Yesterday I began a short series on homeschooling, public schooling, and the ways in which we educate our children. I provided a small glimpse at the changing Christian landscape when it comes to education and then placed education in the category of secondary doctrines or disputable matters. Today’s article will be a little bit longer, so I’ll ask your patience as you read through it. In this article we will look at how people who disagree on disputable matters ought to relate to one another and how each will be particularly prone to sin against the other.
As Christians we are called by God to live in gospel community, to live with one another as family. We are to do so despite differences in what we believe, not at the core of the faith, but in matters that are of some dispute. Bound together by the gospel and sharing a common belief in the pillars of our faith, we are to love one another even through considerable diversity. This diversity extends not only to those of different races or colors or creeds, but also to those who understand Scripture in a way that is different than we do and, hence, to those who apply Scripture in a different way.
The fourteenth chapter of the book of Romans is a great gift to the church as it instructs us in how we are to live together even with different beliefs on secondary matters. In this passage the Apostle Paul distinguishes between 2 types of Christians, the strong and the weak, and tells them how they are to not only tolerate one another but how they are to love and accept one another. While Paul looks specifically to just 2 issues—vegetarianism and the observance of holy days—what he teaches is applicable to any other secondary issue within the church. As we look to the issues of public schooling and homeschooling, we will find great value in turning to this text and applying it to ourselves.
Important to the context of the chapter is that everyone Paul speaks about here is a Christian. He is not discussing issues in which a non-Christian disagrees with a Christian, but issues in which Christians disagree with one another. What we see is that Paul does not tell these people that they have to come to a common agreement. Rather, he allows them to hold differing views and instructs them on how to love one another even with those differences. What we learn is that being of the same mind in Christ and being part of the same family in Christ does not require that we think the same things about secondary matters.
Also important to the context of the chapter is that the people Paul writes to are not relying on their vegetarianism or on their observance of holy days to merit salvation. What they believe on these issues they believe only after affirming that they are saved by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. This is not an issue of how anyone is saved. Instead, it concerns one of the implications of living as one who has already been saved; it concerns living out of that faith.
With that in mind, let’s see what Paul has to say to the people in Rome and, by extension, to all of us who want to think rightly about homeschooling and public schooling.
The Weaker & The Stronger
The first thing Paul does as he considers secondary matters is to divide the Christians concerned into 2 groups which he labels the weak and the strong. The first reaction of these Roman Christians was probably exactly what ours would be today: we would place ourselves in the strong camp. After all, none of us wants to be weak, right? But this is a good moment to be humble before the Lord and to let his Word instruct us. In some areas of life we are all weak and in some areas of life we are all strong. This is inevitable in a world in which our hearts and minds are clouded—drawn to truth, but unable to perfectly grasp it in all areas. Weakness and strength vary from issue to issue and do not necessarily apply to the entire person. I may be weak as it pertains to one issue and strong as it pertains to another.
In Paul’s vocabulary weak and strong apply to conviction about what faith in Christ allows or prohibits—to the practical implications of the gospel in real life. In his examples the weak Christians refuse to eat meat and they observe holy days, making one day different from another. The strong, however, are liberated from some external observances and, by conviction that this is how they are to honor the Lord, they eat meat and treat all days alike. They are considered strong because in these matters they have worked out more of the implications of justification by grace through faith.
There are two important things to note, First, in both cases these Christians do what they do as an outworking of their faith. As they understand the Bible, this is the way they can best honor God—by abstaining from meat and by observing holy days on the one hand, or by enjoying meat and not observing holy days on the other. Second, strength in one area does not necessarily mean they are strong in every area and weakness in one area does not necessarily mean they are weak in every area. It is entirely possible that there were some who were weak toward meat and strong toward holy days. In both cases these were Christians acting out of their understanding of Scripture and convinced in their own minds that this was how the Lord was calling them to honor him.
It is worth noting once more that Paul did not lay down the law here, though he must have known what was right and what was wrong when it came to eating meat. Paul did not demand that these believers find agreement on the issue. Instead, he warned them of the temptations particular to each of the strong and the weak and commanded them, with all the authority of God, that they were to put sin to death so they could love and accept one another.
I want to suggest that Romans 14 is a text that applies to Christians today as they seek to hold strongly to what they believe about education and as they seek to live in close Christian fellowship with people who hold equally strongly to the exact opposite viewpoint. This is a text that concerns the weaker, the stronger, the homeschooler and the public schooler.
In this context Paul’s warning to the Romans is a warning to us. No matter what you believe about schooling—whether you are convinced that it is best for your family (or all families) to homeschool or to public school—you will face the temptation to sin against your brothers and sisters in Christ. You will be tempted by the devil, by the world and by your own sinful flesh to sin against those who believe the opposite of what you believe.
By now we are all asking the obvious question: when it comes to schooling, who is weak and who is strong? I am going to defer the question for now. First I want to show from Romans 14 how the weak and how the strong will be tempted to sin against the other.
The text makes it clear that the temptation of the strong will be to despise the weak Christian while the particular temptation of the weak will be to condemn the strong. The strong is prone to see the weak as being ensnared by legalism or immaturity and may grow impatient with him. This will lead to outright hatred and even mockery as he despises his brother and looks down on him. The weak will see the strong as going far beyond what the Lord allows and will condemn him for lawless behavior. He will be prone to wonder, “Can he even be a Christian when he behaves like that?” In the end, each will run away from the other, destroying the unity that ought to exist between Christians, and especially Christians in the same local church.
This kind of hatred and condemnation has often destroyed gospel unity. I think each of us can think of churches that have been split apart by division between the weak and strong. Many of us can think of churches that have been split apart by this very issue of schooling. Public schoolers have despised the homeschoolers, perceiving condemnation from them even where it may not exist, regarding them as lesser Christians for having a conscience that keeps them from allowing their children attend public schools, impatiently expecting them to accept the liberty they see in Scripture. Homeschoolers have whispered about the public schoolers, they have condemned them for turning their children over to the world, they have wondered how any Christian could make that kind of a decision. What a tragedy it is when Christians are divided by a matter like this one. What ought to be a display of gospel unity instead becomes a mockery of the gospel.
This is Paul’s warning to us. He calls you to be aware of your proclivity to sin and be aware of the temptation that will be particular to you as weak or as strong.
Thankfully Paul does more than offer a warning. He also offers the solution.
The first thing Paul tells us to do is to put a stop to the heart sins that lead to disunity. He speaks first to the strong, telling him to welcome the one who is weak. Welcoming is the exactly opposite of hating, the polar opposite of the natural reaction. Paul says more than this, though–he also warns the strong one not to welcome the weak only to try to win him to his side. The welcoming he prescribes is one that is free of agenda. And why is he to welcome his brother? Because God has already welcomed him! This is not the strong person’s party, but God’s party! God has already welcomed this man and is now asking the strong person to do no more than he has done. Here then is the exhortation for the strong: when you feel like despising the weak, when you feel like fleeing to a comfortable group of other strong people, stop, repent and welcome. You need to welcome your brother, you need to embrace him and you need to accept what he believes about education without trying to woo him to your side.
Meanwhile, Paul tells the weak ones not to pass judgment on the strong. To pass judgment essentially means to stand in the place of judge and jury and to decree the verdict. It is to condemn on the basis of a differing opinion on a secondary matter. And God tells you, the weak person, to stop, to repent and to join the party, celebrating alongside the strong. When you feel condemnation coming on, you need to know that this is your brother and that the way he educates his children is formed from his love of God. On that basis you need to love and accept him as God loves and accepts him.
Paul offers theological reasons that you cannot condemn or despise. As he does so he poses this rhetorical question: “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls.” In other words, Who on earth do you think you are? The weak would dare to stand in the place of God and pass judgment; the strong would dare to exclude people for whom Christ died. Both behaviors are abhorrent to God, who is the Father of both.
When it comes to secondary matters, when it comes to educating your children, what is of primary importance to God is not what you do, but the heart motives behind what you do. “Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” The one who observes these holy days does so in honor of the Lord; the one who does not observe the holy days does so in honor of the Lord. Either way, the Lord is honored and glorified. This is not moral relativism. On some level one behavior is better than another, but the Lord allows both and does not consider either one sin. Why? Because neither weak nor strong Christian is living for himself; both are living for the Lord within the limitations of hearts and minds that are clouded by sin. Your decision in such matters must be grounded in the worship of Christ as you understand his Word. “I am scared” or “I haven’t thought about it” or “I don’t care” or “That’s what everyone else is doing” are not sound motives before the Lord.
Paul wraps up this section with this warning and it is one we would do well to heed: Each of us will give an account of himself to God. You are not my judge; I am not your judge. The Lord is the judge of us both. It is before him that we must stand in confidence, doing all we do to his glory and without sinning against our brothers and sisters in Christ. This is true of the weaker and the stronger and, therefore, it is true of the homeschooler and the public schooler. It is before the Lord that we will and must stand or fall. “And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.”
This series will continue (and hopefully wrap up) tomorrow. Tomorrow we’ll discuss who is weak and who is strong.