Given for the Saints at Medicalodge, Neosho, MO, on 9/14/08.
"Therefore let any one who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall" (I Cor. 10:12).
The joke is certainly on me, because after stating in the last writing that Paul should have stopped while he was ahead, with Romans, Chapter eleven, I read Barth's comments in his book Epistle to the Romans (See Link at End), on the last chapters of Romans, and as usual, this gifted theologian has plumbed the depths of Paul's writing with some fresh new twists. Most of us recall Paul's discussion of how the church should treat the weak. His context was the controversy over whether or not members should eat meat and possibly risk eating food which had been offered to idols, or simply refrain altogether and eat only vegetables (Rom. 14:2-4, 14-18; I Cor. 8:1-4, 12-13). The specifics have changed over the centuries, but the problems caused by those weak in faith remain. Long ago, the phrase, "tyranny of the weak" came to have real meaning for me as I observed seemingly weak and frail people making demands on stronger people in their family or church. I knew a tiny little wife who seemingly deferred to her husband's every wish on every subject, but in fact, she "ruled the roost" with her crying and hysterical demands to get him in line with her wishes. He was powerless to do other than her bidding, or risk histrionics at home. Needless to say, the marriage didn't last.
Like all the rest of you who have been in church a long time, and it matters not which church, we've all seen evidence that those weak in faith, whose consciences are easily offended, in fact, control what's done in every congregation, especially in matters of worship. Our dear friend Jeri Fox observed decades ago that churches are held back in spiritual growth by the faith of the weakest member. Since Paul clearly believed that we are all members of ONE body, by one Faith, and one baptism, he knew the importance of deferring to one another's needs and all deferring to God's will. Somewhere along the line, men determined that it was impossible to please some folks and therefore, they would break off and do things "their way." That has resulted in something over 30,000 different denominations.
I doubt we have to wonder what Paul would say about that. He was walking by the Spirit of God, and addressing his comments to those who were doing the same. When men do NOT walk by the Spirit, but after the flesh, seeking their own glory and following their own minds about spiritual matters, things quickly spiral out of control. Amiability and brotherly love fly out the window; personal pride and prejudice are the order of the day, and chaos ensues, for once the "genie" is out of the bottle, there's no way, humanly speaking, to put him back in again. So what's the answer?
Being led by Spirit of God is the only answer to the question of how do sons of God behave toward one another in matters of worship and fellowship. And since some Christians still don't believe the Spirit personally leads us today, but insist that we must read and study the Bible to find out for ourselves how to live, living and worshipping by the Spirit becomes an almost impossible road for people who have differing ideas and "light" about the way to walk with God.
The incongruity of the impasse is that the weak, those who are against everything they believe to be sin, have become the strong force, ruling the congregation with their tyrannical insistence in maintaining their point of view. They gradually eliminate fellowship with all who disagree with them, until the congregation is made up only of vegetable eaters. The "strong" have left to form their own church, showing them to be not strong at all, but very weak, and in violation of what Paul recommended: "Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of Food" (Rom. 14:19-20).
In addition to food, I suggest that the work of God has been disrupted, if not destroyed by controversy over many things: speaking in tongues, free will, frequency of communion, type of baptism, instrumental music, name on the church door, order of worship, whether to fellowship with homosexual members, or couples who were divorced prior to their current marriage, or anyone who has had an abortion, those who do not believe in an eternal hell, and many other doctrinal positions named in the statement of faith adhered to by the congregants.
Any and all of these controversies espoused by "vegetable eaters," have split congregations down the middle, causing brother to rise up against brother, heaping judgment and condemnation on those for whom Christ died, straining the bonds of decency and damaging the church bought with the blood of the Lamb. No wonder much of the world yawns at the church's efforts to convert them. Where is the church's power on earth today? Mostly in the hands of the vegetable eaters, who have mistaken law for power!
Barth calls for restraint to our indignation, however: "We do not think it profitable to play off 'rigorism' and 'freedom of conscience' one against the other. In any case, we have no ground for judging the strong to be in the right... The strong who are really strong know how fruitless the whole controversy is. Here the parties are not equally balanced, for the weak cannot have this knowledge. All reformers are Pharisees. They have no sense of humor. Deprive a Total Abstainer, a really religious Socialist, a Churchman, or a Pacifist, of the pathos of moral indignation, and you have broken his backbone.
"The vegetable eater, in spite of his peaceable diet, lives upon secret and open protestation; he sighs and shakes his head over the folly of the world; he differentiates himself from others, because he is unaware of the real tragedy of human life, before which every mouth must be dumb. But we are not now concerned with him. We are concerned with the 'Pauline' man, who makes of his freedom a concrete thing, and in so doing makes himself weaker than the weak. He ought to know what his opponent, whom he ought not to regard as an opponent, does not know, namely that God maintains fellowship with him, that is to say, the Other."
Barth drives home the point, throughout this magnificent book that the pinnacle of man's finest efforts to serve the Divine, is but dung before the righteousness of God. The reason we must not exclude the weak, the "vegetable eaters," from our fellowship, he says, is because the weak in faith are also benefited by the righteousness of God. He asks, "Does the behavior of the Other (the vegetable eater), lie so far outside the freedom of God that the strong man should suppose that, though he may continue in fellowship with publicans and whores, Pharisees must be excluded?... Is it not, then, as it should be that, at the moment when the 'Pauline' Christian sets at naught the moralists and becomes an anti-pharisaic Pharisee, he himself is also found to be unrighteous?... Weak is the man who allows himself to be pushed into a position from which he judges others."
There is only one advantage, "Divine election; and in it a simple vegetable eater can share even now in his complete unbrokenness, rather than the man who knows the Epistle to the Romans by heart backwards and forwards. Thou fool! 'God maintaineth fellowship with him, and hath power to make him stand.' If not, we shall be the strong, and then we shall be most assuredly weak. If we are not sufficiently intelligent to descend from the high place of our knowledge almost as soon as we have clambered up to it, we are certainly ignorant men."
But what of the actual difference between right and wrong, the merits of keeping the rules as put forth by the vegetable eaters? Aren't some things clearly right and other things clearly wrong? Even a cursory reading of the Bible will substantiate this belief. The issue though, to me at least, is not WHAT is wrong, but WHO is empowered to judge those who do those things deemed wrong. Paul is very clear, "As surely as I live,' says the Lord, 'every knee will bow before me; every tongue will confess to God.' So then, each of us will give an account of himself TO GOD' Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother's way" (Rom. 14: 11-12).
Barth is even clearer, "But because we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God, because the critical truth under which we stand is that it is God who elects and rejects, it follows that the strong, the elect, have not the slightest right against the weak, the rejected... In so far as men and their 'piety' are substituted for God and His freedom, human conduct, whatever form it may take, means simply rejection. Human conduct means election only in so far as it is the renunciation of merit, right, or claim, that is to say, in so far as the idol of this or that form of piety is renounced... Uncertain are all our questions concerning the salvation of others, whatever form our questions take; feeble are all attempts to assess the value of another's relation to God, whether the assessment be conservative or radical. All is subject to the judgment of God. Judge not is therefore the only possibility. And yet, even this possibility is no possibility, no recipe; it provides no standard of conduct. We have no alternative but to range ourselves under the judgment that awaits us, hoping, without any ground for our hope, for the impossible possibility of the mercy of God." End Quote.
So what do Paul's and Barth's remarks mean for us? In Jesus' words, it's very simple conceptually, but impossible to do on our own steam, as world history past and present attests. He declared, "Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you. 'Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother's eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, 'Let me take the speck out of your eye,' when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother's eye'" (Matt. 7:1-5). Let me be the first to confess that I have rarely been a "vegetable eater," but have often functioned as a "speck picker." What a temptation it is to do that, especially when the one judging us is violating the same Law he lashes us with. However, neither of us stands justified before God.
My opinion isn't worth more than yours is, but I offer this observation for what it might be worth. This country has been held in the steely grip of the "vegetable eaters" and the "speck pickers" for almost eight years now. That alone should demonstrate the folly of entering into judgment of another and proclaiming ourselves righteous. God has been systematically cutting the legs out from under those who have claimed the moral superiority politically. Isaiah asked, "Woe to those who go to great depths to hide their plans from the LORD, who do their work in darkness and think, 'Who sees us? Who will know?'" (Isa. 29:15).
Hypocrisy and self righteousness is being exposed, "For there is nothing covered, that shall not be revealed; neither hid, that shall not be known. Therefore whatsoever ye have spoken in darkness shall be heard in the light; and that which ye have spoken in the ear in closets shall be proclaimed upon the housetops" (Luke 2:2-3, KJV). It took me quite a while to find this verse even though I have at least eight Bible translations in my computer. I remembered the verse because I used to joke that Jesus was prophesying about the Ophra Winfrey show. All levity aside, it is clear that whatever is done by a U.S. Senator, in an airport men's bathroom, will be reported on CNN within hours, and when a well known, oh so righteous Evangelical Pastor preaches against homosexuality on Sunday, he's bound to be outed by the male prostitute he engaged for sexual favors during the week.
Jesus was quick to debunk the Pharisees' bragging rights: "For there is nothing hidden that will not be disclosed, and nothing concealed that will not be known or brought out into the open" (Luke 8:17). There are many other examples of the righteousness of the Pharisees being exposed this year alone, but this little trip through the sewers of the halls of power in our land is sufficient to prove the truth of what Jesus, Paul, and Karl Barth have declared. Judge not, is the message here. Easy to say, but much more difficult to do, because we are all so blind about our own short comings. Not until God opens our eyes to see how desperately wicked our flesh is, can we admit that the only righteousness we can apprehend is that which Christ has given us.
This is why I have appreciated Barth's book so much. Like Jesus and Paul, he has exposed the flesh for what it is: a dung heap before the righteousness of God. Without mercy, he has revealed the failings and hypocrisy of the church, which purports to be the vessel bringing God to the world, but in showing her inadequacy on planet Earth, he has given us all hope, for we are all, he declares, standing on the same step before God, and the only hope any of us has is in putting "ourselves under the judgment that awaits us, hoping, without any ground for our hope, for the impossible possibility of the mercy of God." Whether in church or in politics, we need to play nice with each other, for on God's uncontingent grace, we all stand or fall, together!
Father, we thank You for Jesus, our hope, our righteousness, our justification, sanctification, and salvation. We dare not lay any claim or place any value on our own efforts, but instead, fall on our faces before You for what You have done for all men in Christ. In Him, we are healed as we enter into Your rest, amen. Jan Antonsson
This concludes the series on healing. Thank you for taking the journey with us.
Jan and Lenny Antonsson
17178 Highway 59, Neosho, MO 64850 (Snail Mail Address)
Healing, or Stealing God's Glory?
Risky Business, Healing, Part II
The Royal Priesthood, Healing, Part III
Rest in the GIFT, Healing, Part IV
Restoring the Glory Land, Part V
Organizing the Church, Part VI
Victory Through Helplessness, Healing, Part VII
What Does Faith Have to do With It? Healing, Part VIII
The Death of Death, Healing, Part IX
The Death He Died, Healing, Part X
Freed From Sin, Healing, Part XI
Money, the Kingdom, and Bifocal Vision, Healing, Part XII
Flesh, Spirit, & the New Man, Healing, Part XIII
The Church, the Gospel, and God's Will, Healing, Part XIV
The End of the Law, Healing, Part XV
The Divine Possibility, Healing, Part XVI
What Shall We Do? Healing, Part XVII
The Epistle to the Romans by Karl Barth
The Glory Road
We always enjoy hearing from you!
This writing was uploaded to the web 08/10/08,
By Jan Antonsson, webmeister,
and last updated 11/19/08.