Absolute Truths and Relative Truths
When Paul said, “whatever you believe...keep between yourself and God” (Rm 14:22), and “Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind” (14:5), Paul is not describing essential and absolute truths that never change with the times, such as justification by faith in Jesus alone. Paul was very strict about matters related to the gospel of Jesus Christ and our salvation.
Paul even cursed those who preached different gospels in Galatians.
“I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting the one who called you to live in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel which is really no gospel at all. Evidently some people are throwing you into confusion and are trying to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach a gospel other than the one we preached to you, let them be under God’s curse! As we have already said, so now I say again: If anybody is preaching to you a gospel other than what you accepted, let them be under God’s curse!” (Gl 1:6-9)
Here, the different gospel likely refers to the false teachings of some Jewish Christians who said, “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses, you cannot be saved.” (Ac 15:1).
There were some people who tried to pervert the gospel of Jesus Christ by teaching that faith in Jesus alone is not enough and that one must observe the law of Moses to be saved.
And, Paul made every effort to defend the absolute truth of the gospel and argued against these false teachings. He not only rejected them, but cursed those who preached them and even tried to excommunicate them to defend the absolute truth of the gospel.
But, at the same time, his attitude toward cultural laws was very mild. In the Bible, we find not only the absolute truths, but also many other laws, principles and cultural practices that can change over time. These are called relative truths.
For example, eating pork was prohibited to the Israelites in the Old Testament. And, Paul urged women to always cover their head when they pray or prophesy. Those kinds of rules are not absolute truths, but relative ones. Eating food sacrificed to idols and observing certain days can be also regarded as relative laws that are only applied to certain time periods.
So, Paul likely thought that if the matter isn’t about the gospel or our salvation, whatever we do is fine as long as we’re convinced that it is in line with God’s will and we do it for the Lord out of faith.
As Paul said, “Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord… and whoever abstains does so to the Lord… So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord.” (Rom 14:6, 8)
Even though Paul knew that Timothy, who was a Gentile, didn’t have to be circumcised, Paul circumcised him when he took him along on his journey “because of the Jews who lived in that area, for they all knew that his father was a Greek.” (Ac 16:3).
So, Paul circumcised Timothy not because circumcision was essential to faith and salvation, but because Paul didn’t want the fact that Timothy wasn’t circumcised to be an obstacle in proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ to other Jews for whom circumcision really mattered.
In 1 Corinthians 9:20-23, Paul wrote,
“To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” (1 Co 9:20-23)
This is a really important mindset we should have as Christians when conducting ourselves before others in the church community. If it’s about an absolute truth, we shouldn’t accept those who preach different gospels. We are to speak the truth and defend it.
But, if it’s about relative truths and cultural traditions, we should accept those who have different opinions and become like them, limiting our thoughts and freedom, if it helps them come to the gospel of Jesus.
However, this is easier said than done because it can be hard to distinguish between absolute truths and relative truths, especially when it comes to sensitive subjects. And, even though we need to accept and respect those who have different opinions about relative issues, we also should be able to defend what we believe is absolute truth.
We see a lot of churches and denominations arguing with one another and becoming divided because they can’t reach a point of agreement. This breaks my heart because I believe one of the best ways to show the integrity of the gospel of Jesus is by being united in Him. How can a divided community preach unity in Jesus?
That’s why we really need heavenly wisdom to distinguish right from wrong, humility to lay down our own opinions before the absolute truth of God’s word, and love to understand, respect, and accept one another in Christ.
I think this quote from the theologian Rupertus Meldenius is the best way to summarize what we’ve talked about thus far.
“In essentials, unity;
in non-essentials, liberty;
in all things, charity.”
- Rupertus Meldenius
How To Treat Others in the Church Community
In Romans 14 to15, Paul urges us not to judge those whose faith is weak or treat them with contempt, but to accept one another without fighting over disputable matters.
That’s because that’s how our heavenly Father treats us with His great love and mercy. As those who have been accepted by God, we can’t stay away from others whom God has accepted. The best way to treat others is to think about how God would see and treat them and follow His example.
Another reason we shouldn’t judge others is simply because we’re not the judge; God is. We will all stand before God’s judgment.
Lastly, the most important principle we must remember when interacting with those with different opinions is that we act in love, seeking not our own good, but the good of others.
Even though we have the right to do anything, we’re called to do what’s beneficial, constructive, and good for others. That was how Jesus lived on earth. Jesus didn’t have to be crucified since we were the ones who deserved the wrath of God because of our sin, yet Jesus willingly laid down His life because He wanted us to have forgiveness, acceptance, and salvation.
That’s what Paul continues to discuss in Romans 15. Paul said in verse 1-2,
“We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up.” (Rm 15:1-2)
After that, Paul added some points to support this. First, we shouldn’t please ourselves but our neighbors for their good because “even Christ did not please himself” (Rm 15:3).
Here, Paul offers Jesus’ example as a model for us to follow. Rather than pleasing Himself, Jesus sacrificed Himself for our good. Even though Jesus was God in His very nature, He humbled Himself and made himself nothing. He humbly came to the world and laid down His life to give us salvation.
And, those who believe in Jesus and are saved by His grace should follow His example. As Paul said, “In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus” (Php 2:5)
Because Jesus didn’t please Himself but sought our good, we also shouldn’t live to please ourselves and satisfy our own desires but to please our neighbors by leading them to Jesus and building them up through the gospel.
Paul prayed in verses 5-6,
“May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you the same attitude of mind toward each other that Christ Jesus had, so that with one mind and one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.” (Rm 15:5-6)
Paul urges us to have the same attitude of mind that Jesus had. It doesn’t mean that we should all agree on every issue since Paul has already described the difference between those whose faith is strong and those whose faith is weak.
What Paul is saying here is that even though we may not agree about all matters, we should treat each other with the attitude Jesus showed through His life so that we can be united in Him despite our differences.
Even though we’re all different from each other and we may have different thoughts and opinions, we can still be united in Jesus and become more like Him by allowing His character to transform ours. The more we agree about Jesus, the more things we’ll agree on in Him.
And, the most important reason that we must be united in Jesus is that by doing so, we can truly glorify God and worship Him. That is the purpose of our unity. And, that’s what Paul really wanted for the church in Rome, which was being divided by some non-essential, disputable matters such as food and observing special days.
“Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God. For I tell you that Christ has become a servant of the Jews on behalf of God’s truth, so that the promises made to the patriarchs might be confirmed and, moreover, that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.” (Rm 15:7-9)
Here, Paul repeated what he had said in the previous chapter, which shows its importance. We should accept one another despite our differences because that’s how Jesus accepted us. And, we can’t push out those whom Jesus accepted. And, again, the purpose for us to accept one another is to bring praise to our heavenly Father.