Romans (Part 47) – Relating in Righteousness (14:1–15:13)
Regarding the righteousness involved with New Covenant living, Paul had seemed to start his discussion of interchurch relationship in the first half of chapter 12. He moved from that to those outside the church (last part of chapter 12) and then to duties to the state in chapter 13. He seems to have turned back in chapter 14 to focus on issues that may come up within the church.
Paul begins this chapter with a general call, saying, “Accept anyone who is weak in faith, but don’t argue about doubtful issues.” The acceptance he speaks of is receiving them into fellowship. Although Paul doesn’t define who the weak are, I think we can determine about whom he is talking. We may have the tendency to think of the strong as being strong in conviction, and therefore the weak are those who lack conviction or who are vacillating. However, that view doesn’t seem to hold well to the text. At the end of verse 5 he mentions strong conviction on both sides of an issue. So strength of conviction is not the dividing line.
Is Paul separating legalists from true worshippers? Again, the tone makes that idea doubtful. In Galatians 5, where we do encounter legalists, Paul is not so accommodating with them to say the least. There he had harsh words for legalists. Here in Romans 14, he appears much more accepting. Therefore, legalism is not at issue.
I think the strong and weak divide is based on knowledge. Skipping for a moment to verse 14, we find Paul assured of a greater knowledge about the issue of meat. But he gives allowance to those who don’t have that understanding. Therefore, his verse 1 exhortation is to participate in relationship with anyone who may be weak in knowledge of the faith.
The second part of verse 1 says not to “argue about doubtful issues.” Actually the doubtful issue in this verse is the translators’ rendering. The word-for-word translation of that phrase is “not to judgments of thoughts.” While we can imagine that people with different thoughts may judge each other for those thoughts and thus argue and quarrel over them, that does take a step beyond what the Greek is presenting. And therefore, it is odd that the HCSP, NIV, ESV, and NET all include some concept of arguing, quarreling, or disputing in their translations. I think the NASB is a little more accurate. Although it too adds words for the sake of sense, it doesn’t take that step beyond judging the ideas in order to assume arguing about them. The NASB reads, “not for the purposeof passingjudgment on his opinions.” (The NASB translators italicize the words added for sense.
Without the assumption of argument, we have more simply a reason suggested that Paul says shouldn’t interfere with relationship. We could read it, “Participate in relationship with anyone who is weak in knowledge of the faith, not judging his or her opinions.” This rendering shows that Paul is not arguing for them not to judge opinions after relationship has been restored (as the other translations suggest), but rather that the judging should not be done to interfere with Christian relationships in the first place. Thus, a better paraphrase may be this: “Do not judge those who are weak in knowledge of the faith, and by doing so, keep from uniting with them in Christian relationship.”
To punctuate his point, Paul offers two illustrations. The first regards eating of meat (in Corinthians Paul deals with the point of whether to eat meat offered to idols) and the other illustration regards special days of worship (which may speak of Sunday worship, the Sabbath, or feast days of the Hebrew calendar). But Paul doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about the illustrations because his main point is that if faithfully pursuing God, the fact that one Christian has a better understanding than another should not result in divisions of relationship. Allow people to have differing opinions. After all, Paul says, they don’t answer to you; they answer to God. He will take care of his own.
I especially don’t like the mistranslation we talked about in verse 1 because it tends to be interpreted as commanding, for the sake of fellowship, that we not bring up differing opinions to talk about them. And Christians do this all the time. They hide their own opinions about some issue so as not to offendanother Christian who thinks differently. But that is certainly not what Paul is implying. Ensuring relationship does not mean hiding attitudes and actions. Paul certainly didn’t. In verse 14, he makes clear his viewpoint on the issue, not trying to hide it for the sake of hurt feelings. And he even names those on one side of the issue as being weak in knowledge in verse 2. Again, the point is not to avoid discussing issues among those who are earnestly pursuing God. The point is that we should not let those differences interfere with our relationship. Good, mature relationships should be able to handle those differing opinions.
Verses 10b–12 have created a difficulty for some people that doesn’t really fit in with Paul’s discussion but is wondered about nevertheless. Paul says that everyone (here meaning Christians) will stand before the tribunal of God to give an account of himself. The judgment is not about sin. Sin is forgiven and has been removed. The judgment will concern our desire and intensity of service. Paul is using this idea to tell Christians that they don’t have to worry that they judged a believer sincere (though sincerely wrong) in his or her pursuit of God. God will be the ultimate judge of that. It is better to err on the side of relationship than it is to call out a legalist who is not one.
The second half of the chapter turns from mere exhortation to relationship with the weak to not causing them harm. Not only should we not criticize or look down on other Christians in their pursuit of God, we should go beyond that by not creating obstacles to relationship. Paul says not to hurt them (harm our relationship by our attitude) and not to destroy (which indicates harm in their relationship with God). Destroy here means render useless. The harm can come by cutting remarks, belittling, and other criticism. In other words, it is not enough to feign acceptance and relationship if you act with disdain. That still hurts the relationship even though it may seem tolerable in a superficial sense.
But the other danger is to harm the weak person’s relationship with God. By our encouragement toward conduct, before that other person is truly convinced in such pursuit, causes that person to sin. And that’s why Paul can say both that it is not a sin to eat meat (14:4) yet state that the one who eats while doubting does indeed sin (14:23). That encouragement can take several forms. If you drink wine with your meal and are out to eat with a Christian friend who doesn’t drink because he or she, in true heart motive of pursuit of God, believes that is not best for spiritual pursuit, don’t urge the person to drink and, perhaps, don’t even have it yourself at that time. Give up, Paul says, your freedom for the sake of your brother or sister in Christ. Again, there is no problem discussing the issue over your dinner. The pursuit of knowledge and the pursuit of Christ are always good. But don’t cause another person to act against his or her conscience simply based on your own knowledge. Paul, in fact, states that it is noble to act in love for the sake of the weak and for the benefit of relationship (14:21).
And we should not consider verse 22 as a prohibition against discussion. “Keep it to yourself” is not our modern-day expression to not speak of it. The Greek indicates holding that position on the issue for yourself (or better, holding for yourself that position). In other words, don’t force it on others. If you are fully convinced and act in accordance with your belief as you desire to pursue God, Paul says you’re blessed.
So then, although bringing up both regarding special days and eating meat and even mentioning his position on one of those subjects, Paul is not making arguments as to either. Furthermore, although explaining that we should not criticize or look down on others for their beliefs, and going so far as to say we should not create obstacles for relationship, either among ourselves or for the weak with God, he doesn’t specify what we should do in each situation. So then Paul does not give rules to follow but rather guidelines to direct our communication of love.