Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. (Romans 14:10)
When I was in college, I took a philosophy class in Logic where we studied the differences between strong, medium, weak, and deductively valid arguments. We also studied the art of crafting and presenting arguments. In other words, how to formulate a strong premise to support one’s conclusion. As part of the class, we studied the views and arguments of various political, ethical, and moral opinions in order to identify and understand what makes a strong argument and what makes a weak argument. An assignment the professor would periodically give was to have us write a brief essay arguing for or against a particular position regardless of our own personal view. The idea was to encourage us to try and accurately understand an opposing point of view.
This exercise can still be helpful, especially as we continue to deal with the challenges of COVID. Putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes, getting inside the mind of those who do not agree with us, can help us extend grace and, if done with humility, can cause us to realize that maybe our side does not have all the answers or has not thought through all the possibilities. However, serious differences which threatened to divide the Church is nothing new. Differences within the Church have been ongoing since the first century. One such instance is dealt with in Romans 14.
The church in Rome is believed to have been a large church comprised of both converted Jews and Gentiles. As a result, there were significant differences within the church that threatened to tear her apart. One such difference was the eating of certain foods and the observing of certain days; namely, the Sabbath. “One person believes he may eat anything [Gentiles], while the weak person eats only vegetables [likely Jews]…One person esteems one day as better than another [Jews], while another esteems all days alike [Gentiles]” (Rom. 14:2, 5). To the converted Gentiles who grew up unfamiliar with the Old Testament, who only knew and had been taught that salvation was by faith alone in Christ alone and that by fully trusting in the life, death, and resurrection of Christ all their sins had been forgiven and they were forever free, they saw no need to take upon themselves all or any of these Old Testament laws that were never able to save the Jews in the first place. The apostles themselves admitted at the Jerusalem council in AD 49 that to ask Gentile believers to keep the Old Testament laws is to place a “yoke on the neck of the disciples that neither our fathers nor we have been able to bear” (Acts 15:10).
Yet, to the converted Jews these were serious matters that were not to be taken lightly. Having been raised studying and following the Torah, they understood that Jesus was the Messiah who died for their sins and, thus, the sacrificial system was no more, but surely this did not mean the entire Old Testament was to be discarded. If God issued these commands in holy scripture, there had to be good reason for it. Surely, the keeping of certain Old Testament laws must matter to God on some level. To disregard these laws would surely be displeasing and dishonoring to God and may even bring the judgment of God upon their local fellowship in Rome. Thus, even if the Gentile believers might be correct, would it not be better to play it safe than to be sorry. Indeed, these were serious matters!
While 21st century believers look back on this division, we can easily think they were making much to do about nothing. Quibbling over food and days can seem so trivial to us, but at the time these issues threatened the unity of the church and, to both believing Jews and Gentiles within the church, the struggle was real and the stakes were high. Yet, notice how Paul deals with the issue dividing believers within the church. “Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him…The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God” (Rom. 14:3, 6). Paul understands that each side is doing and behaving in a way they believe is best and most glorifying to God.
Undoubtedly, however, the believing Jews and Gentiles within the church failed to see the same. It was difficult for believing Jews to understand how their fellow brothers’ and sisters’ unwillingness to keep any Old Testament laws was doing what is best for the church and what is most glorifying to God. Did they not realize not being willing to keep at least some of the Old Testament dietary laws and keeping the Sabbath would make it near impossible to reach Orthodox Jews with the gospel; thereby, damning their souls to hell. It seems a small price to pay to refrain from eating certain foods and observing the Sabbath to reach their unbelieving Jews with the gospel. It seems unloving for Gentile believers to not care that their actions could potentially cause eternal harm to those in the Jewish community. Indeed, these were serious matters!
At the same time, to the Gentile believers it seemed foolish, illogical, and theologically inconsistent for their fellow Jewish brothers and sisters in Christ to want to go back under Old Testament law for any reason, and especially for them to expect that they—Gentile Christians—do the same. Would it not be better and more loving to demonstrate to the Jewish community that faith in Christ frees them from the burden of the law—the law that only condemns and can never save? Besides that, if both believing Jews and believing Gentiles within the church at Rome believed in the sovereignty of God in salvation, then does it really matter whether they keep Old Testament laws or not when it comes to reaching the Jews with the gospel? ‘Do we believe in the sovereignty of God in salvation or not?’ the Gentile saints in Rome may have thought. Additionally, for the Gentile believers to now be unwilling to work on the Jewish Sabbath, Saturday, and refuse to purchase and eat certain foods from the market would create problems with their employers and local authorities and would attract unnecessary negative attention from the Roman government. Indeed, these were serious matters!
Recognizing that both believing Jews and Gentiles were seeking to do what each believed was best and most glorifying to God, Paul asks, “Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God” (Rom. 14:10). Paul wants them to understand that each is doing what they believe is best and most glorifying to God in their own mind and, thus, neither of them has the right to judge or condemn their fellow brother or sister in Christ. At the day of Judgement, each will be made to give an account to God for their actions and behavior.
Today the Church faces a similar issue with COVID, which threatens to divide her, to pit brothers and sisters in Christ against one another. On the one side there are those who believe that Christians should wear masks whenever in public or when mingling with those not of their immediate household, should social distance as much as possible, that churches should require attendees to wear masks, and essentially comply with all government mandates and recommendation regarding COVID guidelines. They are sincere in their convictions and are only seeking to do what is best and most loving for others and what is most glorifying to God. No one needs to die from COVID, or at least fewer people should die from COVID, if we would all do our part and pull together. While less than 1% of the U.S. population has died from COVID, 500,000 deaths from COVID are a lot of people to lose their lives, and if we can stop that number from reaching 600,000, wearing masks and social distancing seems a small price to pay. Even if the numbers are not completely accurate, is it not better to play it safe than to be sorry? Would it not be more loving toward people and more glorifying to God to demonstrate to the community that we care about them by wearing masks willingly and consistently, social distancing, and requiring masks in church? It seems unloving and selfish for believers to not care that their actions could potentially cause physical harm or even death to those within the church and within the broader community. For Christians to resist mask mandates and social distancing guidelines also seems to fly in the face of Romans 13. While these mandates and guidelines are not government law, should not Christians willingly submit to the government which God has ordained for them? Indeed, these are serious matters!
On the other side there are those who believe that COVID and the fear of death is being used by state, federal, and world governments—intentionally or unintentionally—to control people, suppress religious freedom, and squelch evangelism and missionary efforts. Christians are commanded to gather for corporate worship. Christians are commanded to sing. Christians are commanded to take the Lord’s Supper. Christians are commanded to reach the lost with the gospel through evangelism and missionary efforts. All of which have been made more difficult—in some places, near impossible—because of COVID mandates and restrictions. While some states and nations are allowing considerable freedom for Christians to worship, endorsing the government’s approach to COVID appears to be complicit in the persecution and suppression of believers elsewhere. Simply because our local government is not being tyrannical toward “our” churches, should we then comply with the very policies being used elsewhere to scuttle churches and persecute Christians? One thinks of Martin Niemöller, a Lutheran pastor, in WWII Germany, who famously wrote: “First, they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out because I was not a socialist. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist. Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.” Though he disagreed with many German policies, Niemöller did not initially speak out against them because his church was being left alone. All of this is made more frustrating and suspicion by the fact that governments continue to count anyone who dies “with” COVID as a “COVID death” causing many to wonder how many have truly died from COVID? Furthermore, if we believe in the sovereignty of God, would it not be more beneficial to the unbelieving world and more glorifying to God to show others that they need not fear death if they have faith in Christ? For the believer, to live is Christ but to die is gain. Indeed, these are serious matters!
Regardless of which side you are on, it is doubtful the preceding arguments have persuaded you to the others’ side, but that was never the point of this article. The point is to demonstrate that both sides are doing what they truly believe is best for their fellow believers, for the broader community, and what is most glorifying to God. Christians who strongly advocate for following government policies and guidelines regarding COVID do not lack faith and they are not living in fear. Christians who strongly resist following those same policies and guidelines are not selfish and unloving. Christians who advocate for masks and those who resist them are both seeking to do what each believes is best and most glorifying to God. To both, the questions Paul asked of the church in Rome are questions worth asking today. “Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God” (Rom. 14:10). Christians on both sides of the COVID debate are doing what they believe is best and most glorifying to God in their own mind and, thus, neither of them has the right to judge or condemn their fellow brother or sister in Christ. At the Day of Judgement, each will be made to give an account to God for their own actions and behavior. Until then, let us strive to love each other and extend grace in a world of COVID.
Photo by S.Sgt. Albert R. Simpson