As the weeks tick off the calendar, it’s just a matter of time before news drops of another public figure being “cancelled.” I read a study from the Pew Research Center about “cancel culture” recently, and the study reported that many are divided on whether the idea of cancel culture holds people accountable or unfairly punishes them. Among Americans, the jury is still out on whether cancel culture is a positive thing or not. But from where I’m standing, one thing is clear: cancel culture, good or bad at heart, is seeping into our friendships.
We can think whatever we want about cancel culture in regard to its efficacy as a tactic for withdrawing support from politicians and public figures who make poor choices, but our personal relationships must be different. When we allow the one-and-done mindset to seep into how we practice personal friendship, we’ve missed the gospel’s call for our relationships with others in the body of Christ.
During this series called Speak Life we’ve been looking at the New Testament letters’ examples for how to live in relationship with people and communicate with each other in a way that honors God and each other. The letters showcase the early church working out their salvation by applying Jesus’ teaching to their current cultural settings and issues, and we have much to learn from their example in getting it right and wrong.
Turns out, there’s nothing new about disagreeing with other Christians on social issues. In fact, Paul addresses this very problem among the local house churches in his letter to the Romans. See, the Romans disagreed with each other on quite a few things. They were divided over issues of ethnicity, politics, cultural practices, and how to express their faith.
Good thing we don’t argue about those kind of things anymore.
The Gentile (Roman, Greek, etc.) Christians had political power on their side, but the Jewish Christians held their heritage as a badge of honor. The Gentile Christians had the majority and the local advantage, while the Jewish Christians were just being allowed back into Rome after years of being exiled. The Gentile Christians championed freedom in Christ to practice their faith without ceremonial restrictions common to Judaism, but the Jewish Christians naturally clung to the ways familiar to their Jewish tradition. The Gentiles said they were right, and the Jews said they were right.
And instead of acting as arbiter for their disputes, Paul calls for them to come together as one. He says, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone” (Rom. 12:18).
I imagine those Romans hearing Paul’s letter protesting with but what about this and but when this happens… but the message of Romans is clear: disunity of believers stands in stark contrast to the gospel of Christ.
And I’m sure this was just as hard of a pill to swallow for them as it is for us.
Because we might assume that believers sitting around us in church think the same way we do about social issues, but once you begin talking, like at all, you’ll probably realize that’s not true, like at all. The sooner we realize that people who live very different lives from me and see social issues very differently from me might love Jesus as much or more than me, we are one step closer to Paul’s call for the church to seek unity above pretty much all else.
We talked last week about how we can stand our ground on primary, salvation issues, but when we find ourselves in the weeds of working out a secondary, social issue with a friend, let’s look to Paul’s instructions to the Romans on how to handle these first-century issues that feel foreign to us, but are actually pretty similar to the kinds of things that divide friends and churches today.
Paul gives examples of two big issues for the Roman church that are causing divisions.
1. Observance of Jewish holy days as outlined in the Torah. Basically, some of the Jews were keeping the holy festivals of the Torah and looking down on those Jews or Gentiles who did not feel it necessary as Jesus-followers to observe them.
2. Eating meat that had previously been sacrificed to pagan idols. Animal sacrifice was a common element in many Ancient Near Eastern religious systems, not just the Hebrew faith in Yahweh. In the temples to the Greek and Roman gods during the first century, animals were sacrificed and then the meat was sold to the public for consumption. Some Christians felt that this meat was contaminated and shouldn’t be eaten, but some didn’t see it as a problem. Jewish tradition also has a heavy emphasis on being set apart from pagan religion, making this blurry line a tough one to cross in good conscience for many Jews. This issue was becoming divisive when the house churches tried to have meals together, but someone served meat that had been sacrificed to an idol, and some believers felt it went against their conscience to eat it.
In bringing up these issues, which were not salvation issues but were causing divisions in the church, we as modern readers can see how Paul advised they handle these differences of opinion and conscience in a way that honored each other and God, and perhaps apply these same principles to our own issues of today.
Let’s look at some aspects of how Paul addresses these differences:
1. It’s okay to have opinions. Paul doesn’t act as arbiter on these fine points of conscience. Rather, he concedes that such differences of conscience on social issues exist. “Lliving at peace” doesn’t mean we don’t have an opinion. In fact, Paul does say that, regarding the issues of festival observance, “Each of them should be convinced in his own mind” (14:5). Listening to our consciences, particularly by submitting them to the guidance of the Holy Spirit, and becoming convinced in our own minds of these secondary social matters seems like a positive practice according to Paul, especially as opposed to merely allowing peer pressure in a given moment to dictate how we act.
2. But what do we do with that opinion? The world tells us to be loud and proud about your opinion and stance on social issues, but it seems that Paul tells the church to value respect for others more highly than convincing them we’re right. He says, “Let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister” (14:13). Rather than pushing our opinions on others when they disagree, he challenges the church to focus their energy on doing “what leads to peace and to mutual edification” (14:19).
3. But what’s the harm in trying to persuade someone to my viewpoint? Paul seems concerned that these secondary views were becoming bigger issues than they should be in the church, that they were causing more harm than good. Speaking about the issue of eating food sacrificed to idols, he warns, “Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food” (14:20). When how we handle our opinions on social, secondary issues leads more to harm of others than it encourages holiness, we are missing the forest for the trees. These social issues we disagree on, they may be socially and personally important, but they are not more important than the work of bringing people back into reconciled relationship with Jesus.
I’ll be honest, though, that’s a tough stance, because we live in an age when social issues act as tribal markers and battle lines. Crossing the wrong one, siding with an issue in a socially unacceptable way, or even saying that social issues aren’t as important as salvation in Jesus can be fighting words to some.
But this call is what I see in Scripture, so I’m trying to learn this way of seeing social issues in my world too. Here are a few ways I think Paul’s way of seeing things benefits us as individuals and as the church.
1. It’s the way of humility over pride. Pride creeps in when we believe that our opinions on social issues are for sure correct and that makes me better than someone who disagrees. He says, “Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment” (12:3). This “sober judgment” refers to where we all stand on the most essential issues of life: we are all equally in need of a savior and at the mercy of a loving Father. Paul says that there is ultimately no difference between our different “camps” on these issues, because at the end of the day “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:22-23) and “the same Lord is Lord of all and richly blesses all who call on him” (10:12). We are all in the same boat when it comes to being desperately in need of a Savior, a fact that should unite us over anything that could divide us.
2. It’s the way of grace over disdain. Paul asks this convicting question of the Romans, and I can ask myself the same when I find myself looking down on a brother or sister in Christ for seeing a social issue differently than me: “Why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat” (14:10). At the end of the day, I might be right, or I might be wrong, and, even if I am right on this one social issue, the truth is that I am probably wrong about a lot of other things. And regardless, both of us are going to stand before God one day. And what’s going to save us isn’t our perfectly correct social stances or our socially-conscious habits, it’s Jesus’ sacrifice.
Remember, Paul never says that we shouldn’t have opinions on social issues. In fact, he hints at or even shares his own views on such issues at times. For us, seeking to be socially conscious in ways that honor other humans made in God’s image is really, really important. But it is not so important as to divide Jesus’ church, damaging the unity and efficacy of the body of Christ. And it is not more important than helping our brothers and sisters come into saving relationship with Jesus.
Paul makes it clear: we can both love Jesus and yet disagree.
Our social disagreements don’t need to break our relationships. Cancelling our friends over disagreements on social issues is not the way to pursue unity within the body of Christ. The Roman church was called out for it, yet here we are, 2,000 years later, making the same mistakes.
So the next time you find yourself disagreeing with a friend on a social issue, all I ask is that you’ll pause.
Maybe in that pause you consider your own opinion. Maybe you wrestle with it through Scripture and prayer, seeking to learn how to actively love your fellow humans better.
Maybe you’ll use that opinion, not to pass judgment on others or allow harsh words into your interactions with those who disagree, but rather to pursue “peace and mutual edification” of others.
And maybe you’ll try to keep that opinion in its place as secondary to the “ministry of reconciliation” to which we are called as Christians (2 Cor. 5:18-19). I hope you’ll not “destroy the work of God for the sake of” being right or winning an argument.
I hope you’ll choose humility and grace, and allow our common need for Jesus to ultimately unite us above all our other differences.
Love ya, friend.
Your Sister, Kimber
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