Don’t Quarrel Over Opinions
We are not the first generation to feel very strongly and passionately about our issues. But it sure seems that the political and cultural climate of our day has created an atmosphere of intense “convictions” over things that should engender far more discussion than the knee-jerk cancellations that are the new normal. The Bible itself presents matters “of first importance” (see 1 Cor. 15:3) and matters of secondary importance (see Rom. 14, Gal. 2, Acts 15, and many more.)
In Romans 14, food and religious calendars are the focal illustration of Paul’s teaching on how to handle secondary matters. I suppose most people would agree when we say that secondary matters should not divide us or that they should not be exalted to a place of primary importance. But the real rub happens over what should be considered a secondary matter. People arguing over an issue can speak past each other because one of them believes the issue is primary and the other does not. The divide over the issue itself can feel much wider than it is because they have different starting points.
In the case of the Christians at Rome, the so-called secondary matter was something that came straight out of the Bible. The temptation to see that as primary was very real. Many of the issues that Christians divide over today (such as wearing a mask or practicing social distancing or gun control or homeschooling) are not issues that come straight out of the Bible! Biblical principle and Biblical teaching can certainly guide us into the best and most Biblically faithful positions on these matters. But the fact that the Bible does not directly tell us what to do on some things should help us keep our position in its proper place. When we do that, unity will be preserved and the gospel will enjoy a place at the center of Christian fellowship, where it belongs.
Here are a few thoughts that seem clear from Romans 14:
- The Bible itself allows room for secondary issues to exist among believers. One does this…another does that (Rom. 14:2-6) But one should not “despise” the other or “pass judgment” on the other for his position. Paul made it very clear in these examples that, objectively speaking, both positions were biblically tenable. It is possible for people on opposite sides of an issue to be faithfully following God without sinning. Back to the original question: How do we know if something truly is a secondary matter? Whenever two positions are Biblically valid (do not violate the clear command of Scripture), the issue being debated is a secondary matter. The more passionately we may feel about an issue, the less secondary it feels to us. That’s when we must return to the authority of Scripture and not the authority of our feelings. Paul has a category for matters “of first importance” and he allows zero flexibility on those matters. But in this other category (secondary matters) he allows great flexibility, even allowing opposite views to coexist, precisely because the issue itself is secondary.
- Anytime Christians in a local church divide over secondary issues, it is a primary problem. It is right and good to study Scripture and come to conclusions on secondary matters. “Each one should be convinced in his own mind” (Rom. 14:5). But what Paul is much more concerned about than the secondary issue itself is holding one’s objectively non-gospel “opinion” on a secondary issue in such a way that leads to sinning against one’s neighbor or in a way that causes division. We can hold our views in a way that allows certain sins to thrive: self-righteousness, showing favoritism to some, condemning others, burdening others with obligations that the Bible doesn’t burden them with, implying agreement with you is necessary for true fellowship, etc. When that happens, that person has elevated his position on a secondary matter to a place of primary importance. That’s a way bigger problem for Paul than what you think about the issue itself. If the issue is a secondary matter (or tertiary matter), Paul sees division caused by the issue as a primary problem. He says that doing this actually “destroys the work of God” (Rom. 14:20).
- It is right and good to personally embrace and apply our position on a secondary matter without imposing that position on others. Even when the issue in question is secondary, that doesn’t mean it’s not important or what you believe doesn’t matter. In fact, he argues that it would actually be wrong for someone to violate his conscience or go against his personally held opinion on the secondary matter. That is, once you’re “fully convinced in your own mind” on a secondary matter, it’s important to stand on that personally and not go against that; and it’s equally important not to impose that on others. “The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God.” Your position becomes a matter of faith for you personally - you have faith to take this position and you don’t have faith to take the opposite side. So if you go against your own position, it would actually be sin for you because “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom. 14:23) and “whoever doubts is condemned already” (Rom. 14:23).
Faith versus doubt on a secondary issue is a matter of conscience. The Bible has much to say on the role of conscience. (See Andy Naselli’s excellent book for a fuller treatment of this subject Conscience: What It Is, How to Train It, and Loving Those Who Differ.) Without using that particular word in this chapter, issues of conscience seems to be Paul’s focus. He affirms the positive role of conscience while warning about sin’s impact on conscience and our tendency to invest far too much authority in conscience, even to the point of imposing our conscience on others. The overruling guidelines are “Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind” (Ro. 14:5b) and “let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (Ro. 14:19b).