Please allow me to disclose one of my strong personal preferences that actually drives a certain set of behaviors in my life: I will not go to a restaurant that has poor service. Let me clarify that…I will go once to that restaurant but I will not go back again. If I will be spending money to eat out, I not only expect the food to be to my personal liking, but I also desire that the people who work there at least pretend to be glad I have come. Call it snobbery, call it presumption or call it reasonable if you choose. In the end, it’s my choice and this personal preference determines my actions concerning where I choose to eat out. It is one thing for me to take such an elevated view of my individual tastes when it comes to eating out, but it would be an entirely different issue if I allowed this same principle to determine my relationships. By the grace of God I have been made to understand that I must not walk out on people, refusing to return, because they don’t serve my personal tastes. Allow me to explain.
“For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.” – Romans 14:17-19
The Apostle Paul teaches us in Romans (chapters 14 & 15) that we owe each other a debt of love and a commitment to work through our personal differences in order to cultivate lasting, meanigful relationships. Specifically, he is speaking to Christians who clearly have opposite views on some peripheral issues within God’s Kingdom. Paul takes off his scholar’s hat for a moment and has to replace it with a black and white striped referee’s cap, and he then tells the followers of Jesus that they must think a little more deeply and try a little harder at maintaining the unity of Spirit in the bonds of peace with one another. The people to whom he was originally writing were very frustrated with each other over things like eating meat, observing Jewish holy days and whether or not Christians were able to drink wine. Paul clearly identifies stronger Christians as those who were liberated from fixating on religious technicalities and presumably binding traditions. The weaker brethren were seen to be those believers who could not feel secure unless they obeyed their scruples – and they expected everyone else to obey those personal tastes also. To the freed, stronger Christians Paul gave a warning for them to be careful how they exercised their spiritual liberty. To the weaker Christians he offered the command to stop judging the freedom of the stronger brother. As a pastor who has navigated these waters many times, I can almost hear Paul sighing as he writes those two chapters.
Have you thought lately about how your particular views/preferences/standards are affecting your relationships with others? What does it take for you to give yourself permission to fully stop associating with another believer? Are you thinking of breaking fellowship with your home church and finding one that better suits your personal tastes? Sometimes you might convince yourself that your individual preferences carry the weight of Gospel truth. They do not, and we deceive ourselves if we assume that God always allows us to step away from others because we do not agree with them in non-biblical matters. Going back to the restaurant metaphor, when we come to moments of decision like these we need to slow down and consider whether the saturation of other available “spiritual dining establishments” makes it too convenient for us to move along from where we currently dine. Let’s be honest: in the Bible belt where many of us live, we can head out a few miles in a different direction to locate a new home church every time we discover that our current fellowship serves up the Sunday meal with some particular seasoning we do not find appealing. We glibly refer to it as church-hopping, but I think we might do well to consider that sometimes it is simply outright selfishness and sin.
Paul told the Romans in the verses above that God’s Kingdom can never be reduced to our personal scruples, individual tastes or matters of preference in non-biblical matters. God’s Kingdom involves you but it is never all about you. As followers of Jesus we need to seek the Holy Spirit’s empowerment to become more like our Savior in this area. Think about it: everywhere the Son of God went He was surrounded by people, words, ideas and events that failed to meet His own holy standards. Nobody thought like He did, everyone was truly “beneath Him”, but they never felt that way when in the presence of Jesus. Interestingly, He just kept revealing His commitment & availability to those people. He pressed further into the needs of those people. He remained in places where He knew that His words, Kingdom-offers and saving mission would not be appreciated nor accepted. Jesus even washed the feet of the betraying Judas… but some of His modern day followers cannot even give the right hand of fellowship to other Christians who don’t carry the same English bible translation as they do. Jesus went to a party at the scandalized Zaccheus’ house, yet some of His current followers won’t go to a local church whose music style doesn’t meet their personal tastes, or whose denominational banner doesn’t blow in the wind in the same direction as their own . Jesus asked the Father to forgive His tormentors while He was impaled to a cross – yet today some younger Christians arrogantly write off the older as irrelevant, and some older Christians callously judge the younger as irreverent. Turf wars never begin in the church house…they find their origin in the privacy of proud hearts.
I don’t think I will be going back to yesterday’s restaurant where I took my family to eat lunch. The food was pretty good but the way we were served was woefully lacking. To not ever go back is not a difficult decision for me. They won’t miss me at all and I can just go across the street to a place I am more familiar with, and where our patronage is always appreciated and served. Yet I cannot view my relationships with others in this same light.
Do you want to know why? Because they are not here to serve me in my relationships. I am here to serve them.
I am not a consumer negotiating a transaction with them. I am a follower of Jesus as they are, and we are part of a forever-family. When that driving principle takes up home in our hearts we will love more selflessly, work more thoroughly, stay more lastingly and hope more enduringly. Set up your personal criteria for restaurants any way you may choose. Be a little more deliberate and humble when you are considering Kingdom relationships.
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