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When I think of parsing the world into categories, I remember the words of Bob Wiley: “There are two types of people in this world: those who like Neil Diamond and those who don’t.”

Here I nod my head in affirmation.  Hard to be on the fence about Neil Diamond.

But there is a deeper division yet to be found among us – a starkly contrasted gulf separating one side from the other.  Beyond politics.  Beyond our opinions of Country Western music or our positions on relative morality vs. absolute truth…

A friend of mine wears a P.E.T.A. hat with a camouflage background, and in small print, the words “People Eating Tasty Animals.”  Thus the world is divided.

Meat-eaters and non-meat-eaters.

To all of you vegans and tofurky lovers…  You edamame snackers and soy milk chuggers…  All of you sprout eating animal huggers… the culinary gap between you and me is so vast that I will probably need to consider this post cross-cultural missions.  Even so, welcome.

To all of you bacon eating, brat grilling, pulled pork dipping, BBQ savoring, turkey roasting, elk hunting, jerkey gnawing, steak chewing meat eaters out there… welcome.  We view the world through a similar lens, you and me.  A lens through which Ruth’s Chris Steakhouse is like a Mecca to which an annual pilgrimage seems the least we can do.  We are kindred spirits.

My goal in this post is to be a peacemaker.  To build bridges of understanding and unity between the “Good Earth” crowd and the “Famous Dave’s” Afficianodos.  Like Jews and Gentiles, Republicans and Democrats, Red Vines chewers and the Twizzlers-Only crowd, I believe there is common ground to be found in Romans 14.

Often in ministry life, leaders run into situations where there is tension between divided camps.  And often these tensions arise over issues of Christian freedom.  This is nothing new.  Paul experienced this from the very start of the church.

Romans 14 lays it out.  Here we see two camps, clearly divided.  The meat-eaters and the non-meat-eaters.  But this divide wasn’t so much a lifestyle choice or a philosophical hang-up about the ethical treatment of animals.  This divide was about religious freedom.

The pagan Roman culture surrounding the congregation in Rome was marked by excesses.  Food and wine were habitual indulgences in the worship of Greek gods, and there were those in the church who thought Christ-followers should safeguard themselves from such sensual self-indulgence and maintain a more marked distinction from the culture around them.  These were the non-meat-eaters and teetotalers.  Paul refers to them as “the weaker brothers,” but not as a condemnation or repudiation. Rather, it was a statement of clarification – that some within the church felt it was dangerous to reflect the culture in any way, and therefore choose to self-sensor their culinary palate.

P.E.T.A. + religious conviction.

There were others, of course, who stood by the grill, aprons donned, ready for the next church BBQ.  They claimed the freedom of 1 Timothy 4:4 (which hadn’t been written yet, but the principle was established…)

“Every creature of God is good, and nothing to be refused, if it be received with thanksgiving: for it is sanctified by the Word of God and prayer.”

And this is why I say “Thank you, Lord, for this tasty meat every time I sit down to partake in some succulent grilled beast.

But I’m off point.  The basic gist of the situation here was this:  There were some in the church in Rome who felt it was perfectly acceptable to eat meat and drink wine (not to excess, of course), and there were others who did not feel that church people should eat meat and drink wine.  Paul calls the meat-eaters more free, and the non-meat-eaters less free. And then he speaks to both camps…

Now, I don’t know about you, but it has been a long long time since I remember a bruhaha erupting over the lack of tofurky at our church BBQs.  So vegans and grillmasters alike, we can breathe a sigh of relief here, to this degree… I’m not making a case for the ingestion of meat or for the merits of upping your salad intake.  Since the meat we carnivores pick up from the butcher in Cub Foods hasn’t been sacrificed to idols – as far as we know – this post and Paul’s metaphor will be equally valid to the carnivores and herbivores alike!

Common ground!  A small victory.

So if “to meat or not to meat” isn’t the question, what’s the point of Paul’s story here?  What’s it got to do with church now?  Here? Today?

I’ll give you a real life example.  I’m a Lutheran drummer.  (There are only five or six of us, but we are mighty. Parum-pa-pum-pum.)  When I took my first ministry job as a worship leader, I served a church with multiple service styles, and a diverse congregation. Equal parts wee children and white hair.  This was the early nineties, and our conservative Association of congregations was not particularly quick to embrace contemporary worship styles.  There was a concern that the popular sound and instrumentation would become more a reflection of the popular culture than a tool in the hands of the Spirit.  There was a strong feeling among some that drums should have no place in church.  These were the non-meat eaters.  The weaker brothers – not in the validity of their faith, mind you.  This is no accusation and no condemnation.  Simply put, they did not feel the freedom to incorporate “rock and roll music” into a worship setting.

Then there were those in the congregation who were eager to worship in freedom – not just freedom of the heart, but in style as well.  The contemporary sound was to many a “new song,” a fresh expression, new life.  These were the meat eaters.  The stronger brothers.  Not better than, not more spiritual.  Simply comfortable with a higher degree of freedom.

So what does Paul say here?  God wrote this, of course, so it is alive and brilliant and wise… worthy of much study and a long exposition. But for this forum, I’ll pull out six key thoughts in the “meat-eater vs. vegetarian” debates we find ourselves in with the church.

When there is a conflict in the church regarding Christian freedom:

(1)  Don’t judge each other.  Verse 3 of Romans 14 says, “Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats…”  There is room for God-honoring differences of opinion in the Church.  Respect each other, keep the Gospel central, and allow for some of those differences in your church family.  We sharpen each other.

(2)  It’s OK to have conviction.  Paul reminds us in verse 5, “Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.”  When we are dealing with the things of God, fence sitting is a cop out, and it dishonors the Lord.  Search the scriptures. Pray.  Make a decision that you belive is God honoring. And then hold to it HUMBLY.  Christian unity does not mean a lack of disagreement or differences in our convictions.

(3)  It’s not about you, it’s about US.  We die to self.  We live to serve.  Strong convictions do not override our call to love one another. Verse 7 says, “For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself.”  For me, a carnivorous drummer in a church with a lot of white-haired saints, that meant truly caring for those friends of mine who felt the drums were abrasive – and sometimes painful in their hearing aids.  That meant limiting my volume, and bringing percussion and contemporary praise only with great sensitivity into the traditional service.

(4)  Love trumps our preferences.  If at any point our preferences or personal convictions cause spiritual distress or turmoil in the congregation… to the degree that spiritual harm is being done, it’s time to put down the steak knife and A1.  Verse 15: “For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love.”  Meat eaters – those who feel the greater degree of freedom – the responsibility for unity in the Body rests with you.  Are you willing to forgo the fillet mignon wrapped in bacon for a torfurky burger, if only for a season, for the sake of love?

(5)  Words matter.  Spiritualizing our preferences is sin. And so is allowing people in the church family to cast strong moral judgment in areas that are clearly matters of Christian freedom and personal conviction without humble but firm pressback.  Verse 16 says this: “Do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil.”  There shall be no vegetarian bashing here!  Nor shall there be any finger pointing at the wiener roasters!  In my early days, when I led worship in a contemporary form, I had absolutely NO PROBLEM with people expressing their opinions about the style, or the volume, of their preference for the great hymns of the faith over what they saw as the repetitive and shallow praise choruses we were using.  I had many great discussions about worship – and about the difference between form and essence.  But I drew the line when people spoke of the drums and contemporary worship forms as “worldly” or “carnal” or even “evil.”  No sir.  What about the loud clashing cymbals God asks us to praise Him with?? There is a stronger Biblical case to be made for playing drums unto God than for the necessity of Euro-centric muscial forms to be accompanied only by an organ or piano (strings and brass are allowed for special occasions or when played by Middle School students).  Convictions are welcome.  But pronouncements of one camp being the “God Team” and the other being “of the devil” are strictly verboten.

(6)  I have no chapter and verse to back this up, but for the love of everything holy, Tofurky is gross.  If I hadn’t just written #5 above I might even say it was of the devil.  I just might.  That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.  (See #2…)

“I do not ask for these [disciples] only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as You, Father, are in me, and I in You, that they also may believe in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me.”  (John 17:21)

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“tofurky eaters and lutheran drummers :: when conviction and freedom collide” by Joshua Skogerboe is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.