One of the most contentious issues within the church today is regarding the understanding and application of Romans 14. There are many who read the text, recognize the contention over it, and immediately will go to an extreme. One extreme holds that any teaching over which there is disagreement can somehow fall under Romans 14; they appeal to the fact that Paul says that we are not to judge one another and therefore no matter what kind of disagreement two Christians may have they should be able to have full fellowship. The other extreme reads the passage and immediately tries to either mitigate it completely by asserting that the situation in Rome cannot be replicated and therefore we cannot properly apply Romans 14 in any situation today, or they will use terms not even in the text to make arbitrary distinctions as to what kinds of disagreements fall under Romans 14 versus those which would not, and more often than not those distinctions are based less on Biblical truth than personal desire to keep practicing their liberties. Does the truth regarding Romans 14 approach any of these extremes?
Before we begin to analyze arguments made regarding the message and application of the text, however, it is most critical for us to first understand the text and to see how we are to understand it and, if necessary, apply it. Let us now examine the text of Romans 14– and a little of the beginning of Romans 15– to understand the issue at hand.
Paul begins the discussion in Romans 14:1-3:
But him that is weak in faith receive ye, yet not for decision of scruples. One man hath faith to eat all things: but he that is weak eateth herbs. Let not him that eateth set at nought him that eateth not; and let not him that eateth not judge him that eateth: for God hath received him.
It is important to note first the nature of the Roman letter: Paul begins by explaining how both Jew and Gentile have sinned and require salvation in Christ Jesus (Romans 1-4), the nature of our faith and salvation (Romans 5-6), the nature of the Law of Moses (Romans 7), our hope of salvation (Romans 8), the truth of the inclusion of the Gentiles into the fold (Romans 9-11), instructions regarding godliness and holiness (Romans 12), and instructions regarding obeying earthly governments and to live righteously (Romans 13). We see, then, that by Romans 14 Paul has already spoken much regarding theological issues and for the past two chapters has been discussing the practical admonitions and prohibitions of the Christian life. Paul then embarks on the discussion of what is obviously a troubling circumstance that has arisen in the Roman church.
We may note that verse 1 provides a general principle from which the rest of the discussion will flow. Paul first charges all of the Romans to accept one who is weak in “the” faith, and that they are not to do this to judge them for their opinions/be involved in unprofitable disputation regarding their opinions. This general idea echoes what Paul will say in Romans 15:1-3 and also his discussion regarding those young in the faith in 1 Corinthians 8. It should be noted that this is the only time that Paul uses the definite article with faith in Romans 14; this general idea regards those who are weak in “the” faith, but the rest of the discussion is about those who are weak in “faith,” understood as a lack of belief in a particular issue.
After setting down a general principle to guide the discussion, Paul begins speaking about the particular issue: there are some who eat all things in the congregation, and there are some who do not eat meat. We are not told the specific nature of their objection to meat, whether it is meat sacrificed to idols, meat that would violate the dietary regulations of the Law of Moses, or perhaps not eating meat at all. Regardless of the nature of the type of meat they have no faith in eating, Paul then tells them they should not “judge”– and the Greek word used here, krino, often has the connotation of condemnatory judgment– those who eat, and those who eat are not to “despise” those who do not eat. The general principle of not judging one another on matters of opinion in verse 1 is therefore applied to the situation in Rome regarding meat eating in verses 2-3.
Paul then discusses the nature of servanthood and judgment in Romans 14:4-12:
Who art thou that judgest the servant of another? to his own lord he standeth or falleth. Yea, he shall be made to stand; for the Lord hath power to make him stand. One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let each man be fully assured in his own mind. He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord: and he that eateth, eateth unto the Lord, for he giveth God thanks; and he that eateth not, unto the Lord he eateth not, and giveth God thanks. For none of us liveth to himself, and none dieth to himself. For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; or whether we die, we die unto the Lord: whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living. But thou, why dost thou judge thy brother? or thou again, why dost thou set at nought thy brother? for we shall all stand before the judgment-seat of God. For it is written,
“‘As I live,’ saith the Lord, ‘to me every knee shall bow, And every tongue shall confess to God.'”
So then each one of us shall give account of himself to God.
Paul emphasizes his counsel in verses 1-3 by explaining the nature of servanthood in verse 4: each one of us is the servant of Christ, and our only Master is Christ. To Christ, therefore, and to Christ alone, we shall stand or fall. As individual servants of Christ, therefore, in regards to matter of opinion we do not have the right to judge one another.
Paul introduces a new issue in verse 5– the practice of observing days– and regarding it says that everyone must be fully convinced in their own mind. The necessity of being “fully convinced” will be made evident in verse 23; for now it will suffice to say that in order to perform a given practice the Christian must have full faith in the legitimacy of that practice: if they have any doubts regarding its legitimacy and they practice it they have sinned.
Verse 6 continues this line of thinking by establishing that each side in this issue observes their practice or lack of practice “for the Lord,” by religious conviction. The one who eats does so “for the Lord,” as does the one who does not, and both of them give thanks to God. This shows that both sides of the issue have sincere faith in either the need to eat meat (or observe a day) or in the need to not eat meat (or to not observe a day). Paul then takes this fact and demonstrates in verses 7 and 8 that none of us are living for ourselves anymore but for Jesus Christ nor will any of us die for ourselves but we will in fact die for Jesus Christ. Paul says in verse 9 that this was the purpose of Christ’s death and resurrection, that He may be the Lord of both the living and the dead. We therefore see that both those who ate meats and those who did not eat meats practice their conviction in sincere faith and both do so for the glory of God.
Verses 10-12 conclude Paul’s arguments regarding the need of cessation of judgment of one another by reminding the Romans that everyone will stand at the judgment seat of God– why, then, do you judge or despise your brother? As Paul establishes in verse 12, each of us will have to give an account of our deeds (including judging our brother or despising our brother, if that may be the case) to God.
Paul then gives us the real teachings on the basis of these truths in Romans 14:13-15:
Let us not therefore judge one another any more: but judge ye this rather, that no man put a stumblingblock in his brother’s way, or an occasion of falling. I know, and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean of itself: save that to him who accounteth anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean. For if because of meat thy brother is grieved, thou walkest no longer in love. Destroy not with thy meat him for whom Christ died.
Paul then says the same thing he did in verses 1 and 3– that judgment should cease– and that we should not put a stumbling block in our brother’s way in verse 13. What does this mean? It means that if we know that our brother or sister does not have faith in a given liberty, we should not in any way compel, coerce, or in any way influence him or her to act against his or her conscience.
Verse 14 is an important verse to understand in its totality. After the conclusion that we are not to judge one another and that we should not put any obstacles in our brethren’s way, Paul establishes that he is convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is inherently unclean. Many will stop here and plead for the “truth” of the strong brother’s cause, but the next portion of the verse is just as important: if someone thinks that a certain food is unclean, to him it is unclean. Paul therefore justifies both the “strong” and the “weak” brother before God: each of them, when acting in sincere faith, can either eat or not eat and both are right before God. This introduces a level of relativism that many do not want to accept; nonetheless, Paul did say it, and it is true: eating meats is not an issue that is black and white; it is an issue of gray.
Verse 15 is the reason for what is stated in verse 14: if we hurt our brethren because of food, we are no longer walking according to love. The commandment that follows is one of the most profound given in this entire passage and is worth all of our attention and remembrance: do not destroy for the sake of your food him for whom Christ died. Asserting one’s liberty to the detriment of another is tantamount to destroying a child of God and in effect negating Christ’s cross. Let us remember these things as we continue.
Paul continues in discussing the limitations of Romans 14 along with the need to work in love in Romans 14:16-21:
Let not then your good be evil spoken of: for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. For he that herein serveth Christ is well-pleasing to God, and approved of men. So then let us follow after things which make for peace, and things whereby we may edify one another. Overthrow not for meat’s sake the work of God. All things indeed are clean; howbeit it is evil for that man who eateth with offence. It is good not to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor to do anything whereby thy brother stumbleth.
Paul continues down the line of thought expressed in verses 13-15 by appealing in verse 16 that a good thing– eating of meat, or not observing one day over another– should not be spoken of in an evil manner because of division and pain that would be caused by such a thing. Paul then continues in verse 17 and gives us a clue as to the nature of the issues in Romans 14: the Kingdom of God is not eating and drinking but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. Paul’s immediate point is that something that has no bearing on the Kingdom– the eating of meat– should not cause strife within it. In establishing this Paul has laid out for us exactly what is to be included in Romans 14 versus what ought not be included: if a practice or a means of peforming a practice in any way would violate the righteousness, peace, or joy of Christians in the Holy Spirit, then it ought not be performed or done in such a manner. If, however, a practice or a means of performing a practice does not in any way violate the righteousness, peace, or joy of Christians in the Holy Spirit, and such a practice or means of performing the practice is not specifically commanded or has a specific example in the Scripture, then it is to be considered a liberty and falls into the category of “food and drink.” As Paul says in verse 18, Christians who serve Christ in this way– holding fast to the righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit and willing to forsake liberties to preserve the unity of the Kingdom of God– are acceptable to God and approved by men.
Verses 19 through 21 confirm the need for us to give up any practices that are not bound upon us by God’s command in order to maintain the unity of the faith. Paul says that our mission is to make for peace and to build up one another in verse 19; to that end we are not to tear down the work of God for something as insigificant as food, as Paul says in verse 20. Paul re-establishes the validity of the liberty in the same verse but says that the liberty in question– eating meat– is evil to those to whom it causes offense. Paul then says in verse 21 that it is good to do no thing that causes your brother to stumble.
Romans 14 ends with a specific command to each of the parties in verses 22-23:
The faith which thou hast, have thou to thyself before God. Happy is he that judgeth not himself in that which he approveth. But he that doubteth is condemned if he eat, because he eateth not of faith; and whatsoever is not of faith is sin.
Paul begins verse 22 by establishing that each person should have his faith and stand before God with it. Paul then warns the “strong” brother, however, by saying that “happy is he who is not condemned by what he approves.” This demonstrates that the “strong” brother is not inherently right, and that he is able to be judged by God for approving something he should not have approved. This is more evidence that merely because one asserts that a given practice (or, again, a means by which a practice is performed) is a liberty does not necessarily make it so. All liberties that are valid and thus applicable to Romans 14 must be approved by God with generic authority in the New Testament.
Verse 23 speaks to those who are the “weak” in faith. Paul establishes that if he doubts and eats meat anyway that he is condemned, because his eating is not of faith. Paul then ends this verse with another general principle at work, notably, that “whatever is not of faith is of sin,” demonstrating that if we do not have faith in a given practice or means of performing the practice– and this includes doubting it or anything else than full conviction– that practice is sin to us.
Paul’s discussion of such events does not, however, end with Romans 14. Paul also makes some comments directed first at the “strong” brother in Romans 15:1-3:
Now we that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each one of us please his neighbor for that which is good, unto edifying. For Christ also pleased not himself; but, as it is written,
“The reproaches of them that reproached thee fell upon me.”
Paul admonishes those who are strong to bear the weaknesses of those who are not and that they should not merely seek to please themselves. Paul says that each of us needs to be looking out for the benefit of our neighbor and not only our own, and our authority and chief example of such matters is Jesus Christ Himself, who fully emptied Himself not for His own desire but for us.
Paul finally concludes his discussion of these matters with a prayer and a conclusion in Romans 15:4-7:
For whatsoever things were written aforetime were written for our learning, that through patience and through comfort of the scriptures we might have hope. Now the God of patience and of comfort grant you to be of the same mind one with another according to Christ Jesus: that with one accord ye may with one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Wherefore receive ye one another, even as Christ also received you, to the glory of God.
Paul’s prayer is very similar to Jesus’ prayer in John 17: unity in the faith. This unity ought to be total, that everyone would be of the same mind in one accord and with one voice glorifying the Lord Jesus Christ. To this end, Paul says in verse 7, we must accept one another as Christ has accepted us to the glory of God.
What, then, shall we say regarding these matters? We have seen that Paul is addressing a potentially divisive situation in Rome in Romans 14: there are some who do not believe in eating meats, and they are judging their brethren who do believe in eating meats. The meat-eating brethren are themselves despising those who do not. Paul explains to them that both sides need to stop their judgment and for both sides to recognize that in regards to this issue both sides are accepted by God for their activities in sincere faith. They therefore need to do the best they can to not place any obstacles in one another’s way but to build up and edify one another to the glory of God.