RESPECT FOR SCRUPLES (Romans 14:1)
14:1 Welcome the man who is weak in the faith, but not with a view to passing judgment on his scruples.
In this chapter Paul is dealing with what may have been a temporary and local problem in the Roman Church, but is also one continually confronting the Church and always demanding solution. In the Church at Rome there were apparently two lines of thought. There were some who believed that in Christian liberty the old tabus were gone; they believed that the old food laws were now irrelevant; they believed that Christianity did not consist in the special observance of any one day or days. Paul makes it clear that this in fact is the standpoint of real Christian faith. On the other hand, there were those who were full of scruples; they believed that it was wrong to eat meat; they believed in the rigid observance of the Sabbath tyranny. Paul calls the ultra-scrupulous man the man who is weak in the faith. What does he mean by that?
Such a man is weak in the faith for two reasons.
(i) He has not yet discovered the meaning of Christian freedom; he is at heart still a legalist and sees Christianity as a thing of rules and regulations.
(ii) He has not yet liberated himself from a belief in the efficacy of works. In his heart he believes that he can gain God's favour by doing certain things and abstaining from others. Basically he is still trying to earn a right relationship with God, and has not yet accepted the way of grace, still thinking more of what he can do for God than of what God has done for him.
Paul bids the stronger brethren to welcome such a person and not to besiege him with continual criticisms.
This problem is not confined to the days of Paul. To this day in the Church there are two points of view. There is the more liberal which sees no harm in many things and is well content that many an innocent pleasure should go on within the Church. And there is the narrower point of view, which is offended at many things in which the liberal person sees no harm.
Paul's sympathies are all with the broader point of view; but, at the same time, he says that when one of these weaker brethren comes into the Church he must be received with brotherly sympathy. When we are confronted with someone who holds the narrower view there are three attitudes we must avoid.
(i) We must avoid irritation. An impatient annoyance with such a person gets us nowhere. However much we may disagree, we must try to see the other person's point of view and to understand it.
(ii) We must avoid ridicule. No man remains unwounded when that which he thinks precious is laughed at. It is no small sin to laugh at another man's beliefs. They may seem prejudices rather than beliefs; but no man has a right to laugh at what some other holds sacred. In any event, laughter will never woo the other man to a wider view; it will only make him withdraw still more determinedly into his rigidity.
(iii) We must avoid contempt. It is very wrong to regard the narrower person as an old-fashioned fool whose views may be treated with contempt. A man's views are his own and must be treated with respect. It is not even possible to win a man over to our position unless we have a genuine respect for his. Of all attitudes towards our fellow man the most unchristian is contempt.
Before we leave this verse, it should be noted that there is another perfectly possible translation. "Welcome the man who is weak in the faith, but do not introduce him straight away to the discussion of questions which can only raise doubts." There are some people whose faith is so strong that no amount of debate and questioning will really shake it. But there are others who have a simple faith which is only needlessly disturbed by clever discussion.
It may well be that our own age is overfond of discussion for discussion's sake. It is fatal to give the impression that Christianity consists of nothing but a series of questions under debate. "We have found," said G. K. Chesterton, "all the questions that can be found. It is time we stopped looking for questions and started looking for answers." "Tell me of your certainties," said Goethe, "I have doubts enough of my own." There is one good rule which should guide the progress of any discussion, even if it has been a bewildered discussion, and even if it has been discussing questions to which there is no real answer, it should always finish with an affirmation. There may be many questions left unanswered, but there must be some certainty left unshaken.
TOLERANCE FOR ANOTHER'S POINT OF VIEW (Romans 14:2-4)
14:2-4 One man has enough faith to believe that he can eat anything; but he who is weak in the faith eats vegetables. Let not him who eats contemptuously despise him who does not eat; and let not him who does not eat pass censorious judgment on him who does eat, for God has received him. Who are you to judge another man's servant? It is in his own master's judgment that he stands or falls--and he will stand, for the Master is able to make him stand.
Here emerges one of the definite points of debate in the Roman Church. There were those who observed no special food laws and tabus at all, and who ate anything; and there were those who conscientiously abstained from meat, and ate only vegetables. There were many sects and religions in the ancient world which observed the strictest food laws. The Jews themselves did. Leviticus 11:1-47 gives its lists of the creatures which may and which may not be eaten. One of the strictest sects of the Jews was the Essenes. They had communal meals for which they bathed and wore special clothes. The meals had to be specially prepared by priests or they would not eat them. The Pythagoreans had their distinctive food laws. Pythagoras taught that the soul of man was a fallen deity confined to the body as to a tomb. He believed in reincarnation through which the soul might dwell in a man, an animal, or a plant in an endless chain of being. Release from this chain of being was found through absolute purity and discipline; and this discipline included silence, study, self-examination and abstention from all flesh. In almost any Christian congregation there would be those who observed special food laws and tabus.
It is the same problem. Within the Church there was a narrower party and there was a more liberal party. Paul unerringly pinpoints the danger that was likely to arise. Almost certainly the more liberal party would despise the scruples of the narrower party; and, still more certainly, the narrower party would pass censorious judgment on what they believed to be the laxity of the more liberal party. That situation is just as real and perilous in the Church today as it was in the time of Paul.
To meet it Paul lays down a great principle. No man has any right to criticize another man's servant. The servant is answerable to his master alone. Now all men are the servants of God. It is not open to us to criticize them, still less to condemn them. That right belongs to God alone. It is not in our judgment that a man stands or falls but in his. And, Paul goes on, if a man is honestly living out his principles as he sees them, God can make him able to stand.
Many a congregation of the Church is torn in two because those who hold broader views are angrily contemptuous of those whom they regard as die-hard conservatives; and because those who are stricter in their outlook are censorious of those who wish the right to do things which they think are wrong. It is not open to us to condemn each other. "I beseech you by the bowels of Christ," said Cromwell to the rigid Scots of his day, "think it possible that you may be mistaken." We must banish both censoriousness and contempt from the fellowship of the Church. We must leave the judgment of others to God, and seek only to sympathize and to understand.
A DIFFERENT ROAD TO THE SAME GOAL (Romans 14:5-6)
14:5-6 One man rates one day beyond another; one regards all days alike. Let each man be fully convinced in his own mind. The man who observes a particular day observes it to the Lord. The man who eats, eats to the Lord, for he says his grace. The man who does not eat, does not eat to the Lord, for he too says his grace to God.
Paul introduces another point on which narrower and more liberal people may differ. The narrower people make a great deal of the observance of one special day. That was indeed a special characteristic of the Jews. More than once Paul was worried about people who made a fetish of observing days. He writes to the Galatians: "You observe days, and months, and seasons, and years: I am afraid I have laboured over you in vain" (Galatians 4:10-11). He writes to the Colossians: "Let no man pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a sabbath. These are only a shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ" (Colossians 2:16-17). The Jews had made a tyranny of the sabbath, surrounding it with a jungle of regulations and prohibitions. It was not that Paul wished to wipe out the Lord's Day--far from it; but he did fear an attitude which in effect believed that Christianity consisted in observing one particular day.
There is far more to Christianity than Lord's Day observance. When Mary Slessor spent three lonely years in the bush she frequently got the days mixed up because she had no calendar. "Once she was found holding her services on a Monday, and again on Sunday she was discovered on the roof, hammering away, in the belief that it was Monday!" No one is going to argue that Mary Slessor's services were any less valid because they were held on Monday, or that she was in any sense breaking the commandment because she was working on the Sunday. Paul would never have denied that the Lord's Day is a precious day, but he would have been equally insistent that not even it must become a tyranny, still less a fetish. It is not the day that we ought to worship, but him who is the Lord of all days.
In spite of all that, Paul pleads for sympathy between the narrower and the more liberal brethren. His point is that, however different their practice may be, their aim is the same. In their different attitude to days, both believe that they are serving God; when they sit down to eat, the one cats meat and the other does not, but both say their grace to God. We do well to remember that. If I am trying to get from Glasgow to London there are many routes I may use. I could in fact get there without traversing one half mile of road that another man might use. It is Paul's plea that the common aim should unite us and the differing practice should not be allowed to divide us.
But he insists on one thing. Whatever course a man chooses, let him be fully convinced in his own mind. His actions should be dictated not by convention, still less by superstition, but altogether by conviction. He should not do things simply because other people do them; he should not do them because he is governed by a system of semi-superstitious tabus; he should do them because he has thought them out and reached the conviction that for him at least they are the right things to do.
Paul would have added something else to that--no man should make his own practice the universal standard for all other people. This, in fact, is one of the curses of the Church. Men are so apt to think that their way of worship is the only way. T. R. Glover somewhere quotes a Cambridge saying: "Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy might--but remember that someone thinks differently." We would do well to remember that, in a great many matters, it is a duty to have our own convictions, but it is an equal duty to allow others to have theirs without regarding them as sinners and outcasts.
THE IMPOSSIBILITY OF ISOLATION (Romans 14:7-9)
14:7-9 For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. Whether we live or die we belong to the Lord. It was for this purpose that Christ died and rose to life again--that he might be the Lord of the dead and of the living.
Paul lays down the great fact that it is impossible in the nature of things to live an isolated life. There is no such thing in this world as a completely detached individual. That, in fact, is doubly true. "Man," said Macneile Dixon, "has an affair with the gods and an affair with the mortals." No man can disentangle himself either from his fellow men or from God.
In three directions a man cannot disentangle himself from his fellow men.
(i) He cannot isolate himself from the past. No man is self-made. "I am a part," said Ulysses, "of all that I have met." A man is a receiver of a tradition. He is an amalgam of all that his ancestors made him. True, he himself does something to that amalgam; but he does not start from nothing. For weal or for woe, he starts with what all the past has made him. The unseen cloud of witnesses do not only compass him about; they dwell within him. He cannot dissociate himself from the stock from which he springs and from the rock from which he is hewn.
(ii) He cannot isolate himself from the present. We live in a civilization which is daily binding men more and more closely together. Nothing a man does affects only himself. He has the terrible power of making others happy or sad by his conduct; he has the still more terrible power of making others good or bad. From every man goes out an influence which makes it easier for others to take the high way or the low way. From every man's deeds come consequences which affect others more or less closely. A man is bound up in the bundle of life, and from that bundle he cannot escape.
(iii) He cannot isolate himself from the future. As a man receives life so he hands life on. He hands on to his children a heritage of physical life and of spiritual character. He is not a self-contained individual unit; he is a link in a chain. Someone tells of a youth, who lived carelessly, who began to study biology. Through a microscope he was watching certain of these living things that you can actually see living and dying and begetting others in a moment of time. He rose from the microscope. "Now I see it," he said. "I am a link in the chain, and I will not be a weak link any more." It is our terrible responsibility that we leave something of ourselves in the world by leaving something of ourselves in others. Sin would be a far less terrible thing if it affected only a man himself. The terror of every sin is that it starts a new train of evil in the world.
Still less can a man disentangle himself from Jesus Christ.
(i) In this life Christ is forever a living presence. We do not need to speak of living as if Christ saw us; he does see us. All life is lived in his eye. A man can no more escape from the risen Christ than he can from his shadow. There is no place where he can leave Christ behind, and there is nothing which he can do unseen.
(ii) Not even death breaks that presence. In this world we live in the unseen presence of Christ; in the next we shall see him in his visible presence. Death is not the chasm that ends in obliteration; it is the gateway that leads to Christ.
No human being can follow a policy of isolation. He is bound to his fellow men and to Christ by ties that neither time nor eternity can break. He can neither live nor die to himself.
MEN UNDER JUDGMENT (Romans 14:10-12)
14:10-12 Who are you to judge your brother in anything? Or, who are you contemptuously to despise your brother? For we shall all stand at God's judgment seat; for it stands written: "As I live, God says, every knee shall bow to me. and every tongue shall confess its faith to God." So, then, each of us shall render account to God for himself.
There is one basic reason why we have no right to judge anyone else; and that is that we ourselves are men under judgment. It is the very essence of humanity that we are not the judges but the judged. To prove his point Paul quotes Isaiah 45:23.
This was indeed a thought with which any Jew would agree. There was a rabbinic saying: "Let not thine imagination assure thee that the grave is an asylum; for perforce thou wast framed, and perforce thou wast born. and perforce thou livest, and perforce thou diest, and perforce thou art about to give account and reckoning before the King of kings, the Holy One, blessed is he." The only person who has the right to judge anyone is God; the man who stands at the bar of God's judgment has no right to judge a fellow who also stands at that bar.
Just before this Paul has been thinking of the impossibility of the isolated life. But there is one situation in which a man is isolated, and that is when he stands before the judgment seat of God. In the old days of the Roman Republic, in the corner of the Forum farthest from the Capitol stood the tribunal, the judgment seat, where the Praetor Urbanus had sat dispensing justice. When Paul wrote, Roman justice required more than one judgment seat; and so in the great basilicas, the colonnaded porches around the Forum, the magistrates sat dispensing justice. The Roman well knew the sight of a man standing before the judge's judgment seat.
That is what happens to every man; and it is a judgment which he must face alone. Sometimes in this world he can make use of the merits of someone else. Many a young man has been spared some penalty for the sake of his parents; many a husband has been given mercy for the sake of his wife or child; but in the judgment of God a man stands alone. Sometimes, when a great one dies, the coffin lies in front of the mourning congregation, and, on the top of it, there is arranged the gowns of his academic honours, or the insignia of his state dignities; but he cannot take them with him. Naked we come into the world, and naked we leave it. We stand before God in the awful loneliness of our own souls; to him we can take nothing but the character which in life we have been building up.
Yet that is not the whole truth. We do not stand alone at the judgment seat of God, for we stand with Jesus Christ. We do not need to go stripped of everything; we may go clad in the merits that are his. Collin Brooks, writer and journalist, writes in one of his books: "God may be kinder than we think. If he cannot say, 'Well done! good and faithful servant,' it may be that he will say at last, 'Don't worry, my bad and faithless servant: I don't altogether dislike you.'" That was a man's whimsical way of stating his faith; but there is more to it than that. It is not that God merely does not dislike us; it is that, sinners as we are, he loves us for the sake of Jesus Christ. True, we must stand before God's judgment seat in the naked loneliness of our own souls; but, if we have lived with Christ in life, we shall stand with him in death, and before God he will be the advocate to plead our cause.
A MAN AND HIS NEIGHBOUR'S CONSCIENCE (Romans 14:13-16)
14:13-16 So, then, let us stop passing judgment on each other, and rather let this be our only judgment--the determination not to put any hindrance or stumbling block in our brother's way. I know this, and I am firmly convinced of it in the Lord Jesus Christ that there is nothing in itself which is unclean. All the same, if anyone thinks that anything is unclean, it is unclean to him. If your brother is grieved by something which you eat, you are no longer conducting yourself according to the principle that love lays down. Do not bring ruin by what you eat to that man for whom Christ died.
The Stoics used to teach that there were a great many things which they called adiaphora, that is, indifferent. In themselves they were quite neutral, neither good nor bad. The Stoics put it this way--it all depends by what handle you pick them up. Now that is profoundly true. To a student of art, a certain picture might be a work of art, to someone else an obscene drawing. To one group of people a discussion might be an interesting and stimulating and mind-kindling experience, to someone else a succession of heresies, and even blasphemies. An amusement, a pleasure, a pastime might seem to one quite permissible, and to another prohibited. More, there are pleasures which are quite harmless to one man, which can, in fact, be the ruin of another. The thing itself is neither clean nor unclean; its character is determined by the person who sees it or does it.
That is what Paul is getting at here. There are certain things which a man strong in the faith may see no harm in doing; but, if a person with a more narrow outlook saw him doing them, his conscience would be shocked; and if such a person were persuaded to do them himself his conscience would be outraged. We may take a very simple example. One man will genuinely see no harm in playing some outdoor game on Sunday, and he may be right; but another man's conscience is shocked at such a thing, and, if he were persuaded to take part in it, all the time he would have the haunting feeling that he was doing wrong.
Paul's advice is clear. It is a Christian duty to think of everything, not as it affects ourselves only, but also as it affects others. Note that Paul is not saying that we must always allow our conduct to be dictated by the views of others; there are matters which are essentially matters of principle, and in them a man must take his own way. But a great many things are neutral and indifferent; a great many things are neither in themselves good or bad; a great many things are not essential parts of life and conduct but belong to what we might call the extras of life. It is Paul's conviction that in regard to such things we have no right to give offence to the more scrupulous brother by doing them ourselves, or by persuading him to do them.
Life must be guided by the principle of love; and when it is, we will think, not so much of our right to do as we like as of our responsibilities to others. We have no right to distress another man's conscience in the things which do not really matter. Christian freedom must never be used as an excuse for rough-riding over the genuine feelings of others. No pleasure is so important that it can justify bringing offence and grief, and even ruin, to others. Augustine used to say that the whole Christian ethic could be summed up in a saying: "Love God, and do what you like." In a sense it is true; but Christianity consists not only in loving God; it consists also in loving our neighbour as ourselves.
THE PERIL OF CHRISTIAN FREEDOM (Romans 14:17-20)
14:17-20 Do not allow that good gift of freedom which you possess to become a thing which gets you into disrepute. For the Kingdom of God does not consist of food and drink, but of righteousness and peace and joy, which are the gifts of the Holy Spirit. For the man who rules his life by this principle, and so becomes the slave of Christ, is well-pleasing to God and approved by men. So, then, let it be the things that make for peace that we pursue, and the things which build up one another. Do not destroy God's work for the sake of food. True, all things are pure; but it is wrong for a man to make life's road more difficult for someone else through what he eats.
In essence, Paul is here dealing with the peril and the abuse of Christian freedom. To a Jew, Christian freedom has its dangers. All his life he had been compassed about by a multiplicity of rules and regulations. So many things were unclean and so many were clean. So many animals might not be eaten; so many purity laws must be observed. When the Jew came into Christianity he found that all the petty rules and regulations were abolished at one stroke, and the danger was that he might interpret Christianity as a freedom to do exactly as he liked. We must remember that Christian freedom and Christian love go hand in hand; we must hold fast to the truth that Christian freedom and brotherly love are bound up together.
Paul reminds his people that Christianity does not consist in eating and drinking what one likes. It consists in three great things, all of which are essentially unselfish things.
There is righteousness, and this consists in giving to men and to God what is their due. Now the very first thing that is due to a fellow man in the Christian life is sympathy and consideration; the moment we become a Christian the feelings of the other man become more important than our own; Christianity means putting others first and self last. We cannot give a man what is due to him and do what we like.
There is peace. In the New Testament peace does not mean simply absence of trouble; it is not a negative thing, but is intensely positive; it means everything that makes for a man's highest good. The Jews themselves often thought of peace as a state of right relationships between man and man. If we insist that Christian freedom means doing what we like, that is precisely the state we can never attain. Christianity consists entirely in personal relationships to man and to God. The untrammelled freedom of Christian liberty is conditioned by the Christian obligation to live in a right relationship, in peace, with our fellow men.
There is joy. Christian joy can never be a selfish thing. It does not consist in making ourselves happy; it consists in making others happy. A so-called happiness which made someone else distressed would not be Christian. If a man, in his search for happiness, brings a hurt heart and a wounded conscience to someone else, the ultimate end of his search will be, not joy, but sorrow. Christian joy is not individualistic; it is interdependent. Joy comes to the Christian only when he brings joy to others, even if it costs him personal limitation.
When a man follows this principle he becomes the slave of Christ. Here is the essence of the matter. Christian freedom means that we are free to do, not what we like, but what Christ likes. Without Christ a man is a slave to his habits, his pleasures, his indulgences. He is not really doing what he likes. He is doing what the things which have him in their grip make him do. Once the power of Christ enters into him he is master of himself, and then, and only then, real freedom enters his life. Then he is free not to treat men and not to live life as his own selfish human nature would have him do; he is free to show to all men the same attitude of love as Jesus showed.
Paul ends by setting out the Christian aim within the fellowship. (a) It is the aim of peace; the aim that the members of the fellowship should be in a right relationship with each other. A church where there is strife and contention, quarrels and bitterness, divisions and breaches, has lost all right to the name of church. It is not a fragment of the Kingdom of Heaven; it is simply an earthbound society. (b) It is the aim of upbuilding. The picture of the church as a building runs through the New Testament. The members are stones within the building. Anything which loosens the fabric of the church is against God; anything which makes that fabric stronger and more secure is of God.
The tragedy is that in so many cases it is little unimportant things which disturb the peace of the brethren, matters of law and procedure and precedent and prestige. A new age would dawn in the Church if we remembered that our rights are far less important than our obligations, if we remembered that, while we possess Christian liberty, it is always an offence to use it as if it conferred upon us the right to grieve the heart and conscience of someone else. Unless a church is a body of people who, in love, consider one another it is not a church at all.
RESPECT FOR THE WEAKER BROTHER (Romans 14:21-23)
14:21-23 It is the fine thing neither to eat meat, nor to drink wine, nor to do anything which makes the road more difficult for your brother to walk. As far as you yourselves are concerned you have enough faith to know that these things do not matter--well, then, let that be a matter between yourself and God. Happy is the man who never has cause to condemn himself for doing what he has come to the conclusion it was right to do. But he who has doubts about eating something stands condemned if he does eat it, because his decision to eat is not the result of faith.
We are back at the point that what is right for one man may be the ruin of another. Paul's advice is very practical.
(i) He has advice for the man who is strong in the faith. That man knows that food and drink make no difference. He has grasped the principle of Christian freedom. Well, then, let that freedom be something between him and God. He has reached this stage of faith; and God knows well that he has reached it. But that is no reason why he should flaunt his freedom in the face of the man who has not yet reached it. Many a man has insisted on the rights of his freedom, and then had cause to regret that he ever did so when he sees the consequences.
A man may come to the conclusion that his Christian freedom gives him a perfect right to make a reasonable use of alcohol; and, as far as he is concerned, it may be a perfectly safe pleasure, from which he runs no danger. But it may be that a younger man who admires him is watching him and taking him as an example. And it may also be that this younger man is one of these people to whom alcohol is a fatal thing. Is the older man to use his Christian freedom to go on setting an example which may well be the ruin of his young admirer? Or is he to limit himself, not for his own sake, but for the sake of the one who follows in his footsteps?
Surely conscious limitation for the sake of others is the Christian thing. If a man does not exercise it, he may well find that something that he genuinely thought to be permissible has brought ruin to someone else! It is surely better to make this deliberate limitation than to have the remorse of knowing that what one demanded as a pleasure has become death to someone else. Again and again, in every sphere of life, the Christian is confronted with the fact that he must examine things, not only as they affect himself, but also as they affect other people. A man is always in some sense his brother's keeper, responsible, not only for himself, but for everyone who comes into contact with him. "His friendship did me a mischief," said Burns of the older man he met in Irvine as he learned the art of flax-dressing. God grant that none may say that of us because we misused the glory of Christian freedom!
(ii) Paul has advice for the man who is weak in the faith, the man with the over-scrupulous conscience. This man may disobey or silence his scruples. He may sometimes do something because everyone else is doing it and he does not wish to be different. He may do it because he does not wish to court ridicule or unpopularity. Paul's answer is that if a man defies his conscience he is guilty of sin. If a man believes a thing to be wrong, then, if he does it, for him it is sin. A neutral thing becomes a right thing only when it is done out of the real, reasoned conviction that it is right. No man is the keeper of another man's conscience, and each man's conscience, in things indifferent, must be the arbiter for him of what is right or wrong.
-Barclay's Daily Study Bible (NT)
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Barclay, William. "Commentary on Romans 14". "William Barclay's Daily Study Bible". https://www.studylight.org/
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