Romans 14 is a chapter of the Bible that is often misunderstood and consequently misapplied. This chapter is a continuation of Paul's discussion on practical Christian living. The emphasis in these 23 verses is on the attitude that brethren should have toward each other when there are conflicting opinions on matters of indifference.
I believe this is an extremely important study for all Christians for two reasons:
In our feature lesson today, we will examine the major points of Romans 14 as we attempt to understand Paul's teaching in this chapter. Then, in our next feature lesson we will answer three related questions that are very important:
THE TEACHING OF THE APOSTLE PAUL IN ROMANS 14
Paul begins this chapter by referring to one who is "weak in faith." The brethren are instructed to "receive" this person (14:1), who is evidently a brother (14:10; cf. 14:3 - "God has received him"). Thus, the one who is "weak in faith" is one who has been baptized into Christ. He is one who is living in harmony with God's will. Otherwise, there would have been no instruction for him to be received. It should also be pointed out that the kind of faith by which one becomes a Christian and by which one remains faithful is not weak faith!
Well, Stephen, in what sense then is the brother "weak in faith"? We won't take the time to thoroughly discuss this point, but let me share with you what appears to be the most reasonable conclusion. Likely, the weakness that is discussed here by Paul is the same weakness that he wrote about in I Corinthians 8:10. Namely, the weak brother is the one who can be led to violate his conscience, by the example and influence of others. This conclusion seems to fit the context of this chapter very well, especially Romans 14:23.
So, Paul instructs the saints in Rome to "receive" such a brother, but not for the purpose of passing judgment upon his particular opinions and practices as long as those opinions and practices were not wrong within themselves.
Paul gives an illustration to explain his point: One man believes that it is right for him to personally eat meat and vegetables. Another man--the weak brother--believes that it is not right for him to personally eat meat, but only vegetables. What attitude should these brethren have toward each other? Paul says that these brethren are not to "despise" nor pass judgment upon each other (14:3). God has "received" each one because each one is sincere, and each one is in harmony with God's will. How can that be since they disagree? Each one is in harmony with God's will because it is right to eat meat and it is right to refuse to eat meat! Each brother is a servant of the Lord, and each one stands before the Lord.
Paul gives another illustration of a matter of indifference: one brother "esteems one day above another" (14:5). For example, he decides that he will hold this Thursday as being special to him in the Lord's work. The other brother holds every day alike. Now, let me insert a very important comment here. There is no reference here to God's appointments (such as worshipping on the first day of the week) or to matters which would in any way violate God's will. Paul is not making a reference to special days under the Mosaic law. How do I know? Simply from the fact that elsewhere he makes it clear that Christians were not to go back to the law of Moses (cf. Gal. 4:8-11; 5:3; Col. 2:16,17). Paul feared for the salvation of those who did go back and observe special days under the law of Moses, and since that is the case we can know that Paul is not saying here that such is a matter of opinion. Paul is discussing things which are right if done and right if not done; that is, matters of indifference. In matters like these, every person is to be "fully convinced in his own mind" (14:5).
Paul then stresses that the men contemplated in his illustrations are genuinely sincere and that each one is striving to be pleasing to God. They recognize the sacred principle that Christians belong to the Lord. They are servants of His, and they are to do everything to the glory of the Lord (14:8). "For to this end Christ died and rose and lived again, that He might be Lord of both the dead and the living" (14:9). Therefore, in these matters of indifference brethren are not supposed to find fault with each other. Instead, it should remembered by everyone that there is a judgment to come, and that "we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ" (14:10; II Cor. 5:10).
Next, Paul teaches that Christians must be exceedingly careful never to become a stumbling block to someone else. Paul mentions in Romans 14:14 that "there is nothing unclean of itself." Due to the context, we know he must be limiting this thought to food--especially since we know there are many things that are inherently wrong (cf. Gal. 5:19-21). The statement "there is nothing unclean of itself" is a plain declaration that the Mosaic law had ended and its laws concerning the human diet were no longer in force.
"But," says Paul, "to him who considers anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean" (Rom. 14:14). Paul is here teaching that it is sinful for one to violate his own conscience--even if he is doing something that is right in and of itself. And, it is a sin for one person to influence another person to violate his conscience. A Christian with a heart full of love and consideration for others will not insist upon his "rights" (in these matters of indifference) if such might cause a brother to be led to violate his conscience. Such behavior does not produce good.
Paul exhorts in 14:15 - "Do not destroy with your food the one for whom Christ died." He then stresses the true nature of the kingdom of God. It is "not eating and drinking." It is "righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (14:17). Those who contribute to this righteousness and peace and joy serve Christ, and are well-pleasing to God as well as approved by men. However, those who, by insisting upon their "rights" (in matters of indifference), destroy others are not pleasing to God! "Therefore let us pursue the things which make for peace and things by which one may edify another" (14:19). Paul instructs: "Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food." Paul explains that all kinds of foods are "pure," but that it is wrong for one to conduct himself in such a manner as to lead someone else to violate his own conscience. It is good not to do anything (relating to matters of indifference) "by which your brother stumbles or is offended or is made weak" (14:21).
Instruction is then given that if a man believes that it is right for him to eat meat, then it is alright for him to hold this view. But, he must not allow his belief on this matter of indifference to cause others to stumble. Happy (or blessed) is the man who does not bring condemnation upon himself by practicing (in matters of indifference) that which he approves (14:22). How could one bring condemnation upon himself by doing that which he approves of? By encouraging his brother, by his actions and influence, to violate his own conscience!
Paul further explains that the individual who eats meat--believing that it is a sin for one to eat meat--brings condemnation upon himself. He does something which he doubts the correctness of. Listen carefully, 14:23 teaches the principle that when anyone does anything and has doubts about its correctness, he sins! For example, if I have questions in my own mind about whether or not I should go to a certain place or whether or not I should do a particular thing, then that should be a red flag telling me that I shouldn't do it. If I go ahead and go to the place or do the particular action with doubts in mind, then I have sinned! This example might sound absurd to some, but if a person believes it is wrong to drink milk (for whatever reason), and yet he knowingly drinks some anyway (due to peer pressure or some other reason), he has committed sin!
But in what way has he sinned, Stephen? He has sinned by violating his conscience on the matter. God has given each of us a conscience to help guide us, and He does not want us to violate it and ultimately cause it to be "seared" (I Tim. 4:2). Notice carefully what I said: I didn't say that our conscience is our guide, but it does help guide us. Our conscience is only as helpful as to the extent that it has been taught correctly from God's word. It is entirely possible for me to do something terribly sinful and my conscience could approve of (e.g., Acts 23:1). However, if my conscience is properly taught from God's word, then it will aid me in my goal of remaining faithful to the Lord. There is much more we could talk about relating to the human conscience, but right now the main point I want you to understand is this: If I believe that something is wrong, regardless of whether or not it actually is in God's eyes, and I go ahead and commit the particular action, then I have sinned. Thus, the simple conclusion is this: Never do anything in which you have doubt concerning the correctness of it.
We will continue this study in our next feature lesson. Thank you for listening, and may the Lord bless you as you strive to do His will.