… make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean. If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died. Therefore do not let what you know is good be spoken of as evil. 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 to mutual edification. (verses 13-19)
It’s possible to be entirely in the right and yet get everything wrong.
We can get so focused on accurately living the truth, that we miss one of our Lord’s most crucial commands. We can be so fixated on maximizing personal freedom, that we miss pursuing peace. We can be so intent on our own comfort, that we neglect building others up.
In Paul’s day the issues centred around meat and drink and sacred days. Paul, the Apostle of freedom, was “fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself” (verse 14). That was the truth. As an Apostle, he saw it clearly. But he knew it wasn’t the main issue. Perhaps his own background helped. Coming from the ranks of the Pharisees he’d previously lived life as if the letter of the law and “getting it all right” was of the essence. But, having received grace in Jesus, he now knew there were bigger issues.
Like the commandment to love, a command which came straight from the heart of Jesus himself. “A new command I give you: Love one another,” Jesus said. “As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34). Paul knew this took precedence over “being right” and “maximizing personal freedom.” “If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love” (verse 15).
He also knew the essential calling on our lives includes the pursuit of peace and a commitment to building up the Body of Christ. If his own actions and pursuit of freedom were causing turmoil and distress in the hearts of others, combined with an undermining of faith, then those actions needed to be set aside. Rather than promoting peace, they would stir up discord. If his own pursuit of freedom, even when soundly grounded in scriptural and doctrinal truth, was liable to cause someone else to go against their own convictions, then his own freedom needed to be curtailed. Otherwise, he would find himself tearing down the Body, rather than building it up.
Such commitment to love and peace and edification came at a cost. Paul knew it. But he was willing to constrain freedom for the sake of brothers and sisters in Christ.
The issues for us today will be different, perhaps uniquely tailored to each of our own situations. Sorting through the issues will require a willingness to deny ourselves, together with much wisdom and sensitivity to the Spirit’s leading.
But then, isn’t that what it’s all about?
Lord, you laid aside your own rights in order to save all humanity, including me. You have given me your command to love as you loved. Strengthen me now, by your Spirit, to do that faithfully, even in the mundane issues of life. As you have called me into community with brothers and sisters, each with different perspectives, give me wisdom and sensitivity to your Spirit’s leading that I might be an instrument of your peace, and a source of edification in your Body. Amen.
Reflect: Is there a practical issue in your life or community that needs to be shaped by Paul’s perspective? If so, talk it through with the Lord. If there’s not an obvious issue at the moment, talk with him about how you will respond when one arises.