As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. 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, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. Romans 14:1-23
Have you ever experienced someone telling you that you're not doing Christianity right? Perhaps someone has told you that you read the Bible using the wrong translation or a wrong method of interpretation, or you worship wrongly because your church doesn't celebrate communion every week or because your church does celebrate communion every week. Perhaps you don't attend worship service often enough to meet someone's random attendance requirement or you do attend worship but not Sunday School. For shame! Perhaps it's because you drink wine or beer or liquor, or you utter the occasional (or not so occasional) cuss word.
Who, in fact, decides what is right and what is wrong in religious practice?
When it comes to religious practice, I think it's important to figure out what is helpful for us and what is not. If we were raised in a church that strictly forbade tattoos, for instance, we might look upon ink as a defacement of God's creation...or we might rebel against what we're taught, seeing it as just another form of self-expression. Does God really care about a little (or a lot of) ink when people are starving and enslaved and murdered?
I honestly have no idea how God feels about tattoos, nor do I care because I will never, ever have one myself. Needles! Ewww!! But certainly tattoos, as with any form of self-expression, can signal all sorts of things...good and bad. Concentration camp victims were tattooed with numbers on their arms; we can (I believe) safely assume that this was a bad thing done to them, not something that will damn them to hell. We had a baby sitter who had a Bible verse tattooed on her foot...in Greek, no less, which made it a talking point for her to share God's word. I doubt that sort of evangelism will keep her out of heaven. People with swastikas, satanic symbols, and hateful speech tattooed on them likely won't miss out on eternal glory just because they got tattoos, and if they repent of hate and turn to God in love, I think God's grace and mercy are powerful enough to wash clean the stain of sin.
My point: Religious practice is on the outside. God looks inside. If we want to be in right relationship with God, we should figure out those religious practices that keep our hearts focused on Him. These might differ from person to person, and we need to follow Paul's advice and not judge others for doing what it takes to strengthen their faith.
For me, one thing that keeps me growing in faith is regular Bible study in Christian community. I've been attending a weekly class for six years now, and it's transformed my thinking in so many ways, helped me to understand things I didn't understand before, and discover new things in scripture that I never knew or thought I knew but got totally wrong.
Years ago, I listened to a relative vent about Bibles. "People whose Bibles look new aren't good Christians," he said. "Real Christians mark up their Bibles. The more tattered the Bible, the stronger the faith!"
Hmm. Having grown up in the Methodist church, I was taught from a very early age that never, ever, under any circumstances should I mark in or write in my Bible. I should treat it with respect, never put other books or papers on top of it, and never, ever put it on the floor. All these things showed disrespect to God and His Word.
As a result, my main Bible, read and studied so intensively over the past six years, still looks relatively new. It's an Oxford Annotated Bible with the Apocrypha in the New Revised Standard Version translation with a soft, oxblood-red leather cover that's soft as butter and smells like a library. My mother gave it to me and had my name put on the front lower right corner in gold. I have other Bibles, but this is the one I use the most. It has the highest quality binding of all my Bibles and lays flat open whether I'm reading Genesis or Revelation.
The gold on the page edges retains its shimmer despite frequent thumbing, and the pages are crisp and clean, definitely unmarked. Okay, yes, there's some wear of that gold edging on the bottom corner where it's rubbed in my book bag, and the fine leather binding has worn a bit on the corners as well. The two ribbon book marks have picked up a bit of oil from sliding between my fingers. But by my Bible-defacing relative's standards, it's hardly been cracked open. By his standards, I'm not a Real Christian.
Who is right?
Does it matter?
Not according to Paul. Let not the one who marks up Scripture pass judgment on the one who does not, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who does not abstain. We are all weak in faith in some way or another. Whatever we do to bolster our faith, when we do it for love of God or our neighbor, He will be well pleased.
You are invited to share a time when your religious practice was criticized. How did you defend your practice? Did the criticism help you or hurt you or just make you realize we're all different? Do you judge others for their tattoos or type of worship or biblical interpretation? Are there times when that judgment is just?