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Romans 14 discusses Christian liberty versus causing a weaker brother to stumble by unwisely exercising that liberty.  But it also deals with how Christians should treat each other in terms of areas where there are controversies or areas of honest doctrinal disagreement.

In Paul’s day, the church in Rome was dealing with differences between the Jewish converts and the Gentile converts regarding permissible foods and the observance of the Jewish holy days.  But today, the topics could have just as easily been about tongues or methods of baptism.

1Him that is weak in the faith receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations.  2For one believeth that he may eat all things: another, who is weak, eateth herbs. 3Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not; and let not him which eateth not judge him that eateth: for God hath received him. 4Who art thou that judgest another man’s servant? to his own master he standeth or falleth. Yea, he shall be holden up: for God is able to make him stand. 5One man esteemeth one day above another:  another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.  6He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord; and he that regardeth not the day, to the Lord he doth not regard it. He that eateth, eateth to the Lord, for he giveth God thanks; and he that eateth not, to the Lord he eateth not, and giveth God thanks.  7For none of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself. 8For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord: whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lord’s. 9For to this end Christ both died, and rose, and revived, that he might be Lord both of the dead and living. 10But why dost thou judge thy brother? or why dost thou set at nought thy brother? for we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. 11For it is written, As I live, saith the Lord,  every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God. 12So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God. 13Let us not therefore judge one another any more: but judge this rather, that no man put a stumblingblock or an occasion to fall in his brother’s way.

In verse 1, the phrase “doubtful disputations” does not translate easily into modern English.  But it is an important phrase to understand Romans 14.  In Greek, the phrase is dialogismos diakrisis.  In the first word, we can see the root word “dialog”.  In Greek, it can be used to describe a person thinking things through on one’s own, to deliberate within oneself.  But when more than one person is involved, it can mean a discussion about what’s true when there is doubt about which one of two positions is the correct one.  At its most intense, it can mean disputing or arguing.

The second word is based on the word from which we get the English word, “crisis”.  In Greek, it means to judge or separate.  The prefix comes from the Greek word for “two” and in this case would mean “between”.  So it means to be judging between two things: two discern or distinguish between them.

A concise way of translating it might be “to not dispute beliefs”.  But it would not be just any two beliefs.  Paul is not talking about a dispute which is clearly settled by Scripture: for example, a dispute between a person who believes there is one God and a person who does not believe in the existence of God.  So what Paul is really saying here is to avoid engaging in doctrinal disputes with a weaker brother or sister.  (Paul’s teaching here does not preclude a debate between two mature Christian scholars on a matter of theology.)

In verses 2-6, Paul touches upon the two main dividing points faced by the church in Rome: the eating of meat and the observance of days.  There were a few issues intertwined regarding which foods were acceptable.  First of all, despite the teaching that resulted from Peter’s vision (Acts 10:9-16) there were still some Jewish Christians who held to the Mosaic Law regarding clean and unclean animals.  In addition, as Paul also dealt with in 1st Corinthians 8, it was the practice in the Greco-Roman world that some meat sold in the marketplace had first been sacrificed or consecrated to idols.  In Acts 15:29, one of the four restrictions placed on Gentile converts to Christianity was to abstain from eating meats sacrificed to idols.  Moreover, none of the meat sold by the worshippers of idols (and possibly Gentile Christians as well) would have been handled according to the law and therefore would also be considered unclean.

Now some of the Christians we deal with today might immediately assume that it was the stronger, more mature and more doctrinally learned Christians who kept the stricter observance.  Not so, according to the text.  Note that in verse two, Paul writes that is the one who is weak who will only eat herbs (vegetables).  The more mature Christian, grounded in the faith, knows the latitude granted by Christian liberty.  The weaker Christian who lacks understanding keeps far from whatever limits there might be, lest he cross the line.  In fact, he may impose stricter limits on himself.  In the same way, the Christian who esteems one day above the others is taking the stricter observance and therefore the weaker of the two.

Also we should note that Paul is not talking about a strict division between the Jewish Christians and the Gentile Christians.  Not once in this lesson does he make such a distinction, while he is perfectly willing to do so in other Scripture passages.  Indeed we can surmise that members of each group populated the ranks of both the stronger and the weaker.

Paul is also admonishing the church over the form and nature of those disputes.  In verses 3&4 and again in verse 10, he admonished both weak and strong for their reactions to the other.  He admonished the weaker Christians for appointing themselves as judges over the stronger Christians because the stronger were failing to follow their stricter standards.  And he admonished the stronger Christians for despising or being contemptuous of the weaker Christians for remaining more wedded to the law, for trusting neither themselves nor the Lord’s teaching sufficiently to exercise their liberty in Christ.

I was the younger of two children, so I merely observed this next point.  Those of you who were the older in a dispute with a younger sibling might remember chafing under the following admonition.  Because when your parents stepped in between a silly quarrel you and your younger sibling were having, they might scold the younger first.  But then they turned to you with the words, “… and you are older: you should know better.”  Ouch!

Paul is telling the stronger Christians, in effect, that instead of despising, they should be patiently teaching and nurturing the weaker Christians to greater liberty, not despising or mocking them because they do not yet embrace that liberty nor feel comfortable enough within themselves to step out into it.  As they are more bound to the law, were we not once also?  As they lack confidence, were we not at one time shaky in our faith, too?

Verses 7-9: here we have a reminder from Paul that none of us are on our own.  Rather, we are the Lord’s and Christ died for that very reason, so that whether we are alive or dead, we belong to Him.  We neither belong to ourselves nor to each other.  Because this point is central to Paul’s argument, he places it in the middle of the point he is making in verses 3,4&10.  Both the weaker and the stronger are finding fault with the other.  But this is the Lord’s job, not ours.

After Paul reiterates his admonishment in verse 10 to neither judge nor despise each other, in verses 11 and 12, he expands on the idea of how we will all eventually stand before the Lord and give account of ourselves to the most righteous Judge.  Therefore, he tells us in verse 13, that instead of judging and finding fault with each other over such matters, we ought instead be judging whether or not we are placing stumbling blocks in the way of each other’s Christian walk.

I trust that most Christians would agree with the general principle that we ought not put stumbling blocks in the way of each other as we exercise our faith.  But doesn’t Paul say to the church in Corinth (1st Corinthians 5 & 6) that the church needs to judge those within the church (as opposed to being concerned with judging those outside the church, whom indeed the Lord will judge)?  I quote here Matthew Henry’s commentary on Romans 14 for a precise answer on the matter (italicized notes within his comments removed so the reading will flow clearer for better understanding).

Take this for a general rule; spend your zeal in those things wherein you and all the people of God are agreed, and do not dispute about matters that are doubtful. [B]id him welcome, receive him with the greatest affection and tenderness; to help him, to fetch him to you, to encourage him. Receive him into your company, and converse, and communion, entertain him with readiness and condescension, and treat him with all possible endearments. Receive him: not to quarrel with him, and to argue about uncertain points that are in controversy, which will but confound him, and fill his head with empty notions, perplex him, and shake his faith. Let not your Christian friendship and fellowship be disturbed with such vain janglings and strifes of words. “[N]ot to pump out his weak sentiments concerning those things which he is in doubt about, that you may censure and condemn him.’’ Receive him, not to expose him, but to instruct and strengthen him.

Look back at what I wrote about verse 1.  In Romans 14, Paul is not writing about doctrinal issues that can be clearly resolved by looking at Scripture which addresses the issue in a straightforward manner.  In 1st Corinthians 5 & 6, he is.  Nowhere in Scripture can one find support for the idea that a man should be having sex with his stepmother.  Yet this was the precise sin that the church in Corinth was tolerating.

On the contrary in Rome, neither the weaker or stronger Christians were sinning by the strictness or lack of strictness in their individual practice regarding meat or days.  The sin was in the way they were ill-treating each other over the issue.

The rest of Romans 14 will be soon be discussed in a follow-up post.

God bless,