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)
If you’ve been around Christianity for any real length of time, you have likely heard someone talk about stumbling. “I don’t want to stumble them” or “I was really stumbled by that.” But where does this language come from? Is it accurate?
In Romans 14-15 Paul deals with the tricky subject of Christian liberty. His main point is simple: “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). This verse points in two directions.
First, it points backward to the “weaker brother” who has convictions about things Christ has made clean. He is not to pass judgment on those who live out their liberty in Christ.
Second, it points to “the strong” who have liberty in the things Christ has made clean. He is not to stumble or hinder any brother in Christ with his actions. I have written about the first exhortation previously, so today I will focus on the second.
Rome was extremely diverse, cosmopolitan. Believers were there from every walk of life. It was dissimilar to the church in Jerusalem. In Jerusalem, the church could operate on the foundational framework of Judaism. Most Christians there probably didn’t have too many questions on how to deal with liberties; many of them likely didn’t want to. Their culture didn’t confront them with liberty all that much.
But the Roman church would have been confronted with decisions daily. Since many of them had come out of the Gentile world, they needed wisdom. Some had strong convictions about things the Bible is silent on, while others felt freedom in areas not condemned by Scripture.
Work Hard Not To Stumble (14:13-19)
As these two camps related to one another, the stronger Christians had to make sure they didn’t stumble other Christians in exercising their liberty. This would require hard work, a commitment to live out their faith personally before God, and a Christlikeness.
This is the exhortation of 14:13 — “decide never to put a stumbling-block or hindrance in the way of a brother.” The stronger brother decides not to stumble. There are two major reasons for this.
Because It Is Sin For Them If They Believe It To Be Sin
“I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died.” (Romans 14:14–15).
First, if a stronger brother urged a weaker brother to participate in a liberty, it would be sin for the weaker brother. To put it another way, if they feel it is sin, it is sin. Paul said it this way: “It is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.” Though Paul “knew” and was “persuaded” in “the Lord Jesus” that “nothing is unclean in itself,” he realized that ignoring your convictions is sin for you.
This reminds us of his previous statement that we should “be fully convinced in (our) own mind” (Romans 14:5). If we regard a certain day or certain food, we hold that conviction “in honor to the Lord” (Romans 14:6). It is worship when we live out our convictions or our liberties. Here, Paul tells us to work hard not to stumble because if a weaker brother violates his convictions it amounts to sin for him.
We would never want to bring someone into sin! Jesus indicated it would be better to have a millstone around our neck. We’d never want to cause someone to violate the conviction they hold before God because it would be sin for them.
Perhaps you have no problem with a glass of wine at your dinner table. Say, however, you have an ex-alcoholic over, or someone whose family has been decimated by alcohol. Say they have not healed from that trauma. Imagine they hold a conviction about wine. For you to push them to taste it, to drink it, would be wrong. You should not try to influence them to copy you. Do not stumble them.
Now, there is a question at this point. What does it mean to stumble them? Paul seems to unpack this concept a bit more in the next verses. He mentions “grieving” your brother and “destroying” him. So to stumble must mean we are ensnaring them (hindrance), hurting them (grieved), and tearing them down (destroy). These are strong words that indicate a bringing into the activity itself in a destructive way. To stumble someone is to bring them into a violation of their conscience, which is destructive to their walk with Christ.
This is helpful to us because we often hold a very light definition of “stumbling.” Many have thought it to mean offense or disapproval. They don’t like watching someone else live out a liberty, so they call it “being stumbled.” But this is not the case Paul builds. It is something directly destructive to the faith of another.
If I have a conviction that cat ownership is evil, I would be wrong. The Bible is silent about cat ownership. But that conviction would make it right for me to abstain from cat ownership. If you felt free to own a cat you would be right. If you owned a cat it would be fine. If I saw you had a cat it would be fine. But if you persisted in talking me into getting a cat, you would be wrong. For me, cat ownership is a sin. You should not stumble me into it, for that would be destructive to my faith.
I know this is a silly analogy, but hopefully, you get the idea. We are to respect the convictions of others. So we work hard not to stumble because it is sin if someone feels it is sin.
Because There Is So Much More To Life In The Kingdom
“For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.” (Romans 14:17–19).
But there is another motive Paul gives to the stronger brother. The first was enough, but the second is powerful. We don’t want to stumble our brother because there is so much more to life in the kingdom.
Paul says it like this: “the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”
We are in God’s kingdom right now. Someday we will see this kingdom in its full glory, but for now, we live it out in the church, the body of Christ. This kingdom isn’t about all our little liberties and convictions. It isn’t about eating and drinking. There is so much more to this kingdom, this life in Christ. It is about the deeper things. It is about righteousness with God, peace within, and joy with others. To reduce the kingdom to convictions and liberties is foolish.
There is more to this kingdom than wine or Christmas trees. There is more to the church that tattoos and musical styles. His kingdom is about more than Sundays or fashion choices. The kingdom happens in the unseen, in the eternal, in the spiritual realm.
We know this to be the case. But often, when a debate over an area Scripture is silent on arises, there is division and contention. It begins to feel as if the kingdom of God must actually be about food and drink. But this isn’t the case. Elsewhere Paul taught us: “these rules may seem wise because they require strong devotion, pious self-denial, and severe bodily discipline. But they provide no help in conquering a person’s evil desires” (Colossians 2:23, NLT). It might seem godly or spiritual to tussle over issues like these, but it isn’t actually helpful towards godliness.
When this is understood by all, a beautiful thing takes place. Paul refers to it this way: “Let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (Romans 14:19). When the stronger understands there is more to the kingdom that his liberties, and when the weak understands there is more to the kingdom that his convictions, it is possible to mutually upbuild one another.
If we simply realize there is a bigger picture, if we get that perspective, then the weaker can edify the stronger and the stronger can edify the weaker. The one with convictions might challenge the one with liberties to think more soberly about their Christian life. They might encourage them to prayerfully consider all the activities of their lives, asking if they are living those liberties in response to Christ or not. The one with liberties might challenge the one with convictions to think hard about the complete work of the cross. Perhaps the weaker brother is abiding by some old legalism and needs encouragement to loosen their grip on those baser convictions.
But this mutual edification cannot happen if the secondary issues of liberties and convictions become a primary issue for either camp.
Live Out Your Faith With Others, But To God
So we all have these personal convictions. For us, as Paul says, they are right. To violate them would be a sin. He reiterates this now: “Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.” (Romans 14:20–21).
We must live out the conviction and knowledge we have. This goes both ways. For instance, Paul became very upset with Peter and Barnabas when they acted as if they thought certain food was unclean. He knew they were acting in front of Jewish Christians because he’d watched them live out their liberty to eat the meat when with the Gentile Christians. He “saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel” (Galatians 2:14). He publicly rebuked them for their inconsistency.
If we believe it to be unclean, we must behave as if it is so. If we know it to be clean, we must behave accordingly. We must never force others to deny their conscience, but cannot lie and act as if we believe something we clearly don’t. But after reiterating his point, Paul moved further into his argument.
“The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” (Romans 14:22–23).
He says, “The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God” (Romans 14:22a). You must live out your personal convictions and liberties before God. I don’t believe Paul is building a case for the extreme privacy of the exercise of liberties. This would contradict his very public announcement about his own liberty, that he is convinced in Christ it is all clean (14:15). It is very clear where Paul stood. No one would have wondered. He was not secret about it.
To take this exhortation as a mandate to secrecy in liberties seems unhealthy for the body of Christ. It effectively produces an entire church living at the level of the person with the weakest conscience publicly, while privately enjoying liberties. This was not the life Paul lived. This is not what happened in Galatians 2. This kind of secret life of liberty is not only impossible but also creates a rigid community constantly sensitive to outward appearances. No thanks. Besides, how in the world would a weaker brother ever learn to be set free if everyone catered to his every conviction publicly?
The emphasis Paul makes does not seem to be on privacy but on devotion. The faith you have, whether a liberty or a conviction, keep in devotion to God. You must keep it between yourself and God because you cannot make others keep it with you. You must personally live out your convictions and your faith.
This isn’t to say there aren’t times it is wise to keep a liberty privately because you don’t want to invite unnecessary turmoil into your life. There is no need to post everything to your social media accounts, knowing full well you might offend a fellow believer. But to live in complete secrecy because of the possibility of offense seems unwise. Our fashion choices, our musical preferences, our parental decisions, all of it would become paralyzed if we felt we could never live out our personal convictions or liberties for others to see.
The Message puts it this way: “cultivate your own relationship with God.” Well said.
So the strong and the weak are to make sure they live according to their liberties and convictions. They must walk out their personal, non-justification version of faith before God. The strong is blessed if he has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves” (Romans 14:22). The weak is condemned if he eats something he has doubts about, so he must abstain (Romans 14:23). Simple.
Look To Jesus’ Example
“We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.”” (Romans 15:1–3).
To conclude this section, Paul turns to Jesus Christ. He tells us that, “Christ did not please Himself” (15:3). Jesus’ rule in these matters was that He wasn’t there for self-pleasure, but for the building up of His neighbor (15:2). There were times Jesus submitted to the convictions of others — He paid taxes, went to various festivals, and endured the cross. There were times Jesus partook of liberty — Though He wasn’t one, He was called a glutton and winebibber in comparison to John the Baptist. He cast off the Pharisaical hand-washing ceremony. He did not follow their strict interpretations of the Sabbath.
In it all, Jesus’ mission was simple: do not please Myself. He continually thought of what would be best for others. If it was submission, He’d do that. If it was combatting legalism, He’d do that. Whatever was best for building up others in that moment, Jesus would do. He was centered upon others.
Which brings us to the most excellent way, the way of love (1 Corinthians 12:31). There are times we will deny ourselves for the convictions or weaknesses of others. There are times we will deny our liberties for love’s sake.
Paul is a fine example of this. For instance, he laid himself down for the church in Jerusalem. After years of missionary work, when he arrived in Jerusalem he discovered there were some who were skittish about his ministry to the Gentile world. Fearing him too radical, the church leaders there asked him to submit to a purification ceremony. He also was asked to pay the expenses of four men to do the same after a vow they’d made to God (Acts 21:23-24). All of this was unnecessary. But they held this conviction. Paul submitted to it gladly.
In another instance, Paul laid himself down for the church in Corinth. When serving the church there he had made a decision not to receive any financial compensation for his ministry work amongst them. By the time he wrote 1 Corinthians to them, some in the church in Corinth wondered aloud about the legitimacy of Paul’s ministry, partly because he hadn’t received any payment. In 1 Corinthians 9:1-19 Paul explained to them how he had made a decision to refuse the right to payment. But, in the process of writing, he laid out an eight-point argument for his liberty and right to payment for his ministry work. Still, even though he was eight-point convinced of his right, he laid it down. I wonder if we would be better as a people if we laid down liberties we had eight-point convictions about.
Jesus’ Example In The Bible
“For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” (Romans 15:4–7).
Paul then went on to talk about the “encouragement of the Scriptures” and the “God of endurance and encouragement” (15:4-5). This seems to be a nod to the fact that living in harmony across various convictions and liberties is hard work. If we are only capable of fellowship with people who hold the exact convictions and liberties we do, our circle of friends will be small indeed. But it takes great endurance to push through to this kind of sacrificial love, the laying down of my rights for you.
There is a source of encouragement for us, however. Jesus is our great example of laying down rights for the blessing of others. We see this primarily in His cross, but this same spirit is also found in the Scriptures. When Abraham let Lot choose the land first, that is Christlikeness. When Jonathan laid down his claim to the future throne of Israel for David, that is Christlikeness. When John the Baptist declared he must decrease so that Jesus could increase, that is Christlikeness. All through the Scriptures, a Christlikeness is seen.
We need encouragement from the God of endurance and encouragement to live this way. Where do we find it? In the Scripture. As we read the Bible we read often of those who laid down their lives for the blessing of others. His word is to interact with our hearts, and we are to conclude the way of love is best.
Jesus’ Example In The Gospel
“For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written, “Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles, and sing to your name.” And again it is said, “Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people.” And again, “Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles, and let all the peoples extol him.” And again Isaiah says, “The root of Jesse will come, even he who arises to rule the Gentiles; in him will the Gentiles hope.”” (Romans 15:8–12).
Finally, Paul concludes this section with a long list of Old Testament prophecies about Jesus’ ministry to the Gentile world. He quotes from four sources: two in the Psalms, Deuteronomy, and Isaiah. The Gentiles are mentioned in every quote.
But why is Paul doing this? He wanted to show that, “Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness…and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for His mercy” (15:8-9).
The point is simple: One major way Jesus denied His liberty for the conviction of others is that He went to the Jew first. He submitted to circumcisions, feasts, festivals, the whole thing. He is the Jewish Messiah. He did that work — even though His heart was so clearly for the entire world!
Jesus wanted to reach Gentiles, so He submitted to Judaism. This might seem counterintuitive to us. Often, the way forward in liberties and convictions is self-denial. Jesus got to His desired destination — the gospel for the entire world — by limiting Himself to Israel for a time. His church, primarily, would be the ones to take the gospel to the Gentile world, something He clearly wanted to do, judging from the Old Testament prophecies.
Am I willing to restrict myself for love’s sake? Am I willing to see the example of Christ in the Old and New Testament?
“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.” (Romans 15:13).
Obviously, much of this is quite messy. No group of people has succeeded at this perfectly. Often, those with restrictions become the ruling party. Often, those with biblically allowable liberties are insensitive to the convictions of others. Often, division and intolerance in these areas rule the day. But Paul gives us a grid to operate by and Christ shows us another way. In our diversity in Christ, let us have unity in Christ. There is nothing like it.