Did you know that the favorite indoor sport of Christians is to try to change each other? And that’s been a major problem in the church for centuries. Too many brothers and sisters in God’s family think like this: “God is clearly pleased with the way I live – but you’re a mess and it’s my responsibility to fix you.”
Your mess is crazy … You drink beer and play cards; you go to movies; you smoke cigars; you work on Sundays; you wear lipstick; you dance; you play rock and roll music; you listen to jazz music; you use zippers instead of buttons; you have a TV; your skirts are too short; you drink wine at dinner; you wear makeup; you need to wear makeup. On and on and on it goes.
Years ago my Mother-in-law was criticized by some fellow church members about wearing make up and red lipstick. This was when my wife was a little girl. When my wife’s Grandfather heard that his daughter was being trashed, he was very upset and he commented, “What’s wrong with a little make up, every barn looks better with a fresh coat of paint on it.” I don’t think my Mother-in-law appreciated her Father comparing her to a barn…but his intentions were honorable.
There’s an endless list of things that can be included in what we might call – “debatable matters.” The church has traditionally had a hard time being able to settle lots of issues because of a misunderstanding of the principles that are set forth in Romans, Chapter 14.
What are the no-no’s of the Christian life? How much fellowship can you have with somebody who lives in a different way than you do, takes part in things you don’t take part in … who does things that you don’t approve of as a Christian? This is the challenge of Christian ethics, it’s the problem of what we call LEGALISM. And we’re right in the middle of the section where Paul deals with this in his letter to the Romans. What he’s really writing about, are the barriers that hinder us from “loving one another!” (Romans 13:8)
How do we learn to love other people, and still tolerate their views and behaviors? Just think for a moment, is there someone in your Christian circle with whom you regard as less enlightened than yourself. Think about whom that might be. Now listen to what Paul says to do about it – Romans 14:1: Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters.
That’s plain enough, isn’t it? Don’t reject him; don’t ignore her; don’t treat those people as inferior to you. Accept them. Not for the purpose of arguing or debating with them in order to change them or fix them later – accept them now “without passing judgment on disputable matters.”
To accept someone means that regardless of what struggle we may have with that person, we realize that they’re brothers and sisters in the family of God. Neither you nor I made them part of the family – the Lord did. We accept them because they’re our brothers and sisters. And we’re not to accept them with the idea of immediately fixing them in the areas they are weakest.
I remember years ago when I was leading a Bible discussion about the gifts of the Spirit, and a couple of people said to me after the discussion, “You have it, don’t you?” I knew immediately what they were asking me. But I replied, “Have what?” And they said, “You know … the gift.” And I said, “Oh, well yes, I’ve been told that I may have the gift of teaching.” No, they whispered, not that gift … the other gift. I said no. I don’t think I do. And their faces dropped, and they told me that they would have to leave our fellowship. Well, we just kept on loving them, and we kept on reaching out to them and accepting them. But they separated from our fellowship anyway and I lost track of them. It can be so painful when followers of Jesus make certain issues … whether they’re differing interpretations of the Scriptures, or a list of rules and dos and don’ts … the basis for Christian fellowship.
Hey, the first thing we are charged with is to accept people, let them know that we see them as a brother or a sister. We establish the boundaries of our relationship with them so they don’t ever feel that we’re attacking them.
The phrase that Paul uses here is that we’re to accept them … “without attempting to settle doubtful points” – these are points that the Scriptures do not speak to directly.
Then Paul goes on to spell out the debate further in Romans 14:2: One man’s faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables.
Hey! Vegetarians, did you hear that? From what Paul is saying here, all vegetarians have weak faith! Is that what he’s saying? NO! I believe this comment arises out of the background of the early church in which there was a real moral question about eating meat. Not only were there Jewish restrictions against certain forms of meat – Jews did not eat pork, and even beef and lamb had to be kosher – but the animal had to be killed in a certain way. So a Jew, or even one raised as a Jew, after he became a Christian, always had great emotional difficulty in eating meat.
Then there was also the problem in Rome and in other pagan Greek cities about the matter of eating meat that had been offered to idols. Some Christians said that if you did that it was the same as worshipping that idol. You were no different than the people who worshipped and believed in that idol. Other Christians said, “Oh, no. How can that be? Meat is meat. The fact that someone else thinks of it as offered to idols doesn’t mean that I have to think that way.” In these pagan cities the best meat was probably sold in the butcher shop next to the temple because that’s where the sacrifices were sold to the shoppers, who bought it without any question. And that was a real problem in the early church.
There were two basic viewpoints. There was a broad, liberal viewpoint that said it was perfectly all right to do this, and a narrow viewpoint that said it was wrong to do this. It really doesn’t make any difference what you’re arguing about if it’s in this area of debatable points – because you’ll always get these general two divisions – like, should you drink wine; should you go to the movies; should you dance; what about card-playing; what about working on Sunday?
Let’s be clear about these issues – when the Scriptures do speak to them, they aren’t debatable at all. It’s always wrong to be drunk. It’s always wrong to commit adultery or fornication. These things are clearly wrong. In both the Old and New Testaments, God has spoken about these areas and judged them. Christians are exhorted to rebuke and exhort and reprove one another, and, if necessary, even discipline one another according to patterns set out in the Scriptures. This is not judging each other in those areas. The Word of God has judged; it’s already declared what’s wrong.
But there are all those other areas that are left open by the Scriptures. Paul will not give a “yes” or “no” answer about some of these things because God doesn’t. These are areas where God wants to leave it up to you as an individual. And I believe he expects us to make decisions based on our own convictions. But my conviction is mine, not yours. And you conviction is yours, not mine.
It’s also crazy to notice that Paul calls the “broad group of people” strong in the faith, while the “narrow group” is regarded as being weak in the faith.
The NIV version incorrectly translates this passage: “accept him … whose faith is weak.” This has nothing to do with the strength or weakness of the individual’s faith. He’s not talking about someone whose faith is weak (we only need faith the size of a mustard seed, right?) … he’s talking about someone who is weak in the faith. This is a doctrinal problem.
Jesus said in John 8:31-32, “If anyone continue in my word, he will be my disciple indeed and he will know the truth and the truth will set him free.” The mark of understanding truth is freedom … it’s liberty. That’s why Paul calls the person who understands truth one who is strong in the faith, while those who do not understand truth are weak in the faith.
William Barclay handled this concept correctly. He wrote: Such a man is weak in the faith for 2 reasons:
First, he hasn’t yet discovered the meaning of Christian freedom; in his heart he’s still a legalist; he sees Christianity as a thing of rules and regulations. His whole aim is to govern his life by a series of laws and observances; he is indeed frightened of Christian freedom and Christian liberty.
And, secondly, he hasn’t yet liberated himself from a belief in trusting in his own works. In his heart he believes that he can gain God’s favor by doing certain things, while not doing other things. He’s still trying to earn favor with God. He hasn’t yet accepted the grace of God. He’s still thinking about what he can do for God, more than about what God has done for him.
That’s the problem here. It’s the problem of a Christian who does not yet understand fully the freedom that Christ has brought him, who struggles with these kinds of things, and who feels limited in his ability to use some of these things – while others feel free to do so. One is strong in the faith; the other is called weak in the faith. And every church has these people. We have them right here. Paul puts his finger precisely on the attitudes that we must avoid if we’re going to accept one another like he says we must.
Read Romans 14:3, The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him.
This is so very important – the strong person must not reject the one who is still struggling, the one who is still weak. The phrase “look down” here is really a word that means, “push him out.” The strong must not push him out; they must not exclude him. They must not show contempt, and they must not look down on other people. Paul is saying, “The strong must not reject the weak, or think wrong things about her, or say wrong things about him.” There’s a tendency for some Christians to flaunt their freedom, and maybe think deep down about how those other Christians are not free because they’re weaklings. Well, they may be weak, but we’re supposed to accept one another anyway. The strong accept the weak, and the weak accept the strong! The responsibility swings both ways, according to Paul.
Someone has defined a legalist as a person who lives in mortal terror that someone, somewhere, is enjoying himself … and we’re not going to stand for that!
But maybe what legalists don’t understand is God’s grace. I find it interesting that the very thing a legalist most likely doesn’t understand, is the exact thing that Paul describes God doing here – he gives grace – he accepts both those who eat everything and those who don’t eat anything.
This rocks my world – we’re being asked here to be more like God is, and less like we are. No excluding people, no matter who they are – no forming little cliques within the church that shut people out of fellowship because they act or think differently then we do – no more segmenting people into the can do group or the can’t do group.
Paul clearly says, having nothing to do with another brother or sister in Christ for these reasons is wrong. In fact, he implies that if any of the so-called strong exclude weaker brothers, and treat them as though they are second-class Christians, they have simply proved that they’re just as weak in the faith as the ones they have denied. Strength in the faith means more than understanding truth. It means living in a loving way with those who are weak, and not putting down those who are still struggling.
Those who think it’s morally wrong for a Christian to drink wine, must not look down on those who feel free to do so. That phrase “must not condemn” actually means, “must not sit in judgment” on them at all. Here’s what this involves:
First, don’t criticize or censor other people. We’re not to go up to them and tell them, “I don’t see how you can be a Christian and do things like that.” That has nothing to do with being a Christian. Their Christianity is established on grounds other than those things.
Second, it means don’t put people in categories – don’t classify them as a certain kind of Christian … carnal or spiritual – don’t rebuke them. In these areas we have no rights to reprove or rebuke. The church has no authority in these areas.
Thirdly, it means no making up a bunch of rules – don’t impose one person’s behavioral standards on everybody else. The Scriptures say we must make up our own minds, and then we go along only with what we all agree to.
I’m not going to impose my code of conduct on you. If you’re looking for someone that’s going to read a bunch of rules to you that we all have to abide by, forget it. What’s happened too often in the church is that those who are weak in the faith – meaning those who do not fully understand their freedom in Christ – are making the rules for every other Christian in the church to abide by. That implies that you really can’t be a Christian unless you do these things or you don’t do those things.
All that stuff distorts Christianity in the eyes of the world. It produces the false idea that Christianity is a “do not do this bunch of rules” religion. And it really distorts the freedom that is the message of the gospel.
I believe that the “narrow party” has triumphed in way too many churches. And the result is that many people won’t touch the church with a 25-foot pole, even though they’re really interested in Jesus. When people hear the simple gospel message, that eternal life is a free gift – no strings attached – they’re blown away by how the gospel message is so not like the church. People outside the church see the church as having set up a list of rules of conduct and regulations that must be abided by, that have nothing to do with the Bible. And all of them are artificial regulations that the church has brought about.
The rest of this text in Romans 14 explains the reasoning behind the principle that Paul is trying to get across:
(4) Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand. (5) One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. (6) He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. (7) For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. (8) If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. (9) For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living. (10) You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat. (11) It is written: “‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, ‘every knee will bow before me; every tongue will confess to God.’” (12) So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God.
The first reason why we must not look down on the weak or judge or condemn the strong is because it’s not our responsibility to fix someone else. That person is not our servant. That’s pretty plain, isn’t it? We don’t judge each other because we’re not responsible for each other’s conduct. And the reason why is because we don’t choose people to be members of God’s family, God does all the choosing and forgiving and redeeming and saving. And because he does, then he’s the one responsible to change every person into the person he wants them to become.
If I were choosing, there are a lot of people that would be left out. Maybe you wouldn’t choose me. But the good news is, since we didn’t do the choosing, we don’t have to do the changing.
I remember hearing the President of Asbury Seminary speak a number of years ago, and he said the most important thing he had learned after many years of ministry and a number of years as the president of Asbury was, “My responsibility is to love people, it’s God’s responsibility to change people. And whenever I get that mixed up and wrong, I make a mess of things.”
This passage convinces me that all men and women are under construction by God, and are being changed by God. Men and women are on their way to standing. Stand actually means that if we’re going the wrong direction, God will straighten us out, and it’s not up to anybody else to do it.
You’ve probably all seen the letters: PBPGINFWMY – they stand for “Please be patient, God is not finished with me yet.” We’re all in the process of change. The Lord is doing it, and if we’ll just wait a little while we can see some of the changes. If the problem is someone doesn’t understand the truth of God’s Word, the solution is we probably need to teach the truth more plainly. As people hear it and understand it, they’ll experience God’s freedom of grace. But to try to force anyone into some kind of compliance with something they don’t understand is counterproductive. Therefore, let’s be patient. If someone you know needs to change, let the Lord change them – it’s his responsibility.
The big question is, do we believe that God is able to change people? Can he read the heart of a person and see something there you can’t see about them? Well, according to these verses, yes he can!
I’m very impressed with what Paul is saying here – he’s claiming that God can read hearts, and you and I can’t. The differences we may have as Christians arise out of honest convictions that God sees, and we can’t see. Just because somebody disagrees with you is not the point. He or she may be acting on the basis of what they feel is right, so give them the benefit of the doubt.
We have to trust that people are intending to be real before God, and true to him just as much as we are. If someone feels like they can participate in some things that you think are not right, then at least trust their motives; that they’re really trying to please God. He’ll change them if he sees they need to be changed. The principle here is to give everyone the freedom to have his or her own convictions. That’s why Paul writes in Verse 5, “Let everyone be fully convinced in his own heart.”
Tradition shouldn’t decide for us. God’s Word should be our guide on all these matters. God might even change your mind as he matures you, and makes you more like Jesus. What a thrilling possibility that presents to us.
Well, the next thing Paul says is that God sees both of these men and both of these viewpoints as honoring him. The one who thinks Sunday is a special day, and some things just shouldn’t be done on the Sabbath, is doing so as unto the Lord – so, respect that viewpoint. Someone else says that when we are in Christ, days don’t mean anything and I want to honor the Lord on every day. Let’s not get upset, these folks are doing so out of a deep conviction of their hearts. That’s wonderful.
One of my friends drinks beer and gives thanks to God for the refreshment of it and the taste of it, and it’s perfectly OK that he does so. But I say, “No. I don’t drink beer. I only drink coffee.” So I give thanks for the coffee. The coffee may do as much physical harm as the beer, but in either case, it’s not a moral question. It’s a question of what the heart is doing in the eyes of God.
I know about a woman who was a converted nightclub singer. She was asked to sing at a church meeting, and she wanted to do her very best for the Lord. So she dressed up the best way she knew how and she sang a song that expressed her faith in Christ. Somebody in that church came up to her afterwards and just ripped into her, “How can you sing a song like that and claim to be a Christian? God could never be happy with a Christian who dresses the way you do, and to sing in that kind of a nightclub style must be offensive to him.” The poor woman was shocked, and she broke into tears, and turned and ran down the hallway. It was a wrong and hurtful thing to do to her. Only God has the right to change her, if after looking in her heart he needs to. Why do we make distinctions where God doesn’t?
The last thing Paul says in this area is that our relationship with one another is more important than our lifestyle (Verses 7-8). Maybe at first the subjects of living and dying are confusing, but if we think about it we can understand what Paul is saying. I believe he’s simply defining living as liberty and dying as limitation. He’s not talking about funerals, and life and death in that sense. He’s talking about those who feel free to enjoy liberty to the fullest. They are living, while others, because of deep convictions of their own, limit themselves, and to that degree they are dying, because death is limitation.
But what’s important isn’t whether we live or die. The important thing is that we belong to the Lord. He understands. We belong to him. We’re brothers and sisters. We’re in relationship with each other, but we’re not servants of each other like we are to the Lord. We’re servants of the Lord and he has the right to change us.
The great governing principle of this passage is that only Jesus has won the right to judge us. Jesus has the right to judge each of us in all these areas because he has been involved in both death and life. He died, so he knows what ultimate and utter limitation is. He gave himself up to death and he deliberately restricted himself in many things so that he knows what that is like. And he lives, so he is free to do anything and everything that he desires, and he knows what that is like. Therefore, he alone has won the right to judge us. He understands all of us.
Can I encourage you with these words today – stop trying to take Jesus’ place with other people. Stop trying to be Christ to the rest of the church or play God to others. If I’m weak, why would I ever judge my brother? And if you’re strong, why would you ever look down on your sister? It’s wrong. When we do these things we’re trying to take Christ’s place in other people’s lives.
We don’t belong to each other like we belong to the Lord; we are brothers and sisters; we’re all struggling; we’re all in the process; we’re all subject to change; we’re all trying to understand truth more clearly as we go forward, and we’re all being freed by it. But on this journey, and in the process, the only one who has a right to do anything about it is the Lord. So stop judging each other in these areas.
So in these areas, as a family of brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ, let’s adopt this pledge together…
•We’re not going to judge one another
•We’re not going to treat each other with contempt
•We’re not going to ridicule anyone behind their backs
•We’re not going to separate from one another
•We’re going to love one another and show it by accepting one another
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