Romans 14-15 often gets quoted when Christians talk about how to handle conflict in the church. That’s the passage that deals with what has been called “adiaphora” or “disputable matters”—seen sometimes as an add-on to the Apostle Paul’s magisterial, theologically rich epistle to the Romans. In reality this passage is Paul’s pastoral response to a fragile Christian community in danger of fracturing along a Jew-Gentile fault line—and it’s the whole point of the letter.
We miss out on the significance of this passage when we think of it as about mere opinions, things that don’t really matter, as if the Roman Christians were arguing over what colour the new carpet in the sanctuary should be. Try telling a devout Jew that the kosher food laws or Sabbath observance are “mere opinions”! No, the issues causing fissures in the church of Rome—sacred days and “clean” foods (14:1-2, 5-6, 14)—were matters of deep personal, ethnic, and religious identity, grounded in Scripture and affecting both everyday life and collective worship.
In fact, I would suggest that the dispute in Rome followed a pattern we’ve seen played out again and again throughout the Church’s history—and still today:
- We think X is an important issue, something vital, something essential.
- We think our view on X is biblical; we can back it up from the Bible.
- We therefore think we’ve got God on our side.
- And then we disagree, we dispute, we argue, we fight, and often we split. Or, perhaps slightly better, or maybe worse: we simply avoid those we disagree with, we shun them, we ban them from our lives.
Note first what Paul doesn’t say. He doesn’t choose one side and say, “Look, this group is right and the other is wrong. Everybody just needs to agree with the group that’s right, or leave!” Nor does he even call both groups to compromise on their convictions, to try to find a middle position that everyone can assent to but satisfies no one. Nor does he simply give a bland answer of tolerance: “C’mon, everybody, why can’t we all just get along?”
Rather, Paul speaks a word of admonition to both sides. (Not just the “strong”—read it carefully!).
To the Jewish “conservatives,” the “traditionalists” among them (“the weak in the faith”): “Do not condemn your ‘liberal’ sisters and brothers, for God has accepted them and you are not their judge.” (Yep, I’ve done that.)
To the Gentile “progressives,” those “liberals” in the bunch (the “strong”): “Do not despise your ‘conservative’ sisters and brothers, for we all share one Lord and act out of devotion to him.” (Yep, I’ve done that, too.)
To all of them, but especially those of the majority: “Respect the convictions of others; do not compel the other to act against their convictions.” (That’s what the whole “stumbling block” thing is, not just “offending” someone’s sensibilities through our actions—see 14:23. Think about it: Paul wasn’t really all that concerned about “offending” people!).
And to all of them, both “conservatives” and “progressives”: “Welcome one another, accept the other, receive them into your circle, just as God in Christ has welcomed you.” (Strong words, these!)
And underlying these words? The true centre of Christian faith: the Person of Jesus, and Jesus’ Way of Love. Throughout the passage, at key points in his passionate plea for unity-in-diversity, Paul looks to Jesus as the basis for his exhortations (14:9, 15; 15:3, 7): the crucified and resurrected Jesus as Lord and Saviour, welcoming sinners.
Drawing on Paul’s words here, and just some good conflict resolution ideas, here’s my attempt to summarize how we as Christians can navigate through these disputes over significant issues, when everyone’s sure they’ve got the Bible on their side:
- Come to your own convictions carefully, thoughtfully, prayerfully, biblically, centred on Jesus.
- Hold your convictions humbly, loosely. Be willing to be wrong, or to give way for the good of others.
- Respect others in their own convictions, showing Jesus’ love. Do not pressure them to act against their conscience. Do not condemn them; you are not their Judge. Do not despise them; you share the same Lord and Saviour.
- Before speaking, listen. Hear the convictions of others, and listen to the life story that has shaped those convictions.
- Then speak openly and honestly about your convictions. If you feel it is necessary, even speak passionately and persuasively. Always speak with gentleness and respect, with the love of Jesus.
- As much as possible, speak face-to-face. Share a meal together, share your stories, share your prayers, share your common faith, your common humanity.
- When a group decision is needed, strive for consensus. This means unanimity if possible, but if that’s not possible then at least come to a place where everyone is heard and the minority are willing—not coerced, but willing—to concede and support the decision of the group.
- And at bottom, in the very centre, allow Jesus to pull you in again, to draw you to himself, to follow him in this life of love. Don’t be distracted by all the things everyone else says is so important. There are very few things worthy of our strongest conviction; anything more is vanity, or even idolatry.
I know it’s easy to be fearful of this, this pursuit of unity-in-diversity. It’s risky, this simple focus on Jesus, this walking in the way of love. It’s uncomfortable, allowing things we’ve relied upon for our whole lives to be questioned.
But the centre will hold. All else might seem shaken, but of this I am sure: the centre of our faith will hold firm. Scripture assures us that while our ways of doing things are always changing, “Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever” (Heb 13:8), and that while all our oh-so-certain knowledge will one day disappear, “love will always remain” (1 Cor 13:13).
And when you come to really understand that pure and simple centre—Jesus, and Jesus’ way of love—and you come to fully appreciate it, you can have the confidence and the freedom to fruitfully engage the different views of others, even to change your mind on these issues, even to celebrate our diversity as the Body of Christ.