How do you distinguish between sin and areas for growth?


Thank you for your reply. That was helpful. I agree we need to be mindful of differing levels of maturity.

The crux of the matter comes down to this: (maturity issues aside) when is sin involved? Let me frame this issue another way: the brother in Romans 14 who abstains from all meat does so because he views it as sin not too. So unless he sees the issue as uncertain and is playing it safe, he must also see those who do not abstain as sinning. So if I am in that position, how do I differentiate between matters of conscience and matters of sin? This is my dilemma. I see you draw a distinction between head covering, vegetarianism, pacifism, and divorce. But how do we know that distinction is there? If a woman believes God commands a covering, mustn't she also believe that to not cover is a sin? You may not believe military service is a matter of sin, but there are those that do. You may believe church support of institutions is a matter of sin, but there are those that do not believe so.

I don't want this to be just about head covering, but it one of the issues that bring up this dilemma for me, and where I don't understand how you biblically come to your position. You say you can't force this issue on a sister in Christ. I would agree that it does a woman no good to show submission while harboring a rebellious spirit. But is this how we approach people who forsake the assembly, those who commit adultery, or those who transgress the word of God in any other way? You can't force anyone to do anything, but you can teach the truth and expect obedience to God's word. What am I misunderstanding here? What is the biblical standard I can use to differentiate between something like head coverings and something like adultery?

Is not I Corinthians 11 instruction to women to cover their head when praying or prophesying? You say: 'There is no agreement to disagree.' But isn't that exactly what we do if we tolerate sinful behavior. What I get from you and others is it is ok to disagree on some issues, but on others, sin is not tolerated at all. I don't see that in the Bible; which has left me in the position of having to find out from brethren in which matters disagreement is acceptable. How is that ok?

What this all comes down to is this: there will be a tendency to either bind too much (out of immaturity) or bind too little (to avoid confrontation). I want to avoid those extremes and I am looking for Biblical advice on how to do that on any given issue. But if sin is involved I can't just sit back; I must act for the sake of their soul and mine.

Thank you so very much. I really appreciate your advice on this matter.


As I warned in my prior note, given all the disputes which have arisen over the matters you raised, I sincerely doubt I am able to settle what hasn't been settled. I am only able to point you toward a better understanding of the issues involved.

The real problem that you seem to be struggling with is coming to terms with the fact that, while there is but one right, man because of his limitations is sometimes unable to grasp the truth. Paul said, "Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things" (Romans 14:1). Here is an admission that concerning some things there is a lack of certainty -- there are "doubtful things." Peter stated the same, "and consider that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation--as also our beloved brother Paul, according to the wisdom given to him, has written to you, as also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things, in which are some things hard to understand, which untaught and unstable people twist to their own destruction, as they do also the rest of the Scriptures" (II Peter 3:15-16). Some things are hard to understand. This doesn't mean that there are multiple right ways, but that a man may not know everything, especially while they are maturing in the faith. I don't think you can address these issues without consideration of maturity.

Throughout Romans 14 there is an emphasis on the fact both parties are acceptable to God.

"Let not him who eats despise him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats; for God has received him. Who are you to judge another's servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand" (Romans 14:3-4).

"For he who serves Christ in these things is acceptable to God and approved by men" (Romans 14:18).

"Do you have faith? Have it to yourself before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves. But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because he does not eat from faith; for whatever is not from faith is sin" (Romans 14:22-23).

Let's take the issue of vegetarianism. The person who holds this position is taking a narrower view than what God has allowed. "I know and am convinced by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself; but to him who considers anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean" (Romans 14:14). While the eating of meat is allowed, it becomes a sin for the person who is convinced it is wrong or who is even uncertain whether eating meat is right. Still, a person who chooses not to eat meat is acceptable to God, even while he is wrong about what God has said concerning the matter. The person who has the better and more accurate view of God's law is asked to accept the person (to have fellowship with him) because that person's individual view does not affect his own salvation. While the topic will be discussed at times and there might be disagreement, still the stronger brother can see that the weaker brother is still pleasing to God in what he does while he continues to be mistaken in what God says.

Now contrast this to someone who believes sex before marriage is acceptable and is currently living with a woman to whom he is not married. Here the matter of judgment is taken out of our hands. God clearly says that fornication is a sin (I Corinthians 6:9-11). There is no uncertainty or dispute (though some might try to muddy the waters). Such a person cannot be offered fellowship while he remains in his sinful state.

In the case of remarriage after divorce, there are multiple issues involved, so you would have to be clear as to which issue you are referring. For example, Jesus is very clear that a man who divorces his wife for some reason other than fornication and marries another is committing adultery. There are people trying to avoid this plain teaching, but it doesn't change the fact that Jesus' teaching is clear. Thus we could not accept a person who is living in such a marriage. It is not our choice because God said it was wrong. There are some issues where there is more dispute. For instance, there are a few who believe that even the act of divorce is a sin. Such a person would not be able or willing to worship with people who have not reached the same conclusion. Still, if that person decides to worship with a congregation that doesn't hold that belief, the congregation can welcome him in because in their view he is acceptable to God, just more narrow in his view than what God allows. They cannot accept him solely for the purpose of browbeating him into their way of viewing the Scriptures. The issue can and will be discussed and it might be a long while before a resolution is made, if ever. But if the weaker brother (the one who believes in no divorce) is willing to worship with the stronger brother (the one who believes divorce is acceptable in some situations), then they can have fellowship.

I mentioned before that we have a pacifist in our midst. The congregation as a whole disagrees with this brother's position and he is quite well aware of it. However, he has decided that our position doesn't hinder him from worshipping with us. The congregation looked at how he lived his life and decided that his personal choice of not serving in the government doesn't make him a sinner. Discussions over the issue occur once in a while, but no one goes out of his way to bring it up, other than what is normally discussed. It may never be resolved, but his choice doesn't put him in sin though most of us believe he is mistaken on this issue. Again, the weak decides to join and the strong are able to accept because they don't see the weak is acting sinfully. If, however, a pacifist came in our midst insisting that all members must stop serving the government and no amount of discussion can persuade him he is wrong, then the congregation would withdraw its fellowship because he was advocating false doctrine. The weak brother's choice makes it impossible for the rest to worship with him.

There is a passage in Revelation that needs to be considered. "And to the angel of the church in Sardis write, 'These things says He who has the seven Spirits of God and the seven stars: "I know your works, that you have a name that you are alive, but you are dead. Be watchful, and strengthen the things which remain, that are ready to die, for I have not found your works perfect before God. Remember therefore how you have received and heard; hold fast and repent. Therefore if you will not watch, I will come upon you as a thief, and you will not know what hour I will come upon you. You have a few names even in Sardis who have not defiled their garments; and they shall walk with Me in white, for they are worthy" (Revelation 3:1-4). In a congregation that was basically dead and was under threat of no longer being a congregation of the Lord, there were a few who were found to be faithful. The destiny of the congregation as a whole does not directly affect the destiny of each individual. It is possible, though dangerous, to worship with a group that overall is wrong while still going to heaven as an individual.

When I was in college, I lived for one semester in a community where the nearest sound congregation was 75 miles away and I had no car. I went to Bible classes at a local congregation that supported institutions. Most weekends I managed to take a bus home, but there were a few times I had to stay in the area, so I worshipped there. The worship was as God directed, but since I disagreed with how they spent the Lord's money I did not contribute to that congregation. While it was not an ideal situation, it was doable. I remained faithful to what I knew the Lord commanded and strived hard not to compromise my beliefs.

For the same reason, though I believe that I Corinthians 11 teaches a woman should wear a covering, the fact that some don't doesn't affect what I do for the Lord. I'll teach about I Corinthians 11, knowing the some or even most might disagree with me. Yet, I understand that ultimately, it is the Lord's decision, not my own that determines their faithfulness. I hope that the charge will not keep them out of heaven, but I know it is not my judgment. Thus, I can work and worship with brethren with whom I disagree over this one particular matter because their choice doesn't impact me or my ability to teach. I'm not tolerating a sinful behavior because I still teach that it is wrong, but I understand that those who disagree with me honestly and sincerely are doing what they think is best. I need to give them time to mature and leave the judgment in God's hand. In other words, I'm willing to admit that there is controversy over understanding what Paul wrote about head coverings. I've made my decision, but everyone else has to make their own as well.

But let's say a man left his wife because of financial problems and married another woman. There is no controversy over what the Lord said concerning such a marriage. The second marriage is clearly adultery. I cannot give fellowship to a couple who is blatantly ignoring God's command.

It probably still leaves the matter too vague to satisfy you, but I'm running out of ideas on how to explain it for the moment. All I can hope is that it might move a bit close to the truth.

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