Editor’s Note: Julian is a layman who has taught Sunday School in various Southern Baptist churches for the past 20 years. He has blogged at his personal site, Ridgetop Reflections, for 2 years.
“Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. … You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat.” (Romans 14:1, 10 NIV)
Several years ago, my wife and I were visiting a church whose worship style and dress code were quite different than that to which we were accustomed. At that time, I typically wore a coat and tie when attending Sunday morning worship.
As I looked around the congregation that morning, not a tie was to be seen. The music portion of the service was much more “contemporary” than the “traditional” early service I was comfortable with at my own church.
All of these things were distracting enough on their own. But when a young man and his wife sat down in front of us, the first thing I noticed was the baseball cap on his head, the Dallas Cowboys shirt he was wearing, and the sandals on his feet. When the pastor began his message, this young man appeared to be totally uninterested in what was being said, pulling out an electronic device to do something else …. Or so I thought!
As I craned my neck to see what was so important to him on that tablet, he was highlighting the passage we were studying on his electronic version of the Bible and recording notes from the pastor’s comments. Suddenly, the Holy Spirit convicted me of allowing the distraction of a disputable matter like proper dress keep me from hearing what God was speaking to my heart, while this young man was completely engaged.
In his letter to the Romans, Paul addresses a church that had experienced some major disruptions in its church culture. Predominantly, the church at Rome was composed of Gentile believers at the time of Paul’s writing. But after the reign of Claudius, who had expelled all Jews from Rome, (Acts 18:2) Jewish believers began to return.
Most of the New Testament churches began with Jewish believers. As the Gentiles began to join those churches, a major problem that Paul had to address was the influence of Judaizers – former Jewish leaders who insisted that Gentile believers follow many of the requirements of the Jewish law. This led to a major council at Jerusalem as described in Acts 15 to determine what, if any, those requirements would be.
The church at Rome had the opposite problem. As Jewish believers began to filter back into the church there, they were often met with contempt by the Gentiles because they were still clinging to many of those Jewish practices. For these Jewish believers, it was most likely a matter of comfort with the culture of their “traditional” worship practices. But the Gentiles viewed it as evidence of their “weak faith.”
Paul is careful not to condemn the cultural leanings of either group. He instead encourages both groups to be more accepting of each other, saying “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and receives human approval. Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and mutual edification.” (Romans 14:17-19 NIV)
Today he might add that the kingdom of God is also not a matter of dress code, musical preference, preferred Bible translation, or the manner in which we access that translation.
Christians of my generation often stubbornly resist the evolution of worship styles being driven by the preferences of the younger generations. We tend to gravitate to our comfort zones, separating ourselves from those generations with our “traditional” services versus their “contemporary” services.
By doing so, I wonder if we’re not repeating the mistake of the Romans. Are we focusing too much on disputable matters and thereby disrupting the unity of the Body of Christ? Are we depriving ourselves of the mutual benefits of multiple generations worshiping together, preserving the foundations of our past, while also being nourished by the enthusiasm and spiritual energy I see in so many young people today. Most importantly, are we undermining God’s work and hindering the growth of the church and its impact on the ever-changing culture when we resist the inevitable changes that are occurring.
As I reflect on my encounter with that young man sitting in front of me that Sunday morning, I wonder whose faith was weak – his or mine? As I understand Paul’s implications in this passage, I suspect that it was mine. I also wonder now what Bible passage the pastor was preaching that morning. Perhaps it was Romans 14 and I was so busy judging that man’s appearance that I completely missed what God was saying to me.
And by the way, except for the occasional wedding, funeral, or visit to the church our son pastors, I have not worn a tie to church in almost four years.