You can, unless you shouldn't

April 24th, 2017

How can Scripture inform the way we share our faith in the midst of disagreement? Christianity isn’t easy. “You can unless you shouldn’t, and you shouldn’t unless you should,” is the heart of Paul’s ethics in Romans. Romans is the last of Paul’s writings after spending years planting and leading churches, being inside of jail cells and arguing with church leaders about the gospel. The Romans message is quite different than his early writings because of this lived experience. Paul’s faith matured to realize that Christ did not come to establish a new, unchanging Law; rather we are called to improvise with the Holy Spirit based on the way Christ is shaping and forming us within a faith community. Another way to say this is that Paul offers “Accountable Permission” as the cornerstone of our shared Christian lives.

For example, “As Christians, should we or should we not eat meat that has been polluted by idols,” is the question Paul addresses in Romans 14. According to the Jerusalem Council, the answer is clearly “No”— “Therefore I [James, the brother of Jesus] have reached the decision that we should not trouble those Gentiles who are turning to God, but we should write to them to abstain only from things polluted by idols and from fornication and from whatever has been strangled and from blood.” (Acts 15:19-20)

The answer seems clear. When the Roman church asked Paul to settle this dispute, he should have looked in their discipline to see that the matter is settled, and eating this meat is clearly forbidden. Except, that is not what he does…

“Let us therefore no longer pass judgement on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling-block or hindrance in the way of another. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died. So do not let your good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. The one who thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and has human approval. Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual edification. Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for you to make others fall by what you eat; it is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother or sister stumble. The faith that you have, have as your own conviction before God. Blessed are those who have no reason to condemn themselves because of what they approve. But those who have doubts are condemned if they eat, because they do not act from faith; for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” (Romans 14:13-23)

Paul does not offer “to each his own,” nor does he outright forbid it according to what church leaders had urged. He says that permission is granted unless it causes someone to stumble, and those for whom this is a stumbling block are not to pass judgment on the other. Beautifully and prophetically he writes, “Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God.”

So, what is a church to do at a seemingly impossible impasse? Can we offer permission with great accountability? Can we live by Paul’s difficult “you can unless you shouldn’t, and you shouldn’t unless you should” ethic? We could make things easy, just choose a side, and proclaim the other is wrong, where one side is said to be polluted with idols and the other ignorant holy-rolling abstainers…

But that doesn’t sound like the gospel…

To those who are soon making difficult decisions, for God’s sake, don’t destroy God’s work for the sake of “food.”

Matt Rawle is the author of the forthcoming What Makes a Hero? The Death-Defying Ministry of Jesus.

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