IN ISSUES OF PERSONAL CONVICTION, LOVE MUST TAKE PRECEDENCE OVER LIBERTY TO PROMOTE PEACE AND PREVENT STUMBLING BLOCKS
Frank Thielman: Paul has just explained in 14:1–12 that neither the weak nor the strong should “judge” one another, and now he shows specifically what this means for the strong and why it means this. The strong must “decide” not to damage the faith of the weak with respect to their traditional dietary practices by putting social pressure on them to eat food they consider forbidden. If the strong, by their contempt and example, lead the weak to eat food they consider ceremonially impure, they will at least create distress (λυπεῖται, 14:15) for the weak and at worst destroy (ἀπόλλυε, v. 15) and tear down (κατάλυε, v. 20) their faith.
Main Idea: Those who see no need to avoid ceremonially impure food at the common meal of believers should not hold those who refrain from such food in contempt, nor should they put their own, less scrupulous convictions on display at these meals. The faith of the weak is vulnerable because they could be shamed into eating certain foods against their own convictions, and doing this could tear down their faith. The strong, then, should show love and a willingness to preserve the peace of the community by keeping their own convictions to themselves when the community meets
R. Kent Hughes: Exercising Christian liberty is very much like walking a tightrope. As you walk the rope with balancing pole in hand, at one end of the pole is love for others and at the other is Christian liberty. When these are in balance, your walk is as it should be. Martin Luther had it right when he began his treatise “On the Freedom of a Christian Man” by saying, “A Christian man is a most free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian man is a most dutiful servant of all, subject to all.” We are all immensely free in Christ. Our only bondage is the bond of love to our fellow believers.
It is our Christian duty, when exercising our freedom, not only to think about how our actions affect us but others. We must always remember that it is not our display of Christian freedom that commends our faith to the world, but our demonstration of agape love. Jesus said, “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35). The strong, mature Christian voluntarily limits his freedom out of love for his weaker brothers and sisters.
Grant Osborne: Interdependence — Sin is not just a private matter. Everything we do affects others, and we have to consider the impact of what we do. God created us to be interdependent, not independent. We who are strong in our faith must, without pride or condescension, treat others with love, patience, and self-restraint. Nothing like food should be so important to us that we insist on having it even at the risk of harming another.
I. (:13) LOVE REPLACES JUDGMENT WITH BROTHERLY SENSITIVITY
A. Don’t Judge Your Brother for His Personal Convictions
“Therefore let us not judge one another anymore,”
B. Don’t Exercise Your Liberty in a Way that Trips Up Your Brother
“but rather determine this—
not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way.”
Steven Cole: Paul uses a play on words here: the word translated “determine” is the same word translated “judge” earlier in the sentence. We might paraphrase, “Don’t judge your brother; rather, judge yourself so that you don’t put an obstacle or stumbling block in your brother’s way.” Keep in mind that in this chapter, Paul is talking about non-moral matters where the Bible does not give clear commands. He is not talking about judging your brother regarding sin or serious doctrinal error (which we need to do), but rather on non-moral or secondary matters.
II. (:14-18) LOVE KEEPS THE MAIN THING THE MAIN THING
A. (:14) Respect Differing Personal Convictions
“I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself;
but to him who thinks anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean.”
Frank Thielman: The perfect-tense, first-person verb translated “I am persuaded” (πέπεισμαι) was common in expressions of an opinion that was strongly held (e.g., Acts 26:26; 2 Tim 1:5; cf. Phil 1:6; Heb 13:18). Paul intensifies it further by coupling it with “I know” (οἶδα). He is convinced of his position either because he knows and believes the teaching of Jesus on clean and unclean foods (Mark 7:15, 18b–19), or in a more general sense because the resurrected and exalted Lord had revealed to him that the Mosaic dietary laws no longer needed to be observed. Paul’s references elsewhere to being persuaded of something “in the Lord” make this general sense more probable (cf. Gal 5:10; Phil 2:24; 2 Thess 3:4; cf. Phil 1:14).
B. (:15) Restrict Your Liberty to Avoid Harming Your Brother
“For if because of food your brother is hurt, you are no longer walking according to love. Do not destroy with your food him for whom Christ died.”
Frank Thielman: To force the weak brother or sister into a corner on the issue of food by exuding an attitude of contempt for that person (14:3, 10) is to fail to live according to (κατά) the all-encompassing standard of sincere love that fulfills the law and should characterize the day-to-day life of every believer (12:9; 13:10).
Steven Cole: While I greatly respect these scholars who say that the word destroy here means eternal destruction and I agree with some of the arguments that they put forth in other contexts, it seems to me that the context here overrides the usual meaning of the word and that here Paul means that flaunting your liberty will damage your brother’s walk with God, not that you will cause a professing believer to go to eternal damnation. It’s still a serious matter—we shouldn’t minimize how bad it is to hurt a brother’s walk with God. But I think that it goes too far here to insist on the usual meaning of destroy. . .
It is difficult to extrapolate the principles that Paul sets forth here into modern situations. The first thing to determine is whether the Bible speaks directly to the situation. If so, obey what it commands. If not, don’t think first about your rights to liberty. Rather, think about your weaker brother’s spiritual growth. Love trumps liberty. Love says, “My liberty is no big deal. The big deal is that my brother grows in his walk with Christ.”
C. (:16) Regard the Impact of Your Behavior
“Therefore do not let what is for you a good thing be spoken of as evil;”
Thomas Schreiner: The specific meaning of verse 16 is controversial, but if the οὖν (oun, therefore) is original (and it probably is), then it draws an inference from verses 13–15. The logic between the two sections seems to be this. If the strong act contrary to love and bring ruin on the weak (vv. 13–15), then the weak will criticize “the good” (i.e., the faith that gives the strong the freedom to eat; v. 16).
D. (:17) Remember the Essentials of the Kingdom
“for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking,
but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”
Steven Cole: Keep the main thing the main thing. . . Having healthy, godly relationships that flow from our relationship with God is the main thing. You can win arguments about theology, but shred relationships. You’re off track. You can prove that you’re right and your mate is wrong, but you’re off track. You can take pride in what you do for the Lord, but you’re off track. The main thing is God’s kingdom, where He rules and you submit. God’s kingdom centers on your relationship with Him and with others. Keep that as the main thing!
Michael Bird: Paul rarely mentions the “kingdom of God,” and when he does he ordinarily has in mind the future state that God’s people are yet to enter (see 1 Cor 4:20; 6:9 – 10; 15:24, 50; Gal 5:21; Eph 5:5; Col 1:12 – 13; 4:11; 1 Thess 2:12; 2 Thess 1:5; 2 Tim 4:1, 18). Here, though, Paul emphasizes the realized or present dimension of the kingdom of God. The kingdom is manifested in their midst by the Holy Spirit, who bestows on them the blessings of righteousness, joy, and peace. Brian Vickers comments, “By placing personal freedom, here in the form of eating and drinking, above the good of others, they are forgetting how they received the kingdom and what should mark those who belong to it.” When one realizes what the kingdom is and how the kingdom is expressed among them, petty squabbles over meat and sacred days appear comparatively pointless and even pitiful.
R. Kent Hughes: We are prone to think that the Kingdom of God primarily involves what a person does or does not eat or drink, or what he wears, or what he does or does not do on the Lord’s day, or how he combs his hair or does not. This is how the Pharisees lived, making a big deal of externals. But the Kingdom of God is not mainly a matter of externals but of eternals—“righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” Paul’s words and their inspired arrangement are supremely beautiful and truly spectacular.
The primary eternal element of God’s Kingdom is “righteousness.” The experience of God’s righteousness in our lives produces an inﬁnite longing for holiness, a driving desire to know him better, an intense thirsting in the inner parts. David’s longing is expressed in Psalm 42:1, 2a ;
As a deer pants for flowing streams,
so pants my soul for you, O God.
My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.
Jesus enjoined the pursuit of righteousness as the recommended pursuit for all humanity in Matthew 5:6—“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”
Properly following the eternal element of righteousness is “peace,” that profound inner satisfaction that only God’s presence can give. Peace with God is the secret of peace with one another. Kingdom peace is an inner unﬂappability that remains undisturbed by minor irritations, a quiet assurance that God is at work.
Lastly, there is the eternal element of “joy in the Holy Spirit.” This joy is the outward mark of Christ’s presence. Once when my wife and I were visiting London, we took a walk with a friend after dinner past St. James Place, and he remarked that the Queen Mother was at home because her banner was ﬂying. When joy ﬂies as the ﬂag over our lives, the world knows the King of Heaven is in residence in our hearts.
E. (:18) Receive the Approval of God and Men
“For he who in this way serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men.”
Frank Thielman: If the strong use their strength to live out the principles of righteousness and peace in their relationships with the weak, they will be presenting their bodies as living sacrifices to God and providing an attractively peaceable character to everyone, including their unbelieving neighbors.
Thomas Schreiner: Verse 18 functions as an explanation (ἐν τούτῳ, en toutō, in this) of verse 17. Those who live kingdom lives are pleasing to God and receive approval from other people.
III. (:19-21) LOVE SACRIFICES LIBERTY FOR HARMONY AND EDIFICATION
A. (:19-20a) Seek Harmony and Edification
- (:19) Commanded Positively
“So then let us pursue the things which make for peace
and the building up of one another.”
Michael Bird: The believers in Rome, despite their diversity, despite the complexity of the relationship between Christ-believing Jews and Gentiles over the last several years, and despite their personal grievances and wounds, they are to pursue peace and mutual upbuilding. The things that make for peaceful relationships, harmony, and consensus, those are the things they are to doggedly chase after. Instead of destroying God’s work in his servants, they are to build each other up, like adding another spiral to a beautiful cathedral. Paul wants a cessation of hostilities and a combined effort to create an atmosphere of mutual support.
Douglas Moo: The strong ought to be more concerned about the growth of the body as a whole rather than their own freedom and spiritual advancement.
James Dunn: The more liberal must be conscious of their responsibility not only to the conservative individual, and not only before the wider public, but also to the congregation itself. To press home his point Paul draws on two concepts of rich connotation for him. To be a responsible member of the body of Christ in Rome means actually working for “peace”—that is, once again, not merely an absence or avoidance of friction or antagonism, and not merely an individualistic quietness of mind, but a positive well-being which covers the whole range of spiritual and social relationships. It means also striving to “build up” the mutual relationships of which the church consists (the polar opposite for Paul of a spirituality or worship or fellowship which seeks first and foremost its own benefit and advancement). To belong to God’s building means living out one’s life as part of that building, mutually dependent on God’s grace and mutually interdependent on the interlocking relationships by which the building exists and grows. Despite their greater sense of liberty, the strong are more dependent on the weak than they might at first realize.
- (:20a) Commanded Negatively
“Do not tear down the work of God for the sake of food.”
B. (:20b) Stumbling Your Brother is an Evil
“All things indeed are clean, but they are evil for the man who eats and gives offense.”
C. (:21) Self Restraint is a Virtue
“It is good not to eat meat or to drink wine,
or to do anything by which your brother stumbles.”
John Toews: Nothing is ritually unclean by itself. Old lines for demarcating the holy and the unholy, and thus those who are “in” from those who are “out,” no longer apply. The more expansive believers can and should rejoice in their theological and spiritual freedom. True faith means freedom, and freedom involves diversity. But the exercise of freedom must be conditioned by love, by the effect the freedom has on believers whose faith is less expansive and can be injured or even ruined by the public display of freedom by others.
IV. (:22-23) LOVE DOES NOT PRESSURE OR COMPROMISE IN AREAS OF PERSONAL CONVICTION
James Dunn: Paul has thus expressed with some care his double concern regarding his more conservative readership’s continued sense of obligation to the older and clearer boundary markers and rules of conduct for the people of God provided by the traditional Jewish customs: the concern that conservatives should not assume that God’s saving righteousness was still dependent on these rules and rituals and so condemn nonobservers as “beyond the pale” (vv 3–12); and the concern that the more liberal majority should not ride roughshod over these sensibilities and should appreciate how firm a hold they had on their more conservative fellows and how vulnerable that left them (vv 13–21). The balance was a difficult one to maintain between Christian liberty and love, and Paul must have been conscious of how easily the full range of liberty can lapse into legalism at one end (cf. 10:3), just as easily as it can lapse into licentiousness at the other (13:13). So he makes one final summarizing attempt to set the proper balance for any congregation where fundamental disagreements exist between members—a kind of charter of Christian liberty.
Basic is the recognition that liberty arises out of faith. The recall of this motif, so central for Paul’s exposition as a whole, is no accident. For Paul’s point is precisely that the “strong” have recognized (at least in the matter of foods and sabbaths) that conduct must arise directly out of and as an expression of their unconditional trust in and dependence on God, and not as a claim upon God. This is the danger which the “weak” are ever prey to, the mistake into which Paul’s fellow Jews had fallen in their boastful reliance on the distinctive Jewish “works of the law” (2:17–29; 3:27 – 4:2). But equally, liberty must be conditioned by love, for a liberty careless of its effects on others is an expression more of self-indulgence than of faith. This is the danger which the “strong” are ever prey to, the mistake characteristic of fallen humanity at large, as indicated in 1:18–32. Here the importance of seeing faith in experiential terms, as a (usually) conscious dependence on God, and not simply as mental assent to a creedal definition, should not be lost sight of.
Basic too is the recognition that liberty means diversity, that Christian liberty is a spectrum embracing a range of options, not all of which can be held by any single person, but all of which may be held within a Christian congregation without destroying its unity. Chapter 14 is therefore the outworking in terms of conduct of Paul’s understanding of the congregation as the body of Christ (12:3–8). Unless there is an acceptance along that spectrum of the different possibilities within that spectrum, there can be no real liberty. So even when Paul is addressing his remarks primarily to the “strong,” he does so no doubt fully conscious of the presence of the “weak” in the same congregations, and with a view to encouraging them to accept that different practice is possible without transgressing the faith which unites them all.
A. (:22a) Personal Convictions Should Govern Your Behavior, Not Pressure Others
“The faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God.”
Frank Thielman: Paul uses the phrase “before God” (ἐνώπιον τοῦ θεοῦ) elsewhere to emphasize the importance of sincerity and truthfulness before God, who has an infallible knowledge of everyone’s thoughts and intentions (e.g., 2 Cor 4:2; 7:12; Gal 1:20; 2 Tim 4:1), and that is also the emphasis here. Paul’s point is that it is enough for the strong to know in all sincerity that their position on the matter of observing Jewish customs is correct (Rom 14:14). They do not have to express their position at the expense of other believers by eating food forbidden by the Mosaic law at the believing community’s common meals. The strong can happily eat anything at home since the gospel has equipped them with renewed minds capable of exercising discernment and of approving (δοκιμάζειν) their own actions as God’s will (12:2).
Thomas Schreiner: Verse 22 functions as a clarification. The self-denial of the strong should not be understood as an assault on or criticism of their theology. They are free to maintain the convictions of their faith in the privacy of their home or with other believers of like convictions. Furthermore, the strong are truly blessed by God in that they are undisturbed by doubts in eating whatever they wish (v. 22b).
B. (:22b-23) Personal Convictions Should Not Be Compromised
- (:22b) Good Conscience Enhances Happiness
“Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves.”
- (:23) Bad Conscience Exposes Sin
“But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and whatever is not from faith is sin.”