Christians disagree… a lot. And when Christians disagree, it can be very confusing and frustrating for believers and non-believers alike. How can the Church stay united and Christians continue to be known for their love while also disagreeing? Read this excerpt from the Wiersbe BE Series Commentary on Romans.
WHEN CHRISTIANS DISAGREE: ROMANS 14:1–15:7
Disunity has always been a major problem with God’s people. Even the Old Testament records the civil wars and family fights among the people of Israel, and almost every local church mentioned in the New Testament had divisions to contend with. The Corinthians were divided over human leaders, and some of the members were even suing each other (1 Cor. 1:10-13; 6:1-8). The Galatian saints were “biting and devouring” one another (see Gal. 5:15), and the saints in Ephesus and Colossae had to be reminded of the importance of Christian unity (Eph. 4:1-3; Col. 2:1-2). In the church at Philippi, two women were at odds with each other and, as a result, were splitting the church (Phil. 4:1-3).
No wonder the psalmist wrote, “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity” (Ps. 133:1).
Some of these problems stemmed from the backgrounds of the believers in the churches. The Jews, for example, were saved out of a strict legalistic background that would be difficult to forget. The Gentiles never had to worry about diets and days. The first church council in history debated the issue of the relationship of the Christian to the law (Acts 15).
The believers in Rome were divided over special diets and special days. Some of the members thought it was a sin to eat meat, so they ate only vegetables. Other members thought it a sin not to observe the Jewish holy days. If each Christian had kept his convictions to himself, there would have been no problem, but they began to criticize and judge one another. The one group was sure the other group was not at all spiritual.
Unfortunately, we have similar problems today…
with many gray areas of life that are not clearly right or wrong to every believer. Some activities we know are wrong, because the Bible clearly condemns them. Other activities we know are right, because the Bible clearly commands them. But when it comes to areas that are not clearly defined in Scripture, we find ourselves needing some other kind of guidance. Paul gave principles of this guidance. He explained how believers could disagree on nonessentials and still maintain unity in the church. He gave his readers three important admonitions.
1. RECEIVE ONE ANOTHER: ROMANS 14:1-12
You will note that this section begins and ends with this admonition (Rom. 15:7). Paul was addressing those who were strong in the faith, that is, those who understood their spiritual liberty in Christ and were not enslaved to diets or holy days. The “weak in faith” were immature believers who felt obligated to obey legalistic rules concerning what they ate and when they worshipped. Many people have the idea that the Christians who follow strict rules are the most mature, but this is not necessarily the case. In the Roman assemblies, the weak Christians were those who clung to the law and did not enjoy their freedom in the Lord. The weak Christians were judging and condemning the strong Christians, and the strong Christians were despising the weak Christians.
“Welcome one another!” was Paul’s first admonition, and he gave four reasons why they should.
ONE: God has received us (vv. 1-3).
It is not our responsibility to decide the requirements for Christian fellowship in a church; only the Lord can do this. To set up man-made restrictions on the basis of personal prejudices (or even convictions) is to go beyond the Word of God. Because God has received us, we must receive one another. We must not argue over these matters, nor must we judge or despise one another.
Perhaps St. Augustine put the matter best: “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in all things, charity.”
When God sent Peter to take the gospel to the Gentiles, the church criticized Peter because he ate with these new Christians (Acts 11:1-3). But God had clearly revealed His acceptance of the Gentiles by giving them the same Holy Spirit that He bestowed on the Jewish believers at Pentecost (Acts 10:44-48; 11:15-18). Peter did not obey this truth consistently, for later on he refused to fellowship with the Gentile Christians in Antioch, and Paul had to rebuke him (Gal. 2:11-13). God showed both Peter and Paul that Christian fellowship was not to be based on food or religious calendars.
In every church there are weak and strong believers. The strong understand spiritual truth and practice it, but the weak have not yet grown into that level of maturity and liberty. The weak must not condemn the strong and call them unspiritual. The strong must not despise the weak and call them immature. God has received both the weak and the strong; therefore, they should receive one another.
TWO: God sustains His own (v. 4).
The strong Christian was judged by the weak Christian, and this Paul condemned because it was wrong for the weak Christian to take the place of God in the life of the strong Christian. God is the Master; the Christian is the servant. It is wrong for anyone to interfere with this relationship.
It is encouraging to know that our success in the Christian life does not depend on the opinions or attitudes of other Christians. God is the Judge, and He is able to make us stand. The word servant here suggests that Christians ought to be busy working for the Lord; then they will not have the time or inclination to judge or condemn other Christians. People who are busy winning souls to Christ have more important things to do than to investigate the lives of the saints!
THREE: Jesus Christ is Lord (vv. 5-9).
The word Lord is found eight times in these verses. No Christian has the right to “play God” in another Christian’s life. We can pray, advise, and even admonish, but we cannot take the place of God. What is it that makes a dish of food “holy” or a day “holy”? It is the fact that we relate it to the Lord.
- The person who treats a special day as “holy” does so “unto the Lord.”
- The person who treats every day as sacred, does so “unto the Lord.”
- The Christian who eats meat gives thanks to the Lord, and the Christian who abstains from meat abstains “unto the Lord.”
- To be “fully persuaded [or assured] in his own mind” (Rom. 14:5) means “Let every man see to it that he is really doing what he does for the Lord’s sake, and not merely on the basis of some prejudice or whim.”
Some standards and practices in our local churches are traditional but not necessarily scriptural. Remember when dedicated Christians opposed Christian radio “because Satan was the prince of the power of the air”? Some people even make Bible translations a test of orthodoxy. The church is divided and weakened because Christians will not allow Jesus Christ to be Lord.
An Illustration of this Truth
An interesting illustration of this truth is given in John 21:15-25. Jesus had restored Peter to his place as an apostle, and once again He told him, “Follow me.” Peter began to follow Christ, but then he heard someone walking behind him. It was the apostle John.
Then Peter asked Jesus, “Lord … what shall this man do?”
Notice the Lord’s reply: “What is that to thee? Follow thou me!”
In other words, “Peter, you make sure you have made Me Lord of your life. Let Me worry about John.” Whenever I hear believers condemning other Christians because of something they disagree with, something that is not essential or forbidden in the Word, I feel like saying, “What is that to thee? Follow Christ! Let Him be the Lord!”
Paul emphasized the believer’s union with Christ: “Whether we live, therefore, or die, we are the Lord’s” (see Rom. 14:8). Our first responsibility is to the Lord. If Christians would go to the Lord in prayer instead of going to their brother with criticism, there would be stronger fellowship in our churches.
FOUR: Jesus Christ is Judge (vv. 10-12).
Paul asked the weak Christian, “Why are you judging your brother?” Then he asked the strong Christian, “Why are you despising your brother?” Both strong and weak must stand at the judgment seat of Christ, and they will not judge each other–they will be judged by the Lord.
The judgment seat of Christ is that place where Christians will have their works judged by the Lord. It has nothing to do with our sins, since Christ has paid for them and they can be held against us no more (Rom. 8:1). The word for “judgment seat” in the Greek is bema, meaning the place where the judges stood at the athletic games. If during the games they saw an athlete break the rules, they immediately disqualified him. At the end of the contests, the judges gave out the rewards (see 1 Cor. 9:24-27).
First Corinthians 3:10-15 gives another picture of the judgment seat of Christ. Paul compared our ministries with the building of a temple. If we build with cheap materials, the fire will burn them up. And if we use precious, lasting materials, our works will last. If our works pass the test, we receive a reward. If they are burned up, we lose the reward, but we are still saved “yet so as by fire.”
How Does the Christian Prepare for the Judgment Seat of Christ?
By making Jesus Lord of his life and faithfully obeying Him. Instead of judging other Christians, we had better judge our own lives and make sure we are ready to meet Christ at the bema (see Luke 12:41-48; Heb. 13:17; 1 John 2:28).
The fact that our sins will never be brought up against us should not encourage us to disobey God. Sin in our lives keeps us from serving Christ as we should, and this means loss of reward. Lot is a good example of this truth (Gen. 18–19). Lot was not walking with the Lord as was his uncle, Abraham, and as a result, he lost his testimony even with his own family. When the judgment finally came, Lot was spared the fire and brimstone, but everything he lived for was burned up. He was saved “yet so as by fire.”
Paul explained that they did not have to give an account for anyone else but themselves. So they were to make sure that their account would be a good one. He was stressing the principle of lordship–make Jesus Christ the Lord of your life, and let Him be the Lord in the lives of other Christians as well.
2. EDIFY ONE ANOTHER: ROMANS 14:13-23
If we stopped with the first admonition, it might give the impression that Christians were to leave each other alone and let the weak remain weak. But this second admonition explains things further. The emphasis is not on “master-servant” but on “brother.” It is the principle of brotherly love. If we love each other, we will seek to edify each other, build each other up in the faith. Paul shared several facts to help his readers help their brethren.
Christians affect each other (vv. 13-15).
Note the possible ways we can affect each other. We can cause others to stumble, grieve others, or even destroy others. Paul was speaking of the way the strong Christian affected the weak Christian. Paul dealt with a similar problem in 1 Corinthians 8–9, where the question was, “Should Christians eat meat that has been offered to idols in heathen temples?” There he pointed out that knowledge and love must work together. “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (1 Cor. 8:1 NIV). The strong Christian has spiritual knowledge, but if he does not practice love, his knowledge will hurt the weak Christian. Knowledge must be balanced by love.
Often little children are afraid of the dark and think there is something hiding in the closet. Of course, Mother knows that the child is safe, but her knowledge alone cannot assure or comfort the child. You can never argue a child into losing fear. When the mother sits at the bedside, talks lovingly to the child, and assures him that everything is secure, then the child can go to sleep without fear. Knowledge plus love helps the weak person grow strong.
“There is nothing unclean of itself,” Paul wrote (Rom. 14:14). No foods are unclean, no days are unclean, no people are unclean. (Read Acts 10 to see how Peter learned this lesson.) What something does to a person determines its quality. One man may be able to read certain books and not be bothered by them, while a weaker Christian reading the same books might be tempted to sin. But the issue is not “How does it affect me?” so much as “If I do this, how will it affect my brother?” Will it make him stumble? Will it grieve him or even destroy him by encouraging him to sin? Is it really worth it to harm a brother just so I can enjoy some food? No!
Christians must have priorities (vv. 16-18).
Like the Pharisees of old, we Christians have a way of majoring on the minor things (Matt. 23:23-24). I have seen churches divided over matters that were really insignificant when compared with the vital things of the Christian faith. I have heard of churches being split over such minor matters as the location of the piano in the auditorium and the serving of meals on Sundays.
“The kingdom of God is not meat and drink” (Rom. 14:17).
“Food does not bring us near to God; we are no worse if we do not eat, and no better if we do” (1 Cor. 8:8 NIV).
Not the externals but the eternals must be first in our lives: righteousness, peace, and joy. Where do they come from? The Holy Spirit of God at work in our lives (see Rom. 5:1-4). If each believer would yield to the Spirit and major in a godly life, we would not have Christians fighting with each other over minor matters. Spiritual priorities are essential to harmony in the church.
Christians must help each other grow (vv. 19-21).
Both the strong believer and the weak believer need to grow. The strong believer needs to grow in love; the weak believer needs to grow in knowledge. So long as a brother is weak in the faith, we must lovingly deal with him in his immaturity. But if we really love him, we will help him to grow. It is wrong for a Christian to remain immature, having a weak conscience.
An illustration from the home might help us better understand what is involved. When a child comes into a home, everything has to change. Mother and Father are careful not to leave the scissors on the chair or anything dangerous within reach. But as the child matures, it is possible for the parents to adjust the rules of the house and deal with him in a more adult fashion. It is natural for a child to stumble when he is learning to walk. But if an adult constantly stumbles, we know something is wrong.
Young Christians need the kind of fellowship that will protect them and encourage them to grow. But we cannot treat them like babies all their lives! The older Christians must exercise love and patience and be careful not to cause them to stumble. But the younger Christians must “grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ” (2 Peter 3:18). As they mature in the faith, they can help other believers to grow. To gear the ministry of a Sunday school class or local church only to the baby Christians is to hinder their growth as well as the ministry of the more mature saints. The weak must learn from the strong, and the strong must love the weak. The result will be peace and maturity to the glory of God.
Christians must not force their opinions on others (vv. 22-23).
There are certain truths that all Christians must accept because they are the foundation for the faith. But areas of honest disagreement must not be made a test of fellowship. If you have a sincere conviction from God about a matter, keep it to yourself and do not try to force everybody else to accept it. No Christian can “borrow” another Christian’s convictions and be honest in his Christian life. Unless he can hold them and practice them “by faith,” he is sinning. Even if a person’s convictions are immature, he must never violate his conscience. This would do great damage to his spiritual life.
For example, the mature Christian knows that an idol is nothing. But a young Christian, just converted out of pagan idolatry, would still have fears about idols. If the strong believer forced the new Christian to eat meat sacrificed to an idol, the younger Christian would experience problems in his conscience that would only further weaken it (see 1 Cor. 8–9).
Conscience is strengthened by knowledge. But knowledge must be balanced by love; otherwise it tears down instead of building up. The truth that all foods are clean (Rom. 14:14, 20) will not of itself make a Christian grow. When this truth is taught in an atmosphere of love, then the younger Christian can grow and develop a strong conscience. Believers may hold different convictions about many matters, but they must hold them in love.
3. PLEASE ONE ANOTHER: ROMANS 15:1-7
Paul classified himself with the strong saints as he dealt with a basic problem–selfishness. True Christian love is not selfish; rather, it seeks to share with others and make others happy. It is even willing to carry the younger Christians, to help them along in their spiritual development. We do not endure them. We encourage them!
The Best Example
Of course, the great example in this is our Lord Jesus Christ. He paid a tremendous price in order to minister to us. Paul quoted Psalm 69:9 to prove his point. Does a strong Christian think he is making a great sacrifice by giving up some food or drink? Then let him measure his sacrifice by the sacrifice of Christ. No sacrifice we could ever make could match Calvary.
A person’s spiritual maturity is revealed by his discernment. He is willing to give up his rights that others might be helped. He does this, not as a burden, but as a blessing. Just as loving parents make sacrifices for their children, so the mature believer sacrifices to help younger Christians grow in the faith.
Two Sources of Spiritual Power
Paul shared the two sources of spiritual power from which we must draw if we are to live to please others: the Word of God (Rom. 15:4) and prayer (Rom. 15:5-6). We must confess that we sometimes get impatient with younger Christians, just as parents become impatient with their children. But the Word of God can give us the patience and encouragement that we need. Paul closed this section praying for his readers, that they might experience from God that spiritual unity that He alone can give.
This suggests to us that the local church must major in the Word of God and prayer. The first real danger to the unity of the church came because the apostles were too busy to minister God’s Word and pray (Acts 6:1-7). When they found others to share their burdens, they returned to their proper ministry, and the church experienced harmony and growth.
The result of this is, of course, glory to God (Rom. 15:7). Disunity and disagreement do not glorify God; they rob Him of glory. Abraham’s words to Lot are applicable to today: “Let there be no strife, I pray thee, between me and thee … for we be brethren” (Gen. 13:8). The neighbors were watching! Abraham wanted them to see that he and Lot were different from them because they worshipped the true God. In His prayer in John 17, Jesus prayed for the unity of the church to the glory of God (John 17:20-26).
Receive one another; edify one another; and please one another–all to the glory of God.
QUESTIONS FOR PERSONAL REFLECTION OR GROUP DISCUSSION
Read through the questions below and share your answer to one or a few of them in the comments! Then, on your own, spend some time reflecting on all of them.
- What principles of guidance did Paul give for gray areas? What are some examples of these areas? Which do you struggle with?
- Why do believers sometimes disagree over what is considered “gray”?
- Who are described as weak Christians and who are described as strong Christians? Why is this? Where would you put yourself in this spectrum?
- What does Romans 14:1-12 say about receiving one another? How would you rate yourself in this area?
- How can we edify one another according to Romans 14:13-23?
- What can we do to please one another in view of Romans 15:1-7?
- What does it mean to have Jesus as Lord? How does that affect our judgment of other believers?
- In order to put aside selfishness and please others, we must draw on what two sources of spiritual power? How much of a priority have you made this?
- What does it mean for believers to be “likeminded one toward another” (15:5)?
- How do these ideas apply in our local church? Where is your church doing well? Where could it improve?
KEEP LEARNING ABOUT ROMANS
Did you enjoy this practical commentary on Romans? The BE Series Commentary is perfect for going deeper into God’s Word while also applying it to your life. Check out the entire commentary series, or even individual volumes, on our website.