How do we respond to a clash of cultures…
from Scripture like Jesus would, whether the clash is personal in family or work, church or school, or corporate?
In typical Paul-fashion, when he has a knotty problem to solve, he first carefully lays out the theological panorama necessary as a framework to solve the problem. Then Paul hits the problem head-on!
Romans 14:1-15:13 is his “head-on” dealing with the sin simmering below the surface in the Roman churches, distorting freedom, which then undermines essential unity.
Read Romans 14:1-15:7 a time or two. Who do you identify more with, the “strong” or the “weak?”
To begin with the end in focus,
Paul aims to restore a welcoming, embracing attitude in both camps. Reach out and welcome all into fellowship to share our table with us. God’s plan is for the weak to grow in faith surrounded by the accepting presence of the strong. In areas where the Bible gives us freedom in beliefs or practices, embrace those with opposing views and values with open arms. Accept them like the spiritual siblings they are (“accept,” or welcome, Romans 14:1; 14:3; 15:7).
The Spirit works in any Christian culture, although better in those aligned most closely with Jesus’ ministry and the New Testament (NT). The NT calls all of us to practice what we have personal faith for. Do this without imposing our faith on others or looking down on what we view as their weaknesses (14:22-23). Such a restored focus changes the spiritual culture to align more with what Jesus sowed. This otherly culture begins with respect and honor and will then preserve God-given unity amidst differences (Ephesians 4:3), releasing unity’s powerful effect on society (John 17:20-23).
What is undermining the unity in the Roman churches?
Most likely, a clash of cultures as Christians. In AD 49, Emperor Claudius drove out of Rome all Jews in the faith-communities, including its leaders. New leadership arose, most likely non-Jews from those without the powerful baggage of long-standing religion. So they embraced a fuller view of the freedom we have in Christ. When those who were driven out returned five years later, their leadership positions were filled and their church culture had changed. A rumbling disunity seeped into the church. Such disunity dims the light of unity shining from this faith-community.
Throughout his ministry in the Mediterranean basin, Paul boldly proclaimed that God calls His people to freedom. Yet a freedom that serves others, rather than our own desires (Galatians 5:1+5:13-14). Two broad misunderstandings undermine our freedom, legalism[i] (trusting in man-made traditions from the past) and license[ii] (using freedom for our own self-indulgent purposes). The house churches in Rome experienced both. Their self-focused responses to the Gospel of freedom undermined spiritual unity, from both camps. Paul teaches the church for all time how to heal a clash of Christian cultures, “welcome and accept those who differ.”
Read the passage again.
List who Paul is talking to, the “strong” or “weak,” and what he says to each. And Paul’s message is different to each.
If you view yourself as “strong” in your faith, Paul aims most of his corrective words for you to change. Check it out if you question this. If you desire to follow Jesus, it’s inescapable in the New Testament (NT) that the strong take their strength and humble themselves to serve their weaker Christian siblings in the Family of God in love. This bridges a clash of cultures.
If you consider your faith “strong” as you work through this knotty passage, focus on yourself and how you can best serve others. Even as the “strong,” it would be spiritual arrogance if we ever thought we had the correct scoop on all God’s thoughts. We need diversity to unlock a more complete understanding and to blend their strengths where we are “weak.”
Truth be known, we are all a still-in-proces mixture.
We have arenas in which we have “strong” faith and others where our faith is “weak.” We are all still very much in-process. And if you consider yourself weak in faith, find a Bible-centered mentor to come alongside to help you get into Scripture with a bias towards doing it. Don’t settle in or wallow in personal weakness or brokeness. The Good News is really Great News. God has provided all we need in Christ to grow in life and in ministry.
This true Gospel of freedom diligently preserves the God-given unity of the Spirit in the Body of Christ (Ephesians 4:3). Right here Christianity differs from society as light from darkness. Christianity teaches the “strong” to kneel to serve the “weak.” Most of society models those with strength lording it over those who allow it.
Part-for-the-whole thinking undermines true freedom by lifting up only one part of a God-given Both/And creative tension as if only one existed. Yes, we are free. Yet free so that our foremost efforts now consider others before ourselves. We quickly forgive from our heart those who offend us so we are not hooked to them. Now we have space to ask: “how can I build up, serve and love my siblings in Christ?” Their spiritual health should be more crucial to me than my exercise of freedom. Yet until I forgive the other from my heart,[iii] their attitudes are none of my business (Romans 4:4; Matthew 7:1-12).
What’s crucial, though, is to understand that Paul’s spiritual correction to stop judging and condemning extends to both. Those with a stronger faith for broader freedom (the “strong”) and those with a narrower faith and less freedom (the “weak”) must adjust to resolve the clash of cultures. And Paul saves his sharpest words for those who think they are the “strong.”
Paul met people where they were…
…in order to expose unhealthy theology or practices in order to shift them toward the Father’s heart.
I suspect both groups considered themselves “right” in their responses. Because both felt “right” in their own minds, they were unbending to change and looked at the other as “wrong.” From this “right/wrong” position, it’s easy to feel justified to judge, condemn or look down on the other “camp,” thus sowing disunity. Of course, when we look down on another brother or sister in Christ, we simply express our sinful feelings of superiority. That’s why Paul calls us to a different culture of freedom living in, being led by and keeping in step with the Spirit so we demonstrate the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:16-26).
Paul reminds the Romans that no “other” camp exists.
We are one in Christ (15:5-6). Their right-wrong paradigm is Old Testament (OT), not for the NT faith community. God has given us a new heart. No food or drink or day or practice is any longer ceremonially unclean in itself, like it was under the Old Testament law (14:14). All are free to partake or to abstain. It’s not a sin matter, but personal preference.
Yet it becomes “unclean” for each individual whose faith regards it as unclean. Because the act of how or what they do violates their conscience, it becomes sin for them (14:23). If the actions of the “weak” were sin, Paul would confront it so they could grow. The issue is the conscience in areas of choice and our faith supporting those choices.
Most Christians, especially older Christians and those in positions of authority, believe they are the “strong” ones in faith. Over time, most who view themselves as “strong” have studied and ministered for years. They have convinced themselves that their standards and practices, theology and style of ministry and culture, are correct (or they would have changed long ago).
Those of you who see yourselves as the strong in faith with a wider range of freedom, please read this passage carefully. Paul directed most all of the correction and commands in this section to you. The strong in faith serve the others without looking down on or demeaning them so as not to put stumbling blocks in their way (14:13).
Certainly, the strong in faith have no need to water down their own faith. They practice it faithfully, keeping their faith to themselves and to God, not imposing their their own personal standards on others (14:22). Their “strong” faith forges broad enough freedom to defer to others with a weaker faith in areas of conscience (not Biblical Commands) in order to serve the weak. The true “strong” know it’s not about us. Deferring to please others in areas of conscience, even when in positions of authority, pleases the Father because Jesus is our model (15:1-3).
Read Scripture. God not only exercises His authority, but also restrains it in order to release the best in us.
By contrast, judging focuses on their hidden motives and evaluates based on our own personal standards. When they don’t measure up, we act as judge, jury and executioner. We carry out our sentence by passing judgment and condemning, thus looking down on them when they fail to measure up to our standards.
“Ultimately, judging has to do with ‘playing God.’ When we judge someone, we do three things. First, we place ourselves above another as if we were his or her God. Second, [we use our standard to] create the standard for another [Third,] we condemn another” (Dr. Henry Cloud & Dr. John Townsend, “How People Grow,” pp. 53-54).
How do we Scripturally respond when we experience the clash of cultures, with an individual and within a faith-community?
Whether we view ourselves as the so-called “strong” or “weak” in faith is immaterial. Paul’s ringing question strikes at the heart of each of us. “Are you treating those with whom you disagree with respect and with honor, with love that aims to serve their highest and best?”
Serve and show love to the other so we don’t use our freedom either to support our legalism or our license (Galatians 5:1+13-14). This visible display of inner heart-unity brings praise to God (15:5-7) and powerfully testifies to society (John 17:20-23). Paul’s clear message is to “accept” and “welcome” because our brother is not our enemy.
The pretend “strong” need to broadcast their faith in public places and impose it on others.
Jesus walked His faith out in an understated way, although He walked in great authority. Paul calls the true “strong” not to live for ourselves alone, but for the Lord so we serve others, even as Christ did. This is the “Family Business:” worshiping, evangelizing, enfolding new believers into the local faith-community, and training them up in all Jesus said and did (Matthew 28:18-20).
Negatively, put no stumbling block in their way that distresses them to sin. Positively, serve in love, seek their good, bear their failures, work towards peace, intentionally build up one another, equip the “weak” in faith in order to serve their highest. It begins by accepting them where they are. Others will not listen if they don’t believe we accept and welcome them just as they are.
Such a response sows a culture of true freedom in the midst of a clash of cultures. These Holy Spirit drawn responses preserve the God-given unity in the church. Without unity in a local church, our society hears a false Gospel (John 17:20-23). Paul’s desire to fulfill His God-given mission and launch his mission to Spain from these local Roman churches would be torpedoed by their religious arrogance unless the “strong” aligned with these responses.
For those who come out of a religious background and who may wrestle with legalism, do you want more? I have written a study piece called Journey in Freedom available as a free PDF download. Click here.
[i] Legalism: a narrow focus, primarily on past religious traditions and practices. A clash of cultures arise when legalism collides with healthy Christianity. These rules and regulations may have been healthy at one time or in another place, yet are a foreign substance in what God is currently doing. Such a focus on man-made religious traditions undermines true Spirit-led freedom (Mark 7:5-13). Jesus dealt repeatedly with this incipient legalism in his religious followers because Jesus meets people where they are. No wonder Jesus teaches in John 15 that God must prune the healthy growth from last year’s season of fruitfulness in order to release more fruitfulness in this season. I taught on pruning in the second section in my book, Jesus Is Enough! 21st Century Meditations in John 15 (available on Amazon.com).
Jesus focused on correcting His disciples’ legalism because they came out of a hyper-spiritual religion. Just to touch on a couple instances: the old/new wine-skins in Mark 2:19-22, the deliberate Sabbath controversies violating their man-made traditions (Mark 2:23, 3:1-6), his threefold, scathing denouncement of legalism (Mark 7:5-13), after Jesus’ resurrection with Peter (Acts 10:9-20), and then Paul confronted Peter for his hypocrisy in Galatians 2:11-16.
Legalism seems to be the sin of choice to limit…
…our God-given freedom for those coming from a spiritual background. License is more prevalent for those coming from a non-religious background (Galatians 5:1+13-14). Paul taught very directly about this battle between the flesh and the Spirit early in his ministry in Galatians 5 and later in Romans 8.
[ii] License: a narrow focus, primarily on our own freedom in the Spirit. This distorts freedom (“anything goes”) because it overlooks that all NT freedom comes with healthy boundaries (1 Corinthians 6:12+10:23-24). “Does it bring me into bondage?” “Is it beneficial for others?” “Does it build up others?” The cramped faith of others in our faith-fellowship legitimately narrows the range of practices for all those who have a robust faith and a broad range of freedom. One who is truly strong in faith kneels to serve and love others, healing the clash of cultures.