In some settings, the scruples of the weaker brothers effectively prevent doing God’s missions if the brother with stronger faith does not submit to the weaker brother. Hence, Paul had Timothy circumcised to be able to teach unconverted Jews who were too bigoted to listen to a Gentile.
My own experience is that to be a teacher or leader, you often have to yield to the community in which you participate. If the congregation wears suits to church, my conscience would let me be casual, but I’ll wear a suit so I can teach. I submit so I can serve God’s mission.
Over time, after better instruction on grace, perhaps I can break the khakis out. Besides, a church gets to make these kinds of rules. If I don’t agree, well, I’m not the decision maker.
Just so, as an elder, I do not drink at all. Not because the Bible says it’s sin, but because so many consider it sin that my ability to be a shepherd would be compromised by my exercise of freedom. Just so, Paul had his head shaved and participated in Jewish ritual late in his career so the Jews would give him a hearing.
Now, this can be taken too far. In fact, when the time seemed right, I began teaching classes wearing “business casual.” Over time, the church became a business casual without any announcements or preaching.
But had I done that 5 years earlier, I’d only have looked like an idiot. But never did I tempt people to sin against their consciences. If you want to wear a suit to my church, by all means, wear a suit. Those who do so, do so to honor God. The rest of us have to respect that.
Actually, that’s not quite right. There were times I got a little high and mighty about not wearing a suit and criticized those who did so. I was wrong. I wanted to encourage an atmosphere more suitable for the unchurched — but I pushed too fast and too hard at times. Patience is a learned virtue. It comes hard.
But I don’t think this principle applies to inter-congregational relations. I have no reason to yield to the scruples of every church in town, even if they won’t let our preacher participate in their preacher lunches or if they talk bad about us from their pulpits or in their bulletins. If I behaved otherwise, I’d make the eldership of the most conservative church in town effectively the eldership of my church. That would be very wrong.
Our church’s reputation is of great importance — in reaching the lost. Our reputation among other Churches of Christ never outweighs evangelistic effectiveness. I’d not surrender one soul just so a church down the road would speak better of me or my congregation. I will not let my congregation be ruled by other congregations. It would violate congregational autonomy. Moreover, kowtowing to would-be popes only encourages such horrid behavior. It cannot be tolerated.
Churches used to write us letters asking our “position” on various issues. We don’t answer. We don’t let the secretaries show us the letters! There are no popes in the Churches of Christ, and we have no obligation to submit to an Inquisition by other congregations.
When a member of our church asks for an explanation, we take as much time as is needed. We owe our members explanations and instruction. We are accountable to our Maker and our members. We aren’t accountable to preachers in other churches–even those with printing presses.
On the other hand, we used to sponsor a youth rally for teens from several states. We often refused to do things we considered right so that kids could come and be exposed to Christian community and great teaching. Had we pushed too hard, we’d have kept kids from more conservative churches from coming at all — too high a price for freedom.
And we’ve been embarrassed at times by youth ministers who, contrary to our wishes, decided to “push the envelope” and undertake worship styles that were clearly contrary to the scruples of people they’d invited. This behavior plainly violated Romans 14 — especially when it comes to kids, who are particularly susceptible to peer pressure. For this, we’ve apologized — and correctly so. (Do our colleges have youth ministry classes called “Easier to get forgiveness than permission 101”?)
No one should be brought to a worship under false pretenses. No one should be surprised with a new practice that the leadership knows will create sins of conscience. However, if people know the new practice is coming and if they’ve been instructed on why the practice is being initiated, they may choose to participate or not. It’s their choice. They can’t hold the church back. But neither should the church impose it’s desire for change on unsuspecting members.
But, ultimately, change can happen if the leadership so decides and the church is willing to follow. At some point, the leaders have to make the hard call and leave some people unhappy. We’ll never make everyone happy!
Then again, neither is the choice made based on surveys or popularity — it’s all a question of fulfilling the mission of the church. If the change helps us do what we’re called to do, we just have to do it — although it may have to be preceded by years of instruction and prayer. Patience is a learned virtue, and I’m getting there.
And so, the doctrine of grace has some very practical applications. Those with weak and strong faith must extend grace to one another, just as God extends grace to them. Freedom is a God-given blessing, but love trumps freedom — love for the lost, love for the weak, and love for our members.
But nothing requires us to yield to the scruples of everyone or even every member. The principle is that we don’t cause others to sin, which is very different from not causing them to be unhappy! And the last thing we should do is let people run the church based on how easily offended they are! Jesus never promised us that we would always get our way.
Therefore, I can’t use my scruples to pound my brother into submission.
(1 Cor. 9:19, 23) Though I am free and belong to no man, I make myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. … I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.
Paul submitted — but he submitted to be effective at winning souls for Jesus, not to avoid criticism or to protect his reputation.