By Johnny Stringer
There has been some discussion of the question of whether Romans 14 applies to congregational activities or is limited to individual, non-congregational practices. I am convinced that the principles of Romans 14 apply only to individual, private practices and are not applicable to congregational activities.
When I speak of an individual, private practice, I do not mean that the practice cannot be done with other people; most anything that can be done, can be done with other people. I mean that it is not a congregational practice that is, it is not a practice that the congregation engages in together so that all who are in the congregation participate. In a private, individual practice, no one else in the congregation is forced to participate.
Neither Issue Paul Discussed Involved Congregational Activity
Paul discussed two matters about which brethren differed: (1) eating meats and (2) observing days. Whether one eats meats or abstains is a decision he makes and observes as an individual. Eating meats was not a collective activity of the congregation in which all active members of the congregation would necessarily be involved. Rather, those who could eat in good conscience were able to do so without involving those who could not eat in good conscience. Similarly, the observance of days was some-thing that one could do without involving the one whose conscience would be violated by the practice.
It has been argued that the chapter has little application if it is limited to individual activities. Yet, Paul expected the Romans to apply the teachings to practices that were individual in nature. In fact, the only things Paul mentions in his discussion were things individual in nature that is, things not involving the collective activities of the congregation.
Impossible to Apply Romans 14 to Congregational Activity
According to Romans 14, brethren who differed were to accept each other while each one practiced his own belief (v. 3). In the matters discussed in this chapter, each one could act in accordance with his own conscience without involving the other
In matters of congregational activity, however, this is impossible. Suppose, for example, someone in the congregation believes it is wrong to use multiple cups in the Lord’s supper. Is it possible to apply Romans 14 that is, for the brethren to accept one another while practicing their different beliefs? No! Brethren in a congregation cannot differ in their practice on this matter. Either all have to use one cup or all have to participate in using multiple cups. It is impossible for each one to practice what he believes without involving anyone else. Romans 14 deals with matters in which brethren may differ in what they practice; hence, it does not deal with congregational activity.
Verse 22 teaches that if a person chooses to eat meat, he should quietly practice it without trying to induce others in the congregation to do so. This concept does not apply to congregational activity; in congregational activity, all in the congregation are required to do the same thing.
Instructions to the Strong Should Not Be
Applied to Congregational Activity
The “strong” are those who are able in good conscience to engage in a practice. The “weak” are those who cannot in good conscience engage in a practice. Paul instructed the strong not to put a stumbling block in the way of the weak brother (v. 13). You would be doing this if you encouraged the weak brother to engage in a practice that violated his conscience. As one exercises his right to eat meat, he must not do so in a way that would encourage another to do so in violation of his conscience. The teaching in Romans 14 implies that it may be possible to exercise one’s liberty to eat meat, yet not to encourage the vegetarian to violate his conscience (vv. 3, 22). This is true because eating meat is not a congregational activity.
But what about congregational activities? Let us return to the case of person who does not believe in using multiple cups. Is it possible for a congregation to use multiple cups without encouraging the weak brother to violate his con-science? No! If a congregation used multiple cups, the weak brother would be forced to participate if he continued to worship with the congregation. Suppose the brother is the kind who would not press his views on others but would be disposed to go along with the use of multiple cups even though it violated his conscience. In that case, if the congregation used multiple cups, they would be encouraging him to violate his conscience, hence, they would be a stumbling block to him.
Consequently, in order to obey Romans 14:13, they would have to quit using multiple cups if this passage applied to congregational activity.
The one who can eat meat is to forego that practice when it would encourage a weak brother to violate his conscience, thus causing him to stumble (Rom. 14:21; 15:1; 1 Cor. 8:13). If the same principle applied to congregational activity, a congregation would have to forego using multiple cups if it would encourage a weak brother to use them in violation of his conscience.
It may be replied that the one who is opposed to the use of multiple cups does not have the right to bind his opinions on others. But remember, we are not talking about one who is trying to bind his opinions on others; we are talking about one who is likely to go along with the practice of others even though it violates his conscience.
Do you not see that if we apply the instructions to the strong to congregational activity, then a congregation will be obligated to abstain from any practice that would violate the conscience of anyone in the congregation? Someone, for example, may think it is wrong to use Bible class literature. If the church’s funds (to which he contributed) were used to purchase literature, his conscience would be violated because he would be participating in something he believed to be wrong. To avoid being a stumbling block to him, the church would have to abstain from purchasing Bible class literature just as Paul said he would abstain from eating meat if his eating were a stumbling block to a brother.
I see no way around it. Paul taught that if the exercise of one’s liberty would be a stumbling block to the weak brother, he should forego the exercise of that liberty. If Paul’s teaching applies to congregational activity, then the congregation must forego the exercise of any liberty that would be a stumbling block to those who cannot in good conscience engage in the practice.
Romans 14, however, does not deal with congregational activity; hence, it is a mistake to apply this teaching to congregational activity. Teachings that are designed for application in matters of private practice are not necessarily suited for application in congregational matters.
To abstain from using literature or multiple cups, for example, could be a hindrance to the congregation’s influence and function. A congregation could be seriously handicapped if it yielded on every matter about which some member had scruples. Congregations, however, are not required to do that because Romans 14 does not apply to congregational activities. (Do not misunderstand. I do not mean that a congregation should never yield to a brother’s scruples even when to do so would be harmless; I only mean that Romans 14 does not require it. Good judgment is required in this matter.)
In my next article I plan to present an overview of what I believe to be the Scripture’s teaching concerning differences among brethren. I will show where I believe Romans 14 fits into that teaching.
Guardian of Truth XL: 5 p. 3-4
March 7, 1996