In Romans 14 through the first half of Romans 15, the Apostle Paul is encouraging the church in Roman not to quarrel over “disputable matters.” The church in Rome was divided between the Jewish Christians, who emphasized adherence to the Law of Moses, and the Gentile Christians, who emphasized greater liberty. Here, Paul gives us an excellent model of how to work through differences that come up in the Christian community, seeking to love one another, even when we do not agree.
However, the “elephant in the room” about this concerns defining what is a “disputable matter.” It seems that everyone has a different list of what they think is disputable and what is indisputable. So how is this fundamental question resolved?
Disputable vs. Indisputable Matters
For Roman Catholics, the answer is a no-brainer: the Pope reflecting on Scripture makes the final call. For Eastern Orthodox, you consider the great tradition of the church as she has faithfully read Scripture over the centuries. Protestants are in a bit of a pickle, as we tend to have a more cautious view of church authorities and tradition, in comparison to the other approaches. But the confidence among evangelical Protestants, as the lead pastor of my church, Travis Simone, puts it, is that we “let the Bible make the call.” Scripture alone is sufficient.
In many cases, this is pretty straightforward. But there are times when this is easier said than done. Someone may think some particular reading of Scripture should be binding on everyone, whereas others are not sure, or they may propose a completely different reading that they think should be binding.
I would rather err on the side of giving another believer the benefit of the doubt. If someone can make a case based on a sound interpretation of Scripture, I should at least be open to consider what that person has to say. And I should be willing to change my mind if the Scriptural evidence points me in a different direction. But I should also pray for wisdom in knowing how to care for my brother or sister, when I am not convinced by their viewpoint. Paul points out that we will all stand before the judgment seat (Romans 14:10), so we should be wary of prematurely pulling the trigger on who we think is a wayward brother or sister, when it is not appropriate. At the same time, we must not be silent when doctrinal error is being promoted under the guise of misguided “tolerance.” The important principles to hold to are these:
- Keep the lines of communication open. Keep listening.
- Show forbearance and love towards others.
- Study our Bibles, with a desire to know the Truth.
Some may fear that such a position will lead to some erosion of principled values and doctrine in a church, but this does not really give God the credit as to how He uses inspired Scripture to teach us. If there is a clear, consistent witness throughout the whole Bible on a particular subject, then we are bound to hold to it. It may not be popular. It may cause others to say things about us and to us directly that may hurt us deeply. But if we stick with the clear, consistent witness of Scripture, we have the confidence that God will protect us from error and ground us in the truth.
Biblical scholar D.A. Carson has ten reflections on how to apply Paul’s teaching on “disputable matters” (and what is indisputable), particularly in view of the current crisis in the evangelical church regarding human sexual differentiation and the purpose of marriage. But I would also encourage others to listen to Pastor Simone’s sermon from the Williamsburg Community Chapel, and share their thoughts on this most important topic for the church today. Travis hits it hard with this quote from a friend of his, Mac Pier, of the New York City Leadership Center: “Division in the church leads to atheism in the world.” Powerful and convicting.