Romans 14 continues to be an area of intense interest and study to brethren. Is it the chapter that holds the “cure all” for every difficult issue that arises between brethren? Can brethren disagree over fundamental matters of faith and doctrine but still have fellowship based on the principles of Romans 14? Let me give three thoughts from this chapter that I believe will help us make proper application of Romans 14.
First, whatever we make of Romans 14 that understanding must be integrated into the whole of the New Testament. Before we read a single verse of Romans 14 we already know that Romans 14 must agree with the rest of scripture. Why? Because the Word of God is truth (John 17:17) and all truth agrees and is consistent with itself. Brethren have long employed the rule of interpreting difficult passages in light of plain passages, but somehow this seems forgotten when Romans 14 is studied. Yet 2 John 9-11 still teaches “Whoever transgresses and does not abide in the doctrine of Christ does not have God. He who abides in the doctrine of Christ has both the Father and the Son. If anyone comes to you and does not bring this doctrine, do not receive him into your house nor greet him; for he who greets him shares in his evil deeds.” Fellowship with false teaching and error is ruled out by this verse, and many others (see Ephesians 5:11). How then can anyone decide that Romans 14 actually does teach that if someone comes without the doctrine of Christ we can receive him? Does the Holy Spirit contradict Himself?
Further, it is of interest to note how Paul dealt with error and false doctrine. In the Galatian letter he deals with those who are adding the Law of Moses to the Gospel. His solution is not for everyone to get along with everyone, agreeing to disagree agreeably. He tells the Galatians plainly that their souls are at risk if they partake in this false teaching (Gal. 5:1-4). To the false teachers he says “I could wish that those who trouble you would even cut themselves off!” (Gal. 5:12). That is strong language! Clearly, when salvation is threatened Paul is not of the mood to just let everyone be. In such situations Paul demands that false teachers be rebuked and that all adhere to a common standard of truth.
Contrast the Galatian letter to the Roman letter. No such stern language is found. No false teachers (or teaching) are identified. Specifically to Romans 14, we find not one word urging the strong to “convert” the weak, or telling the weak their salvation is endangered by their practice. can’the situation in Romans 14 really be the same as the situation in Galatia? Is it fair to use this passage to derive a way of dealing with error and false doctrine that completely contradicts the rest of scripture?
Second, much is being made by some of the weak man’s faith in Romans 14. Traditionally, it has been argued that Romans 14 deals with matters of indifference. By this we mean matters that God is indifferent about, that cause us to be neither less or more approved of the Lord. Yet objections are being raised to this because the weak man is operating “by faith” (Romans 14:6, 22). It was not a matter of indifference or opinion to this brother, we are told. He abstained from meat and was fasting (the days of verses 5-6 are days of fasting) because he believed he was required to by God and would be sinning if he failed to observe these requirements. This is, of course, correct. However, what some seem to miss is the fact that just because a brother decides an issue is a matter of faith does not necessarily make it so. Brethren have acquired scruples over nearly anything and everything. Just because brother Careful decides that eating hamburgers is a sin does not make it a sin. What matters is what God thinks about eating hamburgers, not what brother Careful has decided. What brother Careful must do is take the Bible and show from scripture that God says hamburger consumption is a sin. Until then it is a not a matter of faith regardless of what he should say about it.
The plain truth is that a lot of our fellowship and division problems could be solved by more concern right here. Usually brethren want to choose up sides and split long before anyone has time to search the scriptures and see if we are splitting over anything that God is concerned about. If that is not enough of a problem then we are also prone to being buffaloed by a loud brother (or sister!) who jams his opinion down everyone’s throat so forcefully that none dare question whether this is gospel or opinion. Many are those who are more than willing to bind everyone else to their conviction on an issue without ever frankly admitting that the Bible does not teach what they are forcing everyone to comply to. Many more are those who are unwilling to admit the difference between their conclusions about what the Bible teaches and the clear teaching of the Bible itself. We can and must do better.
Third, we must understand that Romans 14 was not meant to cover unending disputes about whether an issue is “faith” or opinion. When brethren cannot even decide if a matter is “faith” or “indifference” it is improper to appeal to Romans 14 to solve the problem. Why? Because all the brethren in Rome were brought, by Paul’s letter, to the same understanding: their issue was a matter of opinion and indifference. Paul is clear that no one is in sin regarding this matter: “He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it. He who eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he who does not eat, to the Lord he does not eat, and gives God thanks” (14:6). Further, those who are holding that some foods are unclean and to be abstained are simply wrong about that: “I know and am convinced by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself; but to him who considers anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean” (14:14). If anyone missed it Paul repeats himself in verse 20: “Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All things indeed are pure, but it is evil for the man who eats with offense.” As a final blow to the weak brethren Paul identifies himself as a strong brother in 15:1, and orders everyone to “receive one another, just as Christ also received us” (15:7). After reading Paul’s epistle can we possibly imagine any brother teaching the Roman church that they must follow Jewish dietary restrictions or be lost? Paul clearly taught that such was not part of the Gospel, not necessary for salvation, and not essential to follow. Case closed. Matter solved.
Of course, Paul knew that some brethren would have great difficulty using this Christian liberty. There was no doubt that it was a matter of liberty, but some would still struggle with it. Thus, in Romans 14 he gives regulations that allow a brother to continue doing what is not necessary to Christianity simply because he is not yet “fully convinced” on this issue. Jewish Christians were welcome to continue following the ancient practices but he must not bind his conviction upon others (14:10).
Can you see there is no parallel from Romans 14 to issues today where brethren do not even agree whether the issue is essential or a matter of indifference? How then do some think we can use this to settle up problems where at least one of the parties believes the issue is a matter of faith? In Romans 14 both parties are brought to an understanding that this is not a matter of faith. It seems to me that in many of our discussions today Paul would urge us back to principle two above (seeing what the scriptures say) before we just jump to Romans 14 and slap the label of “Romans 14 matter” over our problems.
At the risk of being misunderstood, let me make a practical application of the material in Romans 14. Let us suppose there is a man at the North Road church who believes working on the Sabbath is a sin. He does not work on Saturday, and because he loves his brethren, he tries to teach them to do the same. Naturally, the church is troubled by this teaching. A Bible study is held. Brother Sabbath learns that he is wrong about this matter. The New Testament does not continue the Old Law’s Sabbath requirements (Gal. 3:24; Col. 2:14). Now, what is to be done? Brother Sabbath may, if he wishes, continue his abstinence of work on the Sabbath because his conscience is not yet up to speed with what his intellect has been taught. He feels guilty if he works on Saturday, so he elects not to do so. Romans 14 says this is his right (verse 6) and that the other members at North Road must not look down upon him for doing so or force him to violate his conscience (verse 13). But Romans 14 also teaches that Brother Sabbath must not bind his conviction up on others (vv. 10-12).
What Romans 14 is not discussing or dealing with is a man who teaches error on a matter of faith (such as marriage and divorce). We study together but he is still unconvinced and so continues to teach and/or practice his belief. The church is troubled and souls are being lost. Shall we then label the matter “a Romans 14 issue” and allow error to march on? God forbid.
Let me close by urging you to study carefully this important section of scripture. We have long claimed to be about the business of restoring the New Testament church, but all too often it appears that we are best at restoring the fussing and feuding that New Testament congregations were so good at. A better understanding of Romans 14 will help us tolerate each other when we should, and fight error when we must.