or “judgment” is a key term here repeated several times (6x in the ESV). NLT has “condemn.” So it is not prohibiting criticism or using our critical faculties but “censoriousness, judging in the sense of passing judgment on or condemning” (John Stott). The “weak “ judge the strong, whereas the “strong” “despise” (ESV) or “look down” (NLT) on “the weak”. Neither is to be used against others who hold different opinions from us.

Instead of judgment or despising we are  to accept (ESV) or welcome (NIV) one another. We listen to and respect their opinions. We do not allow differences of opinion or political preferences to destroy our fellowship in Christ (also v. 20). 

Why is this? Because (a) God has accepted him/her (v. 3); (b) we are not lords or masters of each other. Only Christ is Lord and before him we stand or fall (v. 4). Each of us will give an account of ourselves to God (v. 12); (c) We are the Lord’s and we live (and die) to honor him. We don’t live for ourselves. Christ died and live so he could be our Lord. (vv. 6-9); (d) we are brothers and sisters (10a).  

2. Do not be a cause of stumbling or hindrance to each other but instead act in love

Condemning or despising a brother or a sister can cause him/her to stumble. We should not allow our freedom, our opinion, or even “pride in our spiritual maturity” to be the cause of another person’s spiritual  downfall or harm. Our actions or reactions can bring grief to (ESV) (“distress,” NIV and NLT) or even destroy (“ruin”) NLT (v. 15) others. They may even depart from the faith because of our actions. So, let’s be careful.

Instead, we act or walk in love (v. 15). Our freedom and choices, as in all aspects of the Christian life, should be governed by love (cf. I Cor. 13). I will not do anything or say anything that will cause a brother or sister to sin. I will speak the truth in love and in grace (Eph. 4:15, 25; John 1: 17).

3. Seek the kingdom of God above all

What matters most is the kingdom of God (v. 17). It is more than the basic essentials of life (eating and drinking). God’s reign or rule established in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit is the central message of the gospel. It is about righteousness (right relation to, and right action towards God and others), peace (wholeness and harmony), and joy in the Holy Spirit.

We are to proclaim this reign in words and action, as Jesus did. The kingdom is also characterized by justice (the Greek for both righteousness and justice is the same), truth, and gracious action (John 1:17; 18:37-38). It is this kingdom which ultimately matters, not human kingdoms or rulers (see Ps. 136:3-4), for its origin is not of this world or human agency (Jn 18:36). It is this kingdom which we seek first (Mt. 6:33) and whose truth we testify to. In other words we are to be people of truth and to be truth-tellers, as Jesus was.

In a world where fake news and disinformation particularly in the social media, and post-truth, where feelings and beliefs are more important than facts, pervade, it is our task to challenge falsehood and seek and promote truth.

4. Pursue peace and mutual edification

Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification (v. 19). We should put the concerns of others or the church above our own concerns. We must be willing to give up our own rights and freedom if that will lead to peace and the building up of others. However much we disagree, we must try to see the other person’s point of view and to understand it. We seek harmony amid our differences.

Some of our convictions about certain things we keep between us and God. We should not impose them upon others. We should all act according to our conscience or conviction (including our choices of political candidates). Do not let the scruples or opinions of others, or our own cognitive bias, dictate what you believe and do. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin (v. 23, ESV). In other words, whatever actions or choices we make it must flow from our faith and Christ’s lordship over our lives.   

Finally, we must seek forgiveness where we have hurt our brothers and sisters. What unites us in Christ and his kingdom is greater than what divides us.

George N. Capaque, Ph.D.

Chairman, IVCF Board of Trustees