A Matter of Opinion
September 14, 2014, based on Romans 14:1-12
Matthew Kemp, Director of Christian Education and Outreach
When I was about 10, I was talking to a friend about what foods we liked. He told me that one of his favorites was ramen noodles–those cheap individually-wrapped, sodium-filled noodles so popular among desperate college students. But my friend was not satisfied to say that he like them; he insisted that anyone and everyone ought to like them as well. He even went as far as to claim that it was a sin not to like ramen noodles. Naturally, I found this a bit questionable, and I challenged him by pointing out that people have different opinions about food. To this my friend responded, “Yes, and in my opinion, it’s a sin not to like ramen noodles.”
In today’s reading from St. Paul’s letter to the Romans, we see a situation in the church where there seems to be tension over the various ways that people are living out their Christian faith. There are apparently some in the church at Rome who have resolved not to eat meat, probably because much of the meat sold in urban markets at the time were first offered to pagan deities. Meanwhile others have reasoned that Christian liberty allows them to eat any food which God has made without any scruples. Likewise, some members of the church are inclined to set aside special days, whether as sabbaths, fast days, or festivals, while others treat every day the same as the one before it or after.
Paul is not terribly concerned with who is “right” or “wrong” on these matters. To be sure, he seems to treat the more scrupulous in both cases as having a “weaker” faith which prevents them from enjoying their full freedom in Christ. But he is very clear that these are not points which should cause strife or division in the church. They are rather “opinions” in which each should “be fully convinced in their own minds” without demanding conformity from those who disagree. Whichever “side” one comes out on, he or she should not pass judgment on a brother or sister who differs.
Paul gives three reasons why such a judgmental attitude is wrong. First of all, one’s fellow Christian is a servant of God, a member of God’s household. As it would not be proper, presumably, in the culture of the time to criticize a servant from another household, so one Christian should not pass judgment on one whom God has accepted to serve him.
Secondly, Paul points out that while there may be different forms of piety and religious practice, they are all intended “in honor of the Lord.” There are many different ways to honor God, and all should be recognized as legitimate.
Finally, Paul tells his readers not to stand in judgment of one another because they all have one judge already, namely God. It is not for us to decide who is doing everything correctly or whose motives are pure or impure. “Each of us,” Paul writes, “will be accountable to God.”
Instead Paul calls us to bear with each other in different opinions and practices, and even to accept what we might consider the “weakness” in the faith of others. It is not for us to try to make their faith “stronger” by pushing our own ideas or preferences on them. It is rather for us to accept them where they are, trusting that God has also accepted them and will strengthen them according to his purposes, in his way, and in his time. In this way we work toward unity and love within the church.
Now I should pause here to clarify what I (and Paul) am not saying. I am not talking about the essential demands of Christian faith and practice, nor am I advocating a laissez-faire approach to life in the church. What we believe does matter. If someone denies, for instance, the doctrine of the Trinity or the bodily resurrection of Christ, I am not sure that person can be called a Christian in any meaningful sense. Every time we stand together and recite the Nicene Creed, we are re-affirming the truths of our faith which God has revealed to us, and which have been defined and defended in many hard-won battles in church history. Likewise, Christ does make demands of us in how we live–that we love God and our neighbor, that we live according to the commandments of God, that we continually repent of our sins and turn to him for forgiveness and grace.
But if we set to one side these core aspects of the Christian faith, we may be surprised at how much remains as mere “opinions”–opinions which have sown strife among Christian brothers and sisters, split churches and denominations, and led to confusion both among Christians and for non-Christians who might otherwise have been drawn toward Christ.
To give an example from our history, look around you for a moment. In this Cathedral you will see things like stained-glass windows, candles on the altar, and a priest wearing Eucharistic vestments. Many of you genuflected in front of the reserved sacrament when you came in or bowed when the processional cross passed by. We have come to take these things for granted, not only right here but in much of the Episcopal Church.
But it was not always so. Elements like these had been largely purged from the Church of England at the Reformation in the 16th century. Then in the 1850s a movement began, first in England and then in this country, to reintroduce traditional aesthetics and ceremony into the worship of the church. After 300 years of simple, sober Prayer Book liturgy, people began walking into gothic churches, hearing chant, and smelling incense.
Understandably, not everyone was happy with this so-called “ritualist movement.” The “low church” critics accused the ritualists of trying to push our church toward Roman Catholicism, or worse yet, some form of pagan idolatry. The “high church” ritualists responded by accusing these critics of irreverence, and even of denying the incarnation of Christ.
And this controversy continued into the 1940s when C. S. Lewis wrote one of his famous works, The Screwtape Letters. This book consists of a fictional exchange between a senior demon, Screwtape, and his apprentice demon about how they can seek to draw people away from God and the Christian life. In one letter Screwtape explains why a petty controversy like this one is so relished by the forces of evil. He writes:
“The real fun is working up hatred between those who say ‘mass’ and those who say ‘holy communion’….And all the purely indifferent things–candles and clothes and what not–are an admirable ground for our activities. We have quire removed from men’s minds what that pestilent fellow Paul used to teach about food and other unessentials–namely, that the human without scruples should always give way to the human with scruples. You would think they could not fail to see the application. You would expect to find the ‘low’ churchman genuflecting and crossing himself lest the weak conscience of his ‘high’ brother should be moved to irreverence, and the ‘high’ one refraining from these exercises lest he should betray his ‘low’ brother into idolatry. And so it would have been but for our ceaseless labour. Without that the variety of usage within the Church of England [and the Episcopal Church] might have become a positive hotbed of charity and humility” (pp. 84-85).
This fictionalized, “hell’s eye view” of an actual church controversy drives home St. Paul’s point in a profound way. This is why we must bear with one another in our differing opinions–whether it be eating meat, observing special days, lighting candles, using incense, even eating (or not eating) ramen noodles. When we do this, we grow in unity and love as a Christian community, and we each become more like Christ in putting our brothers and sisters before ourselves. May it be so among us. May we become a “positive hotbed of charity and humility.”