Putting Others First, the Way of Jesus (14:13-23)
“Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23b).
Suppose that several young couples decide to live in community. Questions arise. Shall we try to live near each other? If so, where? In the city or the suburbs? What is our view of child safety? Is the goal to remove risks or to teach children to assess risks? May they walk several blocks to each other's homes? Will children wear helmets on bicycles?
If these couples disagree on such matters, they will not resolve them by finding a mid-point. They will not choose a neighborhood half way from the city center to the suburbs. And if one parent calls helmets a basic safety measure and another calls them the chief indicator of the paranoid parenting that enfeebles children’s souls, they will not settle the issue by having their children wear helmets on alternate days. To live in community, they will adopt one approach or the other, lest a restricted child see a liberated child and ask, "Why do I have to wear a helmet?” Someone has to yield on the question “Is it good for children to climb on rocks and skin their knees or not?”
Today, the church debates masks, worship, and singing. When Covid finally passes, we will keep debating longstanding issues, like the use of alcohol and social media, and new ones will arise. Romans 14:13-23 sheds light on our discussions and our conduct.
The Roman church debated about foods (meat or no meat?) and calendars and their situation was more complex than our. Joined by their newly found faith in Christ, the church’s Jews and Gentiles had very different backgrounds. Jews never ate unclean or unknown meat; Gentiles ate indiscriminately. The Jewish calendar had a weekly Sabbath as well as monthly and annual events; Gentiles had none of these. Jesus said food laws have been superannuated and the Jerusalem Council, helmed by the apostles, said the same for circumcision. Still, the council permitted Jewish Christians to maintain their distinct practices, since circumcision and dietary laws constituted a traditional boundary markers that distinguished Jews from Gentiles” and thereby shaped Jewish identity. The apostles could have told the Gentiles they were wholly free of Jewish rules, since they were, theologically speaking. The council did not burden the Gentiles with a demand for circumcision and strict observance of Israel’s food laws, since God saves through grace, not law (Acts 15:10-11). Yet, to avoid offending Jews and to preserve church unity at the time, the apostles asked Gentile believers to abstain from eating “food polluted by idols” and “from the meat of strangled animals” (Acts 15:6-21).
Romans 14:1-15:13 revisits these issues from a different angle. To live in community, people need to know how to disagree properly. One party may persuade the other or both may find a way to live together despite a disagreement. The church is a community that has debates. Throughout Romans 14 and 15, Paul exhorts Christians to put fellow believers first in relatively minor disputes. He focuses on “the strong,” who correctly believe that no food “is unclean in itself.” But the strong have an obligation to bear with the weak instead of pleasing themselves. They should please their neighbors and build them up, even if that requires them to forego their prerogatives. In that, they follow Jesus, who pleased others, rather than himself (15:1-3).
Paul began to tell the Romans how to handle their disagreements in 14:1-12. Believers must welcome one another and must not condemn or despise each other (14:1-3). In case of substantive disagreements, they should study the matter and think it through, until “each one [is] fully convinced in his own mind." Instead of judging others, they should bow to God the Judge to whom they give an account (14:4-5).
The Romans debated food and days, but telling the Romans the correct answer was not Paul's chief concern. He never resolved the debate about days and he waited until 14:14 to say disciples may eat meat, since no food “is unclean in itself.” Paul believed “everything good created is good” and is therefore usable, in the right setting (1 Tim. 4:4). Then Paul explores the question: “When does the setting dictate that believers not exercise their rights?”
Every church faces debatable matters and it is essential that Christians learn to disagree in ways that preserve their community. Romans 14 names an essential practice to that end: the party that is right and has rights must be willing to disenfranchise themselves, if the exercise of their prerogatives damages the community as a whole or harms vulnerable individuals within it. Concretely, an omnivore might decline to eat meat and a parent may put a helmet on his child, despite his convictions, for the good of the community.
Paul frames Romans 14:13-23 with the word “judge” (Greek krino), using it twice at the start (14:13) and three times at the close (14:22-23). He commands the Romans to avoid judging each other and to make good judgments about their conduct. That sets up commands that foster peace and maturity in the church.
Romans 14:13-17 says every believer render an account of himself to God (14:10-12). Therefore, we should never judge (krino) one another but judge (krino) how to avoid harming a brother (14:13). All food is clean (14:14), but we must not damage a brother by eating clean food (14:15), for the kingdom of God is more than eating and drinking (14:17).
Romans 14:18-21 says that since the kingdom brings peace (14:17), servants of Christ and his kingdom promote peace by laying down their prerogatives. This pleases God and mankind (14:18) and edifies others (14:19). Paul commands believers not to tear down a brother or sister by what they eat. We never exercise our freedom in ways that make others stumble (14:20-21).
The strong rightly hold that all food is clean, but there is a time to keep correct beliefs to oneself, lest one cause a brother to stumble (14:22). Meanwhile the weak may condemn themselves for eating food that is actually clean, but which they consider unclean. “For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (14:23).
Romans 14 teaches that we are our brother's keepers. We sin if our technically innocent action causes others to stumble into sin. Imagine that Jason, a new believer, is convinced that all stimulants are evil. His mentor Andrew may give up coffee for a season, since believers do not exercise their freedom in ways that harm others. Legally speaking, Andrew has every right to drink caffeinated beverages, but he will not drink coffee with Jason if he thinks Jason may drink it while he considers it wrong. Likewise, we must anticipate the effects of morally innocuous actions, lest we harm a brother or sister. Even if Jason erroneously believes he is violating God’s law, he transgresses the command to act in faith at all times. People grasp the truth at varying speeds. Therefore, if Andrew persuades Jason to drink coffee before he believes coffee is “clean,” Andrew has caused Jason to sin subjectively, in his heart, even though he did not sin objectively.
In Romans 14:13, the word for “decide,” in 14:13, is actually “judge (krino again). This creates a play on words: We must not judge one another. Instead, we should judge that we will never cause a brother to stumble and fall. Instead of burning energy judging how others should live, we should judge how we can help them live a godly life. The point is vital, so Paul repeats it in 14:21: “It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.”
We still build the church by watching how we speak and how we act, when fellow believers disagree. Christians disagree about food and drink and the use of time. We differ about the best way to spend money, use social media, seek entertainment, express ourselves politically, stay healthy, and more. For the sake of others, we must ask, “Should I keep my convictions to myself? Act in ways that please others, instead of pleasing myself?” When we relinquish our freedoms and pursue peace, the Lord is pleased.
Humans default toward self-satisfaction, but our union with Christ changes us and we should long to live out our new identity. Are we patient and calm when we disagree on secondary issues? Are we tender with friends who have unfounded scruples? Do we welcome the weak gladly? More broadly, do we strive, in all events, to act in faith, whatever we do? It is blessed to aspire to do so.
Dan Doriani teaches Theology and Ethics at Covenant Seminary. He earned his M.Div. from Westminster and talked everyone into a joint Yale/Westminster Ph.D. He also pastored a very small church for five years and a very large one for eleven. He plays tennis, hikes mountains, wrangles grandchildren, speaks at conferences, and writes books. His most recent is Work: Its Purpose, Dignity, and Transformation.