I cannot recall a time in my ministry during which so many different opinions were believed so strongly, felt so deeply, and argued so strenuously. Waves of opinions and perspectives keep crashing all around, leaving me desperate for some good firm footing on a strong solid rock. This rising and pounding surf threatens both internal peace and church unity. If footing isn’t found soon, people are going to drown.
The tempest we face today is not over little things like music style, or whether Christians should go to movies, or whether a good Christian can really be a Patriots’ fan. The old debates seem nothing more than little ripples in the water compared to our current crises. Consider all the COVID complexities and what the church should do in the face of a pandemic. Lock-downers and open-uppers have strong (and opposing) points of view. Ponder the current justice controversies related to policing and Black Lives Matter. Think about our sitting President and the polarized political warfare being waged in our times. These issues include public and personal health, the nature and needs of the church, the role of conscience, personal identity, neighbor love, the nature and exercise of justice, and the legitimacy (or not) of political loyalties and involvement. We wake up every morning to the rolling, roiling, and rocking sounds of mighty 30-foot opinion-breakers pounding the shoreline of our lives. And the Church is called to stand united in the middle of it all. So what are we to do?
This is the second of a three-part post calling us to welcome one another with Christian grace and love—even when we disagree in our opinions. Romans 14:1-15:7 offers insight into how to navigate the waters in stormy times; in those hurricane seasons when diverse people hold different opinions with equal strength. A mandate to welcome each other with mutual affectionate acceptance—despite our differences—bookends this text (see Romans 14:1 and 15:7). In between this twice-stated welcome one another command we also find the stirring call of Romans 14:13-17. God’s kingdom is “righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit”. Paul’s point is that we are not to let opinions mess with that divine agenda of peace and mutual up-building (Romans 14:19).
Caveat: I’m Not Voiding or Avoiding
Caveat: as a pastor of a dear diverse family of believers I know there are complicated conversations over different opinions strongly held that need to continue. These posts aren’t meant to void or avoid. I am not voiding our differences, or avoiding the challenges. Ongoing hard conversations must be had; and we will continue to have them. My hope is that these posts will position us well for those conversations. Whatever our perspectives and however strongly we may feel about them, we must be anchored in this apostolic teaching, for the glory of Christ.
Key to this is that we know the difference between solid rocks and sifting sand. Solid rocks are convictions that can claim clear, unarguable, and emphatic Scriptural support. Sifting sand is everything else we think or opine or believe or perceive or hold, by way of tradition or culture. Sand is what Paul has in mind in Romans 14:1. There he tells us not to quarrel about “opinions”; a word that speaks of disputable and debatable matters—things that are not clear, plain, or explicit in Scripture. As we saw in the previous post, Paul is writing about perspectives and preferences that are personally and culturally driven, rather than biblically derived.
Right here in Romans, in the chapters leading into our Romans 14 text, Paul presents a number of indisputable Romans Rocks:
- That Jesus is the risen and eternal Son of God and God the Son is a Romans rock (Rom. 1:3).
- That we are all condemnable sinners apart from the grace of God, and therefore in need of salvation from the just wrath of God is a Romans rock (chapters 1-3; see Romans 1:18; Romans 3:10-23).
- That we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, on the basis of the atoning blood and imputed righteousness of Christ alone is a Romans rock. (Chapters 3:23-5:1; see Romans 3:23-28).
- That we are born again to new life in Christ and called to live a holy and loving life, in intentional and active opposition to our flesh and its sinful cravings is a Romans rock (Chapters 6-7; see Romans 6:1-11).
- That we who believe in Jesus share in the invincible love of God is a Romans rock (Romans 8:31-39).
- That God should receive glory for his saving initiative toward us is a Romans rock (chapters 9-11; see Romans 11:33-36).
- That we should present ourselves as a living sacrifice to serve God, his church, and his global mission is a Romans rock (chapters 12-16; see Romans 12:1, 2).
Distinguishing Rocks from Sand: An Exercise in Discernment
There are, of course, many other solid rocks in Scripture upon which we are to stand. Let me present a few more here; only now I will add some sand into the mix. Remember: rocks are sure and certain indisputable truths, while sand is that which cannot claim clear and absolute biblical mandate; and is a combination of opinions, perspectives, and preferences that we have picked up along the way; some held loosely, others rooted deeply, in our hearts. Rocks can find strong biblical chapter, verse, and doctrine upon which to stand. Sand can present a case, but that case will not include an unarguable biblical defense. Rocks form hills to die on. Sand needs to be sifted carefully and humbly.
Rock: We are commanded to obey and honor those who govern us, and even to pay taxes (Romans 13:1-7).
Sand: All debates about what honor needs to look and sound like, and whether it is ever legitimate to disobey government, and if so, how, and under what conditions.
Rock: Horizontal righteousness is to be practiced toward brothers and sisters in Christ, with special focus on those in greatest need in the church, with spill-over into the world (Romans 12:13; Matthew 25:34-40; James 1:27; James 2:14-17; 1 John 3:16-18; 2 Corinthians 9:6-9, Galatians 6:10; etc.).
Sand: All debates about how much to do for the world in addition to the church; and how best to practice this while making sure that the preaching of the gospel is not lost in the process. Some say horizontal righteousness is best done personally and relationally; others favor programmatic and political means. Some say “No government!” others say “Lots of government!”
Rock: Human life is made in the image of God and is to be honored and protected from the womb to the tomb (Genesis 1:27).
Sand: All debates about how best to protect and promote a sanctity of life ethic, and about how best to address it politically and practically.
Rock: Loving our neighbor requires that we be concerned about public health and safety.
Sand: All debates about whether masks and lock downs are, or are not, serving public health and safety well.
Rock: We should care about justice, doing it whenever we can (Matthew 23:23; Proverbs 24:10-12; Proverbs 31:8, 9; Isaiah 1:16, 17; Psalm 82:2-4).
Sand: All debates about which justice issues are most urgent, about how this call to justice fits within the larger evangelism mission of the church, and even about what justice advocacy is to look like.
Rock: That we should weep with those who weep (Romans 12:15).
Sand: All debates about what lament looks like and how it might/should be expressed in the church.
Rock: Law enforcement officers are a part of God’s order of things in this world, ordained to serve the people of the land (Romans 13:1-4) with justice and impartiality.
Sand: All debates about: (1) how best to address the tense, even hostile, relationship between police and certain demographic groups in our society; (2) whether police are being asked to do more than they are able; (3) how to make sure there are sufficient accountability structures and consequences in place should they fail to do justly, or in fact, do abuse their power; (4) how to allocate available funds to strengthen communities and address needs that the police are neither trained, nor best positioned for—without radically defunding the police, or making it impossible for them to fulfill their calling; and (5) how to think about and address larger justice system inequities?
Rock: Bias for or against any demographic is wrong, making law enforcement targeting of any demographic; together with any disrespectful tone, and unwarranted searching and treatment of individuals as suspects more than citizens without due cause is fundamentally unjust—even if the police argue that it is necessary to do their job.
Sand: All debates about how police and communities can create a more trusting and respectful relationship, and how dignity and respect can be monitored through accountability structures.
Rock: No historic figures should ever be idolized, white-washed, or memorialized by admiration-drunk people with a blind eye to their grievous wrongs (since the Bible doesn’t even white-wash heroes of the faith).
Sand: All debates about whether statues should be torn down—at the risk of forgetting the past—or whether, for example, new statues or other memorials and symbols should be erected side by side with the old to declare the full truth about those figures so that the truth is known and not forgotten.
Rock: Police brutality is wrong—however often or not it happens—and any and all who commit it should face strict accountability and severe punishment.
Sand: All debates about how the police should approach situations where there is real reason to think that a suspect is dangerous and threatening to the public or the police. Also: debates as to what the degree of threat and perceived peril is, that justifies the use of lethal force—and how that should be discerned in the heat of the moment? And further: debates on how best to investigate alleged police misconduct through impartial and transparent means.
Rock: People should not resist arrest and if some are more inclined than others to do so, we should ask and discover, as a matter of love and justice, why that might be. Why the fear? Why the resistance? Why the distrust? And how best do we fix the problem?
Sand: All debates about how best to address the answers to those questions.
Rock: Biblical due process is clear, and should be provided for everyone.
Sand: All debates about how best to ensure that everyone receives it, given the inevitability that even in the best of judicial systems people in power will likely pervert it.
Rock: There should be no doubt that black lives matter—and that, as a matter of neighbor love and respect—people should labor to understand what most people mean when they say that; without twisting their words to suggest that blacks think their lives matter more than others.
Sand: All debates about whether or not a believer chooses to actually say “black lives matter”, using those very words; or to use other words to say the same thing.
Rock: Every believer should thoroughly and carefully study any non-Christian party, movement, or allegiance with which he or she is considering an alliance, to see if it is sufficiently compatible with Christian convictions and principles to join (2 Corinthians 6:14-17). Likewise, it should be indisputable that when one’s party or movement (or candidate/leader) is out of step with the Law of God, Christians in that party or movement (or who are supportive of that candidate), should expose that error in courageous un-muted priority allegiance to Christ and his Law—even if it incurs the displeasure of those in his or her party or movement (Ephesians 5:5-15).
Sand: All debates among sincere believers about whether or not a believer should ever hold a BLM sign or join a party or vote for a certain president or party.
Rock: We should care about our society and pray for its well-being (Jeremiah 29:4-7; 1 Timothy 2:1-3).
Sand: All debates about who to vote for or whether or not a Christian should vote at all. Also: all debates about how politically involved a Christian should be, or how much time believers should give to the rescue and transformation of human souls in comparison to time given to feeding, clothing and caring for human bodies.
Rock: The law of 2-3 witnesses that requires that all accusations against anyone be substantiated by multiple witnesses continues today, making false witness a serious punishable sin/crime (Exodus 20:18; Deuteronomy 19:15-21; Deuteronomy 17:6, 7; Matthew 18:15-17; 1 Timothy 5:19; Titus 3:10, 11). [Let me note here that, citing the National Registry of Exonerations, the Equal Justice Initiative reports that “more than half of wrongful convictions can be traced to witnesses who lied in court and made false accusations”. Assuming this to be true, biblical law asserts that justice is not complete until all such false witnesses are punished.]
Sand: All debates about how best to apply biblical laws to preserve witness safety and to enforce strict witness accountability.
Rock: It is right and good for believers to speak up against cultural sins and injustice (as Jesus, the apostles, and the prophets often did, and as Scripture tells us to); and to do so without resorting to violence against anyone, except when there is immediate threat to life and no other way to escape.
Sand: All debates about the value of protest, the role that the church should take in that protest, and how to do protest in ways most pleasing to God.
There are rocks and there is sand. Wise humility discerns the difference and speaks and listens accordingly. We must recognize when we are speaking absolute truth, and when we are sharing opinions that can claim no clear or explicit biblical endorsement. Failure to discern the difference will turn sand-opinions into hills we die on; and, to mix metaphors, transform mere opinions—however well thought out and articulated—into crashing waves that rattle the very foundations of our unity in Christ.
So the questions are two: (1) Can we distinguish between solid rocks and shifting sand—and are we willing to? And (2) how much and about what can we disagree, and still walk in unity? Answers will depend on a number of things we address next time, and upon how well we identify the solid rocks of God’s truth; those biblical teachings that are clear, emphatic, absolute, and unifying (for example: see Ephesians 4:1-6). Unity stands on these rocks, and humility focuses on points of rock-solid agreement. On the other hand, pride-of-opinion focuses on sand. The first leads to the glory of God. The second leads to sorrow and many tears.