A major theme of the New Testament is that of sin’s power to destroy the spiritual and moral health of the church as well as of the individuals who commit the sins. The epistles are filled with commands and injunctions regarding the need to continually eradicate sin in the church. That is the purpose of both church discipline and self-discipline.
But outright sin is not the only danger to a church’s spiritual health and unity. Although they are not sin in
themselves, certain attitudes and behavior can destroy fellowship and fruitfulness and have crippled the work, the witness, and the unity of countless congregations throughout church history. These problems are caused by differences between Christians over matters that are neither commanded nor forbidden in Scripture. They are matters of personal preference and historic tradition, which, when imposed on others, inevitably cause confusion, strife, ill will, abused consciences, and disharmony.
Even in small churches, there often are considerable differences in age, education, maturity, personalities, and cultural and religious backgrounds. Some members may come from a long line of evangelicals. Some of those families may have a heritage of strict legalism, while others have one of considerable openness and freedom. Some members may have been accustomed to highly liturgical worship, others to worship that is largely unstructured and spontaneous.
Such diversity can strengthen a local congregation, reminding the church itself and witnessing to the world around them of the power of Jesus Christ to bind together dissimilar people in a fellowship of genuine and profound unity. The Lord did not plan for his church to be divided into a hundred varieties, based on distinctives of personal preference and traditions that have no ground in Scripture.
The particular danger to unity that Paul addresses in Romans 14:1-15:13 is the conflict that easily arises between those to whom he refers as strong and weak believers, those who are mature in the faith and those who are immature, those who understand and enjoy freedom in Christ and those who still feel either shackled or threatened by certain religious and cultural taboos and practices that were deeply ingrained parts of their lives before coming to Christ.
In the early church, many Jews who came to faith in Christ could not bring themselves to discard the ceremonial laws and practices in which they had been steeped since early childhood, especially the rites and prohibitions the Lord Himself had instituted under the Old Covenant. They still felt compelled, for example, to comply with Mosaic dietary laws, to strictly observe the Sabbath, and even to offer sacrifices in the Temple because they were given by the true God.
Other believers, both Jewish and Gentile, understood and exercised their freedom in Christ. Mature Jewish believers realized that, under the New Covenant in Christ, the ceremonial requirements of the Mosaic law were no longer valid. Mature believing Gentiles understood that idolatry was a spiritual evil and had no effect on anything physical, such as meat, that may have been used in idolatrous worship.
Those who were still strongly influenced, favorably or unfavorably, by their former religious beliefs and practices were weak in the faith because they did not understand their freedom in Christ.
On the other hand, those who are strong are often faced with the temptation to push their freedom in Christ to the limits, to live on the outer edge of moral propriety, to see how far they can go without actually committing a sin. Those who are weak are tempted in the opposite way. They are so afraid of committing some religious offense that they surround themselves with self-imposed restrictions.
Christian convictions do not define what is “right” and “wrong.” God’s Word defines what is right and what is wrong. Biblical revelation is not a matter of personal discretion.It is not a conviction to believe that murder is evil or that loving our enemy is good. Convictions take up where biblical revelation and human law leave off. Convictions determine what my conduct should be in those areas not specifically prescribed by Scripture. My convictions draw the line between what I will do and what I will not do as an exercise of Christian liberty.
Convictions reach the conclusions of “should” and “should not.” The question is not so much, “Can I do this or that?” but “Should I do this or that?” Paul writes: (1 Corinthians 6:12 NIV) “Everything is permissible for me”–but not everything is beneficial. “Everything is permissible for me”–but I will not be mastered by anything.
Christian convictions are matters of conscience. Convictions are the result of the interaction of several factors. One factor is knowledge—a grasp of biblical teaching and doctrine. Another is that of conscience, our “inner umpire” which causes us to feel either guilt or moral affirmation. 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).
Christian convictions are matters of faith. Knowledge and conscience are factors which determine our convictions. Faith also plays a vital role in our convictions. We should only practice those liberties we can do in faith. If we doubt (the opposite of faith), we are condemned by doing what our conscience does not approve.
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 14:22-23).
In the Church at Rome there were apparently two lines of thought. There were some who believed that in Christian liberty the old tabus were gone; they believed that the old food laws were now irrelevant; they believed that Christianity did not consist in the special observance of any one day or days. Paul makes it clear that this in fact is the standpoint of real Christian faith.
On the other hand, there were those who were full of scruples; they believed that it was wrong to eat meat; they believed in the rigid observance of the Sabbath tyranny. Paul calls the ultra-scrupulous man the man who is weak in the faith. What does he mean by that?
Paul’s sympathies are all with the broader point of view; but, at the same time, he says that when one of these weaker brethren comes into the Church he must be received with brotherly sympathy. When we are confronted with someone who holds the narrower view there are three attitudes we must avoid.
(i) We must avoid irritation. An impatient annoyance with such a person gets us nowhere. However much we may disagree, we must try to see the other person’s point of view and to understand it.
(ii) We must avoid ridicule. No man remains unwounded when that which he thinks precious is laughed at. It is no small sin to laugh at another man’s beliefs. They may seem prejudices rather than beliefs; but no man has a right to laugh at what some other holds sacred. In any event, laughter will never woo the other man to a wider view; it will only make him withdraw still more determined into his rigidity.
(iii) We must avoid contempt. It is very wrong to regard the narrower person as an old-fashioned fool whose views may be treated with contempt. A man’s view are his own and must be treated with respect. It is not even possible to win a man over to our position unless we have a genuine respect for his. Of all attitudes towards our fellow man the most unchristian is contempt.
There are some people whose faith is so strong that no amount of debate and questioning will ready shake it. But there are others who have a simple faith which is only needlessly disturbed by clever discussion.
This passage deals with the principles which are to guide the believer as he faces these issues.
1. Receive the weak brother (v.1-2).
2. Do not despise and judge (criticize) others (v.3-4).
3. Be fully persuaded of right and wrong behavior (v.5-6).
4. Watch out—watch what you do (v.7-9).
5. Leave the judgment up to God (v.10-12).
6. Judge only one thing: stumbling blocks (v.13-15).
7. Give no occasion for criticism (v.16-18).
8. Pursue things that bring peace and edification (v.19).
9. Do not destroy or ruin the work of God in another person’s life: it is sin to do so (v.20).
10. Do nothing to cause a brother to stumble (v.21).
11. Watch and do not condemn yourself (v.22-23).
The ‘weak’ and the ‘strong’ have several distinct characteristics.
(1) They are weak in faith. Literally, they are weak ‘in the faith’ or ‘in their faith. I suspect that both elements are true. That is, the weak are those who have not yet come to the full realization of the freedom and the liberty which is a part of the faith.
(2) The weak are prone to condemn the actions of the strong. As they have not yet come to understand Christian liberty, they do not accept it in others. The weak can be immediately recognized by the frown of contempt on their faces, and the “Oh, no!” look in their eyes.
(3) The strong are those who are more fully aware of the nature of grace and of the teachings of the word of God. They have a greater grasp of the faith (objective-doctrine) and so their faith (subjective-personal) is stronger.
(4) The strong are susceptible to the sin of smugness and arrogance. They can easily find contempt and disdain for those who cannot fully grasp grace. On their face can be seen the lofty, yet condescending, smile of contempt. Their eyes betray an expression of “Oh, really.”
“Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions” (Romans 14:1).
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 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 (Romans 14:6, 8).
If we wish to busy ourselves with the work of passing judgment, let us concentrate upon ourselves, rather than upon our neighbor, for at the judgment seat of God we will be judged for our own actions: “But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God” (Romans 14:10).
The force of Paul’s argumentation is irresistible. The Christian has no business trying to conform his brother to his own personal convictions, since convictions are private property, since God has accepted him as he is, and since every servant is accountable only to his own master.
Our Christian liberty is vertical, before the Lord. But the exercise of that liberty is horizontal, because it is seen by and affects others. To rightly understand and use our freedom in Christ brings great satisfaction. But that satisfaction is multiplied when we willingly surrender the exercise of a liberty for the sake of other believers. More importantly, it greatly pleases our Lord and promotes harmony in His church.
Marks of a Strong Fellowship Within the Church, 15:1-13
Paul shared the two sources of spiritual power from which we must draw if we are to live to please others: the Word of God (Rom. 15:4) and prayer (Rom. 15:5-6). We must confess that we sometimes get impatient with younger Christians, just as parents become impatient with their children. But the Word of God can give us the “patience and encouragement” that we need.
This suggests to us that the local church must major in the Word of God and prayer. The first real danger to the unity of the church came because the Apostles were too busy to minister God’s Word and pray (Acts 6:1-7). When they found others to share their burdens, they returned to their proper ministry, and the church experienced harmony and growth.
This passage is a continuation of the former chapter. It clearly pinpoints the marks of a strong church. Once studying this passage, a believer can never claim he did not know his duty within the church. Every believer’s part in building and making the church strong is clearly spelled out.
Mark 1: the strong bear the weaknesses of the weak (v.1-3).
Mark 2: everyone studies the Scriptures (v.4).
Mark 3: everyone works for harmony (v.5-6).
Mark 4: everyone accepts one another without discrimination (v.7-12).
Mark 5: everyone is filled by the God of hope (v.13).