The use of Christian liberty. 14:13-23
From 14:1-15:13, Paul deals with the issue of Christian liberty. In 14:13-23 he explains the manner in which Christian liberty is to be used by the "strong". The "strong" are those believers who know that the totality of God's promised blessings are their's due to their standing before God in Christ, and this apart from law-obedience. In our passage for study Paul explains how the liberty of the "strong" should be applied in their relationship with the "weak". The "weak" are those believers who think that their Christian life is progressed by obedience to the law.
v13. Paul begins by summing up his argument from the preceding passage. The "strong" (free-from-the-law believers) are not to be insensitive in their dealings with the "weak" (law-bound believers). At the practical level, Paul goes on to encourage the "strong" to be careful how they apply their liberty such that it does not harm the "weak". A pious believer can easily be driven back into the security of the law by an insensitive free-wheeling brother. To drive a brother back to the law serves only to undermine their faith, and such is the worst of all stumbling-blocks.
v14. Paul is persuaded by the words of Jesus himself that the minutia of the law (all the purity regulations of the Old Testament, food etc.) have little application in the life of a believer. Even the moral law, although a guide to the life of the faithful, can never make us holy. The main function of the moral law is to expose sin and thus drive us to seek mercy from God. Yet, we do need to remember that there are many believers who think it is essential that they not only keep the moral law, but also the minutia of the law.
v15. We do not show love to a brother if we are insensitive to their scruples, undermining their faith by making an issue out of what is ultimately irrelevant.
v16. It is wrong to live out the freedom that we possess in the gospel in such a way that it is debased in the eyes of the "weak", who, as a consequence, retreat back into the bondage of law-obedience.
v17. Christ's "kingdom is not of this world"; it is not about eating, or not eating, drinking, or not drinking. The kingdom is a spiritual reality expressed through such qualities as justice, peace and joy realized through the indwelling Spirit of Christ.
v18. Those who curtail their freedom for the sake of a brother, act in a way that is acceptable to God and so deserve the approval of their fellow believers.
v19. So therefore, in our Christian community we should act in a way that maintains fellowship and builds others up.
v20. We must not undermine the faith of a "weak" believer by making an issue out of matters of religious form. A believer is indeed free from the subjection of the law in Christ, but if our freedom undermines the faith of a weaker brother, then our behavior is wrong.
v21. Paul here affirms the positive good in the unselfish course which considers the welfare of a weaker brother. It is far better to respect the minutia of the Mosaic law than to drive a pious believer back into the security of law-obedience through our insensitive license.
v22-23. Paul now sums up his argument. A believer, who is freed from scruples, should retain that liberty to their own person rather than make it a burden on others. Blessed is the believer who does not insist on their liberty at the expense of another. But if, on the other hand, a believer is insensitive to the piety of others and so eats without respecting the weaker brother, their end is divine judgment, for their actions do not spring from faith. The truth is, any act that does not spring from faith is sin.
The load of liberty
A young Anglican student minister was arguing strongly against the use of robes, the Prayer Book and all the other paraphernalia of Anglican form. He argued that to cling to such things was legalism. From his point of view the retention of ritual and form was but a burden of legalistic piety. A believer in such a condition needed to experience the liberty of Christ; they the "weak" needed to become the "strong".
Every church has its conventions and we all know that the kingdom of God is not about conventions; what day to go to church, how to baptize, when to sit, when to stand, how to pray, how to dress ...... Yet, to make an issue about conventions is to contradict the command of Christ. If, as that young man had claimed that worship-form was irrelevant to the kingdom of God, then to demand his liberty at the cost of offending the piety of others, was to "condemn himself by what he approves", v22. If it is right to describe the worship-form of the Anglican church as liturgical, and if there are many other churches around who provide alternate less formal forms of worship, then it is an abuse of liberty for a minister to seek to impose a happy-clappy form of worship form on a group of believers who are committed to a liturgical form. It is a very offensive act and certainly would not "lead to peace and mutual edification." To demand ones freedom at the expense of the religious sensibilities of others is to "no longer act in love."
Of course, the very act of demanding a change in worship-form undermines the notion that form is irrelevant. It denies the claim that "all food is clean" - ie. worship style is neutral to the gospel. The claim that one worship style is superior to another denies the notion that the kingdom of God, which is not of this world, is realized "not by might nor by power, but by my Spirit says the Lord God Almighty". To give weight to religious form is actually to join the "weak". A believer, who is freed from scruples, should retain that liberty to their own person rather than make it a burden on others, v22.
Liturgical worship is not everyone's cup of tea, but for the sake of discussion imagine yourself happily a member of a church which placed a high value on ritual and order in worship. How would you argue against a member / elder / minister who proposed the abandoning of liturgical form because: i] it was less than holy; ii] restrained the Spirit; iii] restricted gospel ministry?
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