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24 October. Romans chapters 14-16
Paul’s emphasis in this final section of his teaching to the Roman Christians is on avoiding causing offence. The sort of things that he suggests could easily cause offence are observing holy days (14:5), or eating meat or drinking wine (14:21) when other Christians think that doing one of these things is wrong.
Those particular differences do still exist within Christianity, although perhaps not for the same reasons. Some denominations such as Jehovah’s Witnesses do not celebrate Christmas or Easter, believing that all days are equally holy; some believers refrain from all drugs including alcohol; many are vegetarian or vegan, but for reasons of health or animal welfare rather than the reason for avoiding meat in Paul’s day, which was to do with ritual sacrifice.
In addition, you will find differing approaches to the acceptability of such actions as lending money at interest (does the scriptural ban on ‘usury’ refer to any interest charge, or only excessive rates?), or buying raffle tickets (does that constitute gambling, or not?). Not to mention the never-ending arguments about human sexuality, abortion, the role of women in church, etc. When Christian friendships, individually or between churches, are put under strain over such issues, we know that something has gone wrong and we are far from the ideal of loving each other as sisters and brothers. As anyone who has (literal) brothers or sisters knows, we cannot expect our siblings to think or act exactly like us, and so getting along as a family has to involve accepting difference.
The principles that Paul lays down are ones that can be applied to these, or any other question of ethics. Firstly, our actions should all be intended to “honour the Lord” (14:6) and we do not honour him if we show hypocrisy by criticising in others the actions that we find ourselves doing. Secondly, it is God’s role to judge people, through Jesus, and so while we might offer other people the benefit of our thinking on such an issue we must not condemn them for thinking differently (14:10). Thirdly, all our words and actions must be intended to work towards peace and harmony, not conflict (14:16-19). Fourthly, we should act in accordance with our own conscience, for it is more of a sin to believe something is wrong and yet do it, than it is to believe it to be acceptable in the first place (14:22-23). Finally, we should strive to please others and not ourselves (15:1-3).
Of course it is not easy to follow all these principles all the time. The temptation to judge others whose actions we disagree with is a strong one. Words of criticism slip out of our mouths all too easily. And at the heart of what we mean by sin is the will to please ourselves rather than others. But if we can use as our guide these five principles of avoiding hypocrisy, not judging people, working for peace, acting according to conscience, and pleasing others, then we will not go far wrong.