From verse 1 of chapter 14 until verse 13 of chapter 15 Paul is dealing with the subject of how the weak and the strong in the church ought to treat one another when it comes to disputable matters.
Do you remember? He referred to three points of contention in the church in Rome: what to eat; what holy days to observe; and what to drink. Or as one preacher has put it: It was about diet, days, and drink. And I mentioned last time that there have been various attempts to explain why some members of the church were insisting that we should only eat vegetables and not meat; and we should observe various holy days — in addition to the Sabbath Day; and we should not drink wine. I mentioned some of the possible explanations last week. But at the end of the day, we can’t be certain because Paul doesn’t tell us why some of the members of the church were insisting on these things. And that’s no bad thing, because the main point Paul wants to make is that, when it comes to any disputable matter in the church — any disputable matter or matter of opinion — we’re not to condemn on another or destroy one another.
And I mentioned last time that that’s what we’re dealing with here: disputable matters. In other words, if it were a matter of obedience to the Lord, then Paul would insist on obedience to the Lord. But God has not commanded us to abstain from meat. And, apart from the Sabbath Day, God has not commanded us to regard any other day as holy. And God has not commanded us to abstain from wine. Clearly some believers thought it was good to abstain from meat and wine and to observe holy days. But other believers in Rome thought that, since God hasn’t commanded us to abstain from meat and drink or to observe special days, then we won’t. But instead of condemning one another for what we believe concerning these disputable matters, we’re to accept one another.
And the last thing to say by way of reminder is that Paul contrasted two groups in the church: those whose faith is weak; and those whose faith is strong. Those whose faith is weak insisted on abstaining from meat and drink and on observing special days; those who faith is strong did not. But when he refers to those whose faith is weak, he doesn’t mean their faith in the Lord Jesus is weak and fragile. He means perhaps that these believers have a weak understanding of the implications of the faith and of the freedom we now have in Christ. Back in Mark 7, Mark tells us that the Lord Jesus declared all foods to be clean. But clearly there were believers in Rome who couldn’t quite grasp that. So, the believer whose faith is weak is not a believer who only barely believes; it’s the believer who has a weak understanding of the freedom we have in Christ. Or it’s the believer whose conscience is weak and tender and who feels guilty about things which don’t really matter.
And, of course, it’s the same in every age: believers are continually coming up with their own rules about what is right and what is wrong; what is pleasing to the Lord and what is displeasing to the Lord.
So, how are the weak and the strong to treat one another when it comes to these disputable matters, whatever these disputable matters are? Well, instead of looking down on one another, instead of condemning one another, instead of tut-tutting one another, we’re to accept one another, since God has accepted us in Christ Jesus. And instead of judging one another, we’re to remember that you’re not answerable to me; and I’m not answerable to you; but we’re both answerable to the Lord before whom we must give an account one day.
Verses 13 to 16
In today’s passage — verses 13 to 23 — Paul is focussing his attention on the strong believers. And he’s saying to them that, if they’re not careful about how they use their freedom, they may harm the weak believers. So, the strong believers need to be careful not to misuse or abuse the freedom they have in Christ.
And so, verse 13 begins with Paul’s conclusion to the opening twelve verses:
Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another.
And instead of passing judgment on one another, what are we to do? Paul says:
Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling-block or obstacle in your brother’s way.
I used to live with a man who was blind; and I had to be careful where I left things. You couldn’t put you bag down in the hall, because he might trip over it. And when he was walking down the street, he pointed his stick out in front of him and he used it to search for stumbling blocks in his way. Well, believers are to be careful that we don’t do anything to cause one another to stumble as we walk along the narrow path that leads to eternal life. We’re not to put in our fellow believers’ way something to make them stumble into sin. And we’re not to put any obstacle in their way which might prevent them from proceeding along the right path.
Now, Paul doesn’t specify here whether he’s addressing the weak or the strong or both. But, from what he goes on to say, it’s clear that he’s now thinking almost exclusively of the responsibility of the strong not to harm the weak. So, in verse 14, he affirms what the strong believe about these disputable matters. He says:
As one who is in the Lord Jesus [in other words, as one united with Christ through faith], I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself.
He knows that all foods are now regarded as clean and that the Lord has not commanded us to abstain from any food for religious purposes. So, Paul is agreeing with the viewpoint of the strong. ‘But’ he says in the middle of verse 14:
But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean.
I know you’re fine with it. I know you’re not concerned about it. But bear in mind that your fellow-believer might not think or feel the same way as you. Your conscience is saying: ‘It’s fine; go ahead and eat.’ But his conscience is saying: ‘It’s wrong; I can’t possibly eat this.’
The strong believers need to be aware of what their fellow-believers are thinking and feeling. There needs to be some sensitivity here. Some gentleness, as well, towards one another. And so, Paul continues in verse 15:
If your brother is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love.
So, here’s the strong believer, almost flaunting his freedom, eating something which clearly distresses his fellow believer. Well, the strong believer may insist that he’s doing nothing wrong:
There’s nothing wrong with eating meat, is there?
There may be nothing wrong with eating meat, but whenever you cause your fellow believer any distress or whenever your fellow believer is grieved by what you’re doing, then you’re not loving him; you’re not loving her. And the Lord has said plenty to us about loving our neighbour.
But what does Paul mean when he refers to ‘distressing’ the weak believer? Or what does he mean by ‘grieving’ your fellow believer, which is another way of putting it? Well, he’s probably referring to more than upsetting him or annoying him. You see, he referred before to causing your fellow believer to stumble. And so, some commentators think that Paul is thinking of the situation where the believer with a weak faith feels put under pressure by the strong believer’s example to do something which the weak believer still regards as wrong. So, his conscience is distressed; it’s grieved; it’s hurt; because even as he does this thing, his conscience is screaming at him, telling him that what he’s doing is wrong.
And look what Paul goes on to say:
Do not by your eating destroy your brother for whom Christ died.
The word ‘destroy’ is a strong word, isn’t it? Now, we believe in the perseverance of the saints; the Lord Jesus has promised that no one is able to snatch his people from his hand. So, nothing I do can cause my fellow believer to lose his or her salvation, because the Lord Jesus keeps his people forever. But by using the word ‘destroy’ Paul is showing us the seriousness of what we’re doing if we ever misuse and abuse the freedom we have in Christ and cause our fellow believer to do something he believes is wrong. Who knows what spiritual harm we might do if we’re not careful?
And Paul refers to the Lord’s death in verse 16. You see, by remembering that the Lord Jesus Christ has died for my fellow believer, then we’re reminded of how precious this person is in the sight of the Lord. And so, just as Christ loved him, just as Christ loved her, and gave up his life for them, so I too must love them and give up my right to eat whatever I want.
And in verse 16 we have another reason for being careful not to misuse or abuse the freedom we have in Christ. We’re not to misuse it, because to misuse it might grieve our fellow believer. That’s the first reason. And the second reason is: we’re not to misuse it, because if we do, the weak believer might speak evil of what the strong believer considers to be good. In other words, they might criticise and condemn the strong believer’s freedom in Christ to eat and drink whatever he likes. So, since the weak believers don’t agree with the strong believers in these matters, the strong believers ought not to give the weak believers any opportunity to criticise what they believe. In other words, keep it to yourself.
Verses 17 and 18
Now if the kingdom of God were about eating and drinking, if what we eat and what we drink, or what we don’t eat and what we don’t drink was crucial to the kingdom of God, then it would be important for believers to come to one mind about these things. But what we eat and what we drink are minor matters in the kingdom of God. They’re secondary matters. They’re unimportant. The really important thing in God’s kingdom is not what we eat and drink; the really important thing is righteousness and peace and joy.
That’s Paul’s point in verses 17 and 18. And when he refers to ‘righteousness’ he means treating one another in the right way. And when he mentions ‘peace’ he means peace with one another. And when he mentions ‘joy’ he means experiencing joy together. Instead of falling out over what we eat and drink, we’re to treat one another in the right way; we’re to maintain peaceful relations with one another; we’re to enjoy fellowship with one another. This is how the servants of the Lord Jesus are meant to serve our King. And whoever serves our King in this way will be pleasing in God’s sight and will win the approval of other people. What does the world think when believers fall out over minor matters? Well, what they think when believers fall out over minor matters is very different from what the world thinks when they see how believers love one another. And so, we should love one another.
Verses 19 to 23
In verses 19 to 23 Paul re-iterates what he’s been saying. Verse 19: We’re to make every effort to live at peace with each other in the church. Instead of causing one another to stumble and fall, we’re to build one another up. Verse 20: Since what we eat and drink are minor matters in God’s kingdom, don’t do anything to harm our fellow believer’s faith. All food is clean, but it’s wrong to cause the weak believer to stumble by what we eat. Verse 21: Whereas the one who eats and drinks what he likes may say he’s doing nothing wrong, nevertheless if what he does causes the weak believer to fall, then you are doing what’s wrong. Verse 22: If you’re convinced that you’re free in Christ to eat and drink whatever you like, but you know that other believers might be offended by what you eat or drink, well then, keep that between yourself and God. There’s no need to go on about it and to keep talking about it and insisting on it. And verse 23: The one who eats and drinks without feeling guilty is blessed. He’s able to enjoy the freedom he has in Christ. But the one who has doubts and misgivings about what he may or may not eat and about what he may or may not drink sins if he goes ahead and eats and drinks, because his eating is not from faith, says Paul. In other words, he’s going against his convictions. And to go against your convictions is wrong.
It seems appropriate to finish with the words of Martin Luther who wrote at the beginning of his book, The Freedom of a Christian:
A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.
So we are perfectly free from all doctrines and human commands which are contrary to, or which contradict, God’s word. So, if the Emperor commands me to worship an idol, I am free to ignore his command, because his command contradicts the Bible. Also, when it comes to matters of faith or worship — and this relates to Romans 14 — we are perfectly free from any doctrines and human commands which add to God’s word. That’s the case here: those with a weak faith had, for religious reasons, added all these additional rules and regulations to God’s word about what to eat and drink and what special days to observe. Well, I am free to ignore these human rules about how to live the life of faith, because they’re adding to God’s word.
So, a Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. However, Luther went on to add:
A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.
My duty to my neighbour, whom I am to serve, is not to grieve him, but to love him. And therefore I will not insist on getting my way, but will restrict the exercise of my freedom so as not to hurt him in any way.