Main exhortation — “Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.” (Romans 14:13, ESV)
Viktor lived with us for a few months when I was 16. From Indonesia, the rumor was his father named him after the brand name of a reel to reel projector he’d used to show the Jesus Film in rural outreaches. Like his father, Viktor became a lover of Christ. As a growing Christian, he came to the states to study the Bible. Through the connections of our fathers, he would stay with us for a few months before his studies began.
Indonesian through and through, Viktor was in for serious culture shock. Much of our lives were foreign to him. I’ll never forget how amazed he was at our relationship with the family dog. He’d never seen that brand of human-animal relationship before. Constantly, he was confronted with a different way of life.
Still, above it all, we were brothers in Christ. How could we fellowship together in the midst of all these differences? It wasn’t hard, really. It just took patience and grace.
The church in Rome must’ve had plenty of connections that stretched them. A cosmopolitan city, Rome had people from everywhere. Every generation, class, ethnicity, history, and background was found in Rome. The Roman church had a bit of everyone. How can a church like that exist together? Even if they agreed on doctrine, wouldn’t the particulars of every day life drive them apart? There’s no way they’d all live the exact same way.
Paul understood this. He spent just seven verses addressing our relationship with government, but thirty-six dealing with liberties and convictions (see Romans 13:1-7, 14:1-15:13). He could not preach the liberating gospel of grace, to the Jew first and also to the Greek, without preaching how this gospel enables mankind to live with one another.
This Roman situation is our situation today. If various convictions and liberties aren’t respected, and if love is not preeminent above them, a church will become monotone. Everyone in the fellowship will live the same way. Uniformity will drive out the diversity. There won’t be room for generations, classes, and cultures. Sameness will prevail, often in legalistic fashion, but sometimes in brazen licentious fashion.
I am thankful Paul addressed this. I don’t want to provide verse by verse analysis, but some overview points from this entire flow of divine thought. Jesus taught us to love one another (John 13:34). Here’s how:
Welcome Varying Christian Convictions
“As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him.” (Romans 14:1–3).
Paul began by describing a situation. There was one person who believed they could eat anything. There was another person who believed they could eat only vegetables.
Who is this person who wouldn’t eat the meat? Paul does not say. We safely assumed they went beyond basic vegetarianism. There are two mentions of this type of person elsewhere in the New Testament.
One person would be someone converted out of Judaism. They had grown up under dietary restrictions. Certain meats were not allowed to them. The gospel set them free from these restrictions. If Paul is speaking about this type of person, then we are dealing with a man who still couldn’t eat even though Christ had declared all food clean (Matthew 7:19).
The other person would be someone who had come out of paganism. Under their old religious system they would sacrifice meat to idols. That meat would sometimes be repurposed, sold in the marketplace. The meat you bought there may or may not have been previously offered to an idol. With that history, a person might not feel it right to eat the suspect meat (see 1 Corinthians 8:7).
The reality, though, is that Paul doesn’t indicate who exactly we are dealing with. He does, however, tell us they a weak in faith (14:1). This doesn’t mean they are barely saved, but that this is an area of weakness in their Christian life.
It should jump out to us that the person with restrictions is the weaker brother in Paul’s mind. Apparently, grace had not yet reached that area of restriction. There was still room to grow. We often think of the person with extreme restriction as the mature, but that isn’t always true.
Paul’s exhortation is simple. God has welcomed both the one who eats and the one who abstains (14:3). Because God has welcomed both, we are to welcome one another. We are to accept and receive one another. These two brothers with varying convictions and liberties were called to embrace each other.
This is an all important attitude. It seems to me the world wide spread of Christianity will cause a million different areas of difference to pop up between you and another believer. Attitudes on television, beer and wine, working on Sundays, body art, musical preferences, fashion, politics, financial purchases, parenting styles, diets, and exercise are just a few areas that come to mind. A wide range of perspectives will exist.
Obviously, there is cardinal truth in Scripture we must fight for. Then, there are secondary issues we must discuss and debate. These first two categories are not “gray” areas. I know someone will read the Bible, find doctrines they don’t like, and declare those doctrines “gray” areas. This isn’t who or what Paul is writing about. Paul is writing about a third category, areas Scripture is silent about. We can cordially discuss things in this category, but the case Paul will build is that we must welcome one another.
Paul tells us the stronger brother is not to “despise the one who abstains” (14:3). He isn’t to look down on someone with a restriction that goes beyond the Bible. The one who could not feel free to eat the meat should not be talked about as a legalist by the one with liberty.
Paul tells us the weaker brother is not to “pass judgment on the one who eats” (14:3). He isn’t to speak critical words regarding the liberty his friend uses. The one who is more restrictive is not allowed to call another’s behavior carnal or dangerous. He isn’t to pass judgment.
The truth is that Christianity — real, biblical Christianity — is narrow enough as is. Jesus spoke of the narrow gate being the less popular option (Matthew 7:13-14). It is harder. There is a ton our culture approves of that is incompatible with the Christian life (i.e., sexual immorality, drunkenness, greed, abuse, hate, etc.). There is no need to add restrictions that would distort God’s grace, making it smell more like law.
For my part, I’ve found the strong and weak man lives in me. I might feel liberty in musical preferences, for instance, while being more critical and judgmental of those who value fashion. It might be easy for me to talk to a friend about their new tattoo, but not as easy for me to talk to them about their new car. I find the strong and weak man both reside in my heart.
Paul gave us significant reasons why we ought to welcome one another.
God Makes Them Stand (14:4)
“Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” (Romans 14:4).
Paul seems to highlight something simple here. It isn’t my responsibility to decide if your liberty or conviction is right or wrong. You aren’t my servant. You serve God. It is His opinion that matters most.
Jesus said, “Judge not, that you be not judged" (Matthew 7:1). When He said that, He wasn’t saying what my society often thinks He said. He wasn’t saying we must be non-thinking people who cannot declare right from wrong. In the next breath He told His followers to judge themselves, basically, by pulling the log out of their own eye, enabling them to pull the speck out of another’s eye. He followed that up by saying we shouldn’t cast what is holy to the dogs or pearls before swine. Obviously, a discerning mind is needed.
But Jesus seemed to be telling us that a hyper-critical spirit towards other believers wouldn’t serve us well. In these meat vs. vegetables issues, the areas Scripture doesn’t weigh in on, we must not judge. Paul says here, “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another?” The answer is obvious.
In the midst of this, Paul announces “the Lord is able to make him stand.” In other words, Jesus is the one who develops His people. He grows and matures us. He makes us stand.
When my daughters were little, I would help them as they began to learn to crawl, then stand, then walk. They couldn’t do this at the beginning. They needed time. They needed their daddy. They needed to become strong. They needed nourishment and practice. As time went on, they began to stand, then walk, then run.
We often forget the process of the Christian life. The same Lord who stood with the accused Joshua, putting a clean garment on his body and turban on his head, is the same Lord who stands with you. He has taken our filthy garments and given us a way forward. He can make us stand, just as He made Joshua stand (see Zechariah 3:1-5).
God Regards Their Convictions As Worship (14:5-9)
“One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.” (Romans 14:5–6).
This next thought from Paul is amazing to me. He mentions first that some esteem one day as better than another, presumably for worship. Another esteems all days alike (14:5). One person observes the day. One person eat. One person abstains.
As the reader, I am fully prepared for Paul to drop the hammer now. I want the apostle to get apostolic and tell me who is right. Is the all week guy right? Is the abstainer right? Tell me! But Paul doesn’t go there. Instead, he said two massive things.
First, he said, “Each should be full convinced in his own mind” (14:5). Look, Paul would never say stuff like this about the great and clear doctrines of the Christian faith. He wants a uniformity there. But here, in these areas the Bible is silent about, he welcomes the variety. He wants us fully convinced in our own minds. So, who is right in these cases? The ones fully convinced in their own minds.
Second, Paul tells us all of this is done “in honor of the Lord.” The person who abstains? It is in honor for the Lord. The person who eats? It is honor for the Lord. To worship on one day or any day? It is honor to the Lord. In other words, if that full conviction is present in a person’s heart, then what they do is done for God. God receives their rock solid convictions as worship. He sees it as devotion.
This is so helpful to us when considering liberties and convictions. God is able to see outside the boxes we sometimes create or the lines we draw (again, in these areas scripture is silent about). He takes our convictions and receives them as worship. This is both beautiful and astounding to me.
God Is The Judge
“Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God…” (Romans 14:10). “So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.” (Romans 14:12).
Finally, Paul brings us to a final word against judgmentalism towards one another in these areas of conviction and liberty. He reminds believers everywhere that we must give an account of our own lives to God. When I stand before him on that day it will have nothing to do with salvation. My name is written in the Lamb’s book of life. No, on that day I will give an account for how I lived as a believer. Whether my time serving in his fields was short or long, I will give an account for my life.
The point Paul makes here, though, is that we don’t need to take this role from God. It is His alone. When I stand before Him, He will not ask me for my opinion about you. He doesn’t need my take. It will be my life alone that is weighed in the balance. I believe major grace will be present in that moment, but it will be a solitary moment with God.
So if God is the judge then, we ought to let him be the judge now in these areas of liberty and conviction. Let Him stand over your life and heart delineating how your life ought to look. Get His grace when you eat the meat. Get His conviction when you refuse it. Make sure, in all things, He is the Lord. Let Him be the judge. Not you. Not others. Him.
Early in my walk with God I became enamored with the ministry of the Holy Spirit. I still am. I remember, though, an episode in those early years. I discovered my parents, whom I looked up to in the faith, had taken one of those personality profile tests. They sat at the dining room table, pouring over the results.
I took offense. My newfound knowledge about the Holy Spirit was at odds with what I saw. “The Spirit makes you who you are,” I thought, “how dare you limit God by pigeonholing yourself with one of these silly tests!” My critical spirit raised up within me. They had liberty, I had conviction, but I was not behaving correctly.
Years later, I realize the folly of all that. I should have been open, gracious, less rigid. They weren’t limiting God’s work in their lives. In fact, they were likely trying to see some areas Jesus could deepen them, helping them in areas of natural weakness.
Let us not be condescending and critical towards those with liberties we don’t yet feel free to engage in. We are to welcome them, let Jesus change them, and believe He loves their devotion, receiving it as honor unto Him. Let us be free — in these areas scripture is silent — to allow God to be the judge. We don’t need to be in His seat. We couldn’t handle it.