In Romans 14, the Scriptures speak to what seems to be a minor issue, but one that has always had huge implications in the body of Christ. The official title might by “church unity,” but the issue goes deeper than that. Paul actually addressed the issue in Romans 14.1-15.7, but I will only quote a portion of it here.
1As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. 2One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. 3Let 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. 4Who 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. 5One 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 14.1-5 ESV)
The situation in the church in Rome seems to be that Christians within the church had come to different convictions about how to best honor the Lord in a given situation. The particular situation at hand was whether it was “right” to eat only vegetables or whether it was allowed for Christians to eat meat. Paul hinted at other situations that might have been causing conflict, too, like esteeming one day as better than another (Romans 14.5) and the consumption of wine (Romans 14.21).
Unfortunately, Paul did not go into great detail about the situation in Rome like he did with the situation in Corinth (see 1 Corinthians 8). In Corinth, the question was about eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols. In addressing that issue, Paul spent much more time addressing the theology behind the particular issue. But, in Romans, Paul focused not so much on the issue itself but on what it looks like to love one another in such situations (see Romans 14.15).
Since one of the most basic principles of interpreting Scripture is that “Scripture interprets Scripture,” we cannot study Romans 14 in isolation. There are other Scriptures that speak to the issue of Christian unity and harmony, and we must keep them in mind as we study Romans 14. Along with 1 Corinthians 8, we could add:
16Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. 17These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. 18Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind, 19and not holding fast to the Head, from whom the whole body, nourished and knit together through its joints and ligaments, grows with a growth that is from God. 20If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations—21“Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” 22(referring to things that all perish as they are used)—according to human precepts and teachings? 23These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh. (Colossians 2.16-23)
8Formerly, when you did not know God, you were enslaved to those that by nature are not gods. 9But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? 10You observe days and months and seasons and years! 11I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain. (Galatians 4.8-11)
12There is only one lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But who are you to judge your neighbor? (James 4.12)
23“All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. 24Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor. 25Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. 26For “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.” 27If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. 28But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience—29I do not mean your conscience, but his. For why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience? 30If I partake with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of that for which I give thanks? 31So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. 32Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, 33just as I try to please everyone in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved. (1 Corinthians 10.23-33)
As you can see, the issue of unity and harmony was quite a problem, even in the early church.
The reality of the situation is that some within the church in Rome had come to different convictions about the best way to honor the Lord in regards to the food they chose to eat. In all of what follows, Paul never corrected one group or another group. Which means that, in Paul’s mind, the church was not wrestling over essentials to the faith or non-negotiables.
Paul was not timid about making judgments in the church when it came to essentials in the faith. For instance, he told the church in Corinth to excommunicate the immoral man (see 1 Corinthians 5.13). He wrote that the Judaizers should be damned to hell because they preached a different gospel (the implication of “accursed” in Galatians 1.9). He adamantly opposed the imposition of circumcision upon the Gentiles (see Galatians 6.15-16). Paul knew when it was time to withdrawal fellowship over essential elements of the faith. But in Romans 14, Paul urged the believers to “welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you” (Romans 15.7), which means that they were debating over non-essentials to the faith.
What this tells me is that there are some issues within the Christian experience where there is no definite right or wrong. Furthermore, Christians can come to different convictions about the same issue. And, they could both be “right,” in a way. Moreover, in Paul’s mind, it is totally possible, and proper, for those Christians to “welcome” each other, love each other, and have fellowship with each other.
The Modern Debate
Let me show you how I came to this conclusion, but before I do, what are some of the issues that face the American church today that might fall into this category? I can think of a few:
- The consumption of alcohol (not drunkenness)
- The proper clothing to wear to church
- Speaking (or praying) in tongues
- Length of hair
- Style of music in worship
- Sabbath restrictions
I should stop here, because there are so many things that might be added to this list that should not be. Some would add “sexual orientation,” but I would disagree. The issue of homosexuality, as well as many other forms of sexual immorality, would belong to the arena of 1 Corinthians 5 or Romans 1 where they are identified as “sin.” The issues of Romans 14 are neither identified as “sinful” in Scripture nor are they essential to soteriology (the doctrine of salvation).
But there are equally divisive issues in the church today, and when we get a hold of how Paul treated the issue in the church in Rome, we will discover that grace is risky business.
The Principles of Unity in Romans 14
First, while Paul called one group “weak” and one group “strong,” he did not use those terms the way that we think he might. The “weak” who chose to only eat vegetables, still made their choices out of faith. They ate only vegetables to honor the Lord while giving thanks to God (see Romans 14.6). Paul did not disparage their faith. He recognized that Christians who come to different convictions about non-essential issues are still walking in faith.
Second, Paul clearly wrote that we are not to judge our brother or sister in the faith. They will stand before God alone, and it is not our role to pass judgment on the servant of our Master, Jesus Christ (see James 4.12). But more than this, Paul did not say this with a “They will stand before God and God will get them then!” No, he wrote that they “will be upheld” (Romans 14.4) on the day of judgment. He was convinced that God would affirm the decision of the “weak” even though he most likely came to a different conviction on the same issue than they did. Amazing.
Third, instead of encouraging the church in Romans to “all get along” and to come to a common understanding of the issue or to stop treating the issue as important, he insisted that each one be “fully convinced in his own mind” (Romans 14.5). Isn’t he adding gasoline to the fire? By teaching that all should be firmly entrenched in their convictions, it would seem that he is making the matter worse. But what he was teaching is that each person should give deep thought to why they are making the stand in which they make.
The reality is that many people who make dramatic stands about non-essential issues do so with little in-depth thinking. They are convinced that certain clothing is more “honoring” than other, but give little thought to the cultural relativity of what is and is not “appropriate” clothing. Why is a tucked in shirt more honoring to God than an un-tucked shirt? Why is one instrument more God honoring than another? What makes music honoring to God? The answer usually lies in one’s taste more than in any biblical or theological issue, but those who draw the sharpest lines have often given the least amount of thought to the issue.
Paul was teaching them to make a stand, but be fully convinced in your own mind and give the issue some in-depth thought. It might help to notice that Paul also reminded the church in Rome that when we all gather around the throne on judgment day, every tongue will be there (see Romans 14.11). Our convictions need to consider the cultural relativity of our perspective. It helps temper our judgments.
Fourth, Paul taught that the strong were not to marginalize the weak, and the weak were not to exclude the strong. They were to “welcome” one another just as Christ welcomed us into the body of Christ (see Romans 15.7). Here is the idea that it is possible in the body of Christ for these two groups to co-exist in the same church. There was no need to have a “First Baptist Church of Vegans” and a “First Baptist Church of Meat Eaters” in the city of Rome. We do not need to have a “First Baptist Church of Tucked in Shirts” and a “First Baptist Church of Un-Tucked in Shirts” in the city of Rome. Paul fully expected they could co-exist in the same fellowship.
Fifth, Paul taught that the strong sometimes have to lay aside their liberty for the edification of the weak. This principle must be cautioned with two other truths.
In 1 Corinthians 10, we are told that our liberty is not to be determined by another’s conscience. We are not to allow another to steal from us our liberty in Christ (see Galatians 2.4). Liberty is laid down, it is not surrendered at gunpoint.
Furthermore, the strong give way to the weak, not the other way around. Often in the American church, it is the more mature believer who is insisting that the less mature believer come to the same conviction as they on a certain issue. But Paul is saying the opposite. The strong ought to surrender for the edification of the weak.
Sixth, Paul implied here, but stated more directly in other places, that a strong believer is not one who uses his liberty to indulge the flesh.
For you were called to freedom, brothers. Only do not use your freedom as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another. (Galatians 5.13)
Paul did not give the strong permission to live it up with alcohol or to go hog wild at the BBQ pit. Instead, he reminded them that the life we now live we live to the Lord (see Romans 14.8). Our conviction concerns how we honor the Lord in a given situation, not how much we can get away with.
Seventh, Paul puts the whole argument in a very difficult light. While we must come to our own convictions about non-essential issues, we are not living our lives in a vacuum. We are no longer living for ourselves, but we live in community. The way we practice our convictions impacts other believers in Christ, and we must consider this as we take our stand.
For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. (Romans 14.15)
The Dangerous Edge of Grace
While there is much more to unpack from Romans 14 that just the above, it is hard not to miss the dangerous edge of grace. Grace is risky business. By that I mean, unity and harmony would be much easier in a faith community where one person is declaring the “one approved way” on each of these non-essential issues. If I stood before my church, and said,
In our church, these are the only approved instruments for worship, the only songs we can sing must come from this book, all shirts must be tucked in, haircuts must be approved by me, and no one can have a glass of wine with dinner. And I am the only one who has the power to make the decisions about other issues, and if you don’t like it, then find another church.
What would happen is that my church would only contain members who thought exactly like me. Those who disagreed would leave, and the only new members to the fellowship would be those who shared my convictions.
But Romans 14 teaches us that the community of faith must live on the dangerous edge of grace, where believers are seeking out how to honor the Lord in their specific situations, where each individual approaches the throne of grace on their own through the sole mediator of Christ, and where every believer has the freedom to come to their own convictions about dietary issues, special days, appropriate dress, or musical style.
Wow. May the Lord bless us with that kind of maturity, harmony, and liberty.