September 22, 2017

Romans 14 in Application

By Mike Willis

The charge has frequently been made that affirming that Romans 14 is limited in application to matters of indifference effectively "guts" the chapter of any meaning. Sometimes the speaker will affirm that in all of the matters on which brethren are disagreed one of the parties believes that the matter under discussion is a matter of faith. Consequently, if one limits the chapter to matters of indifference, the chapter has no application.

The Problem is Not Unique to This Interpretation

If this objection has validity for one interpretation of Romans 14, it also has validity for others. Remember, there are only three possible applications of Romans 14:

Proposition 1. Romans 14 includes all matters of faith.

Proposition 2. Romans 14 includes some matters of faith.

Proposition 3. Romans 14 includes no matters of faith.

No one except the universalist will accept the principle that Romans 14 has application to all matters of faith. That has been rejected by everyone among us. The only two serious interpretations are numbers 2 and 3. The objection is made that Romans 14 has no application when limited to matters of indifference (no. 3) because at least one party does not admit the matter is a matter of indifference. The very same objection falls with equal force on interpretation number two. Unless both parties admit that the "matter of faith" under consideration falls into that list of "some matters of faith" on which brethren can be disagreed, then Romans 14 is "gutted" in the same way.

If one insists that a list of matters of faith and matters of indifference must be drawn up before interpretation number three has any use, then the same objection falls on interpretation number two, except that two lists will need to be made: (a) a list distinguishing matters of faith from matters of indifference and (b) a list distinguishing which matters of faith are matters on which we must agree and which are matters on which we can disagree. Rather than interpretation number two providing an ad-vantage in reference to this objection, it doubles the problem.

The truth is that no one can produce a final and comprehensive list of issues which do or do not fit into Romans 14. Some issues that fall into the category of Romans 14 may not have even arisen yet. As each issue arises, it will have to be considered on its own merit in the light of the whole counsel of God.

The Application

The application problems of Romans 14 existed just as certainly in the first century as they do in the twentieth century. If we can understand the application of the principles in Romans 14 (and parallel texts), we will know how the same problems are to be handled today. Let us consider this study from the standpoints of the strong and weak brethren.

1. Instructions given to the strong brother. The strong brother is strong in two senses: (a) He is standing in the position of the brother whom Paul identifies as correct. Paul clearly comes down on the side of the strong brother in concluding that sin is not committed in eating meats and in esteeming every day just alike (see 14:14, 16). He included himself when he said, "We then that are strong" (15:1). (b) He has the strength of conscience to do what his conscience dictates. Understanding both aspects of what constitutes a person as the "strong" brother in Romans 14, we can now delineate what charges Paul made to the stronger.

a. Receive the weaker brother (14:1; 15:7).

b. Do not engage in doubtful disputations (14:2).

c. Do not despise (or set at nought) your brother (14:3, 10).

d. Do not judge (condemn) your brother (14:3, 10, 13).

e. Be fully persuaded that your action is consis tent with your conscience (14:5).

f. Do not put an occasion of stumbling in front of your weaker brother (14:13).

g. Do not destroy your brother by causing him to violate his conscience (14:15).

h. Follow after those things that make for peace and edify one another (14:19).

i. Keep your personal practice to yourself (14:22).

j. Bear the infirmities. of the weak and do not just please yourself (15:1-2).

2. Instructions given to the weaker brother. The weak brother is "weak" in two senses: (a) He is wrong in his conviction that eating meats is sinful and that one day is to be more esteemed than another; (b) He is weak in his conscience with respect to doing what he thinks is right. Isaiah Grubbs commented about the weaker brother as follows:

He who has not sufficient moral manhood to carry out his own convictions of right, but weakly wavers and yields against his conscience under the pressure of per-suasion or the influence of another's example, is "weak" in a far more vital element of his being than his intellectual faculties. Paul, therefore, locates the weakness under consideration in the conscience, since it shows itself unable to counteract the influences that draw its subject into a violent conflict with his own convictions (Commentary on Romans 159-160).

The commands that Paul gave to the "weaker" brother are very limited in comparison to those given the stronger brother. F. Godet observed,

As is observed by Hofmann, he had nothing similar to recommend to the weak; for he who is inwardly bound cannot change his conduct, while the strong man who feels himself free may at pleasure make use of his right or waive it in practice (Commentary on St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans 457).

Because of the limitations imposed by conscience, the following are the only instructions given to the weaker brother in Romans 14:

a. Do not judge the one who eats (14:3).

b. Be fully persuaded that your action is consistent with your conscience (14:5, 23).

This list of responsibilities makes abundantly clear that the burden for keeping the peace in a local congregation lies on the shoulders of those who recognize that a given action is an authorized liberty. The other brother is con-science bound to respect his conscience.

Additional discussion of the charge not to judge the one who eats can be learned from 1 Timothy 4:1-3. That text reads as follows:

Now the Spirit speaketh expressly, that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits, and doctrines of devils; speaking lies in hypocrisy; having their conscience seared with a hot iron; forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving of them which believe and know the truth.

This text is also speaking about "authorized liberties" (to eat meat or not eat meat; to marry or not to marry). It illuminates the command not to "judge" the one who eats. For this brother there is the danger of elevating one's personal judgments to the level of divine law. When this occurs, the person guilty has departed from the faith and has begun to follow doctrines of devils. From this we can learn the responsibility of the weaker brother: The weaker brother must not elevate his opinion to the level of divine law to make it a condition of salvation and fellowship.

How It Works

Let's see how this works with reference to a matter on which brethren are disagreed. Brethren disagree on the covering. From the standpoint of who is bound by his conscience to a single course of action, the person who believes that the woman should wear the covering is conscience bound to wear it. In this respect, she is to be compared to the weaker brother. The sister who believes "neither, if we wear the covering, are we the better; neither, if we wear not the covering, are we the worse" (accommodated to the language of 1 Cor. 8:8), has the liberty of two courses of action. In this respect, she can be compared to the stronger brother.

The stronger brother, the brother who believes "neither, if we wear the covering, are we the better; neither, if we wear not the covering, are we the worse," should follow these instructions regarding his conduct to his brothers and sisters who believe that they should wear the covering:

a. Receive the weaker brother (14:1; 15:7).

b. Do not engage in doubtful disputations (14:2).

c. Do not despise (or set at nought) your brother (14:3, 10).

d. Do not judge (condemn) your brother (14:3, 10, 13).

e. Be fully persuaded that your action is consistent with your conscience (14:5).

f. Do not put an occasion of stumbling in front of your weaker brother (14:13).

g. Do not destroy your brother by causing him to violate his conscience (14:15).

h. Follow after those things that make for peace and edify one another (14:19).

i. Keep your personal practice to yourself (14:22). Bear the infirmities of the weak and do not just please yourself (15:1-2).

The instructions given to the weaker brother must be applied to the brother whose conscience dictates to him a specific course of action (that his wife wear the covering):

a. Do not judge the one who eats (14:3). Do not elevate one's opinion to the level of divine law to make it a condition of salvation and fellowship (1 Tim. 4:1-3).

b. Be fully persuaded that your action is consistent with your conscience (14:5, 23).

Without passing judgment on the rightness or wrongness of the given issue before us, but based solely on the determination of who has the choice of two courses of action consistent with the dictates of his conscience, we are able to apply Romans 14.

What Is A Matter of "Faith"?

In order for anything to be "of faith," it must be a response to the word of God. Roy E. Cogdill explained this in Faith and the Faith. He wrote,

I cannot believe a thing if God has not said it. So often people use the expression "I believe," in a very unscriptural manner and, certainly, in a very incorrect way. I hear people saying everywhere I go, "I believe this or I believe that," and God never said anything that sounded like it. There is not anything in the Bible that even indicates it  nothing in the Word of God that even hints at it. And yet, we talk about "believing." Well, Paul says, "Faith comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God." If the Word of God does not teach it, then one cannot hear it from God; and if one does not hear it from God, there is no proper way of believing it, because one believes in God (124).

Paul's instructions in Romans 14 do not permit a man to make a list of all of his pet theories and to demand that the whole church bow to them. The one who objects to a certain practice must keep his own conscience clean and must learn not to bind his own conscience on everyone else in matters of this kind. Brethren must take each issue or each objection on its own merits in the light of the whole counsel of God before deciding whether it is a matter like circumcision (1 Cor. 8:8  "But meat commendeth us not to God: for neither, if we eat, are we the better; neither, if we eat not, are we the worse.") or a matter of sin.

Brethen have used Romans 14 just as I have advocated in this series of articles and have lived in peace with one another in spite of having differing judgments about a variety of things. Distinguishing matters of sin from matters of judgment, they have also staved off apostasy in a number of conflicts (mechanical instruments of music in worship, church support of human institutions, sponsoring church, etc.). Had the principles being advocated for present application of Romans 14 to marriage, divorce, and remarriage been followed in those conflicts, we would have been destroyed by these apostasies. Those who cry that the interpretation of Romans 14 given in this series of articles will lead to "endless division" cannot sustain their charges by historical demonstration. They ignore the years it has worked for us.

Furthermore, they ignore the fact that in every apostasy that has occurred among the brethren, some have used Romans 14 to justify fellowship with those who introduced unauthorized practices, defend them as righteousness, and call upon others to join them in the practice of their sin. They have been content for churches to choose not to do what they do, so long as their practices are not condemned as sinful and fellowship is not withheld because of their sin. What is presently being advocated with reference to Romans 14 and fellowship is not new. Brethren have answered it with reference to mechanical instruments of music in worship, church support of human institutions, sponsoring church, etc. Why should we be surprised when the same arguments are used to justify a broader fellowship on marriage, divorce, and remarriage?

Conclusion

The example given above demonstrates that Romans 14 is applicable, even when brethren are disagreed on a matter which one believes is a matter of faith and another a matter of authorized liberty. The burden for maintaining fellowship lies on the brother who has the liberty of con-science to choose either of two courses of action (the stronger brother), just as the texts of Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8-10 do. The interpretation that limits Romans 14 to matters of authorized liberty is (a) consistent with the internal evidence in the text and (b) applicable to past and present differences among brethren. This interpretation does not "gut" the chapter of relevance, but is the only understanding of the text that gives due emphasis to the many statements in Romans 14 describing the matters under discussion as authorized by God.

Guardian of Truth XXXIX: No. 22, p. 2
November 16, 1995

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