Does Romans 14 Authorize a Broadened Fellowship?

By Marshall E. Patton

The 14th chapter of Romans identifies a divinely authorized area of tolerance. It shows that some differences among brethren are to be tolerated without making such a test of fellowship. This area of tolerance is circumscribed and bound by divine law. The principles by which the boundaries are determined must be carefully learned and respected, otherwise, one is likely to be found going beyond the “doctrine of Christ” (2 John 9). Unfortunately, some have done just that, including our brother LaGard Smith in his book Who Is My Brother? now under review in this special issue. While we must be careful to retain in our fellowship all whom God intends, at the same time we must not run roughshod over divine limitations. The design of this article is to establish in the light of the Scriptures those parameters beyond which some brethren have gone in their efforts to justify fellowshipping those unauthorized.

An overview of the whole chapter together with a brief exegesis of some key verses are essential to a clear understanding of some particulars in the chapter, some of which are pertinent to this study. The thrust of this chapter is to show brethren who differ in certain matters how to have fellowship with each other in spite of such differences. As a means to that end three primary matters are discussed, namely, clarity of conscience, individual action, and offending a brother.

Paul begins in verse one by exhorting brethren to “receive” (into fellowship) one that is “weak in the faith” (KJV), which also may be translated “weak in faith” (ASV, NASV). If understood according to the former, the reference would be to objective faith, i.e., the gospel (Acts 6:7; Jude 3). In this instance the weak brother would be lacking in knowledge. If understood according to the latter, the reference would be to subjective faith, i.e., one’s own faith in or toward the action or object under consideration. In this instance the weak brother would be lacking in conviction so that he could not partake of that in question believing it to be right. Since the expression of itself admits either translation, its contextual setting should be the determining factor. Also, since clarity of conscience is emphasized throughout the chapter as a primary objective in all that one does (vv. 5, 23), I conclude that the weak brother lacked faith to eat meat or to esteem “every day alike.” Hence the word “faith” in verse one should be understood in the same sense as in verse 23, i.e., in the subjective sense: “And he that doubteth is damned if he eat, because he eateth not of faith: for whatsoever is not of faith is sin.” The weak brother’s problem was likely threefold: a lack of knowledge, and, consequentially, a lack of faith (subjective), and consequently, a conscience that would not allow him to do what others were doing.

The church in Rome was made up of both Jews and Gentiles. Some found it difficult to leave off some of their former beliefs and practices after their conversion. The Jews found it difficult to lay aside the restrictions of Judaism respecting meat eating, the observance of days, and other rituals of the law of Moses. No doubt some in order to be safe and for conscience sake pursued the course of a strict vegetarian. However, the “weak” brother of our text pursued the course of the vegetarian while “judging” others (condemning them) to the point of making it a test of fellowship. Obviously, he believed that such was a part of the gospel, and, therefore, binding upon Christians. The Gentile had a similar problem in regard to eating meat sacrificed to idols. Thus, we find under these conditions, when a transition was being made from their former religion, both the “weak” and “strong” among the early Christians. These were nebulous matters among them. Remember, the church in Rome was yet without the information Paul gave the Corinthians (1 Cor. 8; 9), nor did he tell them to settle the issue on the basis of which was right or wrong. Rather, Paul commanded both the “weak” and the “strong” to leave off judging each other (3, 4, 13) and to “receive” (fellowship) each other, “but not to doubtful disputations” (for the purpose of wrangling, condemning, and creating strife).

In verse three, Paul gives another reason for this fellowship: “for God hath received him.” The “for” (Gr. gar) is a causal conjunction which introduces the reason for the two-fold exhortation (to both the vegetarian and the meat eater). The “him” in the last phrase of verse three has for its antecedent both or either of the individuals in the exhortation just given — depending on the one under consideration at the time. The reason for both exhortations is the same. This shows that at some time in the past (aorist tense) God had received both individuals under consideration; that they were brethren, and, therefore, worthy of better treatment from each other than being received unto “doubtful disputations.” Right here we learn more of the limitations placed upon this area of tolerance, namely, the fellowship authorized applies only to those who are Christians — those who have been “received” of God, and who are, therefore, brethren in the Lord. Doctrinal differences over what is necessary in becoming a Christian are excluded.

In verse four Paul deals with their present practice: “to his own master he standeth or falleth” (present tense). Here we learn another limitation placed on this area of tolerance, namely, only individual matters are included. By “individual matters” I mean actions that involve only the individual in contrast to actions that involve joint participation or group action. Thus, the vegetarian could act according to his conscience and the meat eater could act according to his conscience without either one violating his own conscience. I realize that a clear conscience does not guarantee the action to be right (Acts 23:1; 26:9; Prov. 14:12), but all should remember that keeping the conscience clear is a basic requirement of all Christians (vv. 5, 22, 23; 1 Tim. 1:5).

This explains why issues that involve joint participation — group or church action — bring about division, e.g., instrumental music in worship, sponsoring church, church support of other institutions, the social gospel concept, etc. In such cases the one who conscientiously opposed the practice would have no alternative but to violate his conscience or separate. On the other hand, issues that involve only the individual do not or should not divide churches, e.g., the covering of 1 Corinthians 11, the war question, personal indwelling of the Holy Spirit, observance of Christmas, etc. Each can act according to his own conscience and “unto his own master stand or fall,” yet, participate in unison with all Christians in every function of the church. Our “liberal brethren” have a hard time understanding why we can differ over these individual matters and still fellowship each other, while we cannot do as much with them in relation to the matters that divide us. They do not understand Romans 14. One is in an authorized area of tolerance and the other is not.

Thus far, we have observed four fundamental restrictions limiting this area of tolerance: (1) Nebulous matters (vv. 1, 2), (2) Limited to brethren (v. 3, “for God hath received him”), (3) Conscientiousness (a requirement of all Christians at all times, vv.1, 5, 23; 1 Tim. 1:5), and (4) An individual matter (v. 4 “to his own master he standeth or falleth”).

It should be observed, however, that not all individual matters fall into this area of tolerance. None of us would be willing to tolerate lying, stealing, murder, or any specified sin (clearly established) regardless of who or how many were involved. Yet, there comes a time when men of knowledge, who are conscientious, differ over whether or not a transgression is involved in the action in question. Such are comparable to the differences in our text. It should also be observed that all four of these limitations are to be respected in determining a matter of tolerance.

Brother LaGard Smith’s book Who Is My Brother? ignores these divine limitations, and consequently, misapplies the command “Let us not therefore judge one another any more” (Rom. 14:13). Smith arbitrarily sets up a human standard for measuring who is to be fellowshipped. This standard (including five levels of fellowship) permits him to separate from brethren with whom he differs doctrinally for conscience sake, yet continue in fellowship with them in what he calls the “extended family,” or “in Christ fellowship.” Other articles in this special issue will show more in detail how this is done.

The New Testament teaches that fellowship with God that is synonymous with salvation is based upon the declared message of the holy apostles and prophets; that this fellowship is with God, Christ, the apostles, and the faithful (1 John 1:3; Eph. 3:5). Any doctrine (unless within this authorized area of tolerance) outside this inspired revelation will separate one from such fellowship. Proof follows: Paul taught that any other gospel would remove one from Christ, and whoever taught it would be accursed (Gal. 1:6-9). Again, Paul said, “If any man teach otherwise, and consent not to wholesome words, even the words of our Lord Jesus Christ, and to the doctrine which is according to godliness . . . from such withdraw thyself” (1 Tim. 6:3-5). Concerning Hymenaeus, Paul said, “I have delivered unto Satan,” an expression referring to the withdrawal process (1 Tim. 1:20; 1 Cor. 5:3-5,13). Why was this done? Paul answers when speaking of him and Philetus in 2 Timothy 2:18: “Who concerning the truth have erred, saying that the resurrection is past already; and overthrow the faith of some.” False doctrine breaks fellowship with God, Christ, the apostles, and the faithful. This is done in its twofold sense: (1) Removes from the state of fellowship (1 Cor. 1:9; 2 Thess. 2:14), (2) Precludes joint participation (2 Thess. 3:6).
2 John 9 is perhaps the most pertinent verse in the whole Bible on this particular issue. It deals a death blow to LaGard’s argument which is the same as that made popular by the New Unity Movement (NUM) a few years ago. Because what I wrote then in reply answers now LaGard’s argument in his book now under review, I submit the following : “The NUM affirms that ‘doctrine of Christ’ (2 John 9) refers to doctrine about Christ (v. 7). They say the context demands it, and, thus, they exclude sincere brethren in error from the condemnation of verse nine. However, a more careful examination of these verses shows that verse seven is the exception (a specific of the whole) to the contextual theme (the whole body of truth) which runs throughout this short chapter. The ‘truth’ (singular) — the whole body of truth (vv. 1, 4); the ‘commandment’ (singular) — inclusive of all commandments (v. 6), and ‘doctrine’ (singular) — not one of the doctrines (v. 9) identify the theme of the context. Thus, the NUM’S view is arbitrary, out of harmony with other passages (e.g., Rom. 16:17; Tit. 3:10,11; 2 Tim. 2:15-18), and at variance with scholarship in general. Consider the following:

‘Of Christ’ is the subjunctive genitive: the doctrine Christ taught and still teaches through his apostles’ (R.C.H. Lenski).

Thayer defines the word ‘doctrine’ as ‘that which is taught, one’s teaching, i.e., what he teaches, 2 John 9.’

‘The doctrine which, proceeding from Christ, was proclaimed by the apostles. The doctrine of Christ is the truth; he who has not the truth has not God’ (H.A.W. Meyer).

‘Not the teaching about Christ, but that of Christ which is the standard of Christian teaching as the walk of Christ is the standard for the Christian’s walk (1 John 2:6)’ (A.T. Robertson).

Brethren, be not deceived by those who would make distinctions where God’s word makes none, who place a restricted meaning on passages to accommodate their peculiar doctrine, especially when at variance with other passages and the scholarship of the world in general. We must always speak that which becometh sound doctrine (Tit. 2:1)” (Answers For Our Hope, 304, 305).

There is one statement I feel compelled to make before closing this study of a portion of Romans 14. I do not believe that the marriage, divorce, and remarriage question qualifies for this area of tolerance. It is not an individual matter! Others are always involved. Adultery itself is always with one and against another (Matt. 19:9; Mark 10:11).

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Truth Magazine Vol. XLIV: 19  p8  October 5, 2000