Weak and Strong

Romans 14 (NLT)

As Paul begins by encouraging tolerance of “weak” believers, he implies that other Roman Christians are strong in their faith. What may surprise some readers is that the strong, himself among them, are presented as being less concerned about rules.

This teaching is very much in line with Jesus’ ministry. A regular Bible reader can think of many situations where Jesus broke or bent the rules of his day because something larger was at stake, often irritating the very rules-oriented Pharisees in the process.

Paul is by no means encouraging a libertine lifestyle. (Neither was Jesus!) We have to keep what Paul says in context with the rest of Romans, where he often is clear about particular sins that must be avoided. It does seem, however, that there are rules, written or unwritten, in church life that may create discord.

Paul seems to be aware of division in the early church in Rome, but it is not completely clear to us what issues caused the division. There’s a strong possibility the Christians were debating whether it was okay to eat meat; most meat in the urban marketplace came from animals slaughtered during sacrifices to pagan gods.

There also seems to have been some dispute over the best day for Christian worship, possibly because Jewish Christians still saw Saturday as the Sabbath, while Christians not of Jewish descent figured any day would do. A second kind of food dispute also is possible, this one between Christians who wanted to follow Jewish dietary laws and Christians who saw no need to do so.

Again, note that as Paul deals with the divisive matters, he tends to cast those rigid about the rules as weak, in danger of starting disputes or even falling away from faith because they see others breaking what they perceive as a firm rule.

Paul’s solution, however, is not to tell those of weak faith to change. In fact, he’s careful to repeat earlier teachings about the importance of leaving judgment to God. Instead, he encourages a basic goal for the Roman church, and really, for any church. Without abandoning his call to holiness found in the rest of Romans, he calls all of us to strive for harmony. To accomplish harmony, we need tolerance and forgiveness for each other.

In the process, we lift each other up rather than tearing each other down. We grow stronger in the faith together. Such a process also causes us to emphasize the importance of the person before us, rather than the issue vexing us.

As Christians, we know the Bible doesn’t encourage situational ethics, but we do believe similar situations can call for different responses, assuming we’re not falling into or tolerating ongoing sin in the community.

In modern Western churches, we don’t have much of an ongoing debate regarding the consumption of meat. We do sometimes have strong differences of opinion about alcohol consumption, particularly among churchgoers in the Southeast United States.

For the record, I try to live by the Bible, and I cannot find any prohibitions against the general consumption of alcohol in Scripture. The Bible has much to say about drunkenness—what I would call a loss of control endangering self or others—but little about abstaining from drink, unless you’re taking a vow of some sort, along the lines of a Nazirite vow in Numbers 6. (In that case, you also cannot cut your hair.)

As a Christian, I’ve found myself employing different tactics around the issue of alcohol depending on the people involved.

In my pre-clergy life, I had a co-worker who was a serious alcoholic and very prone to succumb to drunkenness. The problem was we worked in a field where alcohol consumption was prevalent at cocktail parties, conferences, dinner meetings and such. Having no tendencies toward alcoholism myself, I felt free to drink in moderation, but I and some other Christian co-workers chose to abstain when around our friend. We hoped to keep him from feeling socially isolated, and perhaps we even altered to some degree a culture that was dangerous for him.

A few years later, I had to approach the use of alcohol in a different way. By then, I was a student at Asbury Theological Seminary. The school at the time had an ethos statement asking students not to drink alcohol, in deference to some of the seminary’s participating denominations that had strict rules about such things.

While traveling, I ran into another former co-worker who wanted me to sit down and talk at a restaurant he liked. In part, he was wanting spiritual advice. He also really, really wanted me to try a beer that had impressed him. I declined a couple of times, but I began to sense my reluctance was shutting down an otherwise important conversation. I think I was signaling to him I had somehow become less accessible in my transition to professional ministry.

I decided to have the beer. (Forgive me, Asbury Seminary.) The conversation opened up again, and as we sat there, I began to realize the beer was acting like a form of communion.

Paul also tells us we individually need to grow into a special kind of Christian, one confident in his or her faith. This is not false confidence or bravado. There’s a difference between being blindly assertive and truly confident. Paul points us toward a quiet confidence that comes from a strong prayer life and a deep knowledge of the Bible.

When we reach such a state, we can in good conscience say we have identified what is right and what is wrong, and then live accordingly, glorifying God with our lives as best we can.

The featured image is a photo of an ancient Roman marketplace, by Venanzio Cellitti, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.


It’s the Economy, Stupid

Amos 8:1-12

When I was a journalism student at the University of Tennessee, I had this wonderful professor, Dr. Tony Spiva, for a class in macroeconomics, the study of how economics work on a national and international scale.

It sounds like a sleeper of a class when I describe it, but it was one of the highlights of my college education. Dr. Spiva had an illustration for every principle. Even today, when I think of monopolies I think of diamond mining in the 1970s and 1980s, and when I think of supply and demand I think of Sade records. (He pronounced her name SHAR-day, as in, “those SHAR-day records you all are buying.”)

In fact, Dr. Spiva made money and its impact on the world so exciting that I considered changing my major. I didn’t, but maybe now that I’m a pastor and, consequently, a theologian, I’m not that far from Dr. Spiva’s field of study.

After all, in our text today, the prophet Amos underlines that God seeks a holy economy. God looks to how we treat one another in the material world for evidence of what is in our hearts, and our creator then responds accordingly.

You may find economics a dry subject, even seemingly irrelevant, but it is one of the few worldly examples I can discuss that impacts every one of you every day. When Bill Clinton was first elected president in 1992, he kept a key message in mind, a message his adviser James Carville first wrote down: “The economy, stupid.” It was supposed to be an internal planning message, but it became a political mantra: “It’s the economy, stupid.” In other words, remember the one issue affecting everyone.

On a large scale, economics heavily impact how well we live and how long we live. Of course God is interested in economics.

Amos speaks to the people of Israel at a time when there was great economic injustice. He begins with an image of a basket of summer fruit, something beautiful but very temporary, very perishable. Times can change quickly.

From there, he begins to predict disaster, all of it tied to how the people are treating one another as they go about the daily business of the world. In particular, he chastises the merchants.

Their hearts are so engrossed in profit they have come to not like the sabbaths and the religious feasts, the times set aside to draw closer to God rather than do business.

They cheat their customers with what amounts to tricky packaging and rigged scales, in the process exploiting the poor and needy. People have started seeing other people as commodities rather than human beings, and suffering has ensued.

The effects are to be quite terrible, Amos says. God will punish the land with famine, but not a famine of food or water. Instead, people will stop hearing from God, hungering for the word of God so much that they will go searching for God, but not find him.

It is an ancient situation, in this case one that happened thousands of years ago, but it also is a problem that crops up repeatedly throughout history. The people with primary control of a culture’s resources forget they are children of God, letting greed become their idol. And in the process, other people suffer, often from shortened lives.

The founder of Methodism, an Anglican priest named John Wesley, was a very vocal critic of the business practices in 18th century England. One example: He was deeply disturbed by the production of drinking liquor, but not for the reasons you might think. So much grain was being used for highly profitable liquor production that there was a shortage of grain to make bread and other basic food items. The price of these items went so high that poor people were starving to death in the alleyways.

A few years ago we as Americans actually made some similar economic decisions that had devastating effects globally. Many of those effects continue today. This is from the April 20, 2014 issue of Forbes:

In 2007, the global price of corn doubled as a result of an explosion in ethanol production in the U.S. Because corn is the most common animal feed and has many other uses in the food industry, the price of milk, cheese, eggs, meat, corn-based sweeteners and cereals increased as well.  World grain reserves dwindled to less than two months, the lowest level in over 30 years.

Several world hunger groups began to report that people in the developing world, like people in Wesley’s day, were starving as the price of basic foods went out of the reach of their meager incomes.

Yes, Amos’ message is aimed at all of us. Certainly, if you run a business, you need to hear his words. Always consider God’s demand that we consider each other and care for each other as you make choices in how you do business.

If you’re a voter, ask the right questions of candidates and assess the answers in a godly way. Which policies promise life and love? Which candidates create fertile ground for the kingdom, and which candidates potentially poison the fields?

As a church member, be sure you’re doing all you can financially to help the church fulfill its mission to bring people into a growing relationship with Christ.

The early Methodists lived by what we call our General Rules. They are a good general guide for living, and they are certainly a good guide for participating in the economic world. They are:

  1. Do no harm. My own business experience causes me to think of the Enron scandal and the terrible damage it caused to individuals and the economy as a whole.
  2. Do good. In his sermon “The Use of Money,” John Wesley said: “Gain all you can, save all you can, give all you can.” There is nothing wrong with providing for ourselves, our families and our ongoing enterprises, but we work and do business primarily to benefit God’s kingdom.
  3. Stay in love with God. (This is the modern way of saying Wesley’s third rule.) If we keep God before us, as our first and primary love, everything else will fall into place.

A prayer: God grant us holiness in all we do, and in particular in our economic lives, which have potential for either great good or great harm.

The featured image is William Powell Frith’s “Poverty and Wealth,” 1888.