It is important for us to understand when reading this, what the text is not saying. It is not saying that we should never judge a brother or sister. The context, which we will look at more closely in a bit, precludes that conclusion, but a slight consideration of the wider teaching of the NT should warn against such a perspective. If it were the case that we were never to judge another Christian, that would make church discipline impossible. It would mean Matthew 18 was impossible. It would mean Paul was wrong when he encouraged the church of Corinth to put out the man who had taken his father’s wife (1 Cor. 5). It would mean that we were never to rebuke those who were in sin. This is so obviously wrong but unfortunately there are always those who will want to make the church all about receiving people no matter how they are living. You know, like the church sign which says, “Everyone is welcome,” with the emphasis on “everyone.” Of course I would say the same with regard to our church, but we know what they really mean. What they really mean is that they are not going to confront people who are living in those sins which have become respectable with the culture, especially sexual sin. That is neither the Biblical nor the loving position which the church is called to take.
Nor is it saying that there should never be intervention on the part of believers for those who are straying and that we should leave them to the Lord to take care of. Again, church discipline, which is a necessary function of any healthy church, precludes this. Paul’s instructions to the Galatian Christians in Gal. 6:1-5 is against this.
Causes of contention
What then is the apostle saying? Context is key here. Paul is not addressing a judgmental attitude in general; he is addressing a judgmental attitude as respects one’s position on eating and drinking and the observance of days. Now that might seem confusing to the modern reader so it’s important that we try to nail down exactly what the apostle is addressing here. He is not addressing dieting in general! Rather, he is addressing the observance of the Mosaic dietary laws and the Mosaic religious calendar. We know this from clues in the context as well as similar places elsewhere is Paul’s writings. For example, in verse 14, Paul says, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it is unclean” (cf. ver. 20). This emphasis on unclean is a reference to the ritual uncleanness determined by the Mosaic Law. There were certain foods that made you unclean if you ate them, like bacon or ham. The observance of days, then, refers to the observance of the Mosaic religious calendar, requiring the observance of days like Passover and the Sabbath.
Why would there have been a dispute over these things? It is probable that it was the result of the purging of the Jews from Rome by the decree of Claudius in A.D. 49. This would have emptied the church in Rome of Jewish influence. The church would have been almost entirely Gentile as a consequence with a very Gentile look and culture, until after A.D. 54 with the beginning of the reign of Nero when Jews began to return. As they did, they would have brought their observance of the Mosaic Law with them, which many of them apparently still considered a part of any good Christian’s obedience to God. The Gentile Christians did not observe the rituals of the Mosaic Law, and this brought them into conflict. Is you diet kosher or not? Do you observe the Sabbath or not? There were differences over questions like these and the Gentile and Jewish Christians were on opposite sides of the debate. It created quite a lot of conflict in the church, and Paul now addressing himself to that conflict and how they should view it and settle it.
This then leads to a consideration of who the strong and the weak were. The strong were almost certainly the Gentile Christians who didn’t think they needed to observe the ritual requirements of the Mosaic Law, and the weak were the Jewish Christians who did. But why were they called the strong and the weak? What does that refer to?
Since the Gentiles were most likely the majority in the church and this is addressed to the strong (ver. 1), it would seem that the Gentiles were the strong and the Jewish Christians were the weak. Why? The Gentile Christians were strong in the sense that they understood that the implications of the gospel did not require them to observe the rituals of the Mosaic Law. Note where their strength lay: in their faith (ver. 1, with 15:1, and the repetition of “faith” as the point at issue in verses 22-23). They understood the implications of faith in Christ. They read the OT Law in light of Christ’s fulfillment of it. Those who thought they must keep the Mosaic rituals, on the other hand, did not fully grasp the implications of the gospel, and so they were weak in that sense. This was not good; the apostle refers to the “failings of the weak” in 15:1.
Nevertheless, being weak in the faith didn’t mean they were living in sin. It was a problem of understanding, not a problem of overt disobedience. The Jewish Christians didn’t keep the Law to merit eternal life; they kept it as a part of obedience to Christ. They were brothers and sisters in the Lord, and this is the way the apostle repeatedly refers to them. Their Master was the Lord and they were his servants. And this is the way they were to be treated and esteemed by the strong.
Thus, the strong were to receive the weak, that is, they were to receive them into fellowship. They were not to quarrel with them over their scruples (1). They were not to despise the weak (3), or to judge them (10). On the other hand, the weak were not to judge the strong, his spiritual condition and standing in God’s favor (30. Instead of quarreling or forcing uniformity on matters in dispute, Paul urges them, “Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind” (5).
Again, it’s important that we don’t take this passage in directions it was not meant to go. The apostle is not saying that we should just live and let live. The context does not apply in general to all behavior and beliefs. To what does it apply? It applies to issues of doctrine and practice that are not essential to saving faith in Christ. It applies to what we might call secondary, or even tertiary beliefs and practices. There are things that you cannot believe and be a Christian (cf. 2 Jn. 9-10). If you deny the humanity or the deity of Christ, you are not a Christian. If you deny that Jesus is the only way of salvation, you cannot be a Christian. There are things, in other words, which are essential to Christian faith and practice. On the practical side, you cannot live in the sins of the flesh and call yourself a Christian.
It was clearly not sinful to keep the rituals of the Mosaic Law, since the Law came from God in the first place! Again, it was a matter of understanding. There was nothing inconsistent here with obedience to Christ.
The Controlling Principle
It’s important to see the controlling factor in this passage. Why were the strong to bear with the weak and why were the weak to bear with the strong? It was because, both the strong and the weak were the servants of Christ despite their disagreement. They were to receive each other, because God had already received them (4). Paul emphasizes this throughout the passage. The result is that we are to welcome all whom God has welcomed. We should be willing, at least on some level, to serve beside all who are the servants of Christ.
Another result is that all who belong to Christ are his servants and are ultimately accountable to him and not to us. We are to be as forbearing as possible because other believers are not there to serve us; they are not our servants but the servants of Christ. I think a lot of problems in the church arise because we forget this. We focus on quirks and other nonessential things in other believers and turn them into something which is more important than they really are, just because for whatever reason they bother us. And so we end up hurting or running off genuine followers of Jesus from our church because they do some nonessential thing differently than we do.
It’s interesting that what the weak were really guilty of was what a lot of Christians would call legalism. Again, there are two types of legalism and one type is worse than the other. One type of legalism is making our righteousness the basis for our acceptance with God. Now that is not to be borne with; it was precisely this which Paul dealt with in the book of Galatians and we see what he thought of that! But there is another type of legalism; it is making something a matter of obedience when it really isn’t. That was precisely the problem that Paul was dealing with in the Roman church.
How do we apply this? Well, you shouldn’t write someone off if they are legalistic in this latter sense! But how often we do! It isn’t right! Now, it would be wrong for a person who was legalistic in this sense to insist upon you doing what they were doing. That is precisely what Paul cautions against: the weak are not pass judgment on the strong. The weak are the legalistic ones and they are not to pass judgment on those who don’t share with them in their scruples.
Since the apostle also mentions the observance of days, we can illustrate what he is saying but using the example of the Sabbath. Some Christians believe that you must still keep the Sabbath (whether Saturday or Sunday) as a matter of obedience. Others, like myself, do not believe that we are obligated to do this. Now there are Scriptural arguments for both, but I would argue that I am in the category of the strong and that I have better understood the implications of the gospel! But I am not to judge those who keep the Sabbath literally as if they were not true believers, nor should I make them feel unwelcome as a fellow brother or sister in Christ. They are not, after all, violating a clear command of Christ; rather, they are actually seeking to obey Christ as they understand his will for their lives in Scripture.
Now that is the background to this section of Scripture. There are a lot of directions we could go with this, but what I want to focus on is the underlying reality that grounds the apostle’s directions to the Roman Christians. The underlying reality is this: the fundamental identity of the Christian is that he or she is a servant of Christ and he is our Master and Lord: “For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord of the dead and of the living” (Rom. 14:7-9).
It is true that there is a universal dimension to this. But the context again makes it clear that the apostle is addressing Christians. As believers, we are Christ’s servants and he is our master. We are ultimately accountable to him and will stand before his throne to give an account of our lives.
So with this in mind, I would like us to consider the following implications that this doctrine has on the way we are to interact with our brothers and sisters in Christ.
We are to welcome the servants of Christ (1): ”As for the one who is weak in the faith, welcome him.”
If the paramount reality in the church is the Lordship of Christ and we are his servants, then we are to welcome all who are welcomed by Christ (cf. ver. 3). We are the servants; we are not the ones who determine who belong in the church. It is the Lord of the church who determines that. And if Christ has welcomed someone, we are in no position to refuse them or make them feel unwelcome.
This is especially important when those people rub us the wrong way. There would have been many reasons a Gentile Christian would not want to bear with a Jewish Christian, especially with all the restrictions that the Mosaic ritual would have imposed on the friendship. And yet Paul tells the strong to welcome them, and in the next chapter, to “bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves” (15:1).
As a church, we are to be welcoming to all who are true followers of Christ, even if they disagree with us, as long as those things are nonessentials, and especially if those issues rub us the wrong way. We are not in this to please ourselves, because we are not our own masters; we are the servants of Christ. When Christians visit our assembly, do they feel loved? Do we go out of our way to make them feel welcomed? I think most churches, and probably we ourselves, could do a better job at this. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard complaints from Christians about this or that church, that the people at the church were cold towards them and made them feel like strangers. But this should not be. The church is not our church, it is Christ’s. We need to beware lest people think that we are trying to keep our little patch of heaven from being invaded by someone who looks different or does things a little differently from us, even if they belong to Jesus. How can this attitude be rooted in the supremacy of Christ over all things? It cannot be.
By the way, we don’t welcome people when we just shake their hand and smile (or in this Covid age, wave at them from six feet away!) and then walk away. People are welcomed when we welcome them into our lives, when we welcome them as Christ welcomed us (15:7). And that means being willing to be invested in their lives. Are we willing to do this, or will we only be willing to embrace those who we are most comfortable around?
We are not to quarrel over opinions (1).
Again, this is rooted in the fact that we are all the servants of Christ. It is therefore not my opinion that really matters; it is what Christ thinks. And if he welcomes someone even though they might think differently on something, we are to welcome them as well. In particular, we need to beware of making our own opinions about something a sort of canonical standard. It is not your opinion or my opinion that matters. What matter is the word and doctrine of our Lord. And if something is not clear in God’s word, we need to be very, very careful about making our opinion about that something into something more important than it really is.
Now, the necessary caveat is that if something is clearly demarcated in God’s word, we are not to budge from that no matter how uncomfortable or unpopular it might be. But if I am giving my opinion, I have no right to make it something that is going to drive others away.
At no time is this perhaps more needed than today when it comes to politics. So many people in the church make political issues a matter of fellowship. This is exactly what it means to quarrel over opinions. Now that’s not to say that politics is not important or that policies in our government are not worthy of our thought and consideration. But it should never become a matter of division in the church. My, why in the world would we ever divide over one’s opinion of a politician! Let us never go there, but love each other and remember what is important. It is the gospel that is important; it is our love to Christ that unites us, and we should never, ever let political differences turn us from fellow servants into enemy combatants.
We are not to despise our brothers and sisters (3, 10).
It would have been easy for the strong to despise the weak, and to think within themselves that they were superior with their stronger grasp of the gospel. On the other hand, the weak would have been tempted to despise the strong and to think that here were people who weren’t as committed in their obedience as they were. But the apostle forbids either group to despise the other.
And why? Because they were both the servants of Christ. As such, they were the objects of his love and affection. He cares for them and he intercedes for them because he died for them. The apostle will later make this point: “By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died” (ver. 15). How could we despise one for whom Christ died? (By the way, this point does not make much sense if you don’t believe in limited atonement! It is clear that the apostle is talking about believers here as contrasted with the world, and he describes them as such as those for whom Christ died.)
How do you despise a brother or sister in Christ? You look down on them, you treat them as if they didn’t exist, you ignore them. Or worse, you berate them and insult them and revile them. But we cannot do that when once we recognize that we serve together in the kingdom of Christ. He looks on them with the same love and loyalty as he looks on us. And it’s not our goodness that gives that to us; it is the grace of Christ, pure and simple.
We are not to pass judgment on our brothers and sisters in Christ (4, 10).
In other words, we are not to condemn them when Christ has not. The Scriptures are clear that we are to call out sin. But when our Lord has not made something sin, we have no right to condemn it as such. Again, we are not creating our own kingdom. We are not to be pursuing our own agendas. We are not supposed to be creating an environment with the intention of protecting our own plans and purposes. We are servants of Christ and under his authority, not our own. And therefore we are not to pass judgment on our brothers and sisters in Christ when he has not.
The church of Christ, which has been created by the unconditional love and grace of God, and which stands under the headship of Christ, should reflect these realities. It should be a place where love and forgiveness and forbearing are features of the fellowship rather than rare occurrences. The defining reality is the Lordship of Christ over all the church and this should determine how we relate to each other. God forbid that we start treating the church as if it were our own domain or fiefdom. Like Diotrephes, “who likes to put himself first, does not acknowledge our [the apostles’] authority . . . . talking wicked nonsense against us. And not content with that, he refuses to welcome the brothers, and also stops those who want to and puts them out of the church” (3 Jn. 9-10). Here is an example of a man who did exactly the opposite of what Paul calls us to in the fourteenth chapter of Romans. May we welcome the brothers rather than cast them out.
In the local congregation there should be the closest unity. We should always strive for unity instead of looking for ways to cause division. We should beware of cliques and receive those who may not entirely agree with us. We should remember that they are those for whom Christ died.
What about outside the local fellowship? What about denominations, for instance? Denominations are useful and I think necessary, but instead of erecting an iron curtain in the body of Christ, we should receive all that have not compromised the gospel. We need to ask some questions, question like: have people who differ on methods compromised the gospel or are we just really differing on a method which may be nonessential? If the former, we must not fellowship with them, but if the latter we should not hesitate to fellowship with them.
May our Lord grant us that unity which blesses the church and gives us a greater reach and witness in this world.