To Change or Not to Change....Is That the Question?

(Rom 15:1-7 NKJV) We then who are strong ought to bear with the scruples of the weak, and not to please ourselves. {2} Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, leading to edification. {3} For even Christ did not please Himself; but as it is written, "The reproaches of those who reproached You fell on Me." {4} For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope. {5} Now may the God of patience and comfort grant you to be like-minded toward one another, according to Christ Jesus, {6} that you may with one mind and one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. {7} Therefore receive one another, just as Christ also received us, to the glory of God.

Change can be a difficult thing. No one really likes to change, yet we all must do it and are always in a state of change in some degree or another. Usually it is imperceptible, so we are not so aware of it and are able to accommodate it easily. Then over time we find that we have changed, especially when we look back in our yearbooks and recall what we were like during college or high school. Sometimes the realization of that change can come as a shock, especially when it comes to changes in physical appearance. How many men have looked in the mirror and discovered that there is a growing bald spot on the back of their head. Every time my wife cuts my hair, she tells me that my hair is getting so thin on top. She really knows how to make a guy feel good about himself!

I'm not sure how many times in seminary and college we discussed how difficult it is for churches to change. Any pastor who comes into a church an initiates massive changes in the way thing are done are usually short lived pastors. Change always has to be introduced slowly and over a long period of time. Yet there are times in a church's life and in individual's lives when drastic change is forced on them, and the ensuing result is an identity crisis as old paths and ways of doing things are left behind and there is an uncertainty about what the church will become. In some ways, these are exciting times for you get a sense that God is at work, yet it is an unsettling time, for you are loosing connections that have always defined who you are as an individual or a church.

Paul demonstrates a principle to keep in mind in the midst of changes in a church. Drastic changes in a church usually result in a division: those for the change and those against it. So it was in Paul's day, when the Gentiles were coming into the early Christian Church, there was a big push by many people to also make these Gentiles become Jews. Acts 15 tells of the Jerusalem council that convened to decide the issue of which Jewish laws the Gentile converts should follow. Then James, the overseer of the Church in Jerusalem makes this statement: (Acts 15:19-20 NKJV) "Therefore I judge that we should not trouble those from among the Gentiles who are turning to God, {20} "but that we write to them to abstain from things polluted by idols, from sexual immorality, from things strangled, and from blood.

Yet, one of the items that Paul continues to deal with, even years later in this letter to the Romans is the question of eating that which has been offered to an idol. It is obvious that not all were in agreement with this decision of James. Some felt it was alright to eat things offered to idols seeing it was just meat and they were in no way worshiping the idol because that was not in their heart. They just saw it as meat to feed the body. In Romans 14, Paul basically seems to agree with these folk. He says, "(Rom 14:14 NKJV) I know and am convinced by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself; but to him who considers anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean." Paul is going on his traditional teaching that it is by faith that these things are decided for a person. Outward actions and their meanings are defined by the intent and faith of the heart. So for that person who does not worship the idol in their hearts by eating meat offered to it, there is no condemnation. For those who do feel they would be worshiping the idol, they would be sinning to eat of it. Paul labels these things as "doubtful" (Rom 14:1), that is, practices that in and of themselves do not define the essence of the faith, except as it holds meaning for the one doing it.

Based on this, Paul says we are not to judge another's holiness, another's sincerity, another's faith with God by these outward practices. Each culture, each nation, each group of people have a history that defines meanings attached to these outward practices and what may be holy in one place is not in another. Indeed, it may even be just the opposite. What is sin in one group may be nothing at all in another place. We have all heard of the missionaries who have nursing mothers sitting in the front row of the congregation, with nothing covering their breast. In America, that is generally not a socially acceptable practice, confined to nudist colonies. Most Christians here would consider that sinful and immoral. Yet, in that culture the meaning is totally different. Men do not view them there the same way we do here. We can no more judge the holiness of that woman than we can anyone else.

This is a difficult thing for most Christians, for we tend to project our own concepts of what holiness is by the meanings attached to actions for ourselves. One lady in a church I use to attend felt that beards were unholy. Now, she didn't push this too much, but she might mention it to you if you had one. But you knew that in her eyes, if a preacher got up to preach wearing a beard, there would be an automatic barrier in her mind already in place, for true men of God to her didn't wear beards. In America, there has been a history of seeing a clean shaven man as being the more acceptable over a bearded man, especially in some groups. Yet, the exact opposite exist in other cultures, especially in the Eastern countries. There, a man is not considered to be truly holy unless he has a beard, especially one which is not cut. So it is easy for us to project our own meanings onto another person's actions and deduce their motives from that. But Paul warns us about doing this, in judging the other's spirituality and standing before God based on actions alone.

But after proclaiming these truths, Paul turns around in Rom 14:19, and binds those with liberty in such things to those who are bound by these things. The driving point is Rom 14:20, that we should not destroy the unity and work of God over such issues. Thus, if doing something that we feel free to do would cause my brother to stumble and sin, I should refrain from doing it, at least in that person's presence. Paul basically says that if you are free by faith in a matter that others are not, then keep it to yourself before God. In other words, do it privately when you know that your brother is not watching. In some ways this could seem hypocritical, but it is not. Hypocrisy is saying one thing and doing another. That would not be the case here. In this instance, you are simply trying to protect your weaker brother. Yet, Paul does warn us that we must be careful in what we approve of, that we don't condemn ourselves by approving of that which is in itself sin, and not just a matter of faith and conscientious. There are those who use these passages to approve of sexual immorality and other things which have been wrong through all cultures and times.

Therefore, Paul concludes at the beginning of chapter 15 that we should bear with those who are weak on such matters. Unity and peace in the family is more important than having our own way when it comes to matters of faith in practice. The goal is in Rom 15:6, that we may all with one mouth and mind glorify God in heaven. Creating disunity over matters of what is alright to do and not alright to do does not glorify God. Thus, those who have felt that it is alright to ignore a certain practice are to bear with those who feel it is important, in order that we might have a unified witness.

It is at this point that change in the Church takes on meaning. Change is a slow process, usually involving two or three generations. Each generation views things under a little different cultural light. New history is added to the history of their parents. The tendency is to not wait, but to push through change, ignoring the cries of those who complain as old fashion, resistant to the progress of the Gospel. This usually results in division. We see it in the Southern Baptist convention, the fundamentalist against the liberals. Each denomination can probably point to its liberal and conservative groups that hold a tension between massive change and keeping things the way they are. The more one group pushes, the harder the other one pulls. What results to those outside the church is a disunity, a lack of praise to God. Although there will always be that tension in the Church, it should never result in division, but the different sides should bear with one another in love for the sake of unity in Christ.

In my personal life, I am in the midst of some great changes. I have resigned as pastor of this church, and am seeking out what God would have for me to do in the years ahead. There is uncertainty about my direction at this point though I have some general directions to shoot in. I don't plan to continue as a pastor, but my ministry will be directed in a different direction. This coming Sunday (May 12) is my last Sunday. There is that sense of disconnectedness and venturing forth into the unknown. Although emotionally I know this is a difficult time, I have to rest in the leading and hand of God in my life that is directing me this way. Change is difficult. It does not come about without some inner turmoil and stress. However, the greatest praise that we can give to God as an individual or a church, is to show them that God is greater than the stress of change. We will not allow that stress to destroy the faith of God in our lives and Church. We will continue to respect the historic faith of our parents even while we relate the never changing faith to an ever changing culture.

Is God able to change your paradigms and ways of looking at things? And in so doing, are we able to bear with those who still see things the "old" way? We should be changing. Changing to become more and more one with God. But we don't have to let go of our brother's hand to do it. Love is our grip with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Such love maintains the unity even in the midst of change and disagreements about it. Love "Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things." (1 Cor 13:7 KJV) Love never fails. So bear with one another as God changes us from glory into glory according to His will. Amen.