The Internet Troll vs. the Inner Toll (Romans 14:1-14)
By Alicia Johnston
Allow me to begin with a confession. Sometimes I enjoy being trolled online. The pleasure inevitably turns bitter, but before that happens, on a bright morning after a nice cup of coffee, it can be quite pleasurable to indulge in a bit of self-righteousness. What better way to demonstrate to the world my superior patience, love, and care than the easy target of a hateful internet troll?
I have plenty such trolls in my life because of the kind of advocacy I do for fellow LGBT+ Christians. I consider it justice work, and like all justice work it invites both critics on the outside and self-righteousness on the inside.
Romans 14 is an indictment to self-righteousness. Some causes are worth defending, but even in that defense is a subtle motivation to be right rather than to act out of a desire to help others. Paul urges the Christians in Romans 14 not to look for opportunities to be right, but to look for opportunities to accept each other in our differing opinions.
"As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions" (Romans 14:1).
In the preceding chapter Paul called his hearers to pursue love by following the commandments of God, and he follows that up here where he addresses matters that are debatable. In Romans 13 we find that we should pursue love for all and shun behaviors that harm, in Romans 14 we find that sometimes we just need to let things go.
Paul uses the word dialogismos in Romans 14:1 to describe subjects on which we are not to pass judgment. These are debatable matters that people tend to disagree on but which don't really matter in terms of the debt of love we all owe to each other (Romans 13:8).
These are not matters of justice, and yet I notice the close proximity in which Paul's admonition not to judge follows the admonition to do the right thing. I find that the more I am focused on making the world a better place, the more I am prone to self-righteousness. The more I know myself to be in harmony with the Kingdom of God, the more confident I am that my opponents are not.
It is easy to slip from defending the weak to attacking those Paul describes as the "weak person," those who are attached to rituals and rules that are unnecessary but benign. If I allow myself to be drawn into self-righteousness, I find myself casting judgment for every little disagreement. I want to stop thinking of my opponents as my siblings in Christ. I want to do exactly what Paul cautions against when he says, "let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother" (Romans 14:13).
Ironically, in my tradition, the Seventh-day Adventist church, this passage has been used to pass judgment against our practices of keeping the Sabbath on the 7th day and encouraging vegetarianism. Adventist typically have seen these verses as applying to days of fasting which some people keep either by abstaining from all foods or by eating only vegetables. Christians outside our tradition have accused us of making debatable subjects like Sabbath and diet into cause for judgment. And in this is the irony, even this passage that calls Christians not to judge can be used to judge each other.
How do we decide which matters are debatable and which matters are central to the faith? What is worth standing for?
The Nashville Statement[i] which was recently released by a powerful group of conservative evangelicals takes a hard stance on the subject. They state emphatically in article 10 that to affirm LGBT+ sexuality and gender "constitutes an essential departure from Christian faithfulness" and that this is not a matter on which "otherwise faithful Christians should agree to disagree."
The crafters of the statement have made it clear that this is not debatable; according to these powerful evangelicals, same-sex couples are unworthy of the support and acknowledgement of Christians.
They are wrong about this, and their efforts must be opposed, as has been done powerfully by many Christian leaders.[ii] I am certain and undeterred from the need for opposition. Still, in my life I have swung from conservative to progressive, and I'm grateful for those who were patient enough to oppose my ideas instead of opposing my legitimacy as a Christian.
Self-righteous anger is delicious, and its especially appealing when religious leaders have just accused me and the rest of the LGBT+ community of forsaking Christ. If there is one thing that will soothe the hurt of exclusion faster than anything else, it's self-righteousness. I should know, it's the shelter my psyche seeks when I'm afraid, battered, and filled with self-doubt. But self-righteousness is also a fruit that quickly turns bitter, giving way to anger, arrogance, and an inability to effectively reach out to those who see things differently.
It would be convenient to think of Paul's words in Romans 14 as opposing only those on the other side of the divide between conservatives and progessives, but judgmental progressives are real and dishearteningly common. I know the pull in myself. What I am seeing more and more is that to do the external work is not enough, I have to deal with my own sense of superiority.
There are two ways to seek justice: in humility or in self-righteousness. Especially for those of us who have left many traditional religious restrictions behind, it's tempting to stop fighting for something and start fighting against someone.
When we do that, we can be sure all kinds of pettiness and partisanship are not far behind. We can be sure our self-righteousness will soon lead us into debates and judgments about all kinds of issues that are in fact tertiary to the cause of justice. When we speak up, let it not be because we are right, but because we can help. Let it not be because we think ourselves superior, but because we know ourselves to be equal.
Alicia Johnston was a pastor in a conservative Christian denomination, the Seventh-day Adventist Church, until she announced via a viral video that she is fully inclusive and affirming of LGBT sexuality and gender, and that she is a bisexual Christian. Her story was covered by NBC, LGBT Nation, Auto Straddle, and Religion News. She now speaks and writes about her story, queer insights on faith, and the intersection of Christianity and sexuality. Alicia has a master of divinity from Andrews University in Berrien Springs, MI and a master of arts in Clinical Psychology from Argosy University. She can be found at aliciajohnston.com
1. In what situation are you most likely to feel superior or self-righteous?
2. How do you behave differently when you're thinking about trying to help versus when you are enjoying a sense of superiority?
3. How can you tell the difference between something you need to speak out about and something you should let go?
[i] The Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, The Nashville Statement, https://cbmw.org/nashville-statement/
[ii] Christians United Statement, http://www.christiansunitedstatement.org/
For Further Reading:
Haidt, Jonathan. The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion. [https://www.amazon.com/Righteous-Mind-Divided-Politics-Religion/dp/0307455777]
The Arbinger Institute. The Anatomy of Peace: Resolving the Heart of Conflict. [https://www.amazon.com/Anatomy-Peace-Resolving-Heart-Conflict/dp/1626564310]
Peck, M. Scott. People of the Lie: The Hope for Healing Human Evil. [https://www.amazon.com/People-Lie-Hope-Healing-Human/dp/0684848597]
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