This lengthy blog post will bother some of you, perhaps even anger you. I understand that and am used to occasionally finding myself in the hot-seat for my views on scripture. Feel free to comment, argue with me, debate, disagree … but please do so politely.
Disagreements abound in the body of Christ universally, and within individual congregations, regarding what constitutes acceptable and unacceptable behavior, and at times, acceptable and unacceptable beliefs. Self-persuaded believers stand in perfect circles with loaded muskets, all pointed inward, and on the count of three, everyone fires. The world has little need to attack and discredit the church because the church does such a marvelous job of attacking discrediting itself through the lack of love we show one another.
When it comes to disagreements among believers, I believe the fourteenth chapter of the Book of Romans is one of the most intensely practical chapters in the entire New Testament. It has much to say to the contemporary church, particularly where we find disagreements over matters of practice, disagreements wherein one member of the body of Christ may be inclined to judge or condemn another member, and sometimes in very public ways. For that reason, during my years in full-time ministry, I made it my habit to study through Romans fourteen with every new Christ-follower.
Romans fourteen is about what we call “disputable matters,” and it leaves no doubt that, from the church’s inception, the body of Christ has been burdened with such matters, many of which are not going to find any satisfactory resolution no matter how long they are debated.
Those who engage in the battles are often unable to agree even on what constitutes the “pertinent issues.” Sometimes, what is a troubling issue for me is a non-issue for someone else, and a completely settled, non-disputable matter for yet another person. If an issue is debated effectively enough, for long enough, it becomes relegated to this realm we like to call the “Grey Area.”
The Grey Area is that category of issues about which we cannot decide if it is Yea or Nay. It may even be that each of us believes we are right while those with differing viewpoints are wrong, but they are either too obtuse to see it, or too stubborn to admit it. The concept of the Grey Area has historically been a challenge for me because, for most of my life my world was very true or false, yes or no, black and white; a strange reality for someone whose last name is Gray.
My world was well-defined, and I was comfortable in the conviction that there are truths, and there are falsehoods. A thing is or it is not. The battery has a positive pole and a negative pole. My world was binary; On/Off, 1/0.
The longer I am allowed to remain alive, the more Grey Area I am seeing; the more I am realizing that much of one’s life-view is shaped by the angle from which one perceives their surroundings. What we will learn from Romans fourteen is that something that is 0 for you can be 1 for someone else, and the unsettling part for the binary minded is that both of those are true.
With the Grey Area concept before us, it seems important to note that there are behaviors and activities that are always wrong and sinful, and which cannot be relegated to the Grey Area. Thus, in studying this chapter, I am not suggesting anarchy, recklessness, or an attitude that says, “Anything goes.” Far from it.
The Bible has instruction for us wherein things are distinctly commanded. Do these things. (e.g. love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us.) Similarly, other things are unquestionably forbidden. Do not do these things. (e.g. Do not murder our neighbor.)
Anything outside the clearly commanded or forbidden must be relegated to the realm of conscience, faith, and maturity. This is the realm about which the apostle Paul will say, “Whatever you believe about such things, keep between yourself and God” (v. 22). If God has not specifically addressed the issue before us, we are not to represent that he has done so, and we are not to ridicule, judge, or condemn a brother or sister in Christ who has reached a conviction that differs from our own in that matter.
Paul’s Teaching on Issues
To address this matter of conscience, the apostle Paul will employ two working examples. Using Paul’s framework, we can insert any particular issue we want to debate. The examples Paul uses are:
- Meat that has been sacrificed to an idol.
- Observance of special days.
As we work through this passage, any time we see a reference to eating, or to days, we can insert our selected issue, and we will see that the teaching of Paul applies.
Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions. One person has faith that he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats vegetables only. The one who eats is not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat, and the one who does not eat is not to judge the one who eats, for God has accepted him. Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand. – Romans 14:1-4, NASB
Keys from Verses 1-4
- The weaker faith is the faith that is the most restrictive (v. 2). The stronger one’s faith, the more one realizes that Christ is interested in freedom and loving one another. Too much of the body of Christ is defined as “those who don’t.” Christians are seen as those who don’t do X, or who don’t do Y. The non-believing world laughs at this and jokes about our many don’ts. The stronger believer is the one who is free from rules and restrictions – the Law. “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free.” Thus a stronger faith allows one to “eat all things,” while the weaker faith does not eat.
- Neither believer is to judge the other (v. 4). For a practical example, let us inject a present-day hot-button issue – the consumption of wine. The one who does not consume wine may be inclined to judge the one who consumes. In the mind of the judging Christ-follower, the consumption of any such beverage is sinful. The apostle Paul says we who do not consume must not judge the one who does so. Similarly, we who consume are not to regard with contempt those who do not do so. Neither is qualified to “judge the servant of another,” and every Christ-follower is a servant of, and belongs to God.
- God has accepted each faith, and God is able to make each faith stand (v. 4).
One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God. For not one of us lives for himself, and not one dies for himself; for if we live, we live for the Lord, or if we die, we die for the Lord; therefore whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that He might be Lord both of the dead and of the living. – Romans 14:5-9, NASB
Keys from Verses 5-9
- The convictions we hold regarding issues are individual matters (v. 5). I have known believers who are convinced that it is sinful for the Christian world to celebrate the birth of Christ because, in scripture, we are never commanded to do so. I have known others for whom the objection is even stronger, as they regard Christmas as a pagan celebration, and those of this persuasion would like to see it mandated by the church leadership that we not celebrate this day. Paul says each of us should be convinced in our own mind on these matters, and applying principle #2 above, I am not to judge one who holds such convictions, and they are not to judge me for holding different convictions (or no conviction at all).
- Each man/woman is striving to honor God with their convictions (v. 6). The family that does not observe Christmas is acting on that conviction to honor God. My family observes the holiday for the very same reason – to honor God. The man/woman who refuses wine, does so to honor God. When my wife and I enjoy a glass of wine together, we do so thanking God for the bounty of the earth, and the pleasant fruit it provides. Neither of us is in a position the judge the other, the servant of another master before whom each stands or falls.
But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. For it is written, “AS I LIVE, SAYS THE LORD, EVERY KNEE SHALL BOW TO ME, AND EVERY TONGUE SHALL GIVE PRAISE TO GOD.” So then each one of us will give an account of himself to God. – Romans 14:10-12 – NASB
Keys from Verses 10-12
- We are not to judge or hold contempt for our brother or sister in Christ (v. 10). I am not your master or your judge, just as you are not my master or my judge. I will bow the knee to God just as you will (v. 11). I will give account to God and no one else, just as you will (v. 12).
Summary Comments on Romans 14:1-12
In this chapter, the apostle Paul is discussing the proper way to deal with a conscience that is weak in faith, what could accurately be called ignorance, and he does so using the examples of meat that has been sacrificed to idols and observance of special days. In contemporary western society, identifying ignorance is considered insulting, but it should not be so. Ignorance is not a bad thing. It is not sinful, and neither is it something of which one must be ashamed. Ignorance should not be ridiculed, and those who do ridicule ignorance are dealing with their own issue of spiritual arrogance.
Each of us is ignorant to some degree and in any of a plethora of subject matters. Ignorant means only that I am untrained, unlearned, or unaware regarding a specific matter. I am ignorant regarding the stock market, whereas my son is an expert in that arena. I am predominantly ignorant on matters of diet, whereas my friend Tony is an expert in those matters. The fact that I am ignorant in these two (and many other) areas, does not mean I am uneducated, foolish, stupid, or unintelligent. It means only that I have not studied those specific subjects.
In Paul’s example, there were those who were ignorant regarding meat that had been sacrificed to idols.
Imagine a man who sacrifices a ram to his pagan deity. Not wanting to waste the meat, he takes it to the marketplace to sell it. Imagine further that you and I are in that same marketplace hunting for bargains and I end up buying this man’s inexpensive meat.
I have no idea where the meat came from, and I really do not care. You, however, know that the meat was sacrificed to some pagan deity, and in your mind, that meat is unclean. Or, perhaps you are recently converted from Judaism, and you notice that the meat was not slaughtered in a way that complies with Judaic standards. What Paul is teaching (thus far) is that you do not judge what I am doing, and I do not judge what you are doing.
The teaching on special days is similar. If you regard a certain day as holy unto God, and I see that day the same as every other day on the calendar, each of us should glorify God with our observance or non-observance of the day, and be fully convinced in our own mind. There is no need to condemn one another.
When Paul’s guidelines are not followed, we often find that the weaker conscience is allowed to legalistically bind its conviction on the entire body. Conversely, the stronger conscience is sometimes allowed to exercise that freedom in ways that are harmful to the weaker conscience. The difficult balance is one in which the stronger conscience protects the weaker conscience, while silencing the legalist.
Congratulations! You have slogged with me through the first part of the chapter. That was the liberating section. What follows is tough teaching on how to handle our liberty. Rather than look for key concepts as we did with verses 1-12, here, we will look at the entire section as one unit, and then comment.
Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this—not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way. I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but to him who thinks anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean. For if because of food your brother is hurt, you are no longer walking according to love. Do not destroy with your food him for whom Christ died. Therefore do not let what is for you a good thing be spoken of as evil; for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. For he who in this way serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then we pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another. Do not tear down the work of God for the sake of food. All things indeed are clean, but they are evil for the man who eats and gives offense. It is good not to eat meat or to drink wine, or to do anything by which your brother stumbles. The faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves. But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and whatever is not from faith is sin. – Romans 14:13-23, NASB
In the first twelve verses, the apostle Paul made strong proclamations regarding the freedom we have in Christ and how each of us should be convinced in our own mind. Given our freedom in Christ, in verses thirteen through twenty-three, Paul demonstrates how the mature believer can, and should, place voluntary restrictions on his or her own freedom. From a position of love, we choose not to put a stumbling block in the path of a brother or sister in Christ.
Paul declares that nothing is inherently unclean (v. 14). But notice, also, that there is a way in which a clean thing can become unclean. That occurs at the point at which the one who is weak in faith believes it to be unclean. Something that is perfectly innocent has just become sin for me because I believe it to be so.
Let’s return to an earlier, personal example. My wife and I enjoy a glass of wine together in the evening. Imagine we have a guest in our home, a guest who is a new believer, and one who has come out of an abusive, fundamentalist tradition that teaches all consumption of fermented beverages is sinful. Though we know nothing is unclean in itself, for our guest, because she believes it to be unclean, to her it most certainly is unclean (v. 14).
Remember the second-greatest commandment is to love others as we love ourselves. If I decide our guest’s understanding of a glass of wine is silly, and I choose to put that before her, I am no longer walking according to love (v. 15), and I have just callously violated the second-greatest commandment. I have behaved selfishly toward a sister in Christ.
Immediately on the heels of telling me I have behaved unlovingly, Paul makes a strong statement, “Do not destroy with your [wine] him for whom Christ died” (v. 15, insert mine). Do not undervalue the impact of what Paul is saying here. Jesus died for this soul, and I am potentially destroying that work of Christ by placing something in front of them that they believe to be sinful.
The effect is not singluar in direction. It is not only the weaker brother who is harmed with this. “All things indeed are clean, but they are evil for the man who eats and gives offense” (v. 20, emphasis mine). It was clean, but it became evil when I pressed the issue and gave offense to a weaker brother or sister. Now, note verse 22, “Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves.” I don’t even have to do anything. I can condemn myself simply by what I approve.
There are activities I can engage, activities that are innocent, yet which can become evil and sinful, and that place of transformation is the point at which I push my freedoms off on a brother or sister in Christ who has sincere convictions about those matters. This is not a matter in which I can look down upon the weaker faith and say, “Oh, that is just silly. It is not wrong. They just think it is wrong.” No! For them it is wrong, and now it is wrong for me as well, because I am pushing it into their face.
Paul said, “do not let what is for you a good thing be spoken of as evil,” and by that he does not mean that we are to stubbornly stand up for our freedom to engage in activity A or B, and retort, “You can’t tell me this is wrong.” We disallow the good thing we enjoy being spoken of as evil by not putting it in front of someone to whom it is evil.
The kingdom of God is righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy spirit, and my selfish assertions of freedom and perceived rights do not promote attitudes of righteousness, peace, and joy. Any man or woman who lives in the body while selflessly promoting these values is both acceptable to God, and approved by men (v. 18).
This is the attitude of a living sacrifice from Romans 12:1, the man or woman who is dead to self, allowing our freedoms to be suspended for a time, for the sake of another’s conscience. Most everyone approves of such selflessness, and God applauds our loving attitude. We win in both arenas.
The key to the entire matter is verse 19. Take it to heart. “So then we pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another.” I want to keep peace, and then I want to build up the weaker brother. I do that by gently, patiently educating, while showing tremendous sensitivity to his or her convictions as he or she grows through them.