Differences That Ought Not Divide

Lesson 53: Romans 14

Differences That Ought Not Divide

by Bob Burridge ©2012

There is a device in many of our churches that was once considered a tool of Satan. It was thought to belong to the world of evil and ungodliness. Many considered it a compromise to be around such a thing, much less bring it into worship. There were churches divided over it. Some left churches because of it. I am speaking of this device we call a “piano.”

There was a time when it was identified with the dance halls, the saloons, and gambling rooms. When it was played, minds were thought to be corrupted and turned away from Christ.

There was nothing evil about the piano in itself. Clearly, it was being abused by many in ungodly ways. Until that association could be changed, many wise Christian leaders thought it wise to keep from using the piano because of its reputation. While it makes a nice instrument to accompany the singing of praise to God in worship, and there was nothing forbidden about it in God’s word, yet it was nothing over which we should divide a church. Worship went along well without it. When the piano’s tainted image faded, and it emerged into the mainstream of our culture, it became the central instrument for worship in many conservative congregations.

Now that this perception has changed, other musical debates go on as we try to worship and live God-honoring, responsible lives in changing cultures. There are other issues that effect churches in the same way.

On the one hand, there are those who with great caution avoid many trends because of the connections they have in the minds of some with ungodly practices, and with people who live openly rebellious and flagrantly sinful lives. This caution often goes beyond their own choices. People begin questioning the salvation of those who do not make the same distinctions.

On the other hand, there are those who see nothing wrong with new cultural practices. They freely embrace them, and flaunt their liberty deeply offending other dear Christians.

Obviously either direction can be taken to a sinful extreme which can tear apart the family of God here on earth. That is exactly what the great Enemy of our Faith would love to see happen.

There were similar problems in the early church. There was confusion about certain practices that were common in their culture. It was not that God’s word was unclear. The problem was in the imperfect way we humans use God’s word, and apply it to situations that effect us personally. Often our upbringing or culture produce convictions and traditions which are neither consistent with, nor derived from God’s word. Therefore, some are bound to set the moral boundaries at different places than others.

The members of Christ’s church will not always agree on everything in this life. So it is very important that we know not only the boundaries God sets in his word, and the liberty we have to move within those boundaries. We also need to know how to get along with other imperfect Christians as we mature together in Christ.

In Romans 14, Paul deals with two classes of disputes that were causing tension at that time. He did not bring them up only to show us which side was right. His primary purpose was to show us how to deal with other believers who differ with us over such things.

First, some of the Roman Christians considered it wrong to eat meat or to drink wine. Paul refers to them as vegetarians in verse 2. As Gentiles came into the church some had been brought up with pagan customs. Some, influenced by the popular Neo-Pythagorean movement abstained from many things. For others in the Roman culture it was common to eat meat and to drink wine that had been consecrated to idols. This was a special problem that Corinth struggled with too.

Some of the believers who were Jews came from a strict Pharisaical upbringing. They abstained from eating certain types of meats as God commanded to Moses. Vegetarianism, or abstaining from all wine, was contrary to the law of God. Nevertheless, there were some vegetarian Jews among the sect of the Essenes. Josephus, a Jewish historian who lived at that time, said there were vegetarian Jews in Rome at that time.

The second issue was that some Roman believers celebrated special religious days other than the weekly Lord’s Day. Some Gentiles continued many cultural holidays that were part of their pagan upbringing. Some Jews continued the ritual Jewish holidays that prefigured Christ’s coming. They understood that the meaning of the days had been fulfilled in Jesus, but they believed they were still to be required.

Paul did not tell us here exactly which of these views were the problem in Rome. His main concern in this letter was to show how we ought to treat those with whom we differ. It was causing open disagreements and tensions in the body of Christ. In spite of their differences, the people involved were all true believers. Both sides of the issues understood that the work of Christ had fulfilled what the law foreshadowed.

So who was right about these issues? In the first two verses Paul calls these vegetarians and abstainers weak in faith.

The dietary laws of God’s word had ended with the coming of Christ. Under the law given to Moses, God restricted the diet of the Jews to only certain foods. This was done only for a limited time to illustrate the purity we must have in holiness. That limitation was done away when Jesus came and completed what the ritual laws illustrated. Jesus pronounced all foods to be acceptable. After recording this lesson by Jesus, Mark 7:19 summarized that Jesus had declared all foods clean.

Peter learned by direct revelation from God, that the old dietary laws of Moses no longer applied. Luke tells us in Acts 10 that God offered to Peter foods formerly forbidden. God said, “Arise, Peter, kill and eat!” When Peter refused, the Lord said, “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.”

Paul made this same point when writing to the churches in Corinth, Galatia, Colossae, and others. Later in his ministry he wrote to two Pastors of churches about this issue. To Timothy he said, “For every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be refused if it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Timothy 4:4). Then to Titus he wrote, “To the pure all things are pure.”

God also put an end to the holy days established under Moses. The weekly Creation Sabbath of ceasing work after six days of labor continued always. It did not start with Moses, but in the time of Adam in Eden. Such ordinances are about God’s Sovereignty and Creatorship, not about redemption, so they continue in the Christian church. But the many other sabbaths of 7 weeks, 7 months, 7 years, 7 sabbath years, and the special feast and rest days given under the Levitical laws, were only temporary. They were redemptive and represented the rest Christ would bring to our souls in delivering us by his atonement. So when Jesus completed his work, those days ceased to serve a purpose.

Paul explained this many times because it was an important change in God’s requirements. In Galatians 4:9-10 he warns them not to become enslaved all over again to “… observe days and months and seasons and years.” In Colossians 2:16-17 he wrote, “So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ.”

God’s law never did forbid the eating of meat or the drinking of wine in moderation. So if God’s law never required these strict limits, man made regulations certainly should not. The customs of pagans and of the Jewish cults were wrong from the start. This does not rule out personal choices to abstain, but we should not imply that it is a moral issue that others should comply with as well.

There were admittedly hard transitions to be made for both formerly pagan Gentiles and faithful Jews. They had been brought up believing that certain things were required or forbidden. Now in Christ, the Jewish believers were learning that the former ways they had known all their lives were fulfilled and no longer binding. Both Pagans and Jews had to give up some things in their cultures, traditions, and customs. It is seldom easy to reject past practices and convictions, nor should it be easy, until we are sure of what God has said.

Those who insisted upon limiting diet, and keeping the holy days, were wrong. They were immature in understanding the full scope of what God had revealed and accomplished. They did not yet fully understand Messiah’s finished work. Paul called them weak.

How should we deal with believers who differ about such things?

Romans 14:1-3, “Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things. For one believes he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats only vegetables. Let not him who eats despise him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats; for God has received him.

The weak must be accepted, received by us in a loving manner. When there are issues that are not clearly understood by everyone in the same way, it should be a time to study the issue together rather than to pass judgments about one another and draw hasty conclusions.

The person who eats something others abstain from should not despise (or look down upon) the abstainer. In this case, the abstainer must not judge (or condemn) the eater. Both groups were weak to the extent that they were judging one another, rather than attempting to show respect and work through the differences.

The burden falls upon the stronger ones in the faith, those allegedly better instructed in the word, and more spiritually mature. They must be patient and loving toward those who are weak in the faith, who need instruction and encouragement.

Paul’s reasoning begins with mutual submission to God as our master. God has accepted both groups as his children in Christ. They are all called our “brothers” in verses 10, 13, 15 and 21. They are those for whom Christ died (verse 15).

If we are all servants of the Lord, who are we to judge one another?

Romans 14:4Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand.

Both groups are redeemed to stand before God as those made holy in Christ. In their own understanding and conscience they follow rules they believe honor the Lord. We ought to judge the truthfulness and rightness of all things by comparing them with God’s word, but we do not have the right to be judges of one another in their standing before our Lord. Help them with their Theology, but do not unwisely presume that since they do not see things clearly yet, they therefore must not be a true child of God.

One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it. He who eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he who does not eat, to the Lord he does not eat, and gives God thanks.

Each must be convinced in his own heart comparing what he believes and does with God’s word. Day-Observers, Meat-eaters, Abstainers, Vegetarians, each was giving thanks to God to the degree that he knew what God had actually said. Until they understand otherwise, they should be respected for the godly intent placed in their hearts by the Holy Spirit.

No one should be asked to violate his own conscience. No one should be constrained by another to indulge in what he feels is wrong. Nor should he be constrained to abstain from what God has not condemned.

I often think of Jiminy Cricket, that little character in the Disney version of the movie Pinocchio. He often advised, “Let you conscience be your guide.” Of course Jiminy was not a Theologian, and I doubt that he was familiar with Romans 14. But there is a lot of wisdom in that simple statement. Earlier in Romans 2:15 we read about the reality of the conscience which leaves everyone without excuse before his Creator.

Notice that Jiminy did not say that our conscience must be our standard. Conscience makes our standard of truth and morality press down upon our souls. It is an unrelenting guide.

The Bible alone tells us what is allowable, and what pleases God. The conscience is a powerful attribute which makes humans special in God’s creation. It is irrational, and Martin Luther said dangerous, to go against one’s conscience.

So the conscience does not stand by itself. It rests upon what God said in the Bible. A poorly informed conscience can make us feel guilty when we are not, or make us feel comfortable when we ought to be alarmed about our behavior. The heart must be redeemed for the conscience to again rest upon the right foundation. So a well informed conscience comes from learning what the Bible says is right.

This is why we need to be patient with other believers when they are informed differently. Until the Bible is rightly understood, we need to act with love and consideration as we help others learn.

When Paul calls for patience, acceptance and tolerance, it is not a tolerance that excuses sin because of immaturity. The matters he is taking up here are not things directly forbidden or required by God. We need to make allowances for one another’s spiritual growth.

Both our living and dying is to be done for the Lord.

Romans 14:7-12, “For none of us lives to himself, and no one dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and rose and lived again, that He might be Lord of both the dead and the living. But why do you judge your brother? Or why do you show contempt for your brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. For it is written: ‘As I live, says the LORD, Every knee shall bow to Me, And every tongue shall confess to God.’ So then each of us shall give account of himself to God.”

It is God’s job to judge the heart, not ours. Our duty is to help other believers to grow in Christ. The dangerously immature confuse God’s prerogatives with their own.

But there is a judgment we ought to make,
that is the one we make about ourselves .

Romans 14:13-16, “Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way. I know and am convinced by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself; but to him who considers anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean. Yet if your brother is grieved because of your food, you are no longer walking in love. Do not destroy with your food the one for whom Christ died. Therefore do not let your good be spoken of as evil;”

We are not set free to cause a brother to stumble over such matters. It would be sad to hurt one redeemed by Christ, a dear brother, just for the sake of feeling free to eat some food or drink some drink. If you destroy a brother because of material things, you are not walking in love. Things that perish are not worth such harm. Never turn a good thing into an occasion for evil. We have a wonderful liberation in Christ. This good liberty should not be abused.

Though the problem in Corinth was different, the principle was the same. In 1 Corinthians 8:4 Paul showed that there was nothing inherently wrong with food sacrificed to idols. There he wrote, “Therefore concerning the eating of things offered to idols, we know that an idol is nothing in the world, and that there is no other God but one.”

If, however, we ignore the impression given by us as we exercise our liberty, we are being most immature. It is a serious sin to fail in considering the weakness of other believers. Paul said in 1 Corinthians 8:7-13, “… there is not in everyone that knowledge; for some, with consciousness of the idol, until now eat it as a thing offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. But food does not commend us to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse. But beware lest somehow this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to those who are weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will not the conscience of him who is weak be emboldened to eat those things offered to idols? And because of your knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died? But when you thus sin against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.”

Our work as a redeemed family is to build up, not to tear down.

In this next section, Paul reminds us what God’s kingdom is all about.

Romans 14:17-20, “for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. For he who serves Christ in these things is acceptable to God and approved by men. Therefore let us pursue the things which make for peace and the things by which one may edify another. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All things indeed are pure, but it is evil for the man who eats with offense.”

Material pleasures are never worth the damage their satisfaction can bring about in tearing down God’s work. The “work” spoken of here is the individual believer. Our redemption makes us a “work of God’s grace.” Each is a building of God (Ephesians 2:10, 1 Corinthians 3:9-17). So even things God declares as clean, are used for evil when abused in a way that offends a believer.

We live among those who still stumble at some practices .

Romans 14:21-22, “It is good neither to eat meat nor drink wine nor do anything by which your brother stumbles or is offended or is made weak. Do you have faith? Have it to yourself before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves.”

Abstinence from good things is not the way taught in Scripture for overcoming sin or for gaining spiritual maturity. Johannes G. Vos cautioned us saying, “a matter must be regard as indifferent until proven to be sinful, not vice verse. A man is regarded as innocent until proved guilty. Nothing could be more false and dangerous than the contention of some religious teachers that a matter must be regarded as sinful until proved to be indifferent. When there is any doubt that a matter is sinful in itself, it must be left to the individual conscience. If the teaching of Scripture about a particular matter appears to be doubtful or obscure, or even seems to be contradictory, this is all the more reason for church assemblies not to make authoritative pronouncements or laws about such a matter. What God has not clearly revealed, let the church not presume to determine.”

Similarly Paul wrote in Colossians 2:20-23, “Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations — ‘Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle,’ which all concern things which perish with the using — according to the commandments and doctrines of men? These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh.”

God recommends voluntarily abstaining from uncommanded matters for the sake of the weaker brother. If meat troubles other believers, then when they are around you — don’t eat meat (1 Corinthians 8:13). However, you should not imply that you support the idea that meat eating is sinful. That would be hypocrisy and deceit. It would violate your conscience and misrepresent God’s truth.

There are some regions and cultures where it is considered worldly and sinful to wear jewelry, even a wedding ring. Others see wedding rings as an important declaration of marital fidelity. But there are no wedding rings mentioned in the Bible. Each culture may have a different way of communicating faithfulness to what God has said and commanded. Without compromising clear moral principles and mandates stated in the Bible, we need to try to understand why certain unspecified things become important to some people.

Issues like these are mere customs and traditions. God’s word does not make them moral issues, nor should we as we mature in our understanding of what the Bible says.

When a person believes God forbids something
he must not be constrained to violate his conscience,
until he better understands Scripture.

Romans 14:23, “But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because he does not eat from faith; for whatever is not from faith is sin.”

Faith is not just a blind or irrational leap in the dark to accept something as true without evidence. That is the world’s definition. Biblically, faith is that confidence God puts into our hearts to trust in what he has actually revealed. When we act contrary to what God has revealed, we show a lack of trust (lack of faith) in his assurances.

Our duty is prayerfully to improve our understanding of what God has or has not said in his written word. As we all study hard together to clear things up we must be patient and encouraging. There will always be some imperfection in our understanding and behavior. The fruit of the Spirit is not accuracy, precision, correctness and consistency. We certainly want to be all those things to the degree God enables us, but the fruit of the Spirit in us is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

Right after listing the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians, Paul said in verses 5:26-6:6, “Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another. Brethren, if a man is overtaken in any trespass, you who are spiritual restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness, considering yourself lest you also be tempted.”

It takes time to grow and to mature. We want others to be patient with us when we struggle with our understanding and compliance. It takes a godly patience while we live with and work with those around us while they grow, too.

Few of us remember the earliest years of our lives when we were just beginning to grow up physically. Of those pre-language years our brains are not able to remember much more than some vague images. We rarely would remember how hard a struggle it must have been to get a spoon into our open mouths while still balancing food on it. We don’t remember trying to learn the meanings of the words explained to us by smiling adults bent over us repeating them again and again pointing this way and that. I cannot recall learning how to walk, and being convinced that it really has advantages over crawling which seemed to get the job done quite well up to that point. We likely will remember for the rest of our lives the challenge of learning to ride a bike or drive a car. How patient our teachers and parents had to be.

I will never forget the first moment I drove a car. It was in Driver’s Ed. class at Largo High School in 1964. The class was out on its first driving trip and we had pulled off the road on East Bay Drive. We were a few blocks from the school, just east of Missouri Avenue. I was called to the driver’s seat where I nervously belted myself in. I did all the things I read about: checked the mirror, the seat belt, adjusted the seat, and checked for traffic. Then the moment of truth came. This would be the first time I would push my foot down on the gas and get a car moving. I held the break pedal down as I slipped the car into gear. Then I took my foot off the break and wanting to look confident I stepped on the gas pedal. The car lurched forward throwing us all against the back of the seats. Then just as fast we were all thrown forward as the teacher stepped on the break on his side of the car keeping us from smashing into what ever was dead ahead. He looked at me with fire in his eyes (perhaps a little terror too) and said, “What are you trying to do? Kill us all?!”

I had a lot to learn, but I didn’t give up. Eventually, after a few exciting moments under my dad’s attempts to teach me, and a few more tense adventures with my Driver’s Ed. teacher, I learned to drive a car.

It takes time to get all the ideas together, to coordinate muscles, and to get the feel and control needed for the more precise skills. It takes patience for the teachers to help those who are trying to learn and to grow.

Our spiritual growth does not come all at once either. Not only do we need to get the basic facts worked out, we also need to get the Holy Spirit’s fruit to be flourishing in our lives to where they help us all work together as a spiritual family. That is how our discipleship to Christ is evidenced to the world. It is not recognized by our theological accuracy and traditions. It is not proven by the cultural things we don’t do, or what we allow. Jesus said it is by how we love our brothers in the faith (John 13:35).

Do you show the same persistence and patience toward others that your Lord shows with you? Do you set aside your own unimportant comforts, pastimes and traditions, so you can help with the needs of those struggling to grow in Christ around you? That is the point of this chapter. We should be patient examples of loving encouragement in the church.

(The Bible quotations in this lesson are from the New King James Version of the Bible unless otherwise noted.)

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About Bob Burridge

I've taught Science, Bible, Math, Computer Programming and served 25 years as Pastor of Grace Presbyterian Church (PCA) in Pinellas Park, Florida. I'm now Executive Director of the ministry of the Genevan Institute for Reformed Studies

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