Author: Ron Graham
Abstinence and Unity
—Convictions, judgments, rights, responsibilities
Jesus prayed for unity among Christians. He desires that we be one, perfected in unity, that the world may know that God sent Jesus, and that we abide in his love (John 17:20-26). This unity is paramount. It would be a very bad thing if we violated this unity for which Jesus so earnestly prayed.
1 A Principle of Unity
Paul wrote to the Romans about people who have different convictions on issues such as the observance of holy days, the eating of meat sacrificed to idols, and the drinking of wine (Romans 14:2,5,21).
Paul says that the solution to this difference of opinion is to stop judging each other regarding these convictions, and instead to observe how, in pursuing our own personal conviction, we might cause harm to those whose convictions differ from ours. (Romans 14:1,13, Romans 15:1-2).
Suppose we are convinced that a certain thing is not evil in itself, and is even a good thing in its proper place.
Suppose we observe that if we participate in that thing, we may cause harm and stumbling to someone else. Naturally we will abstain from participating that thing, even though we believe it to be good in itself. We will take the attitude that "it is good not to eat meat or to drink wine or to do anything by which your brother stumbles" (Romans 14:21).
The principle behind this attitude is that "the kingdom of God is not about eating and drinking, but about righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Romans 14:16-17)
When there is disunity in the church, we often find people opposing what they regard as other people's wrongs, or defending what they regard as their own personal rights. This kind of disunity is easily solved by everybody first showing respect for the personal convictions of others, even though they disagree with them, and then asking themselves one important question.
If I gave up the right which I believe I have, and abstained from doing the thing that I believe to be good and clean in itself, would my own righteousness and service to the Lord be adversely affected? If not, then should I not abstain from what I believe to be good, if that abstention will help to maintain peace and unity in the church?
The Principle Summarized
- Let others have their own conviction before God, without judging them (Romans 14:1,4,13).
- Keep your own conviction before God to yourself and do not bind it on others (Romans 14:22).
- Abstain from what you regard as good in itself, when, by participating in it, you may cause another person to stumble (Romans 14:13,19-21).
2 A Principle of Personal Responsibility
Many people suffer from the perception that if they see other people doing wrong, they are somehow responsible for it, and are obliged to get involved. While this may be true in some cases, it is not generally true.
Disunity is often created by people getting themselves involved in what really is none of their business or responsibility. Paul tells us that we should keep out of matters which are between a slave and his servant, matters which are theirs to deal with, and which are none of our business.
"Who are you to to judge the servant of another? To his own Master he stands or falls, and stand he will, for the Lord is able to make him stand" (Romans 14:4).
Our personal reponsibility for the actions of other Christians is limited. On one hand, we need to be responsible within those limits. On the other hand, we should not ursurp responsibility outside those limits. Some things the Lord requires us to deal with, and other things he requires us to leave up to him.
One important responsibility we have with regard to what others do, is to make sure that any action of ours does not cause others to stumble. "He who in this way serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men" (Romans 14:1,13,18).
The principle of unity, summarised at the end of our first point, is also a summary of our personal responsibility.
3 Applying These Principles to the Use of alcohol
It should not be hard to see how these principles, if we have understood them, can be applied to the question of strong drink.
Sometimes we find disunity in the church because people differ about whether or not a Christian may drink alcoholic liquor. The issue of "social drinking" or "drinking in moderation" may flare up as a controversy in the church and threaten to divide it.
- One person's conviction is that alcoholic drink is pemissable in moderation, and that person wants to drink and sees it as his right.
- Another person's conviction is that the consumption of strong drink in any measure is sinful, therefore total abstinence is required of Christians.
The disunity, however, is not because people have different convictions on this matter, but because one person wants to force and bind his conviction on the other, and does not respect the other person’s conviction.
Obviously we are not going to foster unity by taking sides in this controversy. We will foster unity by observing the principle of unity and personal responsibility that we have considered in this lesson.
Once more, for emphasis, let's summarize, but this time more specifically to the consumption of alcohol...
The Principle Summarised Specific to Alcohol
- Let others have their own convictions before God about strong drink, without judging them (Romans 14:1,4,13).
- Apply your own conviction about strong drink to yourself and do not bind it on others (Romans 14:22).
- Abstain from strong drink, whether or not you regard it as good in itself. By not participating in its consumption, you will ensure that you do not cause another person to stumble (Romans 14:13,19-21).