Liberty Vs. Legalism
How is a Christian to act with regard to matters not explicitly addressed in Scripture? How is a Christian to conduct himself/herself in situations on which the Bible is silent? This is the question Paul addresses in Romans 14. We could as easily ask: "What is the nature and extent of Christian freedom" The NT speaks of three types of freedom: 1) Freedom from the condemnation of God (cf. Rom. 8:1); 2) Freedom from the compulsion to sin (cf. Rom. 6:14); and 3) Freedom from the conscience of other Christians. Paul is concerned with the third form of freedom. There are a number of issues on which the Bible does not provide an explicit "yes" or "no". They are issues that do not affect our acceptance with God, i.e., they do not pertain to whether or not one is a Christian. They are what we might call secondary, as over against primary, issues. For example, is a Christian free to . . .
· drink alcoholic beverages in moderation?
· attend movies (whether PG, PG-13, or R)?
· watch TV?
· work on Sunday?
· eat food in a church building?
· engage in mixed swimming?
· play pool?
· play cards?
· smoke a pipe?
· wear makeup?
· wear jewelry?
· purchase insurance?
These are matters of conscience. They fall within the domain of Christian liberty. They are issues on which the Bible is silent. Unfortunately, some Christians insist on elevating their opinion on such matters to the status of divine law. They feel compelled to impose their convictions regarding the moral status of such practices on the conscience of other believers.
How do we know that Paul is dealing with secondary issues, i.e., those which play no part in our acceptance with God? Three reasons:
1) According to v. 3. "God has accepted him." Sanday and Headlam explain: "God through Christ has admitted men into His church without imposing on them minute and formal observances; they are not therefore to be criticized or condemned for neglecting practices which God has not required" (385). Again, Charles Hodge writes: "As God does not make eating or not eating certain kinds of food a condition of acceptance, Christians ought not to allow it to interfere with their communion as brethren" (419).
2) Paul's plea for tolerance also indicates that he is addressing matters not relevant to justification. He pleads for mutual acceptance. If anyone in Romans 14 had been insisting that a particular custom must be observed in order for one to be saved, Paul would have severely denounced them, as he does in Galatians 1:6-10; 3:1-3; and Colossians 2:20,23. Why the difference? Because "in Galatians Paul is dealing with the Judaizers who were perverting the gospel at its center. They were the propagandists of a legalism which maintained that the observance of days and seasons was necessary to justification and acceptance with God" (Murray, 172-73). In Colossians the form of legalism was ascetic in nature and threatened to undermine the preeminence and uniqueness of Christ. But in Romans 14 Paul's tolerance and sympathetic gentleness are "strong support for the view that the weak were not abstaining from meat and observing days with the intention of earning thereby a status of righteousness before God . . ., but because they felt sincerely, albeit mistakenly, that it was only along this particular path that they could obediently express their response of faith to God's grace in Christ" (Cranfield, 2:696).
3) Paul's counsel in v. 5b that each should "be fully convinced in his own mind" indicates that he is addressing issues on which God has not spoken. In other words, he calls on each believer to evaluate, think, reason, and make up your own mind as to how you should behave. If one's eternal status before God were at stake, Paul would never have issued such advice.
I conclude, therefore, that Paul is dealing with secondary issues. He is articulating principles to guide the believer in his/her dealings with other believers when they face ethical decisions not directly addressed in Scripture. These are issues which God has neither commanded nor forbidden. These are matters of individual conscience. These are not issues such as theft, lying, sexual relations or other such matters on which the Bible gives clear guidance.
N.B. Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8-10
Many believe that Paul is addressing the same issue in both Romans 14 and 1 Cor. 8-10. In Corinth, much of the meat being sold for consumption by the public had come from animals sacrificed or consecrated to pagan idols. Two groups emerged in the church over the propriety of buying and eating such meat. One group, probably the majority, knew that "an idol is nothing in the world" (1 Cor. 8:4) and that the meat was neither better nor worse for its association with the pagan deity. Hence they entertained no scruples about eating the meat. The other group, not possessing such knowledge, believed that to eat the meat was to participate in idolatry. They believed the meat had somehow become infected by its association with pagan idolatry. F. F. Bruce explains:
"In giving his judgment to the Corinthians on this question, Paul ranges himself on the one hand with those who knew that there was no substance in the pagan deities, and that a Christian was at perfect liberty to eat meat of this kind. But knowledge was not everything; the claims of love were to be considered. He himself was prepared to forego his liberty if by insisting on it he would set a harmful example to a fellow-Christian with a weaker conscience. If a Christian who thought the eating of idol meat was wrong was encouraged by the example of his robuster brother to eat some, the resultant damage to his conscience would be debited to the other's lack of charity and consideration" (249).
Whereas the principles to which Paul appeals in resolving both problems appear to be similar, if not identical, the circumstances evoking the problem differ in three respects: (1) In Romans 14 there is no mention of food or drink offered to idols; (2) The observance of days as special is in Romans 14 but not in 1 Cor. 8-10; and (3) The weakness of Romans 14 involved a vegetarian diet, i.e., a scrupulous attitude toward all meat, whereas in 1 Cor. there is no reason to doubt that the weak would have eaten meat not offered to idols.
A. The first question to be addressed is: "Who is the weak brother?" Or again, "What constitutes weakness and strength?" Paul tells us three things about the "weak" brother or sister:
1) He is a vegetarian (vv. 2,21).
2) He regards some days as having special importance (v. 5).
3) He does not drink wine (vv. 17,21).
The weak brother, then, is the one who entertains scruples on secondary matters. He has misgivings about the moral and spiritual propriety of such practices. The weak brother or sister is the one who has not sufficiently understood the truth of 1 Tim. 4:4-5; 1 Cor. 10:25-26; Rom. 14:14a. Weakness in faith, therefore, is not a failure to believe the fundamental doctrines of Christianity. It is, rather, a failure to understand the implications of such doctrine in the area of practical freedom. They had failed to grasp the truth of 1 Cor. 8:8 - "But food will not commend us to God; we are neither the worse if we do not eat, nor the better if we do eat" (cf. Mark 7:14-15).
Moo elaborates: "Paul is not . . . simply criticizing these people for having a 'weak' or inadequate trust in Christ as their Savior and Lord. Rather, he is criticizing them for lack of insight into some of the implications of their faith in Christ. These are Christians who are not able to accept for themselves the truth that their faith in Christ implies liberation from certain OT/Jewish ritual requirements. The 'faith' with respect to which these people are 'weak', therefore, is related to their basic faith in Christ but one step removed from it. It involves their individual outworking of Christian faith, their convictions about what that faith allows and prohibits" (836).
Paul spoke of such believers as weak for other reasons as well:
1) They feared that by partaking of certain foods and drink or participating in certain practices they would be spiritually infected in some way.
2) They believed that partaking would weaken them in their walk and perhaps expose them to even greater evils.
3) They believed that there was spiritual value or moral virtue in abstinence per se. To deny oneself is inherently good and to indulge oneself is inherently bad.
4) Cranfield suggests that the weak were people who, "though prone to indulge in censoriousness with regard to their fellow-Christians, were fundamentally timid. They were liable to yield to social pressure, succumbing to contempt and ridicule and falling in with the practices of their fellow-Christians, in spite of their scruples and misgivings. Their integrity as persons was at risk" (2:691).
It is important to note a major misconception about the nature of weakness, as Paul conceives it. Many have understood weakness to be synonymous with excess. The weak brother, so some have thought, is the one who can't restrain himself and is given to over-indulgence in such matters as eating and drinking. The strong are those who have the will-power to abstain and should be careful not to place before their weaker brethren an inducement to indulge their vices. NO.
1) "The weak of Romans 14," explains John Murray, "are not those given to excess. They are the opposite; they are total abstainers from certain articles of food. The weak addicted to excess do not abstain; they take too much" (260).
2) Those who have a "weakness" that leads to excess or over-indulgence are dealt with in completely other terms. Paul refers to such behavior as sin. Drunkards, for example, certainly have a weakness. But it is the sort of weakness that Paul condemns (1 Cor. 6:10). But here in Rom. 14 he tells us to "accept the one who is weak" (v. 1). Weakness in Rom. 14 is not intemperate overindulgence but overly scrupulous abstinence.
3) Stott concludes: "So if we are trying to picture a weaker brother or sister, we must not envisage a vulnerable Christian easily overcome by temptation, but a sensitive Christian full of indecision and scruples. What the weak lack is not strength of self-control but liberty of conscience" (355).
4) The weak in Rome may well have been Jewish Christians whose weakness "consisted in their continuing conscientious commitment to Jewish regulations regarding diet and days" (Stott, 356). Support for this is found in Paul's use of the term koinos (v. 14) which means "common" or "unclean". This term "had become a semitechnical way of describing food prohibited under the Mosaic law (see Mark 7:2,5; Acts 10:14)" (Moo, 829-30).
We must remember that abstinence per se is not weakness. The decisive factor is one's motive for abstention. To abstain for non-religious reasons does NOT make one weak.
What, then, constitutes strength? The strong, quite simply, are those who correctly perceive the truth of 1 Tim. 4:4-5 and Rom. 14:14a. Paul was strong (cf. 15:1). The strong are those who, by reason of their knowledge of God and grace, enjoy the full range of Christian liberty without being condemned in their conscience.
B. The second question to be addressed is: "How are the strong and the weak to relate and respond to each other in regard to these matters on which they embrace differing convictions?"
To the strong, Paul gives two words of advice:
1. According to v. 1, he is to "accept the one who is weak in faith." Accept = both recognition by the Christian community as a member of the body of Christ, and brotherly reception of him/her into the routines of Christian fellowship. In other words, "Don't discriminate against him because of his weakness. Show him the same affection and esteem you would a strong brother who shares your convictions on secondary matters. Be sure the weaker brother or sister is not made to feel inferior or unwanted or odd." Though his scruples are held in error, it is not through callous disputes or a critical spirit that his weakness will be turned into strength.
N.B. Be it noted that Paul is careful never to concede to the position of the weak as the correct one. He refuses to reduce the strong to the level of the weak, although he does call on the former to curtail their liberty out of love. The weak, however, ought to grow strong. The way to make them strong is not to offend them but to love them.
b. The strong must not "regard with contempt" the weak (v. 3a). The tendency of the strong is to despise the weak as one not worthy of being taken seriously. But Paul rebukes the smile of disdainful contempt.
To the weak Paul says,
Do not "judge" the strong (v. 3b). If the strong smiles disdainfully at the weak, the weak frowns with disapproval at the strong. The strong believes the weak is legalistic and Pharisaical. The weak believes the strong is loose and unprincipled. Both are to refrain from such judgments.
[Moo reminds us that "in the interests of guarding against an illegitimately broad application of this principle, it is vital to stress that Paul commands us here to receive those whom God has received. In other words, Paul limits his plea for tolerance to those who can rightly claim a saving relationship with God through Jesus Christ, involving all those doctrinal and practical requirements that Paul and the NT elsewhere insist must be present for such a genuine saving relationship to exist" (839).]
C. The third question to be addressed is: "Why are the weak not to judge the strong?" (Vv. 13-23 are Paul's directives to the strong. Vv. 4-12 are his directives to the weak.)
1) The weak should not judge the strong because "God has accepted him" (v. 3b). "The wrong of censorious judgment is rebuked by the reminder that if God has received a person into the bond of his love and fellowship and if the conduct in question is no bar to God's acceptance, it is iniquity for us to condemn that which God approves. By so doing we presume to be holier than God" (Murray, 176).
2) The Christian has but one Master, the Lord Jesus Christ (v. 4a). The conscience of a Christian is bound to none but Christ. In matters on which the Bible does not speak, you and I are answerable to none but God. In other words, for the weak to judge the strong on a matter of conscience is intrusive. It is to Christ, not to you, that he stands or falls (v. 4).
This standing/falling does not refer to the final judgment, as if one's salvation were in view. Rather, it refers to one's daily Christian walk from which the weak brother is sure the strong brother will stray because of his practice. Paul's point is that "in spite of the perils which liberty brings in its train --- and the apostle is as conscious of them as the most timid and scrupulous Christian could be --- he is confident that Christian liberty, through the grace and power of Christ, will prove a triumphant moral success" (Denney, 702).
Therefore, although the weak brother may regard the behavior of the strong as a falling down in his devotion to Christ and as something that will surely bring the Lord's disapproval, Paul is quick to argue for the opposite: Christ will sustain him!
3) The reason why neither party should judge the other is that both are aiming at the same target: serving and glorifying God. Paul's point in vv. 5-9 is that the purpose of both the strong and the weak in all they do is their devotion to God. Whether he eats or abstains, he does so with gratitude to God. Whether we live or die, we live or die for the Lord.
4) According to vv. 10-12, all will give account to God, not to each other. If this be true, how dare we presume to exercise a judgment that is the prerogative of Christ alone!
D. The fourth question to be addressed is: "What responsibility does the strong brother have toward his weaker brother?" Paul answers this question in vv. 13-23. His main point is that the liberty of the strong must be qualified by love. Two questions must first be answered:
1) First, is the exhortation in v. 13a directed to the strong or weak brother, or both? Some say it is the weak brother Paul is addressing because in vv. 1-12 judging was the fault of the weak (cf. vv. 3,4,10). But it is probably the strong Paul has in mind, and for three reasons: (1) in vv. 10-12 both the strong and weak are rebuked for presuming to judge one another; (2) the antithesis of judging is being careful not to put a stumbling-block in a brother's path (v. 13b), something only the strong can do in relating to the weak; and (3) vv. 14-15 are intelligible only if it is the strong who is being addressed.
2) This leads directly to a second question: "Why does Paul place so much of the burden on the strong brother? Why does he ask the strong brother to curtail his liberty out of love, rather than ask the weak brother to change his convictions about what is permissible for a Christian to do?" The reason is this: the weak brother is bound by his conscience; there is no flexibility or freedom for him to adjust his behavior, for in doing so he would be violating what he sincerely believes is God's will. The strong brother, on the other hand, is at liberty in his conscience either to partake or abstain. He knows it is of secondary importance, whereas the weak brother regards it as of primary moral significance. The former, therefore, is at greater liberty to bend than is the latter.
Our approach in analyzing Paul's advice to the strong will be simply to take each verse in turn.
The obstacle and stumblingblock refer, respectively, to something against which the foot strikes and a trap or snare in which the foot may be caught. Here the terms are used metaphorically and are synonymous. They refer to anything that becomes an occasion for falling into sin. Paul does not mean that the strong deliberately seduces the weak. He is speaking of the strong who, in the exercise of their liberty, fail to take into account the moral scruples of their weaker brethren and thus create an occasion for the latter to fall into sin. How this occurs will be explained later.
This reiterates 1 Tim. 4:4-5. Paul knows and is convinced, i.e., this conviction has penetrated into his conscience and set him free from all perplexity. In other words, this is not merely Paul's preference. It is a theological reality that admits of no exceptions. The weak argued that certain foods and drink were intrinsically or inherently unclean and therefore were defiling to the believer. This was their justification for abstaining. Paul's response is: unless the Scriptures explicitly say it is unclean, you are wrong! See Mark 7:14ff. and Acts 10:15,28.
The key is the distinction in v. 14 between, on the one hand, what is objectively true and, on the other hand, one's subjective perception of that truth. Objectively, nothing is unclean in itself. But, it may become unclean if you THINK is to be so. See 1 Cor. 8:4,7. The knowledge of or faith in the objective cleanness of all food is not a knowledge or faith that all possess. The strong understand this truth. The weak do not. Paul's point, then, is this: If partaking of what you correctly know to be clean causes your brother to stumble because to him it is unclean, you are not walking according to love.
Paul refers to a stumblingblock and again in v. 15 to hurting and destroying one's brother. What does he mean? Certainly it is more than distress or pain or annoyance that the weak brother feels on seeing a strong brother partake of food or drink which he believes is unclean and forbidden. Rather, Paul envisions a situation in which a strong Christian, in the exercise of his liberty, causes a weak Christian to sin. The weak brother sins when he is influenced by the strong brother's behavior to act contrary to his conscience. Paul envisions the grievous vexation of conscience that afflicts a believer when he violates what for him is the moral will of God. Paul's advice to the strong is simple: when the exercise of your legitimate liberty emboldens the weak to violate his conscience, you must defer to his interests and refrain from what would otherwise be permissible for you to do.
Paul's appeal to the death of Christ is penetrating:
"If Christ loved the weak believer to the extent of laying down his life for his salvation, how alien to the demands of this love is the refusal on the part of the strong to forego the use of a certain article of food when the religious interests of the one for whom Christ died are thereby imperilled! It is the contrast between what the extreme sacrifice of Christ exemplified and the paltry demand devolving upon us that accentuates the meanness of our attitude when we discard the interests of a weak brother. And since the death of Christ as the price of redemption for all believers is the bond uniting them in fellowship, how contradictory is any behaviour that is not patterned after the love which Christ's death exhibited!" (Murray, 191).
If you are convinced that the request that you suspend the exercise of your freedom for the sake of your brother is a great and unjust imposition, think of what Christ did!
Some argue that the destruction here is eternal. But there are several reasons why this cannot be true. First, "are we really to believe that a Christian brother's single act against his own conscience -- which in any case is not his fault but the fault of the strong who have misled him, and which is therefore an unintentional mistake, not a deliberate disobedience -- merits eternal condemnation? No, hell is reserved only for the stubborn, the impenitent, those who willfully persist in wrongdoing" (Stott, 365-66). Second, Paul just affirmed in unequivocal terms the eternal security of the believer (Rom. 8:28-39). If nothing in all creation can separate one from the love of Christ, then surely another believer's callous disregard for a weak brother's religious scruples cannot do so! Third, Paul says in v. 15 that a Christian can "destroy" another Christian. This cannot refer to eternal destruction because Jesus said that God alone destroys body and soul in hell (Mt. 10:28). Fourth, Jesus said explicitly in John 10:28 that his sheep will "never perish". Clearly, then, the "destruction" in Rom. 14:14 must refer to something less than and different from the loss of eternal salvation. Fifth, the context provides a perfectly reasonable explanation of Paul's words. He envisions serious damage to both the conscience of the weak believer (cf. v. 15) and to his growth as a disciple of Jesus. Gundry-Volf identifies two forms of damage incurred by the weak:
"a subjective form consisting in grief and deep self-deprecation, and an objective form consisting in concrete sin, resultant guilt and possible incapacitation to behave consistently with one's beliefs. None of Paul's descriptions of the negative consequences born by the weak when they follow the example of the strong -- stumbling, sinning, sorrow, defiling and wounding of the conscience [cf. 1 Cor. 8:7], self-condemnation -- necessarily entails loss of salvation or complete dissolution of a relationship to God" (Paul and Perseverance: Staying In and Falling Away [Louisville: Westminster, 1990], 95).
The "destruction", therefore, presents an obstacle to one's sanctification, not to one's justification.
Christian liberty is itself a good thing. But when wrongly used, that is, in defiance of love and in disregard for the conscience of a weaker brother, it can bring disgrace on the gospel.
The word "for" points to v. 17 as support for the advice given in vv. 15-16. The essential character of God's kingdom, that which attests its presence in the heart of the believer, is not eating and drinking whatever you want, nor for that matter not eating and drinking whatever you don't want, but rather righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.
The peace to which Paul refers is peace with one's fellow Christian, specifically, the weak brother for whose conscience sake you have suspended the exercise of your liberty.
Is the "man" in v. 20b the strong or the weak? If it is the strong brother, Paul is saying the same as he did in v. 15a, namely, that the strong brother who eats what he knows to be clean transforms what is good into evil if his action causes his weaker brother to stumble. If it is the weak brother, then he stumbles when he eats because it is not of faith and with a clear conscience. "He eats with offence because he violates conscience in so doing" (Murray, 195). The former is more likely.
This is an authoritative declaration designed to summarize the principle outlined in vv. 13-20. Paul declares as good the unselfish action of the strong brother who, although possessing liberty, foregoes such out of loving deference to his weaker brother.
· Question: "Why were some abstaining from wine?" Perhaps like the meat of 1 Cor. 8-10 it was associated with idolatrous practices. It may have been used as a libation in animal sacrifices. Perhaps its intoxicating nature, when taken in excess, frightened the weak. Or perhaps they opposed drinking wine for purely ascetic reasons. That is to say, they believed that self-denial per se was essential to holiness.
· Question: "Does this declaration in v. 21 mean that a Christian should take a vow of total abstinence to be observed throughout one's life?" Certainly if one wants to take such a vow he or she is free to do so. But I do not think this is what Paul is recommending. Three reasons: (1) Paul himself did not take this approach. See 1 Cor. 10:23-33. The exercise of liberty is wholly dependent on the immediate circumstances. See also 1 Cor. 9:19-23. Paul's behavior on matters non-essential to salvation was dependent on those to whom he ministered and their attitude to the issue at hand. See also 1 Tim. 5:23. (2) It would be inconsistent with his emphasis on liberty in vv. 1-12. To endorse liberty so strongly, only to universally and unconditionally wipe out every possibility of its exercise, is inconceivable. (3) Practically speaking, it is beyond reason. If we permanently forsook everything that was offensive to others it is doubtful we could survive long in this world.
N.B. It must be remembered that taking a vow of permanent abstinence is not necessarily a sign of weakness. One must determine one's motive for such a vow. An otherwise strong believer may choose to abstain for reasons other than deference to the weak or a personal inability to resist temptation.
This is yet "another exhortation to the strong and means that they are not to parade and protest their rights and liberties to the detriment of the weak" (Murray, 195). The word faith here refers to the firm persuasion and confidence in one's conscience that all things truly are clean in themselves, and the consequent sense of freedom in Christ to enjoy such things with gratitude and to the glory of God.
When Paul says you are to have this faith "as your own conviction before God," he means two things: (1) Keep it privately; don't parade it or be ostentatious or make a public point of the fact that you are "above" the scruples of the weak. (2) But neither should you renounce your freedom. Keep it. It is good. Says Cranfield:
"To be free from the sort of scruples which trouble the weak is in itself a precious gift. The inward freedom does not have to be expressed outwardly in order to be enjoyed: one may enjoy it in one's own inner life --- a secret known only to oneself and God. And, if a weak brother is going to be hurt by one's giving outward expression to one's freedom, then one should be content with the inward experience of it, of which God is the only witness" (2:726).
The word doubt implies that a weak brother has qualms and misgivings about the moral propriety of eating or drinking or whatever the decision may be with which he is faced. He is unsure. His conscience lacks confidence. He does not feel free to partake. He does not have the faith that all things are clean.
Paul thus envisions a situation in which this weak brother, perhaps in order to escape the disdain or rejection of a strong brother, eats/drinks contrary to his scruples. His own misguided, but sincere, conscience says: "Do not eat/drink." But under the influence of the example of stronger brethren, he violates the dictates of his conscience and engages in what, to him, is wrong. In such a case, says Paul, both he and the strong brother whose unloving example he followed have sinned.
"Whatever is not from faith is sin", although a principle true enough on its own to be applied to any number of settings, must be seen in the light of its immediate context. Paul's point is that a believer sins when he does what his conscience forbids.
1) These truths in Romans 14 and the actions they require apply only within the community of faith. In other words, Paul is addressing how we are to live out our freedom in Christ in relation to other Christians. He is not speaking to those situations in which a non-Christian protests your exercise of freedom. Would there be a different set of guidelines to govern our relationships with unbelievers?
2) If someone says to me: "Your drinking of wine is sin," should I cease? To answer the question we must first determine if the one who protests is a weaker brother. As we have seen, by weaker brother Paul is thinking of someone who not only has a misconception of what is inherently right and wrong, clean and unclean, but is actually himself induced or led to perform the action in question because of your participation. Paul is thinking of someone who is led to violate his own conscience because he is either untaught or excessively timid and fearful. His concern over your reaction to his abstinence leads him to do what his conscience forbids. This must be emphasized, because the person who protests your expression of liberty may be a legalist. Legalists are in no danger of violating their conscience! They are not in the least tempted to engage in the activity in question. Their aim is not simply to refrain from a specified activity, but to persuade you to refrain as well, often through intimidation, shame, guilt, etc.
N.B. The weaker brother is NOT a legalist.
3) If you do choose to forego the exercise of your liberty for the sake of a weaker brother, be certain to point out that you are not doing so because