This message was shared by Luke Charles on Sunday September 26, 2021.
Scripture Reading: Rom 14:13-23
It may seem like a long, long time ago, but let’s try to put ourselves in the situation we found ourselves in during March of last year. We were all beginning to realize that something was happening that was going to be very significant, and it was going to be bad. The disease itself was scary and unknown. We knew that it was contagious and deadly enough that other countries from China to Italy chose to send their populations into isolation and shut down their economies. As things began to shut down here at home, I think my biggest shock was when sporting events were canceled. What kind of catastrophe could lead Americans to give up sports!!
Everything was up in the air, and even though cultural battle lines were starting to form, no one really knew what to expect or what they believed. There were no vaccines on the horizon, the government was discouraging the use of masks, and none of us could buy toilet paper. It was a time of change and uncertainty.
As the pandemic picked up steam, many of us began to worry not only about the disease, but about all of the economic, social, and psychological consequences of the counter-measures being rolled out in an unprecedented manner. And what of the spiritual consequences? How should the church respond to the growing needs while also being told that we could not meet in person?
Even early on, as this was all unfolding, I remember hearing variations of a question forming within the community of Believers. I know I heard it developing in my own conversations, I read it in blogs and posts from believers online, and we heard it from our pastors here at Millerville. The question, more or less, was this: “What is God trying to teach us through this pandemic… That we need to learn… and that we might only learn through this pandemic?”
Over the past six months or so, I have come to the growing conviction that part of the answer to this question is that God is calling the American Church, including us here in Millersville, to repent and learn in new ways to exercise godly attitudes when we have disagreements about matters of conscience.
Here are a few verses from Hebrews 12:
- (Heb 12:11-14) No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it. Therefore, strengthen your feeble arms and weak knees. “Make level paths for your feet,” so that the lame may not be disabled, but rather healed. Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy; without holiness no one will see the Lord.
Here, in this passage about learning from hardship, we find this seemingly impossible instruction: “Make every effort to live in peace with everyone and to be holy.” How can we be holy while also living at peace with everyone? Will we all have the same understanding of what it means to be holy? Clearly, that is not the case. So what should we do with our disagreements?
Some disagreements are indeed about things that define us and are non-negotiable. Let’s call these things “Core Issues”. These things are divisive by nature. In the church, these might be things like basic doctrine and teachings about behavior. But how do we identify which things are “Core Issues”? That requires the guidance of the Holy Spirit working in a community to discern. But one human tendency we should recognize is that during times of upheaval or tension, it is tempting to see everything as a “Core Issue”. We see this in the early church when gentiles began joining in large numbers. Some believers wanted to require the gentiles to conform to all of the Jewish law. The leaders of the church recognized that this was dividing the church, and they chose to limit the “Core Issues” at that time to (1) sexual morality and (2) abstaining from food sacrificed to idols. So while we see that there are indeed “Core Issues” that should not be compromised, we also see that we should show restraint and avoid the natural tendency to make everything a “Core Issue”. The desire to define “Core Issues”, if unchecked, is a divisive force, pushing us all away from each other.
So what will hold us together? Thankfully, God has given us the “Glue” that we need to hold together in his will. The “Glue” is, simply, that we should each individually demonstrate grace and self-restraint in matters of conscience. In scripture, there is a distinction between what I have been calling “Core Issues”, and what I will call “Matters of Conscience”. The teachings about “Core Issues” are the things that define the Body, but the teachings about “Matters of Conscience” are the “Ligaments and Muscles” that hold the body together and get the work done.
“Matters of Conscience” cover many more aspects of life than the “Core Issues”. There will never be complete agreement on these many issues, even within the Church, which is something we need to accept. However, this is not an excuse for us to ignore our conscience or simply do as we please. No, in scripture we read:
- That we are to continue working out our salvation with fear and trembling
- That everything that does not come from faith is sin
- That if anyone knows the good they ought to do, and doesn’t do it, that it is sin for them.
- That we should not go on sinning, in spite of God’s grace, because we have died to sin
- That we should be perfect, as our heavenly father is perfect.
So, no, there is no excuse to ignore our conscience and do as we please. We should each be actively seeking the Holy Spirit’s guidance for our conscience, and preparing our hearts to yield when we are convicted. But, if our own conscience should be so sensitive, how should we approach our brothers and sisters who come to different conclusions?
Paul addresses this clearly with several of the hot-topic issues of his day. Here are two examples where Paul addresses the issue of eating food sacrificed to idols. And remember, eating food sacrificed to idols was not a small issue. As I mentioned earlier, it had actually been on the very early Church’s short-list of “Core Issues”:
- (Rom 14) Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.
- (1 Cor 8:9-13) 9 Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. For if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if what I eat causes my brother or sister to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause them to fall.
Here we see these three principles demonstrated:
- We should sincerely follow our own conscience with the Holy Spirit.
- We can not get out of our responsibility to live by our conscience. We should submit our own conscience to the Lord.
- Where we have conviction, we should show grace to others.
- We don’t know what’s in their hearts and minds. We can not judge others’ hearts, that is for God alone.
- Where we have freedom, we should show restraint for the benefit of others.
- Our actions affect others, and they also have a consciences. We can not just do as we please at the expense of our brother or sister.
Maybe this strikes us as obvious Christian teaching? Maybe not? But if we think about our natural human tendencies, we can see how radical this teaching really is.
- What do we naturally want to do with our conscience? We want to ignore it, so that we can do whatever we want. We want to define right and wrong for ourselves, without accountability to God.
- What do we want to do when we have a conviction? We want to judge others, assume the worst, and force them to comply with and accept our conviction. We don’t want to show grace, compassion, or love.
- What do we want to do when we have freedom? We want to do as we please. Maybe we want to flaunt our freedom in front of anyone who disagrees, or maybe we want to get away from them altogether. But we don’t want to limit our behavior.
- This is the ugly truth about ourselves, and this is why we need the grace of God!
So how does this relate to the pandemic, and why would God use the pandemic to teach us about conscience, grace, and restraint? One reason, I believe, is that the pandemic was not inherently political, or religious, and didn’t fall on any major fault line that ought to have been there. If we were healthy as a church and society, we should have been able to show grace and restraint, realizing that the same confusing, scary, new problem was happening to all of us at once. On the other hand, if we were missing the “Glue” of grace and restraint, it would show this clearly, because it brought up many new and difficult “matters of conscience”. Questions like:
- Should I wear a mask?
- Should I visit with friends?
- Should we gather in person as a church body? If so, where, how?
- Should I help someone if it means breaking the rules?
- What does it mean to submit to the authorities? Which authorities?
- Should I obey the government if they overstep their authority? Who decides when that happens?
- Is following mandates a sign of conforming to a worldly system, or a sign of loving my neighbor?
- How should I weigh risk of the disease against the side-affects of the mitigation strategies?
- Who or what should I trust to keep me safe?
- Who should I trust for information?
- Should I prioritize physical health or emotional well-being?
- Should I be vocal about my beliefs, or keep them to myself?
As the pandemic rolled in last year, how did we respond to all of these new, hard questions as a country? As a church? As individuals? If this was a test, how did we do? Did we show good evidence of the “glue”, of the ligaments and muscles of grace and restraint, that hold us together? In some ways, I think we can say yes. But unfortunately, I think we can also recognize that the atmosphere, in society and in the church, has been more divisive and antagonistic than it should have been. We have probably all even found ourselves participating in cultural divisions and self-righteous stereotyping of people who disagree with us. Possibly we’ve had open conflict with loved ones or lost relationships, or at least we know people who have. I believe that the incredible amounts of both political and personal strife over the past 18 months have only been symptoms of a disease that was already well under way before 2020 rolled around.
I am not a psychologist or a sociologist, but I think that in my lifetime I have seen a decrease in our cultural empathy and our ability to understand, talk to, and tolerate people who believe and behave differently than us. This may be because of social changes, economic challenges, technological changes, or any number of other reasons, but I think the trend is clear. And, unfortunately, I believe the church in general has been an active part of this decrease in empathy and in the increasing polarization. This may partly be because the church has been under pressure from inside and outside to really let go of “Core Issues” altogether, and through that challenge we have been tempted to react by focusing too much on defining “Core Issues”. However, a healthy church must have the glue as well.
The tendency to make everything a “Core Issue” during times of upheaval and disagreement is not limited to the Church, but also plays out in the society around us. Scholars have studied the personal and societal progression of conflict escalation. Some of the common steps found in their models include the (1) emergence of a disagreement, then (2) forming settled beliefs that cannot be challenged, then (3) forming “camps” to reinforce our own belief, then (4) abandoning dialogue and process, then (5) demonizing the opposition, and finally (6) full-scale conflict. I studied some of these models in a conflict resolution course last year, and I remember wondering about what stage we are at as a nation. Have we already split into camps? Are we already well on our way toward self-destruction. Has our culture lost the ability to show grace, mercy, and empathy to those we disagree with? Have we lost that ability within the church? Are we like that frog in the pot that doesn’t recognize that something is wrong until it’s too late? I believe that through the pandemic God is giving us a chance to recognize a crisis before it’s too late.
I also believe that God’s primary strategy for influencing society is by transforming the church, and that the church should be the example that brings healing to the nation. And the transformation of the church happens by the transformation of individuals. In Philippians we are called to treat each other with Christ’s humility, even willing to die, and to do everything without arguing and complaining, and that this will make us shine like stars in our generation. While showing grace and restraint in our everyday lives may feel small and insignificant, if we do this with the guidance of the Spirit, that we can be set apart from the world we live in to be used by the Spirit as instruments of peace. When the next bad thing comes rolling down on us, I pray that we will have been formed by our experiences over the past year and half in the way that God intended, Through this we can all be part of God’s plan, even to redeem, in some small way, this bad thing that we’ve all endured together.