Response to Tom Roberts
Don R. Patton
Brother Roberts is concerned about the threat of apostasy confronting the church. I appreciate him for that. I am well aware and fully agree that the abuse of Romans 14 represents a major area of danger. It is being used as a Trojan home to influence the church to "accept . . . defend and embrace sinful doctrines and practices." In the early 70's I attended a "unity meeting" at Scarlet College in Nashville and listened to pleas for unity from David Bobo, Leroy Garrett, and Pat Boone that attempted to use Romans 14 as a "garbage dump" for virtually every evil among us. I think Tom Roberts is absolutely right about the Trojan horse. I unsheathed my sword against that horse over 20 years ago. I am absolutely appalled that he associates me with them.
Yes, I do believe that some of my brethren have misunderstood Romans 14 and consequently are vulnerable. While wisely seeing the danger, I believe they have rushed past Jerusalem to Jericho and find themselves fighting a battle with arguments that will not stand. If our defense against this dangerous Trojan horse is inadequate, we simply become a speed bump on the highway to apostasy. The urgency of the danger demands that we test and prove our weapons and that we train to use them appropriately. It does us no good to turn our swords on those who are trying to help us in that task, even if we believe they are mistaken.
Chart of 100 Issues
I must confess having been bewildered by this inordinate attack on me. It seemed absolutely bizarre. I could not even recall preaching on the subject since 1990. However, after carefully listening to brother Roberts' presentations and reading his article, I am convinced that the major reason for this problem is his misunderstanding of a list of 100 issues used in a sermon I preached in Longview, Texas over four years ago. Based on that list and statements made in that sermon, Tom has concluded that I believe and teach that we will be lost unless we are willing to receive into the church all the things on that list (including abortion, bartending, girlie magazines, divorce and remarriage, etc.).
If this were true, any and all qualifying limitations I make to the scope of Romans 14, no matter how insistent, could and should be ignored. Anything I say should be filtered through the idea that I required the church to accept all these things. Any representation to the contrary would be a farce. His representations of me do not need to conform to what I say I believe, as long as he views that chart as he does. The understandable result is that he attributes to me a concept that is so vile and evil that it makes me sick to my stomach. I deny and utterly repudiate his charge.
His view of the chart contradicts what I said about its purpose the only time it was shown in the lesson at Longview. I was introducing Romans 14, a chapter designed to produce peace (v. 19) and was emphasizing the need for such a chapter. I did this by pointing out that the fusses and fights I had seen in this area were virtually limitless. I said the purpose of the chart was, "To just illustrate the wide range of things brethren have dissension over ..." Furthermore, I indicated that I did not believe this chapter could solve all these problems. "Now when we follow Romans 141 believe we can eliminate, certainly a major part of that dissension
The fact of the matter is, I do not believe any issue on the chart always belongs in Romans 14. The only item actually mentioned in the sermon was "bustles." Descriptions of conflicts on this subject are described in the journals of the past. At times the issue grew to be congregational, which put it outside the scope of Romans 14. Winking is on the chart. Believe it or not, this became an issue where I preached years ago, and it became a significant disturbance to the congregation, therefore, it ceased to be an individual matter. Church discipline was eventually exercised. Since no item can always be put in Romans 14, it should be obvious that charging Don Patton with believing all 100 items belong in Romans 14, is a terrible injustice.
This interpretation of the list clearly contradicts what was said in the lesson. For example:
Now we are not saying that you don't distinguish between truth and error and you don't expose false teachers and you don't warn those that are lost or you don't practice church discipline toward those who won't repent. That's not what's being said at all.
Of course, if I used the list as brother Roberts insists, such statements should be ignored.
An outline of the sermon was handed out when preached. The following is an excerpt:
1. Some judging required (Jn. 7:24).
a. Determining truth and error (Matt. 7:15-16).
b. Exposing what is false (Tit. 1:10-11,13).
(cf. Christ, Paul, Stephen, John the Baptist)
c. Warning lost of lost state (cf. Ezek. 33:8).
In spite of such statements found in the very sermon in question, clearly contradicting his charges, he publishes that I am in the same category with those who "make a philosophical defense of the practice of sin ... defend and embrace sinful doctrines and practices ..."
While we see clear statements in the sermon which present virtually the precise opposite of brother Roberts' interpretation, there is a passage, toward the end of the sermon, that I can now see is subject to misunderstanding. I must admit, especially in light of the present furor, that the wording is just plain dumb. But, at the time, I was not particularly on guard against misunderstanding. Obviously, I made no special effort to avoid an impression I had not contemplated. The chart was not shown but mentioned in connection with the point that there are many more individual issues among brethren than congregational. Rather than trying to identify the specific issues that belong in chapter 14, I was using the chart to emphasize the great number of individual issues. I was feebly trying to make the point that this largest category (individual issues) is where we really need help and Romans 14 is designed to help with this great need. Reading it now, I can understand someone misunderstanding. However, with my emphasis added, one should be able to see what I meant to communicate.
And so, when we are dealing with factious individuals that destroy the unity and the enthusiasm and the souls that could be reached with such enthusiasm, when we are dealing with the public proclamation of false doctrine or when we are dealing with issues that all are necessarily involved in, then we're not dealing with the things that this chapter described, but rather we're dealing with individual issues such as we had on the chart earlier. Now you notice that this last chart is lots smaller than the other one. There aren't that many congregational issues. There are a whole lot more than we'd like for there to be. But there are exactly ten times as many on the first chart as on the one we just looked at. And I think that really understates the relationship. There are many more individual issues over which brethren fall out regarding and these are things addressed in this chapter for which there is no excuse when we have dissension and falling out among brethren regarding instructions.
The question is, what is the antecedent of "these..." in the phrase "these are the things mentioned in the chapter." Is it the "many more individual issues" in the same sentence? Or is it "the chart" mentioned four or five sentences earlier? I was taught that one generally should give preference to the closest antecedent. I readily admit, other interpretations are possible, but so is mine and I have an advantage. I know what was in my heart. Others do not.
Inept as the effort was, I do believe those who heard the lesson in 1990 understood. Brother Leonard Tyler has-been associated with the church at Judson Road for over 20 years and presently serves as an elder there. He was in attendance when this sermon was preached and while we are not in agreement on all points regarding Romans 14, he makes the following statement:
I believe that Don Patton, in his introduction to Romans 14, presented a large number of issues just to illustrate the division that has prevailed among brethren. He explained that Romans 14 could help solve some of them. I did not hear, and do not believe Don tried to teach that all things on the chart had to be accepted by the church, or were justified by Romans 14. As far as I know no one else understood Don in that manner when the sermon was preached.
It is a rare preacher who has not said things in the pulpit which could be misunderstood. I do not believe I am alone. When our brethren transcribe extemporaneous presentations, scrutinizing each word in search of a motive other than the one expressed, and disallowing fervent disavowals, our brethren are not acting like brethren.
Scripture does not leave us free to believe what we will. We are commanded to love, and love "believes all things, hopes all things" (1 Cor. 13:7). In other words, we must put the best possible construction on a brother's action. We must give him the benefit of every doubt. It appears that some are unwilling to do that. Scripture demands that we cannot know and should not try to determine what is in another's heart (2 Citron. 6:30; I Cor. 2:11; 4:5). Yet some are laboring long and hard to do that, to prove that what I really meant was different from what I said. I know what I meant; they do not know. I have a right to be dogmatic. They do not.
When love fails, brethren become less generous and more certain that they know what their brother really meant. They draw their conclusions and become immovable, "proving" what was really meant with reasons that may sound very reasonable. They proclaim, "There is no possibility that I misunderstood. I am not misrepresenting." At this point, denials are useless, except to produce greater determination to find more "evidence." However, there are very good reasons for rejecting the attributed interpretation.
1. It contradicts the purpose stated the only time the chart was shown.
2. It contradicts principles stated in the lesson.
3. It is not the only interpretation of the other quoted portions of the sermon.
4. We are required to grant charitable alternatives, to give brethren the benefit of the doubt: We are commanded not to judge another's heart.
In view of these reasons, continued insistence on an appalling interpretation, contrary to my avowed explanation, is evil surmising (1 Tim. 6:4).
Most would agree that it is naive to expect all of us to reach the same conclusion on every passage at the same time. We may not reach the same conclusions on Romans 14 but I pray that brethren will not attribute to me the horrible position charged by brother Roberts. If love is exercised we should easily be able to proceed with a brief explanation of what I do believe about the chapter. Of course, those who continue to believe I require the acceptance of all things on the list will be wasting their time.
What Does the Chapter Say?
The problems that are considered in the chapter are illustrated in the following diagrams.
Unfortunately, in a danger-fraught effort to prove that the chapter deals only with incidental matters, phrases describing the second problem (good, pure, etc.) are taken out of that context (addressed to the strong) and applied to first problem (address to weak and strong). The first situation, in contrast to the second, involves standing or falling and a predicted transition from falling to standing (v. 4). It is a tortured exegesis that calls this good and pure. We can't help being reminded of those in Isaiah's day who tried to "call evil good" (Isa. 5:20).
There are good reasons for believing that we are being told how to treat a brother who has fallen and is in need of being made to stand. Adequate defense of that proposition would require at least an entire article. However, consider that one issue involved observing a day to the Lord (vv. 5-6); not observing something on that day but observing the day itself. Notice Thayer's definition of the word translated observe: " . . . to regard a day, observe it as sacred, Rom. xiv. 6; ..." (658). This religious observance was unauthorized (Matt. 15:9,13). Of course, most commentators see no problem here, but we should.
However, brother Roberts says that God received this brother in his meat eating. The passage does not say that. it says God received him (aorist tense) in the past, however the standing and falling is described in the present tense and the eventual standing in the future tense. The proper conclusion from the fact that God once received him is not that he is always received, rather, that he is a brother in Christ and is due special attention (Gal. 6:10).
It appears that some have been so concerned about what the passage does not say that they have missed its purpose and eliminated any practical benefit for today, at least from the first section of the chapter. This is the area where peace was missing. When brethren are "head to head," inevitably, at least one thinks the issue is a matter of faith. This is why the weak brother was "judging." If we tell such brethren this section does not apply to matters of faith, how can it produce peace? I challenge brother Roberts to name one issue among us where one side does not think it is a matter of faith. If he cannot answer the challenge, he is admitting that the part of Romans 14 designed to produce peace cannot be applied to a single issue among us.
He may respond, telling us that thinking it is a matter of faith does not make it so, which is certainly true. But, where does that leave you? Right where we started. No peace. The attitude is very close to the problem addressed in the second section where the strong brother selfishly insisted he was right without putting himself in his brother's shoes, refusing to look from his brother's perspective.
If sinful matters that separate man from God are involved in part of this chapter, from what we read in the rest of the Scripture, there must be boundaries, limitations to scope, such as we see regarding the acceptance of sinful brethren during forbearance, patience, etc. Of course, if all the items on the list must be accepted, virtually any stated boundaries should be ignored.
1. A Believer. The most obvious qualification tells us that those under consideration are not aliens. They have been received by God (v. 3). Those who are pushing the Trojan horse often ignore this specification. It is inexcusable.
2. An Individual Issue. Almost all expositors acknowledge that this chapter deals exclusively with individual action. That necessarily excludes a host of issues. Any issue that involves joint participation or that affects the church is excluded. Consider some examples which I clearly stated would be excluded by this qualification in the outline of my 1990 sermon.
"Each man," v. 5 "Unto Lord," v. 6; v. 4 1.... doesn't necessarily affect the whole.
2. Can't be partaker in sin! (1 Tim. 5:22)
a. Congregational action involves all.
b. Examples: ins. music, burning candles, wrong use of money.
3. Public teaching involves others (2 John 11; Gal. 2:5).
4. Factiousness destroys unity, enthusiasm, souls (Tit. 3:10).
The deluding influence of his conclusion about my list is truly powerful. His charges demonstrate that he refuses to acknowledge that these limitations define my teaching in the very sermon he transcribed.
Issues of divorce and remarriage may only involve personal convictions, inward questions about whether or not adultery is involved. However, when this sin is "conceived," it involves more than the individual.
Practice Of Adultery An Individual Matter?
Adultery always involves at least three. That makes a crowd, not an individual. Therefore it cannot be covered under this chapter. Efforts to use this chapter as a Trojan horse to introduce error on divorce and remarriage that results in adultery, find an invincible roadblock in Romans 14.
When brother Roberts used my quotation to "prove" that I include issues of divorce and remarriage in Romans 14, he failed to acknowledge my distinction between the practice of adultery and individually held personal convictions.
Now if anything is of an individual nature, like the covering question or the carnal warfare question, it would be the personal convictions regarding divorce and remarriage.
Evidently, brother Roberts sees no distinction. Does this indicate he is ready to draw lines of fellowship over individual personal convictions? If so, he is a very dangerous brother. If he does recognize this distinction, why did he misrepresent me?
Another excuse for his claim that I include moral issues like divorce and remarriage in the principles of Romans 14is his assertion that I "... twice applied them to a situation in which the teacher of a teenage Bible class sponsored a beach party."
The outline of the lesson to which he refers (not the Longview sermon) reveals that this situation was discussed under the heading of forbearance. The point was in response to a statement by another brother which illustrated a ridiculous inconsistency in the practice of forbearance; continue to study for hundreds of years on some issues while allowing no more than one hour's study time on another. In contrast to that extreme lack of forbearance I gave three illustrations of forbearance that did bring positive results. The Bible class teacher was one of these three. Brother Roberts implied that I required acceptance of this sinful practice. He failed to mention a number of significant factors which I included in that illustration, which demonstrate that charge is false:
The practice was brought to a screeching halt.
The brother was removed from the class.
The brother was personally rebuked.
Strong teaching against immodest apparel continued from pulpit.
In the following years the brother became one of the finest elders I have ever known. He powerfully, effectively taught against immodest apparel.
Furthermore, with this brother, the issue never was, "Shall we practice lascivousness?" Rather the issue was, "Is it lascivousness?" This distinction does not affect the nature of sin or its consequences. It should affect how we treat the individual involved.
3. Conscientious. The Holy Spirit specifies that the brother who receives the treatment urged in Romans 14 must "be fully convinced in his own mind" (v. 5). This is a brother who loves the truth like those the Holy Spirit describes with the same word in Colossians 2:12, "fully assured in all the will of God."
This brother stands in contrast to the one in 1 Corinthians 5 who was proud of sin so disgusting that even the Gentiles knew it was immoral. Romans 2:14-15 tells us that Gen-tiles had principles of the law written in their hearts.
For when Gentiles who do not have the Law do instinctively the things of the Law, these, not having the Law, are a law to themselves, in that they show the work of the Lord written in their hearts, their conscience bearing witness, and their thoughts alternately accusing or else defending them (NASV).
Romans 1 affirms that the knowledge of God's power and nature which the Gentiles knew (v. 21) came from the things that were made, the wonders of creation (v. 20). This source would not provide them with knowledge of the moral principles for which Paul says they are accountable in chapter 2. These principles were written in their hearts. Their conscience accused when they violated them (v. 15). We are not told how they came to be written there. Certainly, the Word is the absolute standard by which in the Gentile's heart but not in the heart of the truth-loving brother of Romans 14. If the same things that were every thought must be measured. However, I see no supplanting of the Word in the view that we have embedded within us the confirming awareness that some things are wrong, the things for which the Gentiles, without revelation, were held accountable in Romans 2.
My point is, no matter how this knowledge got in their hearts, it was there. It is unreasonable to assume that it was in the Gentile heart were in his heart, he could not conscientiously engage in the practices for which the Gentiles were condemned in Romans 2. Therefore, those issues violating fundamental principles of morality would necessarily be excluded by the Holy Spirit's requirement that he be "fully convinced" (NKJV); "fully assured" (ASV).
My father, Marshall Patton, made a similar point on this subject in an article published 18 years ago in Searching the Scriptures and reprinted in the book, Answers For Our Hope.
It should be observed, first of all, that the things under consideration in these chapters (Rom. 14 and 1 Cor. 8) are matters of personal indulgence in the realm of positive law. . . . Matters of positive law stand apart from those of moral law.... Clean and unclean meats, as well as days to be observed definitely fall into the category of positive law" (226-227).
We summarize the effect, the limitations provided by these divine qualifications, in the following chart.
"God has received"
Conscientious Alien Excluded
Moral Issues Excluded
"to his own master"
Joint Participation Excluded
It Issue Affects Church, Excluded
The limitations of a single article serving several purposes, preclude a complete exegesis. However, one should be able to see a huge difference between brother Roberts' interpretation of my position and what I actually teach. We are trying to fight the same battle. We both believe those pushing the Trojan horse desperately need to be stopped. But we need effective, scriptural arguments to accomplish this critical task. Space limitations preclude a consideration of inconsistencies in his position and practice. The approach herein proposed is more consistent with Scripture and more self-consistent, when accurately represented. It will, inevitably, produce better results because it reflects divine wisdom.
(Note: The 1990 sermon was an abbreviated version. This article is, necessarily, even more condensed. I was asked to present an exegesis of Romans 14 to a group of preachers in Dallas, November of 1994. A video tape of this relatively complete, up to date presentation will be provided with a full outline, free of charge upon request. You may write, or call 1214-279-5325)
Guardian of Truth XXXIX: 4 p. 18-22