Friday, March 24

Romans 14: Christian Conduct in Doubtful Things

Because of God's sovereign and gracious mercy to those whom he has justified, their only reasonable service of worship is to obey him. This results in total transformation of life, both in the church and in the world. In the church, they are to practice selfless love with a servant's heart (12:3–21). In the world, they are to submit to all of God's authorities and model God-fearing love to all (13:1–10). The time is short; we must live out the time God has given us with a sense of urgency. Sin is serious and should be avoided at all costs (13:11–13). Sometimes the best way to avoid sin is to avoid the temptation; to "fence off" that area lest we wander into temptation and sin and fulfill our sinful nature’s desires (13:14).

However, where each individual Christian places his "fences" is different. We are all tempted; but we are not all tempted by the same things. Our backgrounds, the proclivities of our sinful nature, our past moral failures and sins— all of these affect where we set up our boundaries. These boundaries can become something of a problem in a church body: one person has strict standards, while another has looser standards. In this discussion, Paul refers to the former as a "weak" brother, because this brother sees himself as "weak" and erects more stringent standards to avoid fulfilling the desires of his flesh. The other group, in which Paul includes himself (cf. 15:1), he calls the "strong."

The Issues at Hand
Two primary issues frame Paul's discussion in this chapter, and they both have Jewish overtones. The first was eating meat and other foods, while the second was observing certain days as "holy days." Both abstaining from meat and observing the days was practiced out of a carefulness and a continuing loyalty to the Mosaic Law. In reality, as Paul makes clear, these are not moral issues at all. It was common for Jews to avoid meat and wine altogether in case the meat had not been prepared in a "kosher" way or the wine had unknowingly been offered to an idol. Therefore, while there was nothing wrong with the food itself, there was a caution, special care taken on the part of the "weak" brother to avoid doing something that might be construed as sinful or defiling.

Paul never condemns the position the "weak" brother holds, even though he did not hold that position. From this, we can ascertain that the position itself was not sinful, although Paul cautions them against sinful actions and reactions (such as passing judgment on others who do not follow their personal standards). Therefore, this passage refers to differences of opinion on abstaining from activities that clearly are not sinful.

It is at this point that most discussions and applications of Romans 14 to modern applications fail. Paul states that both of these activities may be done or not done to God's glory (14:6). Questioning whether something can be done to God's glory is legitimate, because one cannot disobey to the glory of God. If biblical commands or principles preclude an activity, it is not a Romans 14-type "doubtful thing" or a matter of "Christian liberty." It seems that the vast majority of issues need to be discussed regarding biblical commands and principles rather than going to Romans 14.

Paul's Commands Regarding Doubtful Things
Paul reminds both brothers that they are accountable to God (14:10–12), and they are responsible to maintain peace with each other (14:19; 15:6–7). Above all, the believer's responsibility is not simply to please himself, but he is responsible to build up others around him (14:19; 15:2). All must be done for God’s glory (14:6).

The main responsibility that Paul lays on the shoulders of the "weak" brother is not to judge or condemn the "strong" brother because he does not maintain the same standards (14:3). The brother in Christ must answer to God for himself, not to us.

Interestingly, the burden of responsibility Paul lays on the shoulders of the "strong" brother. He commands the "strong" brother not to look down on his "weak" brother (14:3) nor to despise him. Repeatedly, Paul commands this "strong" brother to use great care and be lovingly sensitive toward his "weaker" brother. The "strong" brother must not cause his brother to stumble by what he allows (14:13, 15–17, 20–21; 15:1).

In Conclusion
In areas of legitimate disagreement between believers, the goal of all involved must be mutual edification instead of pleasing one's self. This is an important point, because Paul's emphasis in this chapter is the opposite of how it is normal used in current application. Generally, those who wish to excuse, defend, or rationalize some practice run to Romans 14 and tell anybody who would question them, "Don't judge me!"

Usually, they avoid the point that the chapter really lays the burden on the "strong" brother to defer lovingly to his weaker brother. These things are really not necessary or essential to life. To demand one's "rights" is neither Christlike nor loving. Romans 14 is not about my rights— it is about my responsibility to build up others in Christ, even if that means foregoing my supposed rights.

15 Comments:

Blogger Bill Combs said...

Good post, Mark. I agree with what you have said.

I wrote you a long reply this morning, but apparently I did something wrong and lost it. Anyway, I think I will just start with a question and get your reaction before I say more. I assume from your post that you would say that Rom 14 would only apply to issues where the Scripture is clear that the issue in question does not violate Scripture--is not sinful in itself.

March 25, 2006 6:39 PM  
Blogger Mark Perry said...

Dr. Combs, I found your long reply. It appears it was attached to another post. I will copy it below.

------------------------------

Very good post, Mark, and I would agree. But I was wondering about this paragraph:

"It is at this point that most discussions and applications of Romans 14 to modern applications fail. Paul states that both of these activities may be done or not done to God's glory (14:6). Questioning whether something can be done to God's glory is legitimate, because one cannot disobey to the glory of God. If biblical commands or principles preclude an activity, it is not a Romans 14-type "doubtful thing" or a matter of "Christian liberty." It seems that the vast majority of issues need to be discussed regarding biblical commands and principles rather than going to Romans 14."

I am thinking particularily about the last sentence: "It seems that the vast majority of issues need to be discussed regarding biblical commands and principles rather than going to Romans 14." Because we have the authority of Paul the apostle, we know that both activities in Rom 14 were not sinful. But that is where the rub comes. How can any modern "doubtful thing" be placed in the Rom 14 category since in our modern situation one group ("weak"?) says it is sinful and the other ("strong"?) says it is not sinful? There seems to be no way to come to the Rom 14 situation unless you have an apostle who says the modern activity is actually not sinful. The "weak" are always going to say it is sinful.

For example, in the 70s some fundamentalists said that it was sinful for Christians to wear wire-rimmed glasses (I think they were called) because John Lennon (Beatles) wore them. I know that seems silly, but some might say this case belongs in Rom 14. However, the "weak" argued the glasses were contrary to the commands about worldliness.

One way around this is to say that Rom 14 only applies to situations where there are explicit verses saying the activity in question is not sinful, and that the "weak" are those, mainly because of some previous religious background, who cannot yet bring themselves to accept their new freedom in Christ, and thus still feel that a taboo from their old religion must be maintained. I assume (?) this is probably where you put Rom 14.

March 27, 2006 9:01 AM  
Blogger Mark Perry said...

I did struggle to try to think of a modern-day example for Romans 14. I do not see Romans 14 as a "catch-all" for anything about which Christians disagree. Your last paragraph seems to articulate my impression of the passage.

March 27, 2006 10:03 AM  
Blogger Bill Combs said...

I need to study this more when I get a chance. I really wonder if it is intended to be limited to this narrow avenue. If we limit it to places where, as I said, "there are explicit verses saying the activity in question is not sinful," can we even agree what those are without an apostle to tell us. Without an apostle to tell us what is not sinful, the strong will always say it is not and the weak will say it is, so ultimately the passage has no application except in the specific examples Paul mentions.

March 27, 2006 11:02 PM  
Blogger Mark Perry said...

This was exactly my struggle: trying to find a current situation that fit the textual situation. At any rate, the principles involved (selfless mutual edification) apply to any situation. I feel very confident saying that:

1) Those who have higher standards (the "weak" brother) should not look down on those who do not hold the same standards.

2) Those who feel a freedom to engage in various activities (the "strong" brother) should not view them as a right, but should realize they are responsible not to harm other brothers and sisters in Christ with their "liberty."

3) Every believer has the responsibility to live in a way that glorifies God and edifies other believers. There is no "me time" in the Christian life. None of us live to ourselves or die to ourselves— we belong to God.

The third principle I see especially lacking in many Christian circles. This is not a matter of "how can I do what I want to do?" but "how can I help my brother be more like Christ?" There is a world of difference between those two attitudes.

March 28, 2006 10:22 AM  
Blogger you don't want to know said...

Mark and Dr. Combs,

This probably fits under the category of "previous religious background," but it may be applicable to our ministry context in NE rural Ohio. Here the religious demographic is heavily Catholic and Amish, quite a mix. I could anticipate two possible situations where Rom 14 may have application.

1) The Lord saves a devout Catholic just before Lent, and he can't bring himself to eat steak with the Greenfield's (er, hotdogs would probably more realistic).

2) The Lord saves an Amish young woman, but her standards of apparel (dress, headcovering, color of clothing, etc) are so ingrained in her.

Would these be possible areas? If the former-Catholic has serious doubts, mature Christians should exercise patience and love. Hopefully after some discipleship the individual would learn that such practices aren't essential, as Catholicism teaches. If the former-Amish woman (she's been "Yanked") just can't bring herself to wearing a burgundy-patterened dress yet and feels she'd be sinning, same situation.

March 28, 2006 1:49 PM  
Blogger you don't want to know said...

One small correction from my post: I said in the last paragraph, "Hopefully after some discipleship the individual would learn that such practices aren't essential, as Catholicism teaches." I meant "contrary to Catholism." :-)

March 28, 2006 1:57 PM  
Blogger Mark Perry said...

Dan, you are still taking a very narrow application of Romans 14. Would you be willing to broaden your application any? Why or why not?

March 28, 2006 2:03 PM  
Blogger you don't want to know said...

Oh, I agree concerning the "narrowness" of this application. They're just two examples that we've experienced here. Hey, at least I offered some specific examples! :)

March 28, 2006 4:16 PM  
Blogger Bill Combs said...

Dan: "2) The Lord saves an Amish young woman, but her standards of apparel (dress, headcovering, color of clothing, etc) are so ingrained in her."

But could not she say that our dress standards are worldly? Could she not say that a skirt that only comes down to the knees is worldly and therefore sinful? How do we prove it is not worldly and therefore not sinful?

March 28, 2006 8:14 PM  
Blogger Bill Combs said...

To sum up: I would agree with you, Mark. That Rom 14 only applies to issues where Scripture tells us that the case in question is not sinful. I think that the Amish clothing issue does not exactly fit, because we have no clear info about clothing, that says a certain kind of clothing is not sinful. So it would probably only directly apply to someone who comes to Christ who says a certain activity is sinful (because, for example, it was in his previous religion), but Scripture clearly says is not sinful. Of course we can take away the principle that I should do nothing that would casuse a fellow believer to fall into sin.

March 30, 2006 4:54 PM  
Blogger Jonathan Tillman said...

Without knowing exactly what situation Paul was thinking of when he wrote Romans 14 it is difficult to know exactly how narrow to draw its interpretation. Generally I agree that far to much is pushed into the "Romans 14 allows me any kind of behavior that I want as long as there is a text specifically forbidding it" sack.
I had a lady in our congregation who insisted the to use a data projector with Bible software was wrong. The Bible HAD to be taught from a book or it wasn't THE BIBLE. She, incorrectly, used Joshua 1:8 (This book of the law. . . ) as her text. Would you include this type of controlling behavior in your understanding Romans 14?

April 07, 2006 10:49 AM  
Blogger Dan Miller said...

Nice discussion.
The identity of the "weak" brother is key.
Who is Paul talking about? Why does Paul believe that he is "weak"? Not: Why does Paul call him "weak"? (that's also a good question) But: [u]What does Paul believe is the way that they actually became "weak"?[/u]

The verbs that Paul uses to describe this are:
krino (v. 5)
plerophoreo (v. 5)
phroneo (v. 6)
logizomai (v. 14)
diakrino (v. 23)

None of these indicate unsureness or doubt. Except perhaps diakrino, which is sometimes translated "doubt." But in Paul, this word usually means, "disern" or "judge."

I believe that Paul's presupposition is that the "weak" have become so by thinking, calculating, discerning, and judging. I'm in the process of discussing this (mostly with myself) at SharperIron.

April 07, 2006 1:35 PM  
Blogger Bill Combs said...

Jonathan said: "Would you include this type of controlling behavior in your understanding Romans 14?"

I think we can rule out your situation since Rom 14 and 1 Cor 8 are both about conduct which is not simply offensive to another believer (they don't like it), but conduct which causes them to sin. She may not like the use of the data projector, but she is not "offended" in the sense Paul is discussing.

April 07, 2006 7:32 PM  
Blogger Dan Miller said...

Bill Combs said: "I think we can rule out your situation since Rom 14 and 1 Cor 8 are ... about conduct ... which causes them to sin."

I'm not disagreeing - but to explore this a bit...
Paul seems to be talking in 1 Cor 9 about the same issues as well as other issues to which he applies the same line of thinking (celibacy and accepting money for ministry).

In fact, Paul uses strong language for his position of refusal of money from the Corinthians: "for it were better for me to die, than that any man should make my glorying void."

- Does the phrase "glorying void" refer back to 1 Cor 1:31, "He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord."? If so, then Paul would seem to be linking his money-refusal with his service to the Lord.

- 1 Cor 9:18-19 "What is my reward then? Verily that, when I preach the gospel, I may make the gospel of Christ without charge, that I abuse not my power in the gospel.
For though I be free from all men, yet have I made myself servant unto all, that I might gain the more."
Here Paul seems to see an evangelistic benefit to his money-refusal. If this is the case, then the situation is a bit different than our normal perception of these issues.
-"Offense" may be seen as either falling to sin as a believer or as something which tends to lead to wholesale refusal to accept the Gospel. So then Paul's effort to do things for the furtherance of the Gospel is an effort "not to offend."

In this sense, isn't Paul saying that his "audience" might be caused to "offend" simply by his demand of money (when he should be refusing money).
Yet, it would be tough to say that there is a reasonable basis for anyone labeling pastor-payment as sin.

What do you think?

April 13, 2006 7:27 PM  

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