Some of the biggest arguments my wife and I have had over the years can be boiled down to disagreements about meats and vegetables. Annie was raised in a leafy, garden-like atmosphere in Illinois. She had celery for bed-time snacks. I was raised in a greasy southern kitchen in Cadiz, Kentucky, home of the world’s largest country ham and biscuit. I had cornbread and pork-chops for bedtime snacks.
This conflict over issues related to diet, meats, and vegetables reminds me of the controversy found among believers in Romans 14. The consciences of Jewish Christians preferred no meat (due to their ongoing adherence to Old Testament law). The Gentile Christians, on the other hand, cried out, “Bring me the bacon.”
How Did the Apostle Paul Respond?
As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. 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. (Romans 14:1–3)
Paul ends up having the same perspective as the Gentile Christians (he’s pro-meat). However, entering the kingdom of God is “not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17) in Christ. Paul’s point in Romans 14 wasn’t over who was “right” and who was “wrong.” In this matter of the conscience, he wanted believers to know that God was more concerned with love and unity in the church than with being on the right side of an argument.
In 2020, the Christian church finds herself in another controversy. This time it’s not about meats and veggies. This time it’s surrounding questions like, “How should Christians think about the COVID-19 pandemic? When should churches begin to gather again? What precautions should we take?”
To say that Christians have divided opinions on the matter would be an understatement. Some of the people in our churches wear masks to the mailbox and haven’t left the house in ten weeks. Others are out and about every day, and you’d have to taze them before you got them in a mask. Most believers probably fall somewhere in between.
Nevertheless, the controversy has made its way to social media. Many Christians are bickering. Pastors and churches are taking varying stances. In particular, at the local church level, this issue is proving to be quite divisive.
How should Christians respond?
While the example in Romans 14 is different, the principle is the same. If we were to substitute the meat and veggies controversy and insert COVID-19 in Romans 14:3, it might read as follows:
Let not the one who [is less concerned about the CDC guidelines, or maybe even thinks the whole COVID-19 pandemic has been blown out of proportion] despise the one who [is closely abiding by the CDC guidelines and feels that Christians and churches should still take great precaution], and let not the one who [is closely abiding by the CDC guidelines and feels that Christians and churches should still take great precaution] pass judgment on the one who [is less concerned about the CDC guidelines, or maybe even thinks the whole COVID-19 pandemic has been blown out of proportion], for God has welcomed him.
Here’s the point: There are people in our churches who wear masks and take every precaution prescribed by the CDC. They love Jesus. The Holy Spirit lives inside of them.
There are people in our churches who don’t wear masks and very loosely (if at all) see the benefit of the CDC regulations. They love Jesus. The Holy Spirit lives inside of them, too.
Maturity in Christ during COVID-19 recognizes that Christians that are filled with the same Holy Spirit can have different views and consciences on the matter. We need not belittle those on the other side of the issue. Instead, God’s Word calls us to respect one another’s consciences.
Church Congregations During the Pandemic
At the church I pastor in Owensboro, Kentucky, in the spirit of Romans 14, we’ve communicated these three things to our people:
- For those whose consciences feel that to gather publicly would be unwise, we encourage you not to attend. In no way will your decision be frowned upon or ridiculed by the leadership of Pleasant Valley Community Church.
- For those whose consciences compel them to take a cautious, more conservative approach to re-assimilation, we ask that you honor and respect the consciences of those who take a less cautious approach and feel the freedom to re-assimilate, not casting judgment on them (Romans 14:3–4, 13)
- For those whose consciences feel less inclined to adhere to the CDC guidelines, we humbly ask that for the sake of those other brothers and sisters in Christ whose consciences may vary on the matter, you seek to lovingly honor them, counting their good above your own (Philippians 2:3), not allowing a Christian liberty to become a stumbling block to another (Romans 14:13–19).
God is more concerned with love and unity among His people than He is about who has the “right” perspective on COVID-19.
Here are a few timeless, biblical principles from Romans 14 we would be wise to remember as we’re navigating this ongoing season of pandemic.
1. The church should welcome varying opinions on controversial matters that are non-essential.
Christians should embrace and celebrate our COVID-19 diversity. It’s easy to remain unified when we always agree on everything. Yet the power of the gospel of Jesus Christ is most clearly seen when we remain as one in spite of our differences. This is what will make the world scratch their heads. This is what gives us credibility to share the gospel in our city. Jesus never said they will know we are Christians because we land on the “right side” of the COVID-19 controversy. Jesus said they will know we are Christians by our love for one another (John 13:35), including how we remain unified even when we have vastly different opinions.
2. Avoid the temptation to argue and quarrel with other believers over “opinions.”
“As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions” (Rom 14:1, emphasis added).
The following are helpful questions for self-examination: Are we prone to quarreling? Do we enjoy debating things and always trying to prove why our view is superior? Do we refuse to back down? Do we have to get in the last word?
This is so serious in the Bible that, if a pastor is quarrelsome, he is disqualified from ministry (1 Tim 3:3).
Are we always finding ourselves in the middle of political disputes? In this season, do we find ourselves constantly engaged in quarrels about how everyone ought to be responding to COVID-19? In other words, we don’t want to be the kind of people that everyone else wants to block on Facebook.
To be sure, there is a time to engage in healthy discussion with those whom we disagree with. In fact, this is healthy and necessary. Yet it’s only healthy to the point that everyone involved can have the conversation in humility and grace. If not, we’re best to “Have nothing to do with foolish, ignorant controversies . . .” (2 Tim 2:23).
It takes Christ-like gentleness and humility to walk away from a conversation and say, “It’s okay if they never see it my way. My identity is not wrapped up in convincing everyone to agree with me. My identity is in Jesus. In fact, I may even be wrong, and I’m willing to admit it.”
3. Avoid the temptation to judge other Christians with whom we disagree.
“One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains . . .” (Romans 14:2–3, emphasis added).
Part of our maturity in Christ is learning to disagree with one another without discrediting one another. “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another?” (Romans 13:4)
“She’s crazy for not wearing a mask. She’s a reckless conspiracy theorist.” That’s passing judgment. It displeases the Lord.
“That guy doesn’t have a clue. He’s clearly not done his research on the facts or he would know social distancing at church isn’t even going to help.” That’s passing judgment. It displeases the Lord.
One of the greatest signs of Christian maturity is when we are able to realize and accept the fact that people are not always going to agree with us—and we’re okay with it.
4. Remember that, at the end of the day, the gospel is what matters most.
“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” (Rom 14:3, emphasis added).
At its root, unity in the church is a gospel issue. God doesn’t “welcome” us based upon what we eat or don’t eat; God doesn’t accept us based upon our views on COVID-19. God accepts us not based upon what we do or don’t do. God accepts us based upon what Jesus Christ has already done for us at the cross. That is the grace of the gospel. The reason we accept other Christians, regardless of their views, is because God accepts them in Christ.
COVID-19 has caused enough harm in the lives of so many people already; let’s make sure we don’t let it cause disunity in the church of Christ. It is Jesus and His gospel that always has and always will hold us together. That is enough. It’s not worth losing a brother or sister in Christ over a mask.