We Need Theological Triage
13 Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. 14 I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. 15 For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. 16 So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. 17 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. 18 Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. 19 So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.
20 Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. 21 It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble. 22 The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves. 23 But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.
Foregoing judgment on non-primary issues is serving Christ because in doing so you are serving his people. We all have so many stumbling blocks in coming to the gospel. We trip over our own feet as we approach the altar. The more hindrances others place in front of us along the way, the harder it will be to get to Jesus. What we must do is not build new obstacles but to take a sledgehammer to the existing ones. The goal of Christian community should be to destroy anything that would stand in the way of another brother or sister in Christ from getting to Jesus. We do not have to agree on everything to create this loving environment. We only have to agree on one thing: the truth of the gospel. Andrew Wilson recently made an observation on Twitter that helps us understand this passage. He pointed out that we see Paul write elsewhere on two occasions the phrase, “a little leaven leavens the whole lump.” First, in Galatians 5:9, Paul uses this phrase for people saying something is essential when it isn’t. Second, in 1 Corinthians 5:6, he uses it for people denying something is essential when it is. Both cases are problematic. So, we must be sure we know what is essential, and what isn’t. We need to be able to do theological triage to discern what we should hold with a closed hand and what we should hold with an open hand.
So, here we must remember the gospel that Paul preached in Romans 1-11. We must remember that everyone has sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and that everyone in Christ has been freely justified by his work, not our own. It is the grace of God that saves. If grace, then it cannot be by works, otherwise grace would not be grace. Only then can we all seek to stand firmly in the grace of the gospel every time we meet. Let us not judge one another over nonessentials. Let us welcome. If we are to judge at all, let us judge whether we are placing a stumbling block in another’s way.
But how can we do theological triage? A good starting place is the Bible itself. Ask the Holy Spirit to guide you as you read, to give you the insight to behold the gospel. We can also look to the historic creeds such as the Apostles’ Creed and Nicene Creed, where the essential doctrines are laid out for us. We should also look at our church doctrinal statement or statement of belief.
Michael Bird helps us by giving five helpful principles. First, learn to differentiate between areas of conviction and areas of command. Second, don’t major on minor doctrines or minor on major doctrines. Third, exercise your convictions to build others up, not to tear them down. Fourth, do not exchange freedom in Christ for slavery to human tradition. Fifth, at all times, act in love and carry each other’s burdens.
The goal is to walk in love, as Paul outlines in verse 15. If another is grieved by what you eat, you are not walking in love. That means we should care what the other person feels when we do something that we know is against their conscience. Even if our conscience is free, we set aside our desires for the good of the other person. Isn’t that what Jesus did for us? He set aside his glory to humble himself in the form of a servant. He took on skin to veil his radiance and live the life we should have lived to die the death we don’t want to die and save us from our sins. If Jesus was willing to do that, can we not give up one meal for the sake of another? Must we always win, even in the small things?
“For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” Paul’s words here are so clarifying. He’s gospel-centered through and through. He lets nothing get in the way of the gospel mission they’re all on. We love to argue. We love to set up tribes, or camps, or factions, separating ourselves from those with different opinions over small matters. But Jesus did not come and die for such nonsense. He came and died to save sinners and unify his people. How were you brought into the kingdom? By eating the right thing and observing the right day? Or by the shed blood of Christ on the cross, re-coagulated in the risen King? If you were brought in by his grace, welcome others brought in the same door. Welcome, and do not cast out. Whoever does this serves Christ and finds approval from other men (v. 18).
Splitting over small matters destroys the work of God (v. 20). We are given the stewardship from God to either create a beautiful community of unity or to establish pillars of our own self-righteousness. God is an includer. We are excluders. But Christ can change us into includers. He can re-direct our hearts. He can change us. But if he doesn’t change our convictions over what we eat or drink (or our view of baptism or any other non-primary issue), we must do what is in accordance with our conscience before God. We must be men who walk in faith because faith matters above all. The heart with which we approach God matters to God, and he will accept us or reject us based on the way in which we come to him.
We see this most clearly in verse 23. “But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” This is such a sweeping statement. Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin in that whatever is not done out of a willing heart submitted openly to God is sin for the person doing it. How can we then know if what we’re doing is sin? When so many freedoms are available, how can we be sure we’re doing the right thing? Here’s how. How do you feel before God about it? Can you partake with joy, or do you feel guilt or shame as a result? If you can’t thank God for the goodness of it out of a heart devoted to him, then you should not do it. Find something else to do. In sum, we all have our differences, but one thing remains above all: do everything you do with an open heart to God. He will fill it up. Remove the barrier and let his grace fall in.