Romans 14: The Text

By Mike Willis

(Editor’s Note: This is the first of a series of articles that is a textual examination of Romans 14. Many of our readers know that Romans 14 has been used to justify a broader fellowship  a fellowship that is ex-tended to those who continue in the practice of their sin. This series of articles will contend that Romans 14 does not give instructions to receive into the fellowship those who continue in the practice of sin, regardless of how sincere the individual may be. Rather, this passage is limited in its application to things that fit into the category described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 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.” We encourage our readers to follow in the discussion and invite responsible reply to it.)

There are only three alternatives available to us with reference to the interpretation of Romans 14. They are:

Proposition 1: Romans 14 includes all matters of the faith.

Proposition 2: Romans 14 includes some matters of the faith.

Proposition 3: Romans 14 includes no matters of the faith.

The third proposition will be defended in this series of articles. How-ever, before moving forward to defend this position, I want to dispose of the other two alternatives.

Proposition 1 Is False

The first proposition, “Romans 14 includes all matters of the faith,” is generally rejected among us. As a matter of fact it is rejected by every-one except the rankest universalist. If the principles of Romans 14 applies to every doctrinal item, we are to receive the rankest atheist just as we are to receive the person who eats meats. To do this would put one in violation of other passages, such as the following:

Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son. If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed: For he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds (2 John 9-11).

Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them. For they that are such serve not our Lord Jesus Christ, but their own belly; and by good words and fair speeches deceive the hearts of the simple (Rom. 16:17-18).

Be not deceived: evil communications corrupt good manners (1 Cor. 15:33; this passage forbade an association with those denying the resurrection).

Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers: for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? And what communion hath light with darkness? And what concord hath Christ with Belial? Or what part hath he that believeth with an infidel? And what agreement hath the temple of God with idols? For ye are the temple of the living God; as God hath said, I will dwell in them, and walk in them; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you, and will be a Father unto you, and ye shall be my sons and daughters, saith the Lord Almighty (2 Cor. 6:14-18).

Moreover if thy brother shall trespass against thee, go and tell him his fault between thee and him alone: if he shall hear thee, thou hast gained thy brother. But if he will not hear thee, then take with thee one or two more, that in the mouth of two or three witnesses every word may be established. And if he shall neglect to hear them, tell it unto the church: but if he neglect to hear the church, let him be unto thee as a heathen man and a publican (Matt. 18:15-17).

The list of passages could be multiplied to show that God demanded that some people not be received into the communion of the saints. The very fact that even one per-son is not to be received into the communion of the saints demonstrates that this first proposition is false.

Proposition 2 Is False

The second proposition states, “Romans 14 includes some matters of the faith.” This proposition stumbles in a number of areas:

1. A list is needed to designate which matters of faith are included in Romans 14. Sometimes a criticism is made that proposition 3 requires that someone make a list of matters of faith to distinguish them from matters of indifference. If this is judged a problem for proposition 3, it is a double problem for proposition 2. Proposition 2 also demands that matters of faith and indifference be distinguished, for all agree that matters of the faith and matters of indifference are to be treated differently. However, it goes another step and postulates that some matters of faith are included in Romans 14 and some are not. Therefore, a second list is needed to discriminate which matters of faith are included in Romans 14 and which are not.

2. Criteria are needed to make that list. Furthermore, someone needs to produce the criteria used to determine which matters of faith are included and which are not. (a) Are we to accept everyone’s ipse dixit with reference to fellowship to allow every man to become a law to him-self? In that case, there is no right and wrong committed in the realm of fellowship and all practices with referenceto fellowship are equally valid (a position shown to be false by John’s condemnation of the conduct of Diotrephes [3 John 9]). (b) Do we appoint some man (a pope) to make that decision for us? (c) Are there some discernible rules that can be formulated that will neatly separate Bible doctrines into two groups? Those who take proposition 2, opt for a set of rules (c) to distinguish which matters of faith fit in Romans 14.

The most complete set of rules to determine which matters of faith are included in Romans 14 lists the following criteria:

a. It is limited to brethren.

b. It is an individual issue.

c. It is limited to those who are “fully convinced” in their own mind. This logically excludes:

(1) Those who are rebellious.

(2) Moral issues (because morality is innate to a man).

d. It is not applicable to those who promote error or are factious.

e. It is limited to areas in which there is no joint participation in the sin.

For the moment, let us accept these rules in order to make application. Let’s apply it to a man who conscientiously believes that the body will not be raised from the dead. He only discusses his position when brethren ask him what he believes, but somehow the whole congregation of which he is a member has learned his position.

Will the List Work?

The instructions of Romans 14 demand that the following conduct be shown toward the man involved in the issues under discussion:

1. Receive the brother just as Christ received you (14:1; 15:7).

2. Do not engage in doubtful disputations (14:1).

3. Do not set at nought your brother (14:3).

4. Do not condemn him (14:4, 13).

5. Those who are strong should not be an occasion of stumbling for the weak brother (14:13).

6. The matter should be kept to oneself and not preached (14:22).

Now apply these instructions to our brother in Corinth who denied the resurrection. He is to be received, even though 1 Corinthians 15:33 expressly commands that he not be received (`Be not deceived: evil communications corrupt good manners.”). We are forbidden to do what Paul did under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in 1 Corinthians 15  to engage in disputations with him. We cannot set at naught or condemn him, although Paul does both in 1 Corinthians 15. Those who are strong (those who believe in the resurrection) should do nothing that would create and bring grief to the weak (the one denying the resurrection). Surely preaching on the subject would inflame the problem for the weak. Both parties would be obligated to keep their respective beliefs to themselves, although Paul violated his own principles by teaching what he did in 1 Corinthians 15. Brethren, this chapter just will not work when matters of the faith and practices of sin are included.

Examining the Criteria Used

Having shown this inconsistency, let us now examine the principles used to limit which items of faith (or when items of faith) are to be treated according to the principles in Romans 14:

1. It is limited to a brother. This limitation is inserted to exclude the conscientious alien. By limiting it to “brethren,” one excludes including issues relating to baptism (action, purpose, or subject). While I agree that a person who is not scripturally baptized is not a brother, brethren surely realize that not everyone is willing to make that con-cession. This criterion hinges upon universal agreement on what is required to become a brother. However, universal agreement on this does not exist, not even among us. Some of our brethren are arguing that those who are baptized “to obey God” are just as certainly brethren as those who are baptized “for the remission of sins” (this is argued by brother Jimmy Allen in his recently published book Re-Baptism). These brethren say that Baptists are our brethren. Further-more, the evangelicals say that anyone who believes in Christ is a brother (Carl Ketcherside called these our “brothers in prospect” at one stage in his spiritual evolution). To these people, the exclusion of issues relating to “baptism” is absolutely arbitrary. There is nothing in the text to exclude baptism from the matters under discussion in Romans 14 except one’s ipse dixit. By limiting the application of Romans 14 to “brethren,” one eliminates some very crucial issues relating to baptism, but only for those who accept his definition of what constitutes a “brother.” Without a means of limiting this to “brethren,” Romans 14:1 and 15:7 obligate us to receive those who are teaching that baptism is not essential to salvation; that sprinkling, pouring, or immersion is scriptural baptism; and that infants are suitable candidates for baptism. There is no logical basis to exclude the application of this chapter to baptism if one grants that it applies to matters of revealed faith.

2. It is limited to individual (not congregational) issues. Most of us have conceded this point on one thing or another, but a second examination of it may be necessary. I can understand why this should be limited to congregational matters if matters of sin are under discussion. Otherwise a person would have the situation of Paul teaching joint participation in sinful activities. However, if one understands that sinful matters are not under discussion, to limit the application of this chapter to personal matters significantly reduces the application of the chapter. This chapter would teach us nothing about how a church should handle matters of authorized liberties, such as using literature, an overhead projector, multiple cups, and such like things. But this is the main thrust of this chapter  to teach brethren how to work together in matters of personal judgment when strong consciences disagree. To limit this chapter to matters individual in nature is to “gut” the chapter of its application.

Collective action, by its very nature, contains some principles that limit the application of this chapter (for example, a congregation cannot use one-cup and multiple cups at the same time, allowing each person to exercise his own judgment). However, the principles enunciated in this chapter do have applicability: (a) the weak brother must not bind his conscience on others as if it were divine law (Rom. 14:22; 1 Tim. 4:1-3); (b) the weak must not condemn those who disagree (Rom. 14:3, 13); (c) the strong must not cause his brother to sin (Rom. 14:13); etc. There are principles in this chapter that do have applicability to congregational action. Therefore, we cannot arbitrarily limit Romans 14 to individual issues.

Furthermore, applying this chapter to individual sins also brings us trouble. If an individual is committing idolatry in his home, does Romans 14 teach us to receive him? If he is committing blasphemy against his fellow man or God, should he be received? And if our brethren are unable to sustain their contention that moral matters are excluded (as is examined below), should the person who is practicing fornication, adultery, homosexuality, and such like acts of immorality be received because this is “individual,” rather than “congregational,” sin? The limitation of Romans 14 to individually committed sins has significant problems.

3. It is limited to those who are fully convinced in their own mind. This criterion excludes those who are rebellious from being received according to the instructions of Romans 14. How does one reach the conclusion of whether a man is a sincere zealot or rebellious? Paul wrote, “For what man knoweth the things of a man, save the spirit of man which is in him?” (1 Cor. 2:11) A person is not qualified to judge another’s heart, yet this position demands that one become a judge of another’s heart. How else can we know whether or not to follow the instructions of Romans 14?

4. Moral departures are excluded. By what verse in Romans 14 are they excluded? The only verse that is cited is this: “Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind” (Rom. 14:5).One has argued that a person cannot be “fully persuaded in his own mind” while committing moral sins. On what basis does he reach that conclusion? Here is his argument:

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 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, with-out revelation, were held accountable in Romans 2 (emphasis mine).

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’s heart but not in the truth-loving brother of Romans 14. If the same things that were 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).

Whether or not this argument is valid is paramount. If this argument is shown to be fallacious, there are no grounds for excluding moral sins from Romans 14. Let us consider these replies:

a. Another list is needed. Remember that those taking proposition 2 need two lists: (1) to distinguish matters of faith from matters of opinion; (2) to distinguish which matters of faith fall into Romans 14 and which into 2 John 9. Now a third list is needed to tell us which “fundamental principles of morality” are excluded from Romans 14 and which fundamental differences of morality are included.

b. Romans 1 is not limited to moral sins. The first apostasy of the Gentiles that is mentioned is their rejection of God and acceptance of idolatry. Hence, Romans 1 is not limited to moral sins. The same innate knowledge that exists in the heart of the Gentile to know that immorality is wrong also exists to show him that idolatry is wrong. One could just as reasonably argue that doctrinal matters pertaining to worship are innate (and therefore excluded from application of Romans 14) as he could acts of immorality.

c. Some of the moral sins for which the Gentiles were held accountable were specifically stated to be known only through revelation. Included in the list of sins in Romans 1 is covetousness. However, Paul said, “I had not known sin, but by the law: for I had not known lust, except the law had said, Thou shalt not covet” (Rom. 7:7). This is a significant problem for this position. The argument asserts that the Gentiles knew without the law by innate knowledge that coveting was sinful, but Paul said such knowledge was only learned through revelation. The argument said, “It is unreasonable to assume that it was in the Gentile’s heart but not in the truth-loving brother of Romans 14.” Thus, he argues that coveting was innate to the heart of the Gen-tile of Romans 1, but Paul said such knowledge was excluded from him before he read the Law (Rom. 7:7). This evidence alone demonstrates that moral knowledge is not innate to man. Man learns to distinguish good and evil through the study of God’s word (see Heb. 5:13-14).

d. Some moral sins have been committed in ignorance. Paul committed his offences in sincerity. He participated in the murder of Stephen (a moral offense) in ignorance and sincerity (Acts 23:1; 26:9). He was guilty of being a blasphemous person, an injurious man, and a persecutor, although he acted ignorantly in unbelief (1 Tim. 1:13). Apparently, these moral sins were not innate to Jewish people. Those Jews and Gentiles who participated in the murder of Christ (a moral offense) acted in ignorance (Acts 2:23; 3:17). Peter attributed the lusts of the flesh (moral offences) to the Gentiles’ ignorance: “As obedient children, not fashioning yourselves according to the former lusts in your ignorance” (1 Pet. 1:14).

e. It is also contrary to our experience. I know God-fearing, conscientious brethren who see no sin committed in social drinking, dancing, wearing swimsuits in mixed company, using euphemisms, and such like acts of immorality. These moral principles are not innately in the hearts of believers or unbelievers. Some Christians commit these offences in the sincerity of their heart.

As much as one would like to exclude immorality from Romans 14, there is no logical basis for doing so. I recognize that some would like such sins excluded, but the compelling power of truth gives no legitimate basis for excluding immorality. When one opens the door for sinful matters to be included, he cannot close the door to exclude any sinful matter. His efforts to exclude acts of immorality from Romans 14 will not stand under the searchlight of truth. Therefore, if Romans 14 includes matters of sinful conduct, there is no logical or biblical reason to exclude acts of immorality from those things that are included.

5. It is not applicable to those who promote error or are factious. Here some try to close the gate on those who wish to teach what they are fully convinced is right. If such a brother starts teaching that his sinful practice is a right practice or presses it to the point of creating a division, then he is not to be received. However, so long as he believes and practices his sin without “promoting error” or becoming “factious,” the local church is to continue receiving him. Some wish to grant to this brother the right to express what he believes. But how can he express what he believes without teaching and promoting error? And when enough brethren are influenced by his expressing what he believes that a distinct group in a local church has accepted and begun to practice the same sinful conduct, albeit none of them is factious in spirit, we still have the same problem: Sin is being committed and a faction is involved. In this manner, the leaven of sin spreads through the congregation (see 1 Cor. 5). This interpretation of Romans 14 is flawed by the application of its principles to matters of sin.

6. It is limited to areas in which there is no joint participation in the sin. One correctly concludes that Christians cannot jointly participate in the sin of another. However, this interpretation of Romans 14 stumbles on this point: one is obligated by the teaching of Romans 14:1 and 15:7 to receive that brother who practices his sin, whereas 2 John 9-11 expressly condemns receiving those who do not abide in the doctrine of Christ.

Whosoever transgresseth, and abideth not in the doctrine of Christ, hath not God. He that abideth in the doctrine of Christ, he hath both the Father and the Son. If there come any unto you, and bring not this doctrine, receive him not into your house, neither bid him God speed: For he that biddeth him God speed is partaker of his evil deeds (2 John 9-11).

We simply ask, “Does one who practices sin `abide inthe doctrine of Christ’?” Can one stay in the doctrine of Christ while continuing the practice of his sin? If not, then 2 John 9-11 absolutely forbids a Christian to do what Romans 14:1 and 15:7 command be done to the subjects under discussion in that chapter. This forces us to the conclusion that sinful matters cannot be included in Romans 14.

We appreciate that some have labored to limit the number of sinful matters that can be included in Romans 14 and recognize the distinction between what they believe and what those believe who apply the chapter to all matters of sin. However, we reject this interpretation of the chapter based on the reasons given above.

Proposition 3 Is True

This leaves us with but one interpretation of Romans 14  “Romans 14 includes no matters of the faith.” Sinful practice is not under discussion in this chapter. The chapter is limited in its application to matters of indifference (authorized liberties).

There remain two jobs to sustain that proposition 3 is true: (a) to examine the two arguments cited to prove that sinful matters are included in Romans 14; (b) to examine the internal evidence in the chapter that shows that Romans 14 is limited in application to matters of indifference. Stay with us for the examination of these matters.

Guardian of Truth XXXIX: No. 19, p. 2
October 5, 1995