Romans 14, an Overview
Romans 14 is both an intriguing and challenging chapter, much misunderstood and abused. To exactly duplicate the scenario of Romans 14 today would be impossible, in this writer's persuasion. Hence, many applications of Romans 14 today are anachronistic (contain conflicts as to time, people, and circumstances, see later). There are, however, principles and truths taught in Romans 14 that are applicable to all Christians, of all cultures and time periods.
An introduction to Romans 14. Paul had addressed many subjects and situations in the preceding thirteen chapters of Romans. He had especially treated matters pertaining to justification, whether simply a result of law keeping, grace only, or grace and law combined (Rom. 4, 5, 6, 11). Shortly anterior to his teaching in Romans 14, Paul wrote: "Be of the same mind one toward another. Mind not high things, but condescend to men of low estate " (Rom. 12: 16). The circumstances of Romans 14 presented a challenge to the enjoinment of Romans 12: 16. The teaching of Romans 14, I submit, is both an amplification and modification of Romans 12: 16. There was a situation at Rome that could result in the spiritual destruction of some of the Christians. To make matters worse, this destruction would be caused by other Christians (Rom. 14: 15, 20).
The people addressed in Romans 14. The simple answer as to the identity of these people would be "Christians." There are obviously two classes in Romans 14. They are identified by designation and action. They are the "weak" and the "strong" (Rom. 14: 1, 15: 1). The identifying action was: the weak ate only herbs, esteemed one day above another, and apparently abstained from "wine" (vss. 2, 5, 21). To the converse, the strong were those who believed they could eat all things, esteemed every day alike, and drank "wine" (vss. 2, 5, 21).
Let us now advance in the level of difficulty in attempting to identify the two groups, the weak and the strong, of Romans 14. Some believe they were the same group of Jewish Christians mentioned in I Corinthians 8 (matters of meat offered to idols by Gentiles, etc). Another view is the "strong" were Jews who had an Essenic background (practiced extreme physical self-denial, etc.). Still others hold to the view that the strong were the Jews and the weak were the Gentiles who had an Essenic past (see addendum). Regardless of which particular influential background we assign the two opposing groups of Romans 14, it is manifest an exact parallel circumstance today would be hard, if even possible, to produce. Whether Jewish or pagan, these people had been in a culture for aeons and the gospel, one source of their difficulties, had only been fully revealed about 26 years prior to Romans 14.
The required conduct of each group in the prevailing circumstances of Romans 14. The strong had specific behavior enjoined on them. They were to receive (proslambanesthe, idea of fellowship) the weak, but not to (eis, with an aim or end to) doubtful disputations (diakriseis dialogismon, judgment of thought or decision of scruples, ASV., vs. 1). The strong were not to despise (exoutheneito, set at naught, ASV) the weak, think he lived to himself, judge (krineis, condemn) or place a stumblingblock (proskomma, to strike against) in his brother's way (vss. 3, 7, 10, 13). The weak had similar behavioral requirements to the strong placed on them (vss. 3, 10, 13). The weak is also taught that in the circumstances being discussed, he must be conscientious and respect his conscience (vss. 22, 23).
Each group must have in mind how his actions would be perceived and would affect others and also the spiritual welfare of his brother (vss. 16, 19, 20, especially applicable to the strong). They, both strong and weak, were commanded to refrain from binding their views on the other group and to be sacrificial in their attitudes and decorum (vss. 22, 21).
The prompting faith under consideration in Romans 14. It is absolutely essential that we establish the "faith" of Romans 14. Some preachers have used Romans 14: 23 thus in their teaching: "If it is not taught in the Bible, it is sinful because Paul said, 'whatsoever is not of faith is sin.'" In this vein, the mentioned faith would be faith objectively viewed, the gospel (our standard of belief and conduct, Gal. 2: 14, Jude 3). Ed Harrell and Christianity Magazine's teaching advocated that the faith of Romans 14 is objective faith, the gospel. Hear Edwin David Harrell:
"In my opinion, Romans 14 gives
instructions to two people who conscientiously disagree about what God instructs them to
do, and, consequently, the passage speaks to us when we find ourselves in the same
predicament (see Christianity Magazine, May, 1989, page 134). Dudley contends that the
passage discusses a lower level of faith (really only opinion), as opposed to the faith.
That interpretation, it seems to me, makes the passage irrelevant, but that is not the
issue between us.
The question addressed in my articles was: When Christians disagree about biblical teaching (as all do), what principles govern our fellowship together?" (See the full exchange between Harrell and Spears by clicking on the URL provided at the end of this material).
Others contend (your writer included) that the "faith" of Romans 14 is faith subjectively viewed. They define it (by usage) as not subjective or that which is believed in the sense of the teaching of the gospel, but that which is simply opinion, without scripture basis or inherent conflict.
Romans 14, as you can readily see, has constituted the centrality of dialectic reference in connection with every major apostasy. How we view 'faith" in Romans 14 is pivotal, as I shall now proceed to illustrate.
Those who contend "faith" in Romans 14 is used of the gospel have inevitably and often overtly concluded (as in the case of Ed Harrell and Christianity Magazine) that we must allow doctrinal and moral deviations among God's people. Indeed, such a conclusion is necessary if we definitionally and functionally introduce moral and doctrinal deviations into the teaching of Romans 14. Not only must doctrinal and moral deviations be allowed (per the teaching of Romans 14), they must not be opposed (see vss. 1, 10, 13). When a movement succeeds in presenting the foregoing view among God's people, the highway to apostasy is paved and the speed restrictions are removed!
Beloved, it is clear and decisive that the "faith" of Romans 14 is limited and restricted by Paul to simply matters of opinions. They were told to hold their "faith" privately or to themselves (vs. 22). Can you imagine Paul having in mind by "faith" the gospel when he consistently and urgently taught elsewhere that the gospel must be shared with others (Acts 8: 4, Phili. 2: 16)? False teachers, those who teach damnable error, are not to be tolerated, Paul taught the Galatians (Gal. 1: 6-10). Moreover, the particulars under consideration expressly involved matters doctrinally and morally indifferent (vs. 14). These matters only occupied a place in concerns of right or wrong in the minds and consciences of the weak brethren (vss. 14, 22, 23). "How about the drinking of wine," someone injects, "that was a matter of right and wrong!" (see vs. 21.) Intelligent reader, the wine (oinos) of Romans 14 was not the fermented drink some want it to be. I know this because the Bible not only teaches abstinence from intoxicates in general, but total physical avoidance (Prov. 23: 29 ff., see exception in I Tim. 5: 23).
Even in the extended and peculiar circumstances of Romans 14, Paul is instructing and rebuking the weak brother, a point often overlooked. Paul commands him to keep his views to himself, do not use them as a standard to judge others, and to truly study the matter so he will be "fully persuaded" (Paul is actually and presently teaching him so he can be fully persuaded and not remain ignorant, vss. 22, 3, 5).
Common erroneous teaching and practices based on a perversion of Romans 14. Too many churches of Christ allow the teaching that Romans 14 includes doctrinal and moral deviations from the truth of God's word. Hence, a brother who has not extricated himself of all his false doctrine he acquired while in denominationalism is allowed to believe and, sometimes, even teach error and others are instructed to back off. The instruction of Romans 14 does not even resemble such a posture, not in teaching or application. False teachers must be confronted and challenged (Acts 15: 1, 2 ff.) When false teachers persist, they are to be marked and not fellowshipped (Rom. 16: 17, 2 Jn. 9-11, regardless of their believed motives). Notwithstanding, some that hold error such as women must wear a hat during worship (many other examples could be supplied), must not be challenged, according to the common misunderstanding of Romans 14. When told that I must not teach on sensitive subjects (misuse of Romans 14), I often have asked such brethren, "do you believe you are the weak brother of Romans 14?" I never have had one to say, "yes, I am the weak, ignorant brother of Romans 14." Beloved, these arguments and practices are spurious and anachronistic, as far as Romans 14 is concerned (or any other teaching in God's word). (You are also invited to read an exchange between a preacher and me on the Romans 14 issue. This exchange shows exactly the danger of the views being expressed that Romans 14 includes matters of sin and error. Click here. To consider the criteria for attempting to place items in Romans 14, consider the sermon outline, "The Particulars of Romans 14"). Also of interest is the article in the Archives of Bible Truths titled, "Some Revealing Exchanges on Romans 14" (click on to visit).
What churches must practice. In stead of the too common unity in diversity based on a misunderstanding and perversion of Romans 14, churches must have aggressive and applicable preaching (2 Tim. 4: 1 ff.). Truth must be boldly presented and error exposed (Phili. 1: 7, 17). Brethren must be urged to practice doctrinal and moral purity without partiality and hypocrisy (cf. I Tim. 5: 20, 21). In some cases, the "weak" are actually allowed to run the church, making such decisions as who the preacher will be. Love and patience must be shown to the "weak," but they must be urged and taught to grow. Sure, there will be division from time to time (I Cor. 11: 19).
In conclusion, the twisting of Paul's teaching in Romans 14 to be inclusive of doctrinal and moral deviations is not simply error or an error, it is error that allows all error and forbids any and all challenge. Once the floodgate is allowed to be opened, we have no right attempting to pick and choose which false doctrines we will allow or reject, such is the height of hypocrisy (many are guilty of this). The key is to keep the floodgates tightly and securely closed! (To further study the Romans 14 and fellowship matter, please read an exchange between Joe Price and me. Simply click on, "An Exchange on Romans 14 and Divorce and Remarriage".)
Addendum: If we argue the weak were the Jewish Christians and that their background influence was the Mosaic Law (meat, days, etc.), we are faced with some difficulties. For instance, it would be unusual to think of those of a Jewish heritage as being the weak (Rom. 3: 1 ff.), but how do we explain the day they were esteeming over other days. Would it not be the sabbath? How then do we reconcile the teaching of Paul in Romans 14, if the day is the sabbath with all the attendant Jewish significance, to his teaching elsewhere relative to not esteeming one day above another in the Jewish setting (see. Gal. 4: 10, 11, 5: 4)?
Regarding some of the contemporary Gentiles possessing an Essenic belief, the Neo-Pythagorean philosophy advocated asceticism similar to the Jewish Essenic (Porphyr., 'De Abstin'). (You may also read additional material on Ed Harrell and Christianity Magazine in Bible Truths. While on the home page, click on the Archives button and select "Pristine Christianity" in the subject index on the Archives page. See the full exchange between Dubley Spears and Ed Harrell by visiting the Polemic Exchange section of Bible Truths, accessed from the Site Map page).