Sunday, August 26, 2012

Thoughts On "Stumbling Block" Issues In Romans 14 And 1 Corinthians 8-10

Recently some in our congregation have faced issues of disagreement about which it has been suggested they might be “stumbling blocks”. Essentially, a “stumbling block” issue is one in which an action or activity may not necessarily be sinful in and of itself, yet some think it is sinful. In such times the person who believes he has the freedom to engage in it must refrain from causing the other person to stumble.

A classic example of a stumbling block issue would be drinking alcohol. If a Christian drinks in front of a fellow-believer who thinks alcohol consumption is wrong or if he tries to get the friend to drink, it could cause the person to go against his conscience and sin. In other words, it could cause him to stumble.

Not all issues are so easily decided. How do we determine when we are dealing with a stumbling block issue or not?  Here are a number of observations derived from the two main stumbling block passages that I trust will lead us toward an answer.

1. Not all issues or disagreements among Christians in a congregation can be classified as stumbling block matters. Beginning in Cor. 7:1 Paul writes to the Corinthians of “the matters about which you wrote” (7:1). In other words, these are matters that troubled the Corinthians and they wanted to get Paul’s take on them. Of all the matters Paul addresses in this section (being married or not being married, ch. 7; food related to idol/temple worship, 8-10; head coverings, 11:2-16; the Lord’s Supper, 11:17-34; “spirituals” or “spiritual things” [extraordinary spiritual activities, including spiritual gifts], 12:1-14:40; and the resurrection, 15:1-58), there is only one that constitutes a stumbling block issue. In all the others Paul clearly comes down upon a particular side. For example, in regard to whether or not Christians should marry (ch. 7), Paul is clear that though there is the freedom not to marry (if God has gifted and/or called a person to such a single lifestyle), most should marry because of sexual sin. So, Paul does not say, “Hey, if you have people in your church who don’t think any Christian should marry, don’t allow anyone to marry—after all you don’t want to be a stumbling block.” No, Paul is clear that though some may not want to marry, marriage is good and, in many cases, it is the wisest step for Christians to take. Likewise, he doesn’t leave it up to the Corinthians to decide whether or not they practice “spirituals” or spiritual gifts in a way that trumps love for one another and God’s Word (12-14); nor does he leave it up to them whether or not they believe in the resurrection (15).[1]

2. Even in stumbling block issues there tends to be a stronger (more defensible) and weaker (less defensible) position, which appears to be why Paul uses “weak” to refer to the person prohibiting the activity (e.g. 1 Cor. 8:11). The issue in Romans 14 appears to be that of Jewish food and Sabbath laws, and whether or not Christians (Jewish or Gentile) must keep them.[2]  The issue in 1 Corinthians 8-10 appears to revolve around the eating of meat related to pagan temples and idol worship. The pagan temples in many first century, A.D., Greco-Roman cities also served as the local butcher. Once meat was sacrificed to pagan gods it would be sold for food. Because of this, many guilds and groups of people would have feasts and get-togethers at pagan temples. Additionally, this meat would also be sold so it could be eaten off-site. In 1 Cor. 8 Paul appears to be addressing the issue of eating at the temples (8:10) and in 1 Cor. 10 eating meat sold at the temple, but eaten off-site (10:25, 28). In both situations, Paul makes it clear that bottom-line there is nothing unethical in and of itself about eating the food some were prohibiting in Rome (Rom. 14:14a) or the meat related to the pagan temples and idols in Corinth (1 Cor. 8:4-6).[3]

3. Because of #2, it appears that Paul felt the freedom to state that in the given issue there was a stronger and weaker position, which implies that discussions could take place among the Christians that may lead to a weaker brother leaving behind his conviction that a particular activity was unethical. So, even in situations in which Christian leaders must be adamant that stronger brothers give up freedoms for weaker brothers, at one and the same time, they can teach weaker brothers with the goal of helping them see that the particular activity is not wrong. This teaching must be done with great care, however. It must be careful to allow God’s Spirit to convince without forcing a person to engage in something against their conscience.

4.  Though #3 seems to follow from #2, nevertheless, the accent in both passages is that as long as an activity is thought wrong to a particular Christian or group of Christians, then the stronger brother must give up his freedom for the sake of the weaker brother’s conscience—as a matter of love and glorifying God (e.g. Rom. 14:7-8; 15:1-2; 1 Cor. 10:23-33). This is true as long as there are no stronger theological issues that would trump the opposition by the weaker brother. For example, in Corinth a potential weaker brother might claim, “I am bothered by Christians marrying since my experience with sexual relations among Corinthians-at-large has been so negative and so filled with sin. I think all true Christians should abstain from all sex, including marriage.” (This, by the way, appears to be the situation behind chapter 7) To this, Paul would not say, “Well, o.k. Corinthians, don’t marry because you don’t want to offend the weaker brother.” No, there is a stronger biblical principle in play—namely the potential of dishonoring God through sexual sin if most Christians are not marrying. Likewise, he would not allow the practice of spiritual sensational gifts (such as ecstatic speech) to trump the preservation of love and the priority of God’s Word (1 Cor. 12-14). In other words, he would not allow a Christian to say, “I am offended by those who put the brakes or restraints upon my use of ecstatic speech or utterances, since they are part of my worship of God.” No, in Paul’s mind, there are stronger issues at play.

5. It appears that stumbling blocks can exist merely by one’s presence at a place associated with an offensive activity (1 Cor. 8:10). Also, a stumbling blocks can exist at the level of engaging in an action when a particular person is present for whom the activity is a problem (1 Cor. 10:25, 28). As an example in the first case, when a person is part of a congregation that largely believes any alcohol consumption is wrong, the wisest approach for a Christian who affirms moderate alcohol consumption is not to go to the town liquor store. Such in and of itself can be a stumbling block, especially if the Christian going to the store is in a position of authority.

As an example in the latter case, if a person is part of a congregation that does not have a corporate position on drinking one way or the other, yet they invite over to their house a brother or sister who believes abstinence is the only ethical position, it would be wrong to drink in front of them or to offer them alcohol when the host knows they have this stance.[4]

6. In both of the key biblical texts (Romans 14; 1 Corinthians 8-10), it appears that a stumbling block is present when Christians are legitimately concerned that an activity may involve or lead to sin. In each case the most likely concern on the part of the weaker Christian was that those who held on to the freedom would be involved in idolatry. Paul’s contention in both cases was that this would not necessarily arise, but the stronger believer must take into consideration the conscience of the weaker brother who feared the possible sin.

Very different from this would be a group of Christians who were concerned that the surrounding town was offended by non-sinful activities of fellow Christians. If such concern led to the first group of Christians being offended by the actions of the second group, this would not constitute a stumbling block issue. For example, let’s say a church had a number of college-age students who like to go onto the local campus to preach on the sidewalks. A second Christian group believes such preaching is more harmful than helpful—based upon the reactions of their co-workers in town. In such a situation no potential stumbling block is present—at least as defined by Rom. 14 and 1 Cor. 8-10.

7. Based upon experience in the Church, it seems clear that though many potential stumbling block issues can be decided based upon the above principles, there will remain disagreement on a minority of issues among Christians. In other words, there will be some issues that some say are stumbling block issues and some will say there are greater biblical issues at play and cannot be constituted as stumbling block issues.  In such issues all involved must do their best to preserve love among each other to the glory of God, even when they must agree to disagree. In such cases, biblical guidelines for working through differences must be followed (e.g. Mt. 5:23-24; 18:15ff.) and those involved must do their best by the grace of God to give each other the benefit of the doubt (see 1 Cor. 13:7).  The wisest approach may even be for church leaders and/or the congregation to draw up a statement upon the congregation’s position—one which would formulate the key biblical boundaries to be followed and then leave room for freedom of conscience in the details (e.g. Acts 15:1-35).

[1] To give parallels from other areas of congregational life, whether or not pastors teach on God’s sovereign grace is not a stumbling block issue. In other words, a pastor should not refrain from such teaching simply because some might not like it or be offended. There are larger issues (doctrinal fidelity) at play than one’s offense. Additionally, it cannot be deemed a stumbling block issue whether or not a person follows biblical guidelines of conflict resolution and whether or not they release resentment against others. The Bible is clear on these issues. Though the biblical steps might be uncomfortable for some Christians, they are absolutely necessary.
Another Pauline example of a disagreement that could not be classified a stumbling block issue was his account of the time he confronted Peter who capitulated to Judaizers from Jerusalem and ceased having table fellowship with Gentiles. Paul confronted his fellow Apostle in the presence of others because what he was doing was not in step with truth that flowed out of the gospel. See Galatians 2:11-14. Though the Judaizers might be offended by Jew/Gentile table fellowship, it could not be classified a stumbling block issue. Clear and greater theological principles were in play.
[2] It appears that some in Rome had taken Jewish food laws and extended them to a point of demanding vegetarianism, perhaps b/c so much meat might be considered unclean or connected into idol worship (cf. 1 Cor. 8-10). This is the case even though the Old Testament never demanded vegetarianism (although it was present in Daniel 1).
[3] Because Revelation 2:14 mentions eating food sacrificed to idols in a negative light, some Bible readers might ask, “What is going on there? Does this contradict Paul who seems to say that eating such food is not wrong in and of itself unless it causes another to stumble?” Upon closer inspection of Revelation 2:14 the reader will notice that John is not writing that those in Pergamum are eating such food. This eating of such food was engaged in by the Israelites in the wilderness at the instigation of Balaam. If the reader goes back to that incident, he will find out that the Israelites were actually engaging in idol worship (Nu. 25:2). So, in the case of Rev. 2:14, the eating of food sacrificed to idols stands for actual idolatry. The point is that the false teaching present in Pergamum was leading people both to idolatry and sexual sin, as did the false teaching of Balaam with Israel in the wilderness. So, there is no contradiction with what Paul writes.
Most likely the “food sacrificed to idols” in the subsequent context (Rev. 2:20) is meant to carry the same meaning as 2:14, namely there was actual idolatry taking place among the believers of Thyatira whenever they participate in such meals. It was not merely eating the food or being at the place that was under consideration. So, again, there is no contradiction with what Paul writes.
[4] In either case it seems most likely to me that there is a known problem among the group or the individual against the activity. For example, a generation or two ago many Christians opposed going to movies b/c a Christian from anywhere might drive by and see a Christian attending a theater and be offended. That is a misapplication or over-application of this teaching. It would only apply if a person was part of a congregation who wrestled with this issue or if a Christian tried to “drag” along with him to a theater a Christian brother who was bothered by going to such a place.

Sunday, August 19, 2012

Why Joyful Followers Are Served Well By Good Catechisms

In Sunday morning’s sermon I mentioned the Evangelical Catechism that we have available on our web site (Resources/Articles). This collection of 107 questions and answers designed to teach the basics of the gospel and the Christian faith is patterned after the Westminster Shorter Catechism. More than its origin, though, many will want to know why would anyone use a catechism?

To answer this question and to introduce you to this teaching instrument I am reproducing my introduction to that catechism in this blog post with the prayer that it will inspire you to check out the catechism, to utilize it for your own growth, and also to make use of it in the instruction of your children.

One final comment I will make before the introduction. A helpful companion tool to the Evangelical Catechism is Starr Meade’s Training Hearts, Teaching Minds: Family Devotions Based On The Shorter Catechism (P & R, 2000). I would strongly encourage you to purchase and make use of this tool to help your family learn the Evangelical Catechism.

Now the introduction…

Professing Christians who have been in Evangelical churches any time at all will think it odd that anyone is encouraging the use of a catechism.  There is not only a prejudice against such tools, but a great deal of misunderstanding.  Many conclude, “Catechetical instruction is one of those religious hoops to jump through in cold, sterile congregations!”[1]  Like any tool, a catechism can be misused and sometimes is.  However, this does not negate their helpfulness if utilized properly—namely to ground a person in the basics of the gospel and the Scriptures.

The lack of biblical and theological understanding among the Church today is well documented.[2]  Part of this stems from a misunderstanding of grace, one which suggests we exercise easy belief (mere mental assent) in Jesus Christ as Savior and then try to stay away from study as far as we can, lest we become legalistic and/or make our Christianity something less than a relationship.  It is almost as if the less we know, the more we can claim, “Hey, it’s all about a relationship with Jesus!”

The lack of biblical literacy also stems from the fact that the contemporary Church has made little use of theologically-substantive training materials that can aid believers to grow in the grace and knowledge of Jesus Christ.  Catechisms are just such a tool, which were designed to root and ground children, new saints, and inquiring unbelievers in the basics of the faith and the gospel. In fact, since it was so common in the early church for those who had professed faith in Jesus Christ eventually to turn away from their profession, catechisms were developed to help the person “decide if he still wanted to submit to Christian baptism and gave the church opportunity to discern (as far as human observation can do this) the genuineness of his, or her, conversion…. This use of catechisms served as a safeguard for the purity of the church.”[3]

The term catechism is taken from the Greek word katecheo, which means “teach” or “instruct”. To catechize “simply means to teach biblical truth in an orderly way.  Generally this is done with questions and answers accompanied by biblical support and explanation.”[4]  Catechetical instruction is not something done only in Roman Catholic or cold liberal churches.  In fact, it was one of the factors which enabled the Reformation of the 16th-17th centuries to remain on solid footing and to spread successfully.[5] 

Because the Westminster Shorter Catechism (1647) is the most well-known catechism among Evangelical believers, because it is so biblically-sound, and because of its brevity in relation to some other options, I have used it as the starting point.  I have kept the same order of questions, as well as the same number of questions and answers.  The changes I have made include:  (1) In those questions dealing with baptism and the Lord’s Supper I have followed the original Baptist Catechism (sometimes called Keach’s Catechism), as well as the revision of that catechism by John Piper.  (2) I have modernized some of the language to make it more accessible.  (3) In a few places I have borrowed from John Piper’s revision to increase accuracy and clarity. (4) I have put some of my own choices (as well as Piper’s) for scriptural proofs with the answers.

I have titled this revision An Evangelical Catechism since it primarily sets forth the gospel (or evangel), that word of truth (Ephesians 1:13), which forms the core of the Scriptures.  It should also be known this revision is Baptist in doctrine to match the convictions of our own congregation for whom it is primarily written.   

My prayer is that God will use this instrument in your life, the life of your children, and the lives of those whom you are discipling that he, his Word, and the truth of the gospel, will be opened up in new and fresh ways for your delight in him and for his glory.

[1] Tom J. Nettles, Teaching Truth, Training Hearts: The Study Of Catechisms In Baptist Life (Amityville, NY: Calvary Press, 1998), 15, draws attention to the reality many evangelicals are suspicious of catechisms.

[2]For example, David Wells, No Place For Truth (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1993), 4, wrote:  “I have watched with growing disbelief as the evangelical Church has cheerfully plunged into astounding theological illiteracy.”

[3] Nettles, Teaching Truth, 16.

[4] John Piper, A Baptism Catechism (Desiring God Ministries), 1. He lists Acts 18:25; 1 Corinthians 14:19; Galatians 6:6 which all use the verb katecheo to speak of biblical instruction.

[5] Nettles, Teaching Truth, 17.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Dealing With Conflict As A Joyful Follower

Conflict is a regular part of human relationships. This is confirmed by the fact that Jesus taught what we should do if we hurt someone else (Matthew 5:23-24) or if someone does something against us (Matthew 18:15).  It is also confirmed by the fact that Paul and Barnabas even parted ways, disagreeing over what to do with John Mark on Paul’s second missionary trip (Acts 15:36-41).  Too often disagreements lead to people dividing from and hurting each other even further.  The Bible, however, offers very clear and effective teaching on how to approach conflict with others.  There are four key principles we are well-served in keeping before us in any conflict.[1]

First, we must realize conflict is an opportunity to

Glorify God.  Glorifying God (putting His greatness on display) is the ultimate purpose of mankind. (Matthew 5:16; 1 Corinthians 10:31) When God changes our lives through His grace, results such as righteousness, good works toward others, forgiveness, love, and peace bring glory to God. (Matthew 5:16; John 13:34-35; 15:1-12; 2 Corinthians 9:13; Philippians 1:9-11; 2:14-15) All of this means that when conflict arises, it is an opportunity to put God’s life-changing grace on display. Most people do not work out their differences well.  When, by God’s grace, we face conflict head-on, it puts on display what God can do through us. When we remember this, it transforms how we face these hard times in relationships, helping us to face them rather than run from them.  It also reminds us to pray for God’s help. (Matthew 7:7-11; John 15:7)

With this mind frame we are ready to take the next step…

Get the log out of your own eye.  This phrase comes from Matthew 7:1-5: "Judge not, that you be not judged…. Why do you see the speck that is in your brother's eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?...You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother's eye.”  (emphasis added)  Before we go and communicate to someone how we believe they have hurt or offended us, this passage urges us to:  (1) Ask how I might have contributed to the problem?  (2) Communicate to the person how I have contributed to the problem and, if applicable, ask for forgiveness.  Doing these two things not only may decrease in our mind the part the other person played while increasing our part; it also may lead them to be more receptive to what we have to say.  Sometimes you might even conclude you do not have to go to the person except to apologize.  Surely, it will enable us to be more gracious, humble, and understanding. 

Gently Restore.  Once we have wrestled with what our part in the conflict has been, if there is still a need to communicate to the other person their part in the situation, do so with grace and gentleness (Proverbs 18:13; Ephesians 4:29, 32; 2 Timothy 2:24-26), with the purpose of restoring your relationship and, if needed, restoring the person in their walk with Christ (Matthew 18:15; Galatians 6:1).  As you do this, speak the truth in and motivated by love (Ephesians 4:15; 1 John 4:8).  We must remember that as the family of Jesus Christ, we are to treat each other as brothers and sisters—thus caring enough not to look the other way when a fellow Christian is self-destructing and/or dishonoring God (2 Thessalonians 3:15).  Here are the seven A’s to remember when you gently restore:

  • Address everyone involved.

  • Avoid "if," "but," and "maybe".

  • Admit specifically.

  • Apologize.

  • Accept the consequences.

  • Alter your behavior.

  • Ask for forgiveness.
Go and be reconciled.  Once you have worked things out with the other person, forgive them (Ephesians 4:32; Colossians 3:13).  This is a mark of those who are true believers (Matthew 6:14-15).  If you cannot reconcile with the person and/or they are unwilling to talk to you, then get others involved to help (Matthew 18:16-20).  There are four promises you can make which are helpful in forgiving another person:

  • I will not think about this incident any more.

  • I will not bring this incident up and use it against you.

  • I will not talk to others about this incident.

  • I will not allow this incident to stand between us or hinder our personal relationship.

Few things in life can be as difficult and as draining as conflict. Yet, when we approach it with God’s grace in Jesus Christ so that we can deal with it in an appropriate manner, nothing can be more rewarding that seeing our Savior make the difference, heal wounds, and bring peace. May God be honored as we deal with our differences as joyful followers of him and lovers of others to his glory!

[1] These are taken from the book by Ken Sande, The Peacemaker.  See also his web site  We regularly offer classes on the peacemaking process.

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Self-Examination For Idolatry

In our sermon series through the book of Hosea (“The Glorious Good News Of God’s Love In Hosea”) we have discovered just how widespread and dangerous idolatry is. This is not a sin committed only in the Old Testament or only in third world countries where we find actual physical idols erected for worship. It is a problem of every heart.

 Mike Wilkerson, in Redemption: Freed By Jesus From The Idols We Worship And The Wounds We Carry, writes:  “We usually make idols out of good things, even meat and bread, not the obviously bad things like fornication…. The greater the good, the more likely we are to expect it can satisfy our deepest needs and hopes.”

 Because this is true, we have a need to exam our own hearts and lives to root out idolatry. To help with that below I have included five statements that give a full-orbed description of idolatry. Under each statement I have included in bullet point form questions for us to ask. My prayer is that this will take us further in identifying and being freed from our idols. Each of these statements are found in Timothy Keller, Counterfeit Gods: The Empty Promises Of Money, Sex, And Power, And The Only Hope That Matters.
1. Idolatry is “anything more important to you than God.”
  • When I look at my life priorities and how I spend my time, does God take a back seat or is he behind the steering wheel?
  • When I focus upon my relationship with God do I put my hope in my works and goodness, or do I trust in God’s only way of salvation, which is by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone?
  • When I think about the well-being of my family, which would be more important to me: making sure they do not miss sports camps and opportunities to make family memories (e.g. weekends at the lake) or worshiping together in our church?
  • What and who are more important to you than God? (Ask God to help you change your heart’s priorities)
2. Idolatry is “anything that absorbs your heart and imagination more than God.”

  • When I dream about the future and what will make me happy, successful, or fulfilled, does God enter into the picture or are my dreams filled with other things?
  • If you were to complete the statement, “I love ______,” would “God” truly be one of the first words with which you would fill that blank?
  • What and who absorbs my heart and imagination more than God? (Ask God to change your heart that you would love him more than anything or anyone)
3. Idolatry is “anything you seek to give you what only God can give.”
  • When I think about my life, what or whom do I truly believe will bring me success and true happiness—God or something/one else?
  • When I think about my children or grandchildren, what or whom do I truly believe will bring them success and true happiness—God or something/one else?
  • Do I believe that keeping my children busy to stay out of trouble is more important to them than shaping their hearts so they love Christ and love him supremely?
4. Idolatry is “whatever you look at and say in your heart of hearts, ‘If I have that, then I’ll feel my life has meaning, then I’ll know I have value, then I’ll feel significant and secure.’”
  • How do you complete this sentence, “My life would have meaning, value, significance, and security, if I had this….?”
  • Whom or what am I trusting in above God? (Ask God to help you trust in him alone for your salvation, your meaning, your value, and your security)
5. Idolatry is “anything that becomes more fundamental than God to your happiness, meaning in life, and identity.
  • How would you complete this sentence: “My life would be destroyed and meaningless, if this happened…?” (Ask God to grant you grace to look to Christ for your hope and so that you can turn from idols unto the living God)