How To Deal With Grey Areas
When Christians study Paul’s letter to Rome, few pay much attention to the last couple of chapters. I would not go as far as to say that it’s a bad thing since some of the greatest gospel truths in the entire Bible live in Paul’s doctrinal teachings to the Romans, but as most stories go, the ending explains the reason for the beginning. Paul’s reason for teaching great gospel truths was to unify the Jews and the Gentiles in Rome. It seems, from his letter, that tradition and worship styles had distracted these believers from the gospel and stalled Christian fellowship.
Today, among insignificant issues, traditions and worship styles still cause disunity in many churches. Although Paul wished to resolve matters of conflicting days of celebration and acceptable foods to eat, his method remains the most useful and practical for our modern problems. Paul’s approach was to have each believer understand four truths:
(1) No one is inherently better than the next; everyone is born dead in sin.
(2) The same faith in Christ saves every Christian; no one gets in because of their good works.
(3) As a Christian, you die to sin and the Law in Christ’s death, and now you walk according to the Spirit of holiness.
(4) God’s mercy is given at His disposal, not because anyone is better or does better.
Because of these four truths, Paul argues that a Christian must look different than the world, that love must characterize their lives. Love, he argues, is the glue of the Christian community. However, in our culture, influenced by a modern definition of love, we must ask the question, how do you show love?
After a quick-fire round of practical ways to love each other in chapter twelve, Paul paces himself for the next three chapters to address two difficult acts of love. The first is submission to God in public life, shown primarily in submission to the government. The early Christians to whom Paul wrote feared the Roman government because of its hatred towards their ‘new’ religion. However, Paul’s reason to submit to the governing officials surpassed their fear, “There is no authority except from God, and those which exist are established by God” (13:1b). The government, Paul says, “is a minister of God to you for good” (13:4a). In other words, the government makes you afraid of evil, keeping you on the right track, and helping you to be a better person to those around you. It’s a round-about way for Paul to say, “Be a nice person, always.” Paul says as much in closing this section, “Let us behave properly as in the day, not in carousing and drunkenness, not in sexual promiscuity and sensuality, not in strife and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh in regard to its lusts” (13:13-14).
The second practical way to love one another, Paul tells the Romans, is to let the grey areas be the grey areas. In this congregation, some could only eat certain foods because, according to their consciences, all other meats were unclean. Then, some felt certain days in the year were more special than the rest, while the others felt all days were the same. To Paul, these were not worth fighting over: “Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind” (14:5b). His reasoning continues,
“He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God. For not one of us lives for himself, and not one dies for himself; for if we live, we live for the Lord, or if we die, we die for the Lord; therefore whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.” (Romans 14:6-8)
Christians live for the Lord, and so every act of conscience (the grey area) is for the Lord. By Paul’s reasoning, much of what modern Christians consider as grey areas are sinful. Their grey areas take liberties unbecoming those who possess the Holy Spirit. They overlay the black and white with a grey that Scripture condemns. Can you sin unto the Lord? Absolutely not!
Christian conscience can be complicated at times because you must judge your heart in each matter. Do you sin when you prefer a particular way of dressing in church? No. Do you sin when you have no such preference? Again, no. You sin when you are immodest or promote immodesty. Do you sin in your choice of hymns or contemporary Christian songs? No, but you sin when you have motives in singing other than singing to the Lord. Some matters are truly of conscience, others surely matters of God’s clear Word, and the grey of conscience must never surpass the black and white of Scripture.
Paul comes to the chief sin in Christian conscience: judgement. Above all, Paul says, you cannot condemn your brother or sister for something done to the Lord because it looks different than your actions for the Lord. “Therefore, let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this—not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way” (14:13). In other words, don’t let this bother you; serve your brothers and sisters in the way their conscience allows, not the way your conscience allows. Paul’s conviction was that no food is unclean, yet he does not judge those who find certain foods unclean. That is how you love one another. “For if because of food your brother is hurt, you are no longer walking according to love” (14:13).
What if the issue isn’t food, what kind of advice does Paul give for that? Paul gives us a simple principle: focus on the kingdom of God. He writes, “For the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (14:17). The only source of righteousness, peace, and joy is the gospel, so to live unified with your brothers and sisters is to live saturated in the gospel. Therefore, the way to love your fellow Christian is to have the righteousness of Christ, the peace of justification, and the joy of future hope (5:1-2). The gospel, then, is the fountain of Christian love; it is the truth of Christian unity.