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How to Glorify God When We Disagree

The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.

The story behind the sermon (from Steve Mathewson)

A sermon series on the Book of Romans brought me to this text. The first challenge I faced was the sheer size of the passage. I could have broken it down into two messages—14:1-23 and 15:1-13—but I felt like I needed to preach the entire passage in order to present the full idea. The first section, 14:1-23, develops the idea as a warning: We cannot divide and destroy over things that are not essential to the kingdom of God. The second section, 15:1-13, comes at the idea from a more positive perspective: Rather, we must accept one another as Christ accepted us for the glory of God. So, I preached the entire passage even though I risked creating a message which was too long and which had a few underdeveloped ideas.

The second challenge I faced was applying this particular text to my congregation. As I told them, we simply do not struggle today with the issue that Paul discusses here in his letter to the church at Rome. For Paul's audience, the issue was a dispute over whether or not believers needed to abstain from meat and wine in foreign settings because it might have been offered to idols or at least prepared in violation of the Law of Moses. Those who took this approach apparently felt that all Christians should abstain. Obviously, this particular controversy was tied to the transition from the Mosaic covenant to the new covenant age.

The enduring value of this passage, I suggested, is that it helps us deal with issues on which the Scriptures are silent. The fact is, believers who have a passion to honor the Lord and reflect his holiness will come to different conclusions about issues which Scripture does not directly address.

In my introduction, I felt like I had to show people why this passage is relevant for today. I needed an illustration of a disputable matter. But it had to be one that would not stir up too much controversy before I ever got in the text! So I chose to tell the story about a conflict—"the baseball cap crisis"—which a friend of mine faced in a church he served. Then, I proceeded to read the entire text. I wanted people to hear how it fit together. Also, I knew that I was not going to be able to comment on every phrase or detail.

I put the bulk of my application to current life situations between the two major sections of the text. I chose issues to which my listeners could relate: whether or not to observe Lent, what kind of attire is appropriate to wear to a worship service, where and how a church spends its money, schooling choices, and doctrinal issues that are not clear—such as the time of Christ's return and how often the church is to observe communion. As a visual illustration, I even wore faded blue jeans and a coat and tie! Someone in the congregation told me later that this gave him something tangible to help him remember the idea of the text.

The one criticism I received is that I did not spend enough time explaining or developing the problem of eating meat and wine offered to idols or else prepared improperly. However, I still feel like I provided sufficient explanation. What people needed was help with applying the underlying principle about not letting disputable matters divide us when Scripture is silent about them.


A few years ago there was a church here in the United States that lost fifteen percent of its membership over an issue regarding baseball caps. That's right—fifteen percent of the people walked over baseball caps. This is what happened: A couple of high school athletes were late getting home on a Saturday night, because their team had played in a tournament a number of miles away. The next morning, when they got up to attend worship services, they didn't have time to take a shower. They put on their nice clothes, but because their hair was messy, they wore baseball caps. Before the worship service started, one of the boy's moms approached one of the pastors to explain the situation. The pastor shrugged it off, saying, "No problem!" So the boys wore their baseball caps during the service, and nobody complained.

Here's where things got messy, though. The next Sunday, even though the boys had plenty of time to shower and get ready, they still wore their baseball caps. And they wore them again, the Sunday after that. About the fourth Sunday, some people were starting to get a little bit upset.

To make a long story short, the elders of this church said to the pastor that he needed to fix the situation because people were pretty worked up about it. The pastor was back and forth on the issue, thinking, These guys have a right to wear baseball caps if they want to. It's not a big deal. There's nothing in the Bible that says they shouldn't. But the more he thought about it, the more he knew it was going to be a big issue. He went to the boys and asked them to consider not wearing their hats to services. They agreed. However, when the boys' parents found out about this, they were very upset. The whole thing snowballed and just like that—fifteen percent of the members of this church left over an issue concerning baseball caps.

The issue was particularly difficult for the pastor, because as he searched Scripture, there was nothing there that talks about whether or not you can or should wear a baseball cap to a worship service. He knew about the passage in 1 Corinthians about head coverings, but seemed like it was tied to the culture of Paul's day. There didn't seem to be anything in the Bible that said, "You shall not wear baseball caps" or "You shall not judge those who do wear baseball caps when you worship."

Isn't this what we so often face as a church? We want to please Christ, but every week we run into issues that the Bible does not directly address—issues that the Bible calls disputable matters. We are seemingly left on our own to figure out what would be most honoring to God.

Of course, we have to be careful as soon as we say that about the Bible. For example, the Bible doesn't talk about downloading music that you didn't purchase. But we certainly can't argue that the Bible doesn't say that's wrong. We know such an act is theft, and we know that God's Word clearly speaks out against that. But still, there are dozens of other issues that the Bible doesn't say anything about, and when we go looking to the Bible for principles, they are a tough find. What happens in such situations is that we end up a part of the same church but on different sides of the issue.

In the church I talked about at the start of the sermon, there was a group of people who felt a person should not wear baseball caps—that such an act was dishonoring to the Lord. There were others who said it didn't matter—God looks at the heart, not what's outside.

We run into issues like this all the time, don't we? So how do we glorify God when we disagree over how to honor him? I'm so thankful that the Bible gives us an answer to that question in Romans 14:1-15:3. In this text Paul helps the church in Rome handle a disputable matter, and what he tells them is going to help us handle some of the disputable matters we face as a church today.

As we read Paul's words in Romans 14:1-15:3, we begin to identify the disputable matters at hand. Verses 2 and 6 of chapter 14 show us that eating meat is an issue. Some of the believers at the church in Rome were saying it was fine to eat meat, while others pushed for a diet of only vegetables. Verse 5 shows us that the observance of holy days was also an issue. Some were arguing that all believers needed to honor things like the Sabbath, Passover, and the Feast of Tabernacles. Also, verse 21 indicates that the drinking of wine was an issue.

As we begin to connect all the dots, we can see what's going on. Because of their Jewish background, some of the members of the church in Rome were refusing to buy meat at the market out of fear that the meat had been offered to idols. This is probably why they also refused to drink wine. In turn, they were telling other believers that it was dishonoring to God to eat meat or drink wine that had possibly been offered to an idol. Those believers who were eating meat and drinking wine pushed back, saying it didn't matter—that even if someone else had offered it to another god, they hadn't. Really, this disputable matter that Paul is dealing with in Romans 14 and 15 is related to the transition from being under the Law of Moses to being under the new covenant in Christ.

What to do when facing disputable matters

In order for the church rise above these disputable matters, Paul tells the believers to do four things.

First of all, in verse 1, he challenges them not to pass judgment—a command he repeats in verse 13. Paul acknowledged that because Scripture is not clear—because it doesn't come right out and offer definitive principles about meat and wine—people have wrestled with how best to honor God in their actions, and they have arrived at different conclusions. No one should judge someone else over this because no one can judge someone else's motives. A person cannot look at another person and rightfully say, "You don't love the Lord as much as I do because of what you're doing or what you're not doing."

Second, in verses 13, 20, and 21, Paul says they should withdraw from doing those things which might cause another person to stumble spiritually (to act against their conscience). In other words if someone has determined it's okay to eat meat, and someone else in their eating meat causes that person to go against their convictions, that's wrong.

Third, in verse 19, Paul says they are to do whatever it takes for the sake of edification. Edification has to do with building up. The Body of Christ is supposed to do whatever it takes to bring peace to the body, building others up or encouraging them in their faith.

Finally, in verse 20, Paul says that matters of food and drink don't matter. They are too small to be allowed to divide the church, destroying God's work.

But there's more to explore in this passage. Paul says that there are two groups of people in the church at Rome—the "weak" and the "strong." It might be hard for us to wrap our minds around what he means by these categories, so let me explain. When Paul refers to a person who is weak of faith, he's not talking about a person who has a lesser commitment to Christ. In fact, that person who is weak of faith may have a rather strong commitment to Christ. The problem—or "weakness"— is that they have less insight into how their faith impacts their decisions about these disputable matters. In this particular dispute that Paul is dealing with, the person who is taking a much stronger conviction is actually the person who is weak, while the person who has a looser conviction is the one who is strong.

With all of this in mind, here's what I think is interesting: in verse 3, Paul says that God has accepted the person who is the stronger one, who has less conviction about eating meat offered to idols. Isn't that interesting? God accepts that person.

Here's what I find even more interesting: in verses 6-8, Paul says that both groups of people—those who cannot imagine eating meat or drinking wine offered to idols and those who say it's fine—can worship God, doing what they do out of thanksgiving according to their convictions. Isn't that interesting? We often judge people, thinking, Well, they can't be pleasing God! But Paul says, "Guess what? Both groups are pleasing God if they're operating out of their conscience and their desire is to please God.

I also find it interesting that in verses 10-12, Paul reminds the believers that they will one day stand before God—that they will one day have to give an account for their lives. This reality is the basis for Paul commanding the believers not to pass judgment on one another over these disputable matters. Judgment on this level belongs to God.

This might be a good place to stop and remind you that in other letters, Paul does tell us that there is a time and a place to make judgments. There is even a time possibly to divide. If there are people who say they don't believe that Jesus is fully God, the rest of the church must not compromise. That is not a disputable matter, because Scripture is clear about Christ's deity. If there are some who don't believe Jesus is going to return one day, the rest of the church must not compromise. That's an issue worth dividing over. But again, in Romans 14:1-15:3, Paul is dealing with a disputable matter—not a doctrinal one.

As we read further in the text, Paul finally tips his hand and he tells us where he stands on this matter. In verse 14, he says, "I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself." In other words, Paul is part of the group that says it doesn't matter that a piece of meat might have been offered to Zeus. But then he says something in verses 17-18 that I think serves as the heart of this chapter: "For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by men." This sounds a little bit like Jesus, doesn't it? Remember when Jesus talking about worry and materialism in the Sermon on the Mount? He challenged his followers to seek first the kingdom of God. It's interesting that in this particular dispute, Paul says the same thing—that followers of Christ in Rome must seek first God's kingdom, a kingdom that is not about eating meat or drinking wine or abstaining from eating meat or abstaining from wine, but about righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.

Today's disputable matters

With all of Paul's words in mind, we're ready to ask the difficult question: what are some of the disputable matters in our life today as a church, and how can Romans 14 and 15 help us work these issues out?

I think we have to be cautious in application, because there's not a one-to-one correspondence between most of the situations we face today and the one Paul was facing. We are about two thousand years removed from these issues. They were navigating the transition between the Law of Moses and the new covenant in Christ—working out the tensions between Jews and Gentiles. Still, I think there are some issues for us to consider.

Let's first consider the observance of Lent. In the church I grew up in, we didn't observe the Lenten season—and we were often suspicious of those who did! There was nothing in the Bible about observing Lent, and we though those who observed it were doing so because they thought it was a salvation issues. We were making judgments about them, which may or may not be true. But there are many people who grow up observing Lent, and though they know the Bible doesn't command it, they feel odd not observing it because it's a tangible way for them to identify with his sacrifice and show their devotion to him. They give up pizza or chocolate or caffeine not because they are trying to earn God's favor but because they are seeking to identify with Christ. Paul would say Lent is a disputable matter. It's not in the Bible, so we have to go with our conscience. We have to make sure we're not going to force our convictions on someone else so that they will see it the way see it.

Here's another example. I grew up in a pretty conservative Christian family, but we really had no issue at all with Halloween. Every October 31, I dressed up like a little ghost or whatever else, and I got all the candy I could. I remember that my mom threw a Halloween party one year for the kids on our block, and there in our Christian home, we had up posters of witches and goblins and everything that supposedly goes bump in the night. I never thought anything about it until something happened with our oldest daughter, Erin. When Erin asked a neighbor girl from a Christian family to come trick-or-treating with her, the girl responded, "No. Our family doesn't celebrate the Devil's holiday." I had never looked at Halloween that way. I realized it was a disputable matter. We didn't stop participating in Halloween, but we have tried through the years not to go with the darker themes of witches and goblins.

Here's another one: Some people believe that when you come to worship the Lord, if you are a man—and especially if you are a pastor—you should wear a suit and tie. Others say it's more appropriate to dress like the culture—that you should come in blue jeans. The first group believes that a suit and tie reflects giving God your best—and after all, if you were invited to a state dinner with the president, you wouldn't wear blue jeans! The second group says what the pastor wears sends a message. A suit and tie tells people they can't come as they are. Jeans or business casual says everyone is welcome. It's a disputable matter that I've had to wrestle with. I tend to go a little bit more business casual to speak to both sides, but I'm thankful that on a given Sunday, I see people on our platform who are wearing everything from a coat and tie to blue jeans. I hope it communicates that you can come however you want to come and that whatever your convictions are, we'll accept you. It says we're not going to divide over something like clothing, and we're not going to judge each other. To those that believe a suit and tie is more appropriate for honoring God—hold that conviction. But don't judge someone else who shows up in blue jeans.

Here's yet another example: We constantly wrestle with how do to spend our money as a church. Right now we are engaged in a building project. There are some who say the money spent on the building should be spent overseas. There are others who say the money should be spent on the community to communicate love. Still others argue a good building is a good spot for worship and connection and outreach. What do we do in these matters? It's in our text! We don't judge each other. We don't do anything that's going to cause someone to sin. We're going to do whatever leads to peace in building up the body. We're not going to destroy God's work over some silly dispute.

I want to offer one final thought before my conclusion. I have mentioned that there are some things to divide over—doctrinal issues, not disputable issues. But even when it comes to doctrine, we sometime get a bit carried away. If someone attends our church and says they I don't believe Christ is going to return—we have a problem. But if some folks look at the timing of end-time events in a different way than we do, that's okay. That's not a doctrine to divide over. That's a disputable matter.


Friends, may God give us the grace to understand that the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. As Paul says in verse 13 at the end of chapter 15, "May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit."

To see an outline of Mathewson's sermon, click here.

Skill growth: What did this sermon teach you about how to preach? ___________________________________

Exegesis and exposition: Highlight the paragraphs in this sermon that helped you better understand Scripture. How does the sermon model ways you could provide helpful biblical exposition for your hearers? ____________________________________________

Theological Ideas: What biblical principles in this sermon would you like to develop in a sermon? How would you adapt these ideas to reflect your own understanding of Scripture, the Christian life, and the unique message that God is putting on your heart? _______________________

Outline: How would you improve on this outline by changing the wording, or by adding or subtracting points? ______________________

Application: What is the main application of this sermon? What is the main application of the message you sense God wants you to bring to your hearers? ____________________________________________

Illustrations: Which illustrations in this sermon would relate well with your hearers? Which cannot be used with your hearers, but they suggest illustrations that could work with your hearers? ___________________________________________

Credit: Do you plan to use the content of this sermon to a degree that obligates you to give credit? If so, when and how will you do it? (For help on what may require credit, see Plagiarism, Schmagiarism and Stolen Goods: Tempted to Plagiarize.

Steve Mathewson is senior pastor of CrossLife Evangelical Free Church in Libertyville, lllinois. He is also director of the doctor of ministry program at Western Seminary in Portland, Oregon.

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Sermon Outline:


We often run into issues that the Bible does not directly address—issues that the Bible calls disputable matters—and we are seemingly left on our own to figure out what would be most honoring to God.

I. What to do when facing disputable matters

II. Today's disputable matters


Friends, may God give us the grace to understand that the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.