Understanding Romans 14

Argument

Romans 14 teaches the need to accept and not judge those with whom we differ on matters of opinion. Some have tried to expand the scope of this chapter to include matters of faith. However, we are not to tolerate departures from the faith (cf. Jude 3; Galatians 1:6-9; 2:3-5). Yet on matters of opinion, we need to be sure we understand and apply what Paul wrote in this chapter.

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.

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” (Romans 14:1-6).

The Scriptures teach that we are to be united on matters of faith (Ephesians 4:4-6). The same thing should be taught “everywhere in every church” (1 Corinthians 4:17). We are to “agree” and have “no divisions” (1 Corinthians 1:10). Yet passages like Romans 14 show us that brethren will have different opinions on certain matters beyond what has been included in “the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints” (Jude 3).

More or Less Strict

In every area of application of Bible teaching, some will take a more strict view and others a less strict view (the clothing we wear, the entertainment we choose, etc.). In these areas of application in which different views are taken, there are three possibilities:

  1. Both may be wrong
  2. One may be wrong
  3. Neither may be wrong

Views that fit into the third category (neither are wrong) are the types of cases under consideration in Romans 14. Regardless of the difference of opinion, Paul said that “God has accepted” both individuals (Romans 14:2-3).

How do we determine which category these differences of opinion fall into and how we are to handle them appropriately? We must look at what God’s word says, follow it, and not go beyond that in judging others.

What Does God’s Word Say?

We cannot determine what is right by how “strict” a view is. The Pharisees were the “strictest sect” of the Jews (Acts 26:5), yet they went beyond the requirements of God in various ways. They questioned Jesus about His disciples breaking “the tradition of the elders” because they did not “wash their hands when they [ate] bread” (Matthew 15:2). Not only did they bind what otherwise would have been a harmless tradition, they also “invalidated the word of God” and rendered their worship “vain” because they were holding their traditions as equal to or even greater than the actual law of God (Matthew 15:6-9). They sinned when they enforced their “stricter” view.

We must determine what is right by what the word of God says. His word is truth (John 17:17), so it must be used to determine whether a particular application is right or wrong. We can illustrate how this works by looking at the examples Paul used in Romans 14.

Example #1 – What does God’s word say regarding eating meat? Let us notice what the Bible says:

  • God has accepted those who eat and those who do not – “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” (Romans 14:2-3). If we continue in sin, we cannot have fellowship with God (1 John 1:5-6). Therefore, the fact that God accepts both individuals means that neither one is practicing sin.
  • Nothing is unclean in itself – “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” (Romans 14:14). This is why Paul was able to tell the brethren in Corinth, “Eat anything that is sold in the meat market without asking questions for conscience’ sake; for the earth is the Lord’s, and all it contains” (1 Corinthians 10:25-26). Even the idols that men worshiped were nothing (1 Corinthians 8:4); therefore, the fact that meat may have been used in connection with the worship of one of these “so-called gods” (1 Corinthians 8:5) did not automatically make the meat unclean.
  • Eating meat is to be avoided if we cannot distinguish eating from idol worship – “However not all men have this knowledge; but some, being accustomed to the idol until now, eat food as if it were sacrificed to an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled” (1 Corinthians 8:7). Some of these brethren, having grown up in a culture in which idol worship was pervasive and the idols were thought to be actual deities, made a connection in their minds between the meat and worshiping the idol. When brethren were unable to distinguish the eating of the meat from the worship of the idol, their conscience would be defiled because they were – in their mind – honoring that false god by partaking of that meat. Therefore, under those conditions, they were to not eat (cf. Acts 15:29).
  • We are not to divide or cause others to stumble – “It is good not to eat meat or to drink wine, or to do anything by which your brother stumbles” (Romans 14:21). Even though Paul knew that these idols were nothing (1 Corinthians 8:4) and that the meat was not unclean in itself (Romans 14:14), he was willing to abstain from eating “so that [he would] not cause [his] brother to stumble” (1 Corinthians 8:13). He told the Corinthians, “But if anyone says to you, ‘This is meat sacrificed to idols,’ do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for conscience’ sake; I mean not your own conscience, but the other man’s” (1 Corinthians 10:28-29). These brethren could eat “without asking questions” (1 Corinthians 10:25), but if anyone told them that the meat was used in connection with idol worship, that person likely connected the two in his mind (otherwise, he probably would have said nothing). Therefore, Paul explained that they should abstain for the sake of the other’s conscience.

As we consider all that the New Testament teaches regarding eating meat, we can see why it was included in Romans 14. It was a matter of opinion because it was possible for one to eat or not eat without sinning.

Example #2 – What does God’s word say regarding observing days? Again, let us consider what the Scriptures say:

  • God has accepted those who observe certain days and those who do not – “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…” (Romans 14:5-6). As with eating meat, this was in the context of those whom “God has accepted” (Romans 14:3).
  • The Old Testament, with its commandments regarding the observance of various days, has been nailed to the cross – “Having canceled out the certificate of debt consisting of decrees against us, which was hostile to us; and He has taken it out of the way, having nailed it to the cross” (Colossians 2:14). There were many days and festivals that were to be observed under the Law of Moses (cf. Leviticus 23:1-44). Yet this law had been “taken…out of the way” and “nailed…to the cross” (Colossians 2:14). Therefore, they were not required for Christians to observe under the law of Christ.
  • Days can be observed wrongly – “You observe days and months and seasons and years. I fear for you, that perhaps I have labored over you in vain” (Galatians 4:10-11). If it was possible to observe days and be accepted (Romans 14:5-6), how could days be observed wrongly? If observing a particular day meant that one was going back to the old law (Galatians 4:21), changing the gospel (Galatians 1:6-9), or requiring others to also observe (cf. Galatians 2:3-5), it became wrong.
  • There is just one day we are required to observe – “On the first day of the week, when we were gathered together to break bread, Paul began talking to them, intending to leave the next day, and he prolonged his message until midnight” (Acts 20:7). The only day observed by the early church by divine instruction (Matthew 26:26-29) or approved apostolic example (Acts 20:7) was the Lord’s Supper on the first day of the week.

After examining these Scriptures related to the observing of days, we can also see why Paul used this example in Romans 14. As long as one was observing the day required by the Lord (partaking of the Lord’s Supper on the first day of the week) and was not going back to the old law (or any man-made rule) as his standard, one could observe or not observe a particular day without sinning.

What does God’s word say regarding ___? When asking this question, we should make the same type of evaluation that we did with the examples given in Romans 14. What does God’s word say regarding our clothing, our jobs, our entertainment, our eating habits, etc.? In every example, we cannot determine what is right by seeing what is more “strict.” We must consider everything the word of God says on the subject. As the psalmist wrote, “The sum of Your word is truth” (Psalm 119:160).

After this, we must follow what the word of God says. James wrote, “But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves” (James 1:22). We must not come short of this.

Then after we know and are practicing what the word of God says, we must be careful not to go beyond that in judging others. John wrote, “Anyone who goes too far and does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God” (2 John 9). We often think of this verse in terms of those who go beyond what is authorized in the Scriptures and take liberties that the Lord did not grant. This is certainly a valid application of this verse. However, it is also possible to go beyond the doctrine of Christ by binding additional rules upon others, just like the Pharisees did in trying to bind their traditions and commands upon others (Matthew 15:2-9).

The Sin in Romans 14

The context of Romans 14 is about matters of opinion in which no sin is involved. In these cases, neither opinion is wrong – either the “more strict” view or the “less strict” one. Yet Romans 14 does deal with sin – not the opinions themselves, but in dealing with those who hold other opinions.

How the person with the “more strict” view commits sin:

  • By judging/condemning his brother – As we noticed, in matters of opinion in which God has not declared one side right or wrong, God accepts both individuals who hold differing views (Romans 14:3). Because of this, Paul wrote, “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” (Romans 14:10). Judgment will be by the Lord’s standard (John 12:48), not by our opinions. Therefore, if we hold a “more strict” view on a matter of opinion, we must not condemn our brethren when the Lord will not condemn them for their opinion.
  • By doing what he believes to be wrong – “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 14:23). In matters of opinion, if one is not convinced that a particular action is right, he must abstain from it. If he does not, and instead does something he believes to be wrong, he is condemned. Why would this be? Whenever we do something we believe to be wrong, even if it is just an opinion and not a matter of faith, we are effectively working to sear our conscience so that we no longer feel guilt for doing wrong. When this happens and we “become callous,” we will eventually progress to “the practice of every kind of impurity” (Ephesians 4:19).

How the person with the “less strict” view commits sin:

  • By regarding his brother with contempt – Paul warned the brother who ate meat “not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat” (Romans 14:3). The word contempt means to devalue him. In other words, Paul warned those with the “less strict” view not to consider those with the “more strict” view as being worth less (or even worthless) to the Lord or the church. Paul later said, “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” (Romans 14:15). We must always remember the value that God places on each individual. He sent Jesus to die for “the world” (John 3:16) and He welcomes everyone from “every nation…who fears Him and does what is right” (Acts 10:34-35). This includes our brethren who may hold a “stricter” view on matters of opinion.
  • By causing his brother to stumble – Paul wrote, “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” (Romans 14:13). We need to remember that our opinions – which may be perfectly harmless in themselves – are not part of the Lord’s standard. “The kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17). Therefore, we are not to “destroy” our brethren by the exercise of our liberties, thus turning “what is for [us] a good thing” into something that is “evil” (Romans 14:16). Paul reminded the “stronger” brother with the “less strict” view, “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” (Romans 14:21-22). We may engage in some practice that is not sinful in itself; but if our practice causes a brother to stumble, we must refrain from it for the sake of others.

Conclusion

This chapter is a call for unity. Paul wrote, “So then we pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another” (Romans 14:19). Let us unite around God’s word and not divide on other matters.


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