Romans 14 has been filled with misinterpretation and misapplication. To apply this text properly we must understand the original meaning first. I think many of the difficulties have arisen because we are trying to plug in our disputes and disagreements into this text without first recognizing that these Christians had disputes over. Before we begin, it is important to make some critical observation about this section that will ease our understanding.
- The first important observation to make is that this section of discussion begins at Romans 14:1 and concludes at Romans 15:13. The chapter break is in a very unfortunate position. The first half of chapter 15 continues the discussion contained in Romans 14.
- We need to observe the issues of the dispute. Romans 14:2-3 reveals that one issue is over the eating of food. We are given greater clarity about this issue in Romans 14:14-15. We find there that the issue is about eating clean and unclean food. We see this point made again in Romans 14:20 where Paul teaches that all food is clean. This seems to be the greatest problem that Paul is addressing. It is important to know that this is proof for a Jewish background because this language of clean and common foods are never used in Greco-Roman literature. But the language is found commonly in Jewish writings.
Another issue in the dispute is over the observing of days (Romans 14:5-6). Some people were observing all days as the same. Others were observing one day as better than another in honor to the Lord.
- Meat sacrificed to idols is never mentioned. We must be careful not to impose a problem into the text that is not addressed. Nowhere in Romans 14 or 15 is meat sacrificed to idols addressed. Therefore, the solutions given are not the same as the Corinthian issue in 1 Corinthians 8-10. The problem is about eating together (14:2-3), but the problem is not over meat sacrificed to idols.
These observations cause us to draw some necessary conclusions about the issue at hand. What we are reading about is Jewish Christian and Gentile Christian relations. This ought not be surprising considering that Paul’s letter to the Romans has been very much about Jewish Christian and Gentile Christian relations. Paul has had to teach the Jewish Christians that they are not saved by the works of the Law. Recall that the works of the Law was Sabbath keeping, clean and unclean foods, circumcision, and the other external acts that signified ethnic Israel as separate from the world.
The main issue at hand is the problem of Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians eating together. How could Jewish and Gentile Christians enjoy table fellowship together when they differed on which foods were permissible to eat? Eating swine was especially popular in the Greco-Roman world, but extremely offensive to the Jews from the food laws of Moses’ law. When we turn to Galatians 2 we find that this was a chronic problem for local churches. In Galatians 2:12 we find that even Peter stopped eating with Gentile Christians when Jewish Christians came from Jerusalem.
The second reason that Jewish Christian and Gentile Christian relations makes sense is because of the dispute over the keeping of days. It is hard to believe that Paul would be sympathetic to the keeping of pagan days and rituals. It is much more likely the "one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord" refers to Jewish Christians keeping the Sabbath and their feast days commanded under the Law of Moses. Gentile Christians, however, are observing all days alike and abstain from honoring any of these days.
Finally, Romans 15:8 reveals that the problem is Jewish Christian and Gentile Christian relations. Christ became a servant to the circumcised in order to confirm the promises to the patriarchs and for the Gentiles so that they might glorify God for his mercy.
We are right to ask why Paul does not make this distinction clear in this chapter. Why not frame the problem as Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians rather than the "strong" and the "weak" as he does? I believe Paul does not mention Jewish and Gentile Christians in this resolution because doing so would defeat the purpose of the letter. The whole point of Romans is to de-emphasize the distinction between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. They are to be one in Christ. To speak of the problem in Jew/Gentile terms would only emphasize what he has been trying to erase. There is no Jew and there is Gentile. There are only Christians and they are brethren together in Christ. What Paul is doing is giving practical resolution and application to his teaching on the "works of the Law."
Stop Despising and Passing Judgment (14:1-12)
Paul begins by teaching to welcome and accept one another. Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians were not to remain as two groups. They were to welcome one another as brethren in Christ. In joining together and accepting one another, the purpose was not to set each other straight. They were not now going to quarrel over the works of the Law. The phrase, "weak in faith" is not referring to the person’s conviction. It is fairly clearly that both groups have strong convictions about their belief such that they are quarreling with one another. This is also made clear to us in verse 5 where both are "fully convinced in their own minds." Therefore, "weak in faith" has more to do with not knowing or fully understanding God’s revealed will. The person thinks he knows God’s will, but is missing key points of understanding.
Verse 3 reveals the heart of the problem. The one who is eating (most typically Gentile Christians) are despising those who are not eating all foods. They are looking down their noses at them. They are looking down upon them and think their abstinence from foods is contemptible. However, those who do not eat are not innocent. They (most typically the Jewish Christians) are passing judgment on those who are eating all foods. They are condemning their actions. Paul gives a number of reasons why their despising of one another and passing judgment on each other is wrong.
At the end of verse 3 Paul simply states that God has welcomed them both. Paul drives their sinful actions deeper into their hearts by asking who they think they are to pass judgment on each other (14:4). We stand or fall before our master, not each other. Your judgments of me do not determine the state of my eternal soul. Only God pass such judgments. But Paul already points out in this verse that the one who eats will stand because God is able to make him stand.
In verse 5 Paul addresses the second issue and ties it into the first issue. One person is keeping the days while another does not. Both are honoring the Lord in what they are doing. They are worshiping God and giving thanks to God in the position each holds. One can easily imagine that the Jewish Christians are remember the feasts and remembering the Sabbaths and thanking God for their deliverance and the goodness of God. The Gentile Christians who do not participate in these things are still thanking God to be part of God’s covenant family and the mercy shown to them to be the people of God.
This is an important point because a person is not honoring God and thanking God by committing sin. Romans 14 does not authorize anything in terms of allowing sinful activities.
Allow me to take a moment for a side point while we are here. There are many in the religious world and many Christians who think it is right or wrong to keep various holidays. Some think Christians should not participate in Halloween because of its pagan origins. Some think Christians must not participate in Christmas or decorate with Christmas things. Some say that we should not mark our birthdays as special days. Some think Christians should not keep national holidays like Independence Day on July 4th. This is one issue that Paul has made clear. If people want to abstain from keeping certain holidays, they have every right to do so. On the other hand, if people want to keep various holidays and memorials, they also have the right to observe those days. The key is that whichever we choose, we do so in honor to the Lord. We are not to be honoring paganism. We are to give glory to God and show him thanks. Paul points out that we are to welcome one another even though we may disagree about these practices. The only point I would like to make is the point of consistency. If one avoids a holiday like Halloween because of its pagan background, then one must also avoid Christmas and Easter. If one avoids one national holiday, be consistent and avoid all national holidays. If one avoids a personal memorial like a birthday, then avoid all of them like anniversaries and dates when our loved ones pass away. Be consistent, but know that the apostle Paul says it does not matter.
The Lord Is The Judge
Our service and worship is to the Lord. We live to the Lord and we die to the Lord (14:7-9). We are accountable to the Lord. This is a point that so many Christians forget that is so important to remember. Your actions are not about making us happy. Coming to services is not about making the shepherds pleased. Nothing that you do is about keeping the church off of your back. What we think about you and the condition of your soul is not relevant. What matters is your condition before the Almighty God. We are simply servants trying to help each one of us see our condition. None of this about pleasing each other and keeping people off our backs. It is all about the fact that we stand before God.
Notice verse 10. All of us will stand before the judgment seat of God. You will not stand before the judgment seat of Brent or the shepherds. It is God that you must be very concerned about. This is a two fold reminder. First, let God do his job as judge. On matters that are opinions or of a questionable nature, it is not for us to judge one another. Clearly we are not talking about sinful activities that are condemned in the scriptures. But there are things that do not put one another into sin that can be of a questionable nature. These are matters that are to be left up to God. Second, we must be very careful when we do choose to judge. We must make sure that they are matters of significant doctrinal import that would put one in a state of sin. Romans 14 demands of us to know and apply the scriptures well so that we know when judgments must be made and when things must be left up to God. Third, our acceptance or rejection of one another does not matter in terms of our standing before God. You might be in right standing with this church but going to hell because of the way you live your life and lack of faith. You might be rejected by this church because of false information and be right with God (like the apostle Paul was in Acts 9). God will determine whether we stand or fall. Just because we are a member of this church does not mean that we should take our salvation lightly.
Paul is working to develop the Christian mind to be more responsive to their Christian brethren.