When Paul affirmed that "there is no distinction between Jew and Greek: for the same Lord is Lord of all" (Romans 10:12), he was fully aware of the problems posed by the fellowship of Christians with such different religious backgrounds. The Greeks were used to change, continually adjusting to many new and strange doctrines being introduced into their religious tradition; the Jews, however, for many centuries had submitted themselves to the absolute and immutable law of God. It was not an easy matter for them to change, even when the Messiah came. Not long before Paul wrote Romans, a group of Jewish Christians had gone from Jerusalem to Antioch "and taught the brethren, saying, Except ye be circumcised after the custom of Moses, ye cannot be saved" (Acts 15:1). The crisis precipitated by their demand necessitated a clarification of the basis of fellowship between Jewish Christians and their Gentile brothers who had not been circumcised. The problem was finally resolved in a meeting with the apostles at Jerusalem. But there remained other questions that had not been fully clarified in the apostolic decrees, such as the conditions under which meat sacrificed to idols could be eaten and the keeping of Jewish holy days. It was to these matters that Paul turned his attention in the fourteenth chapter of Romans.
Several fundamental principles had to be respected by both parties in the dispute over dietary regulations and religious festivals.
- First, the Lordship of Jesus had to be maintained: "Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and the living" (Romans 14:9). "The rights of the Lord" had to be respected when anyone asserted his individual liberty.
- Second, the parties in dispute were to be aware of the judgment of God: "Each one of us shall give account of himself to God" (Romans 14:12). One Christian's judgment of another always had to be made within the context of his own judgment by God.
- Third, each individual's faithfulness to God was placed in jeopardy by an uneasy conscience: "Let each man be fully assured in his own mind" (Romans 14:5). Paul made this point plain, "Happy is he that judgeth not himself in that which he approveth. But he that doubteth is condemned if he eat" (Romans 14:22-23).
- Fourth, the opposite party in the dispute had to be considered ahead of oneself: "It is good not to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor to do anything whereby thy brother stumbleth" (Romans 14:21). The weak brother was not to be run over roughshod; if he were led by the example of another to do what he believed to be wrong, he would be brought to grief and eventually overthrown and destroyed. Thus an activity one man had considered to be wholly right and good might be spoken of as "evil" because his action had destroyed one "for whom Christ died" (Romans 14:15).
The proper interpretation of Romans chapter fourteen necessitates that certain expressions be understood in context. For instance, consider the word "faith." Paul says, "Whatsoever is not of faith is sin" (Romans 14:23). Some believe the word "faith" is used here in an objective sense, referring to the faith revealed. They affirm from this passage, therefore, that any action not authorized by the Bible is sinful. Although I agree with the conclusion reached, this interpretation woefully misrepresents what Paul intends to say. He uses the term "faith" in a subjective sense. To act in faith means to believe that what one does is right; faith reflects a clear conscience (Acts 23:1; I Timothy 1:5).
It is often assumed that the Christian who is "weak in faith" is always wrong, and the one who is "strong" is always right. Paul classifies himself as strong in Romans 15:1, and presumably, he is right in what he practices, but in First Corinthians, the strong brothers who participate in a pagan festival, "sitting at meat in an idol's temple" (I Corinthians 8:10), are condemned. Paul tells them, "Ye cannot drink the cup of the Lord, and the cup of demons: ye cannot partake of the table of the Lord and of the table of demons" (I Corinthians 10:21). If one keeps in mind that the terms "weak" and "strong" pertain to matters of conscience that are subject to errors of judgment, he will not automatically be led to despise the weak brother.
In Romans 14:1 Paul admonishes that the brother who is "weak in faith" is to be received, but "not for decision of scruples" (me eis diakriseis dialogismon). The King James Version translates the Greek text into English as "not to doubtful disputations." Some commentators leave the impression that Paul does not believe Christians should debate about inferences nor attempt "to settle doubtful points" (NEB). It must be recognized, however, that matters of difference between strong and weak brothers are not necessarily to be considered indifferent matters. At least one party in dispute usually believes that participation in such activities would constitute sin.
I prefer to translate the phrase under consideration "not in order to judge his thoughts," so as to judge his actions as unacceptable and to consider him unworthy of fellowship. Paul says later on, "Let not him that eateth set at nought him that eateth not . . . Who art thou that judgest the servant of another" (Romans 14:3-4)? The strong brother obviously considers the weak brother's position wrong, but if what the weak brother believes is not forced on others, he must be left to answer for himself "before the judgment-seat of God." Otherwise, if the weak brother's resistance is shaken and under pressure, he is led to eating meat sacrificed to idols, he will be overthrown or destroyed by doing something he considers to be a sin.
Paul mentions that the weak brother may be "grieved" (Romans 14:15). The thought is not that he merely dislikes what the strong Christian is doing. If Paul meant that Christians are not to engage in any activity considered inappropriate by others, one's liberty would be restricted to the point of absurdity. The grief referred to here results from a guilty conscience; the weak brother has been encouraged by the conduct of the strong brother to engage in an action that he believes is wrong. Consequently, the example of the strong has become "a stumbling block" and "an occasion of falling." It has allured, enticed, and tripped up the weak brother so that he has fallen into sin. How could one be walking in love and do such a thing to a brother in Christ?
Food, Drink, and Holy Days
Perhaps a brief discussion of specific problem areas mentioned in Romans fourteen is in order. First, there is the problem of eating "meat" (broma, Romans 14:15, 20), specifically the eating of animal flesh (kreas, Romans 14:21). For the Jewish Christians who were "weak in faith" there were at least three problems associated with eating animal flesh:
- some flesh was unclean because it violated the dietary laws in the Old Testament,
- other flesh was prohibited because it contained blood, and
- some could not be eaten because they had been sacrificed to idols
(Acts 15:29, 21:25; I Corinthians 8:1, 4, 7, 10; 10:19, 28; Revelation 2:14, 20). Part of the sacrificial meat "was burned on the altar, part was eaten at a solemn meal in the temple, and part was sold in the market for home use" (Arndt and Gingrich Lexicon, p. 220). The problem was so acute in Gentile communities that some Jews dared only to eat herbs, avoiding any possible contamination.
Paul affirms the position of the strong: "Nothing is unclean of itself" (Romans 14:14), a truth taught elsewhere in the New Testament (Matthew 15:11; Mark 7:18, Acts 10:14-24; I Timothy 4:4). He is quick to add, however, "Save to him who accounteth anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean" (Romans 14:14), implying that when a Christian considers certain meat to be unclean, an innocent practice becomes "evil" for him if he eats "with offense" (Romans 14:20).
Second, Paul mentions the problem of drinking wine (oinos, Romans 14:21). Oinos is used in the New Testament both for grape juice and fermented wine. Just what Paul has in mind here is not certain. Several suggestions are offered in the commentaries: some appeal to the total abstinence required of the Nazirites (Numbers 6:3)and the Rechabites (Jeremiah 35:6); others think Paul refers to the wine used in pagan worship; still others find here the problem of compulsive drinking. Whatever the specific problem, Paul admonishes the strong to "bear the infirmities of the weak" (Romans 15:1), affirming that "it is good not to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor to do anything whereby thy brother stumbleth" (Romans 14:21).
The third problem concerns the observance of special days. Paul never tolerated the binding of Jewish holy days on Gentile Christians (Colossians 2:16; Galatians 4:10-11); however, he permitted the observance of such practices by Jewish Christians so long as they did not bind them on others. Some Jewish Christians could not bring themselves to abandon the observance of Sabbaths and holy days after they were baptized into Christ; not to rest on the Sabbath would have violated their consciences. Paul's rule is: "Let each man be fully assured in his own mind" (Romans 14:5). Let the person with the conscience problem answer to God, but let him keep his practice to himself. The strong is not to "set at naught" the weak in such matters; nor is the weak to judge the strong.
The teaching of Paul in Romans fourteen concerning the liberty of individual action is not to be construed as a license to sin. The Christian is always free to do what is right; he is never free to do what is wrong.
No Christian will escape the judgment of God in respect to any action he chooses to perform. Whether one is fully persuaded that a deed is right or doubts that he may perform it with God's approval does not preclude the judgment. As Paul observed, "With me it is a very small. thing that I should be judged of you, or of man's judgment: yea, I judge not mine own self. For I know nothing against myself; yet am I not hereby justified: but he that judgeth me is the Lord" (I Corinthians 4:3, 4).
No Christian, strong or weak in faith, has a right to refuse what Christ says. We all belong to the Lord; His will must be our will. For this reason, also, I prefer not to designate the activities in Romans fourteen "indifferent matters." One can be dead wrong with a clear conscience. Whatever we do, let us remember that "we are the Lord's" (Romans 14:8).
No Christian, strong or weak in faith, has a right to raise a private practice to the level of public worship, wherein all present are required to participate. Brethren have been able to disagree on hundreds of issues without withholding fellowship from one another. But issues such as the use of instrumental music in worship or the contribution to human institutional arrangements from the treasury of the local church have divided brethren because some Christians are compelled to violate their consciences in the performance of these activities. "Let each man be fully assured in his own mind" (Romans 14:5) before he participates, but also remember that "we that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves" (Romans 15:1). Respect for these simple principles by both "strong" and "weak" Christians would have avoided many divisions that have occurred within the body of Christ.
Finally, no Christian has a right to use individual freedom as an excuse for learning the truth. Paul does not intimate that Christians are to cease from arguing their differences. Brethren must be free to preach and teach what they believe to be the truth, always being careful to listen to opposite views, and, above all else, studying what God has to say on the issue at hand.
Brethren, "let us follow after things which make for peace, and things whereby we may edify one another" (Romans 14:19).