Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. Romans 14:1
In this chapter Paul puts some feet to his teaching on love in the previous chapter. If we really love our neighbor as ourselves (13:9) we will not harm our neighbor and particularly our brother or sister in the Lord by our attitudes and actions. The group of people we see offended here are the ones “whose faith is weak.” It is very clear from the context that the ones counted weak were some of the Jewish Christians in Rome. The condition of being “weak” need not be permanent. Wuest points out how the use of the article and participle in this construction speaks of one who may be weak for a season but who may then
become strong. 1
The Lord’s command is that we accept one another in the warmth and kindness of true Christian love. Such love should not allow us to pass judgment on each other. Paul has already dealt with the matter of judging others in the second chapter If it is not permitted for us to judge another generally then it is certainly not permitted for us to judge in so-called “disputable matters.” We need to understand that there are “disputable matters” in the Christian faith. These represent areas either where the scriptures do not speak at all or else where they do not speak clearly. There are many such peripheral matters of the faith. The Reformers called them by their Greek designation adiaphora meaning “things indifferent.” Obviously, devout Christians through the ages have had differing opinions in these areas. In fact, whole denominations have sprung up because of their differing views on some of these “disputable matters.”
I have been in the church for over sixty-five years and during that time I have witnessed discussion and division over many of these “disputable matters” of the faith. Let me just list a few. Some churches in my experience did not allow musical instruments in worship. My own denomination frowned upon the use of the guitar and considered it a worldly instrument. Now guitars are everywhere in the church. My denomination considered all alcoholic beverages as taboo and tools of the devil. We wonder how that would go over with our dear German Christian brothers and sisters who traditionally drink beer, or even with Jesus himself who produced a miraculous store of wine at the wedding feast.
In certain groups, women’s makeup was forbidden. In some churches women were limited to wearing dresses while in other places their heads had to be covered. I have heard preachers speak against the movies and even the TV. Some groups believed in spiritual gifts and speaking in tongues while others condemned such activities as being of the devil. Some believed Christians would fly away in the rapture while others believed they would remain for the tribulation. There were churches that didn’t allow visiting Christians to take the Lord’s Supper with them. There were struggles between Calvinists and Arminians. Some believed the King James Version of the Bible was the only legitimate version. Some believed in Christmas trees, and some did not. Recently, some have even stopped celebrating Christmas altogether and deem it a totally pagan holiday. The differences and arguments go on and on with these disputable matters.
I once saw a minister illustrate this whole subject by using a picture of a target with its concentric rings. In the “bull’s eye” or center area of the target he listed fundamental doctrines of Christianity. These were things like the Bible as the inspired word of God and our sole norm of faith and practice and Jesus Christ as our divine Lord and Savior. These obviously are core areas. Then he moved outward to areas of doctrine and practice where some differences began to show up. After that he moved to the outer rings or areas of our Christian opinions about the Bible. Obviously, some of these things would make up the fringe areas of Christianity and enter into the area of “disputable matters.” We can never compromise on the core areas or else we cease to be Christian. However, in the fringe areas God has given us a great deal of liberty so that diverse opinions may arise. Yet in all this there must be love and unity.
“One man’s faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables” (14:2). Here Paul gets down to the heart of the problems between Gentile believers in Rome and the newly returning Jewish Christians. When Jews are present in any group there are special considerations that must be made or there will be conflicts and problems. I remember an innocent Gentile Christian couple who brought a nice baked ham to a Messianic Jewish dinner. Of course, this innocent act greatly offended some of the Jews who were present. The ham was quickly ushered out of the dining room and hidden away somewhere in the kitchen.
We see from scripture that God set apart his people, the Jews, from the Gentiles by instituting numerous food laws (Lev. ch.11). These laws, such as not eating pork, shellfish, and other types of common food handily kept Jews from getting too close to Gentiles (cf. Ex. 34:15). Such laws and customs made intermarriage less likely and kept the Jewish people preserved as a unit for God’s redemptive purposes.
In this section there are two possible food problems dealt with. There is the problem of non-kosher (unclean) food and the problem of food that had possibly been sacrificed to idols. Generally both types of food were forbidden to Jews. Another complication with food was that Jews were required to have their meat properly slaughtered, where all blood was completely drained away. When there was no strong Jewish community in an area, this was a practical impossibility. As a result some Jews became vegetarians (cf. Dan. 1:8-16). We see this trend in Israel today. Because of problems with all the meat laws and because of Rabbinic teachings forbidding the mixing of meat and milk, many Israelis opt to become vegetarians.
Now when we become strong in our faith and understanding we realize that the food laws were just types and shadows of better things to come. God is no longer concerned about whether our food is kosher but whether we are kosher in heart, mind, body and soul. We read in scripture that Jesus declared all foods clean or kosher (Mk. 7:19). Later in this chapter of Romans (vs. 14 and 20) Paul will make the same declaration.
However, now that we have this understanding we must not look down on those who do not yet comprehend this. We must be especially careful with our Jewish/Christian brothers and friends in this regard. They have some special problems. For instance, how can a Jewish Christian or Messianic Jew invite his non-Christian orthodox family or orthodox friends to his home if that home is not kept kosher? Obviously, they will not come and eat in a non-kosher home. We need to make allowances for this. Also for centuries Jewish people have loathed the forbidden unclean meats listed in the OT. These strong attitudes cannot be expected to change overnight. This is where Christian love and forbearance come in.
Paul says: “The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him” (14:3). The commentator Witmer sums up what our attitudes and actions should be. He says: “Christians are at different levels of spiritual maturity. They also have diverse backgrounds that color their attitudes and practices. The first lesson to learn in living harmoniously with other Christians, therefore, is to stop judging others.”2 After all, “God took both sides into his fellowship without requiring that they be vegetarians or meat-eaters.”3 We must be careful not to judge others or get ourselves into bondage with certain meats and days.
Regarding food, there is an interesting section in 1 Corinthians 8:1-13. Here Paul is dealing with food sacrificed to idols and whether or not it can be used. In this section Paul says, “…Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor. 8:1). Paul says that there is but one true God and that idols are nothing. He also says that if our freedom to eat such food causes a brother to stumble we should never eat meat again (v.13). He sums it up in verse 8 with these words: “…Food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do.” In other words, food no longer has a religious value.
He asks: “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand” (14:4). In the ancient world the servant was the exclusive possession of the master. No one else had any right to the servant. Obviously no one else had any right to judge the servant’s performance either. If the master was pleased, that was all that mattered. Someone once remarked that Jesus is a lot easier to please than his disciples. This seems to be a correct appraisement.
OBSERVING SPECIAL DAYS
One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. Romans 14:5
Jewish people not only had a problem eating or not eating various meats but they had a problem with days and seasons that were special to the Jewish faith. The biggest problem was the observance of the Sabbath or Shabbat that came about every week. We now understand as Christians that the Sabbath was a type and picture of things to come. It is actually a very beautiful picture of Jesus and his rest (Heb. 4:9-11). In Colossians 2:16-17 Paul says: “Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.” Actually in Matthew 12:8, Jesus calls himself “Lord of the Sabbath.” This is a title by which he has hardly been addressed in the last two thousand years.
Among the Jewish people the Sabbath is a very big thing. In Israel at each Sabbath (beginning around sundown on Friday) the whole country virtually shuts down. Very few places of business are open and there is little traffic on the streets. Extended families gather to celebrate this special day with good food, singing, prayers, trips to the synagogue, walking or simply resting. The Sabbath is so ingrained in the Jewish psyche that it is almost impossible for a Jew not to observe it.
We may wonder if there is a real need for the Jews to abandon the Sabbath. After all, it was not just part of the Law of Moses but it was established at the time of the creation (Gen. 2:2-3). In some way it was made for man’s benefit (Mk. 2:27). We should not be too hard on the Jewish people at this point for we see from the prophets that in the end-days the Sabbath will still be observed. Isaiah says: “‘From one New Moon to another and from one Sabbath to another, all mankind will come and bow down before me,’ says the LORD” (Isa. 66:23). Today numerous Christians enjoy the Sabbath in addition to Sunday. This is particularly true with Christians living in Israel. Although people may wish to enjoy the Sabbath, they must realize that it has no redemptive value and that Christ has fulfilled it. Once we begin to look at a day or celebration in a legalistic manner we place ourselves in spiritual danger (cf. Gal. 4:8-11). We must not get into bondage to certain foods or to certain days. 4
The important aspect about foods or special days is that each person needs to have his own mind fully made up and not be wishy-washy about the subject. Once the great Peter had to be publicly rebuked by Paul for his wavering position on the matter of eating Gentile foods (Gal. 2:11 ff.). Each person must understand the biblical teaching and stand firm in his position. When each mind is firmly made up God will help that person stand according to his convictions. The Bible says in John 8:31-32: “If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
Paul goes on to develop his position saying: “He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God” (14:6). Whether we do or don’t do, the important thing is to do everything with thanksgiving. We see in scripture that both Jews and Christians were careful to give thanks for their food (Mt. 14:19; Mk. 14:22). In the scripture Paul instructs young Timothy concerning the value of prayer over one’s food. He says: “For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and
prayer” (1 Tim. 4:4-5).
So whether we celebrate or don’t celebrate; whether we eat or don’t eat, we need to do it all for the glory of God (1 Cor. 10:31-33). We need to be careful not to make anyone stumble and to seek the good and wellbeing of others in all we do.
“For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord” (14:7-8). This pictures the essence of what the “living sacrifice” in Romans 12:1 is all about. In 2 Corinthians 5:15 Paul says: “And he died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again.” We live in a society in which people are being pushed more closely together each day. “Nothing we do affects only ourselves…Each one of us has an influence which makes it easier for others to take the high way or the low way…the terror of every sin is that it starts a new train of evil in the world.”5
GIVING ACCOUNT OF OURSELVES
For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living. Romans 14:9
We all daily stand before the Lord of the dead and the living. When in his presence how can we concern ourselves with such trifles as food and special days? Besides all that, we are all scheduled to stand before his judgment. Paul goes on: “You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat” (14:10). While this speaks here of God’s judgment seat we see in 2 Corinthians 5:10 that there is also what is called the judgment seat of Christ.
The judgment seat was a common sight in New Testament days. We know how in Acts 18:12 officials like Gallio made judgments from such a rostrum (bema). Also, our Lord Jesus was brought before the judgment seat of Pilate. 6
Our appearance before the judgment seat of Christ is not to determine our eternal destiny. That has already been decided. We are already justified if we believe in Christ (Rom. 8:1). This is not the Great White Throne Judgment of the wicked that we see in Revelation 20:11 ff. Rather this is an evaluation of the Lord’s servants regarding their lives and ministry. In his review of every believing life there will be both rewards and losses (1 Cor. 3:11-15). So Paul is essentially saying, “Stop worrying about your brother. You have enough to answer for before Jesus.”7
“It is written: ‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, ‘every knee will bow before me; every tongue will confess to God.’ So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God.” (14:11-12). This passage is taken from Isaiah 45:23 and should be a sobering thought to every believer. Living the Christian life is very serious business. We touch the eternal destiny of other lives. We are accountable in all that we do and say. Even every careless word we speak will be brought up on that day (Matt. 12:36). This is all the more reason to be “living sacrifices” every day and every moment of our lives.
Two of the most famous Christians in the Victorian Era in
England were Charles Spurgeon and Joseph Parker, both
of them mighty preachers of the Gospel. Early in their ministries they fellowshipped and even exchanged pulpits. Then they had a
disagreement, and the reports even got into the newspapers. Spurgeon accused Parker of being unspiritual because he attended the theater. Interestingly enough, Spurgeon smoked cigars, a practice many believers would condemn. Who was right? Who was wrong? Perhaps both of them were wrong! When it comes to questionable matters in the Christian life, cannot dedicated believers disagree without being disagreeable? 8
THE KINGDOM OF GOD—MORE THAN FOOD AND DRINK
Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way. Romans 14:13
What right do we have to distress our brothers and sisters, particularly in disputable matters that really do not count for so much? We have no right to place an “occasion to fall” (skandalon) in the path of fellow believers. 9 How could we even think of doing such
“As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean” (14:14). Here the apostle places himself on the side of the “strong” believer. “Paul understands, and wishes that all the Christians in Rome would understand that Christ’s coming has meant that the Jewish laws about ritual purity no longer apply. But he recognizes that Jewish Christians may have difficulty in discarding a lifetime of teaching and habit.”10 The problem apparent here is that when someone thinks something is unclean, it becomes unclean to that person. To eat perfectly clean food when a person thinks it is unclean is a sin because it is a violation of conscience. If a person can violate his or her conscience on a small matter, then it is possible to violate it on a larger matter. We see here that one’s whole understanding must change and this takes a great deal of time.
Stedman gives the following illustration of how it takes time, patience and love to help others come to understanding and liberty:
I liken this to crossing a swinging bridge over a mountain stream. There are people who can run across a bridge like that, even though it does not have any handrails. They are not alarmed by it, they can keep their balance well. They are not concerned about the swaying of the bridge, or the danger of falling into the torrent below. That is fine; some people can do that. But others cannot. You watch them go out on a bridge like that, and they are very uncertain. They shake and tremble; they inch along. They may even get down on their hands and knees and crawl across. But they will make it if you just give them time, if you let them set their own speed. After a few crossings, they begin to pick up courage, and eventually they are able to run right across. 11
“If your brother is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy your brother for whom Christ died” (14:15). We are back to the law of love that Paul discussed earlier. It seems that everything in the Christian life eventually hangs on this. No doubt this is why love is called the greatest commandment.
When we act in a loveless manner we simply cannot estimate the amount of damage we may cause. In the Jewish Mishnah this saying is preserved: “Therefore but a single man was created in the world, to teach that if any man has caused a single soul to perish from Israel Scripture imputes it to him as though he had caused a whole world to perish.”12
Paul adds: “Do not allow what you consider good to be spoken of as evil” (14:16). We cannot allow our liberty to cause distress within the church. Nor can we allow it to bring disgrace to the gospel outside the church. The word used here is blasphēmeō and it means in English what it sounds like in Greek. We cannot allow others to blaspheme or revile the Lord and his gospel for the sake of our so-called “liberty.” Again Stedman tells of an occasion where this happened:
I heard of a church some time ago that got into an unholy argument over whether they ought to have a Christmas tree at their Christmas program. Some thought that a tree was fine; others thought it was a pagan practice, and they got so angry at each other that they actually got into fist fights over it. One group dragged the tree out, then the other group dragged it back in. They ended up suing each other in a court of law and, of course, the whole thing was spread in the newspapers for the entire community to read. What else could non-Christians conclude other than that the gospel consists of whether you have a Christmas tree or not? 13
Now Paul comes to another great highpoint of Romans when he says: “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit (14:17). We need to remember here that the Kingdom of God is not just something out there in the sweet by and by. It is something with us now, for Jesus promises us that the kingdom of God is presently within us (Lk.17:21). We need to be acting like kingdom subjects even in our eating and drinking. Pfeiffer and Harrison define the kingdom “as Christian living: uprightness of conduct, peace or harmony, and joy. This is in the sphere of the Holy Spirit (cf. 8:9) who energizes believers to be well pleasing to God and respected by men.”14 So we see that the Kingdom of God is not found in external things like food and drink. Instead it is an inward and spiritual thing.
The apostle concludes: “because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by men” (14:18). This is what Romans 8 really means about walking in the Spirit. Such a walk pleases both God and men. One of the ancient Jewish sages, R. Hanina b. Dosa, is reported to have said: “Anyone from whom the spirit of [his fellow-] creatures derives satisfaction, from him the Spirit of the All-Present [too] derives satisfaction. But anyone from whom the spirit of [his fellow-] creatures derives no satisfaction, from him the Spirit of the All-Present [too] derives no satisfaction.”15
Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. Romans 14:19
In this passage Paul is addressing one of the two great works of the church. First, the church has the task of outreach to the lost world. This mission is accomplished through evangelism. Second, the church has the task of edification or the building up itself in faith and in love. It is impossible to decide which of these great tasks is the most important. Without evangelism the church becomes ingrown, selfish and unattractive to the world. However, without edification evangelism doesn’t work very well. There is no attractive and loving body that will not draw the unsaved into its company. Obviously the two must work hand in hand.
Just because we are free in Christ we must not use our freedom to harm others. In 1 Corinthians 10:23-24 Paul addresses this: “‘Everything is permissible’—but not everything is beneficial. ‘Everything is permissible’—but not everything is constructive. Nobody should seek his own good, but the good of others.” Luther had a famous dictum which expresses this well: “A Christian man is a most free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian man is a most dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”16 Harrison adds: “Mutual edification implies that the strong, despite their tendency to look down on the weak, may actually learn something from them.”17
“Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a man to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble” (14:20). How can we tear down and destroy the body of Christ, the church, for the sake of food? Don’t we know that when we seek to destroy the temple of God we seek to destroy ourselves in the process (cf. 1 Cor. 3:17)? I remember once hearing a minister say that just because the body needs iron we do not drive a spike into the liver. There are sensible and gentle ways to get more iron into the body. We must not for the sake of food tear down and destroy the body of Christ. We must remember that “whatever tends to violate a brother’s conscience [is] the incipient destruction of God’s work.”18
Paul says: “It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother to fall” (14:21). Many of the beautiful Jewish festivals, such as Passover, are built around the cup(s) of wine. In fact, there is hardly a Jewish celebration without wine. Often, even a newborn freshly-circumcised child is given a drop of wine in the celebration.
The idea here is not that we should permanently forsake wine or meat but that on some occasions due to the sensibility of others it might be better to abstain. St. Augustine summed up this whole argument very well with his famous words: “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”19
“So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he approves” (14:22). Happy (makarios) is the person who has a standard and who lives up to that standard. Happy is the person who is not self-condemned by violating his own conscience in areas of food, drink or anything else for that matter.
“But the man who has doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin” (14:23). Here we surely have a picture of the double-minded man of James 1:6, 8 saying: “he who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind…. he is a double-minded man, unstable in all he does.” The person who does not act in faith acts in sin. It is as simple as that. Brown sees this as “a maxim of unspeakable importance in the Christian life” and a “great and eternal principle in Christian Ethics.” He goes on to state this principle, “that the willful violation of conscience contains within itself a seed of destruction… that the total destruction of the work of God in the renewed soul, and, consequently, the loss of that soul for eternity, needs only the carrying out to its full effect of such violation of the conscience.”20