The Sweet and the Sour
When it comes to sweet and sour chicken, I am a fan; although I’ve never actually made it myself. As many would know, my relationship with food is pretty straightforward: I am a consumer, not a producer. I demand. Others supply. All with a grateful smile of course!
Despite my complete lack of sweet and sour cooking expertise, I’m going to venture a guess that there might be something sweet and something sour somewhere in the mix. In Gayline’s version, the sweet and sour is a mix of brown sugar and vinegar; neither of which pleases much on its own. But when put together, something different from either is produced; and it’s delicious. Add in chicken, pineapple, onions, peppers, and assorted other ingredients, and a whole new and improved flavor is created. Here’s the point: without the different, the better would not exist.
Sweet and Sour Opinions
The same goes for relationships in the Body of Christ. “Different” is what the Church is made of. Different people. Different generations. Different genders. Different spiritual journeys to Christ. Different cultures. Different colors. Different ideas. Different gifts. Different loyalties. Different passions. Different righteous causes. Different opinions. What God is doing in and through the church is a mix of sweet and savory that only he can concoct. But he is determined to make it work, because, as with food, so with people: without the different, the better would not exist.
In my previous post I suggested the possibility that “full agreement [or sameness] might actually stunt our growth. I suspect that God intends our diverse, strongly divergent opinions to accentuate our beauty. Perhaps we were meant to be different—and sometimes radically so—to balance and enhance each other; to make us mutually beneficial streams of grace-enriched humanity flowing into each other’s life, transforming us into something more stunningly beautiful than we would otherwise be.” I think this is more than a possibility. Given what our Lord promises in Romans 8:28, it is safe to stake our lives on it. Different is what we need. The sweet and the sour in our experiences, perspectives, and opinions are part of the all things that work together for our good. They are essential ingredients for a better spiritual feast.
Welcome One Another
The apostle Paul has some things to say about sweet and sour opinions in the church; that mix of opinions for which God has a sanctifying purpose. I know it’s a bit long, but I’d encourage you to click Romans 14:1—15:7 to read what he has to say. Paul’s main point bookends our text—“As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions…Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (14:1; 15:7).
In this installment of our Love one Another series we begin to consider God’s command to welcome one another—and particularly to welcome the anothers in our lives who have opinions different from our own. We are called to welcome each other in Christ, even as God has welcomed us all in Christ. The word is a hospitality word, encouraging us to receive others, and to invite them into our hearts in order to embrace them in fellowship, communion, and unity. We are not to keep differing people and opinions at a distance, but to welcome them in; with a commitment not to quarrel about the varying opinions we each may hold. This is a tall order, given how closely and boldly we embrace our opinions. But Paul’s point in Romans 14 is that united love, righteousness, peace, and joy in the indisputable and essential truth of God in Jesus Christ, are more important than all our opinions about anything else (Romans 14:13-17).
Paul has in mind here what he exhorts elsewhere—“Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies; you know that they breed quarrels. And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone… patiently enduring evil…with gentleness” (2 Timothy 2:23-25). You and I need to learn how to do this, so that we can welcome others genuinely, as we should. I’m hoping that my next few posts will help us to that end.
Know that We Are Not the First Christians to Face This
Let’s begin by realizing that we are not the first Christians to face the challenge of strong divergent opinions about things about which we care. Romans 14 was written to people who were going through circumstances very similar to our own. As you read Romans 14:2-5 you might get the wrong impression that early Christians issues were trivial compared to ours. But to the contrary, first century debates about holy days and diet were rooted in deep cultural traditions and convictional differences; not to mention long-standing ethnic prejudice and oppression.
These were not mere debates about whether there should be red meat on the menu or red-letter “holy” dates on the calendar. They were debates about which culture and traditions were superior. They were arguments between people who saw the world through very different eyes, and thought that their vision was best. In the Roman Church—as in nearly all New Testament churches—there were privileged and powerful Romans (viewed by non-Romans as oppressors), Greek intellectuals, uneducated and uncouth barbarians, Jewish religious purists (with lots of religious privilege as God’s ancient people), current slaves along with their masters, ethnic outcasts, male and female sexists, immigrant dark-skinned Africans, and the very much despised white-skinned Scythians (descendants of fearsome, hard-drinking, pot-smoking warrior tribes) (Romans 1:13, 14; Galatians 3:28; Colossians 3:11). This is not to mention the assortment of former alcoholics, adulterers, gays, thieves, swindlers and molesters that though saved and transformed, surely brought their own guilt and shame baggage into the early church (1 Corinthians 6:9-11).
This conglomeration of the different meant that the Roman church (along with other New Testament churches) included all the ingredients of stubborn ethnic prejudice, political oppression, educational disparity, class disadvantage, liturgical preferences, and cultural styles—all of which required frequent apostolic rebuke, accompanied by commands to prioritize unity over opinions and preferences. In New Testament churches, sweet and sour were part of the mix, and they very often threatened the unity and peace of the church.
All this tells me—and should tell us all—that race and class distinction, together with tribalism, power-struggles, religious superiority and inferiority complexes, prejudices, and partiality are not new; but are an ever-present moral pandemic—a pervasive human disease infecting all of world and church history. If our churches have these problems, we are at least in good company. New Testament churches had them, too. And it is into such a context—a seething cauldron of cultural, class, conviction, and condition-based tensions—that Paul speaks; and commands that they (and that we) welcome each other without quarreling.
Experiencing Doubts and Wondering How
My guess is that those reading these words are already experiencing doubts and wondering how. Current national and global conditions are shaping and hardening positions. The coronavirus pandemic has produced strong dogmatic opposing opinions on the best way forward. Racial and political tensions, together with very real injustice and wrongdoing, have drawn lines in the proverbial sand that are fast evolving into dividing lines, deeply etched in stone. The phony facade of national peace and church unity is toppling as quickly as Confederate-related statues throughout the land. Who’s right and who’s wrong? Or is it always so clear as that?
Some may worry that I will minimize their burdens and concerns in this hour. Others may fear that legitimate injustice issues may get silenced or sidelined in the interest of superficial peace. Others may feel angst over the idea that something they feel so sure of may be relegated to an opinion-only status. It’s happened to all of us: because we are so often so sure that we are right, and that our cause or convictions are righteous, we cannot imagine yielding on them, being silent about them, or leaving room for others’ opinions alongside of them.
But Paul will teach us a way forward. And as a pastor and brother in the Lord, I am burdened to follow that way and to lead others to it. Paul will show us that we need to learn the difference between mere opinions and absolute truths. He will show us several facts we need to know and apply to get our hearts in the right place. He will show us that it is okay to have strong opinions, and to live out their implications in our own lives, whether others agree with us or not. He will show us that there is one supreme Agenda, overruling all others, that we need to add into the mix. And he will show us that as hard as it may seem, we really must welcome one another without quarreling.
In short, he will show us that at the end of the day, we will not be judged so much for the opinions we have held, as for the character with which we have held our opinions.
Please stay tuned. It really matters that we get this right.