Speaker: Helen Jenkinson
It’s an average Sunday morning at an average church. We’ll call it 'Anytown Christian Fellowship.' If you could see the congregation’s thoughts or hear their conversations, a bit like a speech or thought bubble in a comic strip, this is what you might see or hear from one half of the congregation:
“Did the pastor say he was going out to the Red Lion with his family? A pastor visiting a pub? That can’t be right! And on a Sunday?!"
"Look at that young woman over there with all that make up on. That’s not honouring to God is it? And don’t get me started on those teenagers in their jeans. Whatever happened to wearing your Sunday best to honour God?"
"And all this hand raising and worship is just being showy, the old hymns are the best aren’t they. And I’m sure God agrees with me."
"That person is sat in my seat. I always sit there –ever since my dad built this church back in the 50's."
Then we might eavesdrop on the conversations or thoughts of the other half of the congregation:
"Look at those 'fuddy duddies' over there. How can they enjoy liturgy and boring hymns? I’m sure God is as bored as I am when we recite the Creed. And they like to wear hats to church. What’s all that about?"
"And why do they say that Christians should be teetotal? I have freedom in Christ. As long as I don’t get drunk enjoying a glass of wine it’s no big deal."
"How on earth can anyone use a King James Version of the bible and understand it?"
The end of the service comes and everyone goes to congratulate the speaker on what a great job they did. “I love Jesus’ high priestly prayer in John 17. It’s very important that Christians are united isn’t it” Is something they might say.
Looking in on a situation we can easily see the irony of it, but these conversations or thoughts might be the norm among any body of believers. If I’ve not thought or said the exact same things, I’ve certainly thought or said something similar and I’m sure you have too. It’s so easy to do, isn’t it?
Today we’re going to look at a similar situation that Paul had to deal with, with the Christians in Rome. The details might be different but the principles are the same. And Paul’s admonition to them is a one another: Stop condemning one another.
We do not know how the gospel had reached Rome, and Paul had never visited there at the time of writing this letter. Maybe after experiencing the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost, Jews living in Rome went home and spread the gospel in that city, resulting in lots of house churches growing up?
In AD 49, Emperor Claudius expelled all Jews from Rome, scattering Jewish believers all through the Roman Empire which explains how Paul had met his great friends Priscilla and Aquilla and others that are mentioned in Romans chapter 16. But then Claudius’ decree elapsed and Jews returned to Rome. However, in their absence, the Gentile Christians had taken the lead in the Christian community, so you can imagine the tensions when Jewish Christians who revered the OT law came into contact with Gentile believers who were less concerned about. So it’s with this backdrop that we’re going to look at Romans Chapter 14 into chapter 15.
So what was the problem? Remember Rome was a Gentile environment so some of the Jewish Christians had decided that to honour God and their Jewishness they couldn’t risk eating meat because they couldn’t be sure it was kosher. They had spent their whole lives following strict dietary laws, following the rules set out in Leviticus, and assumed that in order to honour God, all Christians should follow their lead.
Another issue was how they viewed the Sabbath day and other festivals. For a Jew, these were really holy days. Days when no work was to be done in order to honour God. The sabbath was a gift from God to his people as they came out of slavery in Egypt. Therefore, you can imagine the Jewish Christians insisting that certain things had to happen (or not happen) on the Sabbath if God was to be honoured.
So, on one side of the fence, there were people who viewed certain practices as essential to living the Christian life and who were criticizing other people in the congregation who did not have the same beliefs, or who didn’t view those things with the same importance. However, on the other side of the fence, there were Christians who were revelling in the fact that they were free in Christ. They had an attitude of ‘if you don’t like it- lump it!’ to their Christian brothers and sisters. ‘I’m free to do this or that therefore you’ll just have to cope with it’.
It’s into this tension that Paul is ministering and appealing for tolerance.
We need to understand something very important here. The matters being argued about in the Greek were DIALOGISMOI, or disputable matters. This word can also mean matters of conscience. Paul is NOT teaching the Roman Christians that anything goes in terms of belief. That it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you’re sincere about it. They were not arguing about the supremacy or divinity of Jesus. Or the truth of his resurrection, or the fact that he will come again. Paul would affirm that those were indisputable facts.
The things they were arguing about were more cultural; practices that were for a particular nation or people group but they had been given the same emphasis as the indisputable matters of belief.
Before we look at how Paul teaches each set of people on each side of the fence, let’s think for a moment as to how this applies to us in the 21st century.
In our modern world, we are taught that tolerance is a good thing and, depending on our personality or background, we can view this from either side of the fence. We can assume that tolerance is a "worldly" view point and decide that as Christians we must avoid anything we consider a worldly practice for fear of being seen as liberal. Or, we can see tolerance as a need to accept every idea as it’d be wrong to disagree with another person, especially if they are sincere in their belief.
I once heard a preacher speaking about the verse in John 1, where it says that Jesus came from the Father full of grace and truth. He said that Jesus was the only person who ever lived who perfectly combined grace and truth. Who consistently applied the truth in a gracious way. That is what we find so difficult to do isn’t it?
Our tendency is to move towards extremes: NO matter as disputable, or ALL matters as disputable, maybe depending on our background or experience.
Think of the things I mentioned (very tongue in cheek) in the introduction: the consumption of alcohol; matters of dress or adornment; styles of worship. There are general principles in scripture about each of these matters but they are DIALOGISMOI, or matters of conscience.
Have a think about what your particular disputable matter is. Is there something you find winds you up about the practices of other Christians or in the church? Bear that in mind as we look at how Paul seeks to teach the ‘weak’ and the ‘strong’
Before studying this passage, I always presumed that the ‘weak’ were people who weren’t strong in their beliefs or who struggled with various issues in their life. We may the 'strong' are those with strong views and be quite forceful in sharing them. But that’s not the case.
It’s also not a simple equation to say that weak = Jew, strong = Gentile, because, although the example Paul gives is to do with the consumption of kosher food and Jewish feast days, in 1 Corinthians 8 Paul is dealing with a similar issue in the church at Corinth and that’s to do with the eating of food sacrificed to idols and how Gentile Christians should deal with that issue. So what makes a Christian weak? The answer is in verse 3:
'Those who feel free to eat anything must not look down on those who don’t. AND THOSE WHO DON’T EAT CERTAIN FOODS MUST NOT CONDEMN THOSE WHO DO, FOR GOD HAS ACCEPTED THEM.'
What Paul is saying is that the ‘weak’ Christian has lost the focus of the gospel: that we are accepted by God purely through what Jesus did on the cross, not because we obeyed a list of do’s and don’ts.
Paul isn’t saying that the weak aren’t saved or even that they don’t trust Christ. In fact, often the ‘weak’ are the most ardent in trying to follow Christ and do what they feel pleases Him. They are also often vocal in giving their opinion to others. Where they are weak is in terms of a spirit of legalism that clings to them. They have not worked out the implications of the gospel. If we are saved by grace alone, there is no need to feel we have to keep God’s favour by following certain rules and regulations. We obey out of love not duty or out of a sense of needing to earn God’s acceptance.
Why must a fellow Christian not be condemned? Because God has accepted him. Paul is saying we should welcome and accept one another because God has welcomed and accepted us.
Whatever a Christian’s strengths or weaknesses in behaviour or views, they are completely loved and accepted by the Father through Christ. Then look at verse 4:
Who are you to condemn someone else’s servants? Their own master will judge whether they stand or fall. And with the Lord’s help they will stand and receive his approval
Remember, Paul is talking about DISPUTABLE matters. Matters of conscience. The word ‘judge’ here doesn’t mean a simple evaluation. It means a condemnation and denunciation. If someone decides before God that something is acceptable for them or they should avoid it, then they have decided that in conjunction with their master Jesus. How can we get involved with an issue that’s between a servant and their master? It’s the master who decides.
Each of us needs to consider our own position. Look at the second half of verse 5:
You should be fully convinced that whichever day you choose is acceptable
Here Paul is talking about choosing when to Sabbath, but the principle is that we need to think about our pre-conceived ideas. We need to think and research in scripture whether the Bible really commands and forbids some practice, or whether it leaves it to a person’s conscience.
If the Bible leaves it free, we may decide to abstain because we know it is not good for our spiritual health or it might lead others to sin, but that is between us and God and maybe we should keep our opinions to ourselves!
But equally, a Christian must take time to look at any practice and think, ‘Can I do this before Christ? Can I do it with an eye upon him? Can I do it in his name, thanking him for it? Remember we are not our own, we are Christ’s. READ VERSES 7-8
So, in verses 9-12 Paul brings his teaching to the weak to a conclusion.
Paul writes that Jesus lived, died and rose (verse 9) so that you could be his brothers (or sisters). Therefore, how can you shun a brother he died for? How can you stand in God’s place of judgement when you yourself will stand before him and be judged (verses 10-12). You should focus on your own conduct and how you will answer for it when you meet God, rather than focusing on everyone else’s! We are to accept anyone the Lord has accepted in the gospel; we are not to condemn anyone for whom there is not condemnation in the gospel; we must ensure our consciences are in line with the freedom of the gospel and we should make sure we are living in line with the gospel.
Do we get the key words? The truths of the gospel are our go to standards in our relationships with one another.
So, Paul has firstly spoken to the ‘weak’ Christians. Who are the ‘strong’ Christians and what does he have to say to them? Quite a lot!
In this passage, the strong were those in the church who had really grasped the freedom that the gospel brings. In the case of food, Jesus had declared, in Mark 7:15, that it isn’t what goes into your body (food) that makes a person unclean but what comes out of their heart. (Their thoughts and attitudes) so therefore no food is sinful.
This was a big step for Jewish believers and some, after a lifetime of strict kosher observance, were having a hard time getting their head around it. Some however, including Paul, had fully grasped this truth from Jesus and were living in the freedom of it, to the consternation of some of their counterparts.
Have you noticed that Paul doesn’t change his position on the matter? Let’s see what he does say in verse 14. BUT his desire for the wellbeing, happiness and spiritual development of his brother or sister in Christ, his love for them, overshadows his personal freedom (vv. 13-15)
Paul is saying that even though the strong might be right in their beliefs about food, they are not to simply shrug their shoulders at their weaker brothers and sisters and continue to enjoy their freedom. To deliberately do what grieves another is simply not loving. But more than that, in verse 15, Paul says it can ruin someone: the insensitivity of the strong can destroy the work of God in a person’s life. Through their insensitivity, the strong can slow down the spiritual progress of the weaker brother or sister by them caving into peer pressure, against their conscience. There is the danger of choosing popularity and a desire to be accepted by the ‘strong’ believers over faithfulness to God because they are acting against their conscience.
Paul says, to the strong, that when you look down on a weaker believer and don’t change your behaviour (even though it is not sinful) then you are forgetting that Jesus paid with his life for every believer. If Jesus died for a weak brother or sister, then the strong must treat them with utmost care and sensitivity. They must be valued. If Jesus gave up his life for them, then we can give up our freedom out of love for them.
More than that, if a strong believer refuses to give up their freedom, they are forgetting that a Christian’s aim is to live a life of goodness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Does food or drink (or make up, or a particular worship style or bible translation!) really affect those key things?
A word of warning here. Some weak Christians constantly get irritated and upset by other church members who are offending their standards of Christian behaviour and they end up paralysing a church if they are vocal about it. Paul is not saying they should continually be pampered to. In this passage, Paul is talking about those with a deep and settled conviction. And if they are clearly being tempted to bitterness or spiritual confusion, then the strong should refrain out of love.
Let’s give a practical example here. My first job was in Luton, just north of London. After quite a long search I joined quite a traditional church quite different to what I’d been used to. 'Sunday best' was the order of the day, but I wasn’t used to that and decided that I was free to wear my jeans, despite some of the comments made especially by the mother-in-law of one of my friends. Was I right? Is the Kingdom of God all about wearing a skirt on Sunday? No! But it is about treating this older lady with respect. Looking back on my 23-year-old self, was it that important that I stuck out? What harm would it have done me choosing to wear a skirt in order to show that I valued my friend’s mother-in-law? My first thought was about my opinions, my preferences in this disputable matter, not the good of this lady.
So, how can the weak and the strong live in harmony together within a fellowship? Let’s look at verse 22.
In terms of disputable matters, keep your opinion to yourself! When something is not clearly forbidden or commanded in scripture, don’t loudly display your views or practices on the subject.
Paul isn’t saying not to give your opinion if you are asked, nor is he saying never to make an evaluation. Rather, Paul means that once we recognise something is a disputable area, we mind our own business instead of insisting that this disagreement becomes the whole church’s business.
This also means that we all need to do our own research in scripture because we will all be weak or strong in different areas, depending on our background or life experience.
In these disputable areas, the weaker must be willing to really review biblical teaching, and review their position if necessary, whilst refusing to condemn those who disagree, allowing them to follow their own consciences. At the same time, the stronger must be willing to review the biblical teaching, rethink their position and be willing to curb their freedom to avoid discouraging or harming other believers, especially those with really strong, well thought out convictions.
Remember, its only Jesus who was perfectly balanced in a life of grace and truth!
What is the result of this mutual study, review and tolerance? Let’s look at Romans 15: 6:
'Then all of you can join together with one voice, giving praise and glory to God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.'