By Adam Graham
Since the earliest churches, many believers have thought, “Wouldn’t it be great if everyone were like us?” This is opposed to thinking, “Wouldn’t it be great if everyone were like Christ?”
The first group like this was the Judaizers, who sought to make early Gentile converts comply with Old Testament ceremonial laws. The Apostle Paul severely criticized the Judaizers’ legalism in requiring the works of the law for salvation in addition to the cross. Paul’s ire at them may be summed up in Galatians 5:12 (ESV): “I wish those who unsettle you would emasculate themselves!”
Paul’s concern with legalism goes further than just those who would require Christians to become Jews, as he prophecies in 1 Timothy 4:1-5:
Now the Spirit speaketh expressly that in the latter times some shall depart from the faith, giving heed to seducing spirits and doctrines of devils, speaking lies in hypocrisy, having their conscience seared with a hot iron, forbidding to marry, and commanding to abstain from meats, which God hath created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be refused if it be received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by the Word of God and prayer.
Throughout history, some have done these exact things and some Christians continue to. However, Paul also spoke against those who would use Christian Liberty as a license to sin. (Romans 6) and he discussed with some detail a third group also still with us.
This third group exercises their Christian liberty, expects everyone else to also, and looks down on those who don’t. For example, the man who can have a glass or two of wine and control himself looks down on the teetotaler, accusing him of legalism even though the teetotaler also believes he is saved by grace, not by works. The woman who sends her kids off to public school to win souls looks down on her neighbor who homeschools, accusing her of sheltering her children and keeping them from being effective witnesses.
The issues were different in the Roman church, but the general trend was the same. Reading Romans 14, it appears there was a battle between what Paul called the “weaker” brethren with their convictions which forbade them from eating meat and often required observance of feast days, and the stronger brothers who felt no compunction about eating meat and no need to observe the feast days of a foreign culture.
Paul doesn’t explain what had happened. From his prescription, however, we can ascertain some of the weaker brothers judged the stronger and that some of the stronger judged the weaker. Perhaps, there was even some pressure for the weaker brethren to conform. He might say, as Paul would to the Corinthians, “an idol is nothing” regarding concerns about the meat available to them having been offered to idols. The stronger might even have invited the weaker brother over to his house to share in the meat. This itself may have given rise to legalism among the weaker as a defensive measure. As most American Christians will tell you, there’s only one resolution to this sort of problem.
A church split.
In Romans 14:1-6, Paul offers something radically different to these early believers:
Receive ye him that is weak in the faith, but not to judge his doubtful disputations. For one believeth that he may eat all things, while another who is weak eateth herbs. Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not; and let not him that eateth not, judge him that eateth; for God hath received him.
Who art thou who judgest another man’s servant? To his own master he standeth or falleth; yea, he shall be held up, for God is able to make him stand. One man esteemeth one day above another; another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind. (KJ21)
The solution according to Paul is to receive one another and to not judge one another regarding things not true matters of sin, but of personal conscience. “Let every man be persuaded in his own mind,” also is key here. I don’t need to persuade you of my convictions, and you do not need to persuade me of yours. Paul writes in verses verses fourteen through sixteen:
I know, and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus, that there is nothing unclean of itself; but to him that regardeth anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean. But if thy brother be grieved because of thy meat, thou walkest no longer charitably. Destroy not with thy meat him for whom Christ died. Let not your good be spoken of as evil.
Verse fifteen is an opportunity for the weaker brother to claim to be aggrieved by your exercise of Christian liberty, but in context that’s not what the passage means. It refers to pressuring someone to engage in activities (such as eating certain food or going to certain concerts) that the weaker brother believes is wrong. One interesting thought on verse fifteen comes from Wesley who remarks, regarding the second clause, “Do not value thy meat more than Christ valued his life.” Ouch.
In verses seventeen and eighteen, Paul brings us back to what matters most, writing, “For the Kingdom of God is not meat and drink, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Ghost. For he that in these things serveth Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men.
What matters to God is not the extra-scriptural externals that often bog us down in fratricidal warfare. God accepts both the weak and the strong who serve Him faithfully. Romans 14:19 says, “Let us therefore follow after the things which make for peace, and the things wherewith one may edify another.”
Following after peace sounds so wonderful as Paul writes it. Yet, it is so easy to fall into the trap of judging others with different convictions than us on disputable matters. We can mitigate this by being aware of our own tendency to make choices that lead to contention rather than to peace.
Adam Graham is the poignant and usually witty author of the novel Tales of the Dim Knight from Splashdown Books. He writes for Pajamasmedia.com, laserandsword.com, and hosts the Great Detectives of Old Time Radio podcast. He lives with his wife and writing partner, Andrea Graham, with their cat Joybell in Boise, Idaho.