By Harry R. Osborne
In every generation, there is an attempt to justify a “broader fellowship” to include those preaching and practicing some sin or doctrinal error. The attempt to justify such invariably includes Romans 14. The advocate of a “broader fellowship” notes the apostle’s instructions to “receive” the one with whom we have a difference in preaching and practice (Rom. 14:1). The next step is to say the differences discussed would include a doctrinal matter or practice of some sin. Thus, we are told we must “receive” those who are preaching some errors or practicing some sins if we obey this instruction. The crux of the issue is this: Does Romans 14 include doctrinal error and sinful practice in the differences under discussion?
The issue is not whether brethren who differ on an issue need to be longsuffering with one another. The Bible clearly teaches a longsuffering and forbearing attitude as essential for unity (Eph. 4:1-3). God says clearly that we are to “admonish the disorderly, encourage the fainthearted, support the weak, be longsuffering toward all” (1 Thess. 5:14 – emphasis mine, HRO). Paul’s exhortation on restoring in a spirit of gentleness one who is overtaken in a trespass is a principle we must teach and practice. In the case of a brother sinning against us personally, Jesus shows that we must exhaust every effort to solve the matter before counting him as “the Gentile and publican” (Matt. 18:1517). Even the factious man is to receive the first and second admonition before we refuse him (Tit. 3:10). We can never be justified in severing the bonds of fellowship at the drop of a hat. We have responsibility enjoined of God to be longsuffering in our search for the resolution of every difference between brethren.
The focus of this study is on the proper application of Romans 14. Does it justify the continued acceptance of some doctrinal errors and sinful practices or is its scope limited to matters of indifference? In this study, we will see that the apostle is discussing matters of indifference or opinion. The differences in practice discussed involved only those areas in which either of the different practices involved no sin, both were right in and of themselves.
Study of Context
Paul’s instruction to “receive” the brother with whom we have a difference is immediately seen as a contrast to John’s instruction in 2 John 911. John commands another way of dealing with the differing brother, “receive him not” (2 Jn. 10). Do the two writers contradict one another or are they speaking of two entirely separate types of differences?
In 2 John, the difference under consideration is plainly declared to involve the doctrine (KJV) or teaching (ASV) of Christ. John speaks of one who transgressed God’s will, thus, sin was committed. As a result, this one was no longer in fellowship with God (2 Jn. 9). Not only was the practice of such sin condemned, but so also was the teaching that would justify it. Therefore, faithful Christians were urged to make no provision for and give no encouragement to the preaching of the doctrinal error (2 Jn. 10). The provision for or encouragement of such sin and error was condemned as illicit involvement in the “evil works” of the transgressor (2 Jn. 11). Clearly, John says no harbor is to be given to the one practicing sin or preaching error.
Furthermore, we cannot interpret what Paul wrote in Romans 14 in such a way that it contradicts what he wrote in other places. For instance, Paul tells these same brethren at Rome to “mark” and “turn away from” some (Rom. 16:17-18). Did he contradict what he wrote just two chapters earlier? No, the contrasting instructions stem from the contrasting types of differences under consideration in each passage. Paul repeatedly says in his writings that some are not to be received (Eph. 5: 11; 1 Cor. 5; 2 Thess. 3:6-14; Tit. 3: 10-11; Gal. 2:5). Brother Irven Lee made the following observation:
The fourteenth chapter of Romans does not say one word in defense of the man who knows he is openly and deliberately violating God’s law. No man is allowed the luxury of fulfilling the lusts of the flesh (Gal. 5:16-21). A man must control his temper and his passion if he would be called a brother in good standing among Christians. Repentance brings forth worthy fruit (Matt. 3:8). Thus repentance is absolutely essential (Lk. 13:3; 2 Pet. 3:9).
The factious man who would cause divisions contrary to the doctrine of Christ by subverting whole houses is not the weak brother whom we shield and protect. He is a strong enemy of Christ, and consequently is to be silenced, marked, avoided, rejected, and put away from the flock (Rom. 16:17,18; Tit. 1:10,11; 3:10,11; Phil. 3:17-19). One point of maturity in the stronger Saint is the ability to discern between the weak brother who serves to the limit of his knowledge and the wolf in sheep’s clothing that would destroy the flock. The Lord has not asked his church to let the heretic be in charge lest he complain (Irven Lee, Romans For Every Man, Florida College Lectures, 1983, p. 168).
When sin and error were involved, Paul never instructed Christians to “receive” the teacher or practitioner of such as they continued in their path.
Romans 14 clearly defines the kind of differences under consideration in this context. The issue is brought into focus with the first verse:
NASV: Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions.
RSV: As for the man who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not for disputes over opinions.
Phillips: Welcome a man whose faith is weak, but not with the idea of arguing over his scruples.
These versions correctly present the nature of the differences dealt with in this chapter – matters of indifference or opinion. Matters of indifference are those areas in which God has neither enjoined nor prohibited a practice. Thus, two differing practices may be right in and of themselves given the fact that God has allowed both practices. The two brethren who are involved in the differing practices may both be acting in the way that is right, given their diverse backgrounds, circumstances, and consciences. These variables would form the basis for the two to differ in their opinion or judgment of the practice in question and to differ in that practice, yet both be acceptable before God. In such cases, Romans 14 instructs brethren not to “judge,” “dispute,” or “argue” with one another over such matters of indifference or opinion. The rest of the chapter clearly shows this restriction to apply only in matters of indifference where the variant practices would both be right in and of themselves.
In areas of difference regarding that enjoined or forbidden by God, the differing practices would not both be right in and of themselves. In such cases, “judging” a sinful practice is right and necessary (1 Cor. 5:3-5). “Disputing” would be essential in order that harmony upon the truth might be achieved (Acts 15:1-29).
Romans 14:2 defines the stronger brother as the one who had “faith” to eat meat. This faith would come from an understanding of the principles declared by God. Paul says God created meat to be received by man with thanksgiving and “is sanctified through the word of God and prayer” (1 Tim. 4:3-5). How is meat sanctified through the word of God? It was God’s instruction, his word, which allowed man initially to eat meat (Gen. 1:29; cf. 9:3). It was God’s instruction which showed Peter that the restrictions regarding clean and unclean meat in the law of Moses were no longer binding (Acts 10: 11-16). Even when that meat had been offered to an idol, God allowed partaking of meat in a situation that gave no deference to the idol and provided no stumblingblock for another (1 Cor. 10:25-32). There can be no doubt that the practice of the stronger brother in eating meat was allowed by God – it was right in and of itself!
The basis for receiving a brother with a differing practice is clearly stated in verses 3 and 4. The meateater recognized that it was not essential to eat meat. It was the one who did not eat meat who believed the meat-eater was engaged in an unlawful practie. This false idea is plainly refuted when the apostle instructs, “Let not him that eateth not judge him that eateth.” Why? “For God hath received him” (v. 3). Notice three facts about this last phrase:
(1) The word “for” is from the Greek word gar which is a conjunction used to express cause.
(2) The word “received” in the original language carries the idea of a past, completed action.
(3) The antecedent to the “hirn” of this phrase is “him that eateth” in the previous phrase.
When we add these facts up, what must we conclude? God had already (at a past time) received “him” that ate meat in his practice, therefore the other brother had no right to judge or condemn him now. This passage declares right or lawful action as a necessary prerequisite for right or lawful fellowship.
In the next verse, Paul shows the same thing through the use of a sequential argument. First, an accepted premise, “To his own Lord he standeth or falleth.” In other words, it is God that has the ultimate right to judge regarding the brother’s acceptance or rejection in this matter of eating meat. Second, an emphatic declaration, “Yea, he shall be made to stand.” That is at the final judgmerit (where all of God’s judgments will ultimately be revealed), he will stand before God. This statement is the emphatic declaration that the man will be approved (future tense) in the final judgment with respect to his practice of eating meat just as God had “received” (past tense) him in that action as stated in verse 3. Third, a causal phrase, “For the Lord hath power to make him stand.” Again, gar is used indicating a reason for the validity of the preceding point. The Lord’s power should remind all men of his ability to make the acceptance of the meateater in his practice complete in the final judgment. No one had the authority to reverse the Lord’s judgment on the pratice so as to cause the meat-eater to be lost in eternity.
The practice of esteeming days is clearly identified as being of the same nature as the eating of meat – the practice of esteeming days and esteeming every day alike were both right in and of themselves. Each one was right as long as he carried out his practice “fully assured in his own mind” or without doubt (v. 5).
Can such be said of a practice that is not right in and of itself? If one was “fully assured in his own mind” that he could commit adultery, would God encourage him to do so? If one was “fully assured in his own mind” that he could steal, would an inspired writer countenance his practice? Certainly not I We must limit this advice to the category of things under consideration – those cases where two variant practices were both right or lawful in and of themselves. Those differing in practice both acted “unto the Lord” (v. 6). Such a statement could not be made if one or both of the practices were wrong or unlawful.
From this point, Paul urges those differing in practice not to judge one another and to remember that they face a final judgment of God (vv. 7-12). He also urges that they refrain from acting in such a way as to cause another to stumble (vv. 13-23). One can see how this could happen with the eating of meat from either of two possibilities.
First, the Jew who had been converted to Christ might have a problem eating the meat he had seen as unclean all of his life. Intellectually, he would know God now allowed such, but it takes time for the old feelings to be fully conquered so that no doubt remains. If a stronger brother exhorted him to eat while those doubts remained, sin would result (v. 23).
Second, the Gentile who had been converted to Christ might have a problem eating meat since the practice was so closely tied to the worship of an idol all of his life. Intellectually, he would know there is nothing to the idol, but old patterns of thought are not fully changed overnight. If a stronger brother encouraged him to eat meat while doubts remained, sin would result (v. 23).
Again we come back to emphasize the basis of this entire chapter. Brethren differed in thought and practice regarding matters that were right in and of themselves. True, the weaker brother did not understand that the practice of the stronger brother was right. However, the fact remains that both practices were right. Paul repeatedly emphasized the lawful nature of both differing practices. Upon that basis, both brethren were to receive each other, for God had already received them.
Some brethren today believe the point emphasized in this chapter is the individual nature of the practices discussed as opposed to collective action that involves the whole church in the practice. They believe Paul’s admonitions here would apply to matters that may be inherently wrong or sinful, but would not involve others in those actions. However, Paul makes his appeal to receive the meat-eater based on the fact that “God hath received him” (v. 3) and the emphatic statement that the meat eater “shall be made to stand” (v. 4). The individual nature of the action is not the basis of Paul’s appeal.
The view that we must receive even those who practice sin as long as it does not involve our direct participation has dangerous consequences. It would mean we must receive the fornicator and idolater who did not involve us in their practice even though Paul says we should not (1 Cor. 5:11). Should we receive the murderer as long as he did not involve us in pulling the trigger? Are we not to judge the musically talented brother who plays the piano or organ in worship with every denomination in town as long as he does not involve us in such? If we have a brother who, as a professor at the local university, openly teaches and supports the theory of evolution in his classes, must we receive him? If Romans 14 instructs of us to accept even the one with a sinful practice as long as it does not involve us, we must receive the brother without “arguing over his opinions” or “judging” him. Any position that demands such erroneous consequences must be rejected for we cannot harmonize such a position with other clear passages regarding the legitimate extent of our fellowship.
In the next article, we will examine various applications of this passage – past and present.
Guardian of Truth XXXIV: 8, pp. 240-242
April 19, 1990