Romans 14: How Readest Thou?

By Harry R. Osborne

In the last article, we saw that Romans 14 instructed brethren who differed on eating meat to “receive” one another. Our study of the context revealed the difference under consideration was one in which both practices (eating and abstaining from meat) were right in and of themselves -they were matters of indifference. Since no sin was involved, God accepted the practice of each person. They were to receive one another based on the fact that God has first received both of them in their practice (v. 3). If one applies this exhortation to matters of doctrine, he misuses the text.

Statements From Commentators

In writing commentaries on Romans, our brethren have emphasized the nature of the differences under discussion in chapter 14. Though they have used various expressions to convey the idea, they are clearly saying the same thing. R.L. Whiteside says it speaks of “a matter of opinion or indifference” (A New Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Saints at Rome, Denton, TX: Miss Inys Whiteside, 1945, pp. 268-269). Moses Lard noted the following:

These thoughts are his own private opinions respecting things about which there is no command. He, therefore, has the right to hold them without interference from others. The things which his thoughts respect are in themselves indifferent; and therefore the thoughts which relate to them are indifferent (Commentary on Paul’s Letter to Romans, Cincinnati: Standard Publishing Co., 1875, p. 413).

Commenting on Paul’s instruction to receive the weaker brother with his scruple against eating meat, Bryan Vinson, Sr. said, “Now, if it was a matter of faith and authorized duty, instead of opinion and therefore a matter of indifference, such a qualification would not be proper” (Paul’s Letter to the Saints at Rome, Longview, TX: Author, 1974, p. 261). In overviewing the nature of this chapter, A.W. Discus observed, “In this chapter he (Paul) deals with things or matters that are indifferent within themselves” (A Brief Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Church at Rome, Tampa: Author, n.d., p. 99).

Of course, the fact that our brethren almost unanimously make this point does not make it correct. That which is correct is ultimately found in a study of the text as we have already done. The comments of knowledgeable brethren should, however, cause us to look with caution at any attempt to make a broader application of the passage.

False Applications of Romans 14

Unity in Diversity. Earl F. Palmer, a Presbyterian, wrote a commentary on Romans called Salvation by Surprise. His comments on Romans 14 represent the thinking of many modern denominationalists on this passage. He says that all differences “other than the central question of the Lordship of Christ” come within the scope of this passage (Salvation by Surprise, Waco: Word Books, 1975, p. 168). Therefore, as long as one says he believes Jesus is Lord, he must be received even though his actions violate the will of the Lord he professes to believe. When our brethren begin to seek a basis for a “broader fellowship,” they begin to edge closer and closer to this denominational position regarding Romans 14.

In the January 1961 issue of Mission Messenger, Carl Ketcherside wrote an article entitled “Unity in Diversity” which outlined his rationale for a broader fellowship. In that article, he equates the differences mentioned in Romans 14 with every modern difference our brethren have had over the worship, work and organization of the church. Those embracing this reasoning have continued to enlarge their border in order to receive the errors of pentecostalism and even modernism. As each step away from God is taken and his word is ignored, they abuse Romans 14 in search of a justification.

One of the editors of Christianity magazine, a paper widely circulated among brethren, supported the notion of a “unity in diversity” plea. In justifying such he said, “The issue in Romans 14 is precisely the establishment of the right of brethren to differ in matters of faith. “‘ However, as we have seen, such a statement is in direct opposition to the text. The text shows the questions under consideration to be matters of opinion or indifference, not matters of revealed faith. The writer of this article dismissed the idea that Romans 14 speaks only of matters of indifference with this logic, “Common sense tells me that without the need of revelation” (Ed Harrell, Christianity, April 1989, p. 6). When our subjective conclusions of “common sense” which are not necessary from the text itself are elevated to the level of the text itself, we are on very dangerous ground.

Instrumental Music and the Missionary Society. J.W. McGarvey and Phillip Y. Pendleton co-authored a commentary, Thessalonians, Corinthians, Galatians and Romans, as the third volume of The Standard Bible Commentary series. Before the commentary on Romans was finished, McGarvey died (19 i 1). Pendleton, who accepted the use of instrumental music in worship to God and the Missionary Society, attempted to justify such on the grounds of Romans 14:

In modern times controversy over meat sacrificed to idols is unknown, but the principle still applies as to instrumental music, missionary societies, etc. Such matters of indifference are not to be injected into the terms of salvation, or set up as tests of fellowship (Thessalonians, Corinthians, Galatians, and Romans, Cincinnati: Standard Publishing Co., 1916, pp. 525-526).

Of course, Pendleton understood the distinction in principle between matters of faith and indifference, but he incorrectly regarded the instruments and societies as matters of indifference.

It is not a matter of indifference to add instrumental music in worship to God because it transgresses or goes beyond the pattern of singing which God authorized (2 Jn. 9). Nor is it a matter of indifference to add the missionary society because it transgresses the pattern of the allsufficiency of the local church (2 Jn. 9). Any attempt to justify such unlawful actions is a misuse of Romans 14 in justifying sin and error!

Homosexuality. Norman Pittenger in his book, Timefor Consent, contends that the Bible does not clearly condemn “monogamous, loving homosexual unions” as most religious people think. He argues from Romans 14 that those who reject homosexual people from fellowship in the church “have utterly failed to understand the Christian gospel” (Quoted from John R. W. Stott, Christianity Today [22 Nov. 85], pp. 26-27). However, homosexuality is condemned repeatedly in God’s Word (e.g., Rom. 1:26-27; 1 Cor. 6:9-10). It is a violation of the pattern laid down by God in the beginning to provide for the sexual fulfillment of both sexes in a monogamous, heterosexual marriage (Gen. 2:24; Heb. 13:4). The practice of homosexuality is sinful, not a matter of indifference. Therefore, we may not receive the one practicing the sin or justifying the practice of such on the basis of Romans 14.

Brethren who say that Romans 14 applies to matters of sin rarely want to include the homosexual in their “broader fellowship.” Why is that? If it applies to some sins, why not all sins? The brethren who say Romans 14 applies to individual action (even where sin is involved) as opposed to church action are not consistent in this area either. The homosexual does not involve the church with him in his sin – it is individual. Why not receive him? The reason is simple when we properly understand Romans 14 – it is a matter of sin, not a matter of indifference!

Errors on Marriage, Divorce and Remarriage. It is a sad fact that many brethren have differences over the Bible teaching on this subject. An article in Christianity magazine concluded that “doctrinal unanimity” on this subject “probably cannot exist” (Ed Harrell, Christianity [Nov. 88], p. 8). From that point, he went on to suggest that Romans 14 be applied to those teaching error on the subject as long as the teacher of error is honest, sincere and not factious (Harrell, p. 9). Following this line of reasoning, the one practicing the error taught by the teacher must also be received as long as he is “fully assured in his own mind” (Rom. 14:5). In essence, this is exactly the same approach taken by Pittenger to receive homosexuality.

As we have already seen, however, Romans 14 deals with differences over matters of indifference. Jesus says, “Whosoever shall put away his wife, except forfornication, and shall marry another, committeth adultery: and he that marrieth her when she is put away committeth adultery” (Matt. 19:9). Is adultery a matter of indifference? Whether one teaches that the alien sinner is not amenable to his law or that the guilty fornicator may lawfully remarry, the end product is to condone adultery! As we noted before, John says no harbor is to be given to the one condoning sin (2 Jn. 9-11). The practice or preaching of error on this subject finds no safe quarters in Romans 14!


We cannot provide for the toleration of differences by merely asserting that they fit into Romans 14. The chapter provides no shortcut to fellowship which bypasses the need to seek God’s instruction on any issue. Romans 14 regulates our fellowship only in matters of indifference where differing practices are both right in and of themselves. True, one may not initially recognize the practice to be a matter of indifference just as the weak brother in Romans 14 initially failed to see eating meat in that light. Thus, we must be able to show that God allows a practice as Paul showed regarding the eating of meat before we can rightfully apply the solution of Romans 14. A practice comes under the regulation of Romans 14 not because we think it does, but because the facts of God’s word prove such. Let us be careful not to open the door to doctrinal error, sinful practices, and apostasy through an abuse of Romans 14.

(Note: This material was offered to Christianity, divided into three short articles so as to fit their format. The first issue of Christianity stated the policy of allowing no room for “the language of contemporary controversy” orfor open “debate. ” They are unwilling to move beyond thisfiawed policy. Ed Harrell said in refusing to print this material, . . . we have no intention of allowing Christianity magazi . ne to become a medium of doctrinal debate. ” Dee Bowman’s response (which I quote in its entirety) said, “Your observation that each editor of ourpaper has the independent right to choose what is published in his issue is correct. Since I have chosen not to publish your material, I am returning it to you in accordance with your request. ” None of the other editors was willing to print this material.

As of the time this material was submitted, Christianity has printed a total of 13 articles in an attempt to justify the continued fellowship of those espousing admittedly false doctrines on divorce and remarriage. Romans 14 has been given as the Scripture condoning such. No alternate view of the passage has been published to give brethren an opportunity to evaluate boths ideas of the question. The magazine’s “positive” policy of no open discussion and debate commits these brethren to the conduct of one-sided debate, monologue, andfilibuster in their discussion of controversial matters. The policy would have us believe that closing the doors to open discussion is the “positive” path. However, such apolicy actually leads to misunderstanding, misrepresentation, and alienation between brethren. The very thing the policy intended to avoid is produced. This all-positive, no-debate policy was not the apprach of Elijah, John the Baptist, Jesus, and the apostles (1 Kgs. 18; Matt. 21-23; Acts 15:1-7; 17:17; Jude 3). Truth has nothing to fear from investigation, but shines more brightly in the crucible of controversy. To shun the process of open investigation and controversy is an error and can only make us more vulnerable to others errors sooner or later. It is my fervant prayer that we will open our hearts and minds to one another as we endeavor to discuss matters wherein we differ with love towards one another as brethren. – Harry R. Osborne)

Guardian of Truth XXXIV: 9, pp. 262-264
May 3, 1990