Romans 14

The “grace-unity” doctrine is one of the biggest dangers facing the church today. It is sometimes called “unity-in-diversity.” It is the old denominational concept that we can each have our own understanding of the Bible and we cannot say that one is right and the other is wrong. Sin and error can be overlooked because of spiritual weakness and differences of understanding. This idea is popular among the religious world. As time goes on, its popularity is increasing in the Lord’s church.

Romans 14 is often used to try to defend the concept of unity-in-diversity. Because of the sharp disagreements that exist, I believe many brethren think that Romans 14 is a difficult passage to understand. It may be true that it is not as simple as some passages (i.e. Mark 16:16), but we certainly can understand what Romans 14 is teaching. I hope this article will help make it a little clearer.

Why This Is a Favorite Passage for Many

Why is Romans 14 a favorite passage for those who promote unity-in-diversity? They believe it allows fellowship with those in sin and error. This is their aim. They want to be able to maintain fellowship with others in spite of their continued sin and false teaching.

This chapter speaks of acceptance (Romans 14:1), tolerance (Romans 14:3), not judging (Romans 14:10), liberty (Romans 14:14), love (Romans 14:15), and peace (Romans 14:19). The problem is that many pervert these concepts and define them in light of their desired interpretation rather than the rest of God’s word. To interpret Romans 14 in such a way as to allow fellowship with sin and error puts the chapter in conflict with many other Bible passages.

Contradictions Resulting from the False View

Acceptance – The point Paul was making in this chapter was for brethren to accept one another (Romans 14:1). This is the idea of fellowship. We accept one another so we can continue working together in the cause of Christ. But we are not to accept (fellowship) just anyone.

We are not to accept one who continues to live in sin. Paul told the Thessalonians, “Now we command you brethren, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that you keep away from every brother who leads an unruly life and not according to the tradition which you received in us” (2 Thessalonians 3:6). “If anyone does not obey our instruction in this letter, take special note of that person and do not associate with him, so that he will be put to shame” (2 Thessalonians 3:14). Paul instructed these brethren not to associate with their brethren who were disobedient, unruly, and not living according to the pattern (tradition) that had been revealed by the apostles. Notice that this is not a suggestion, but a command – “we command you brethren.” Paul gave the Corinthians this same instruction in dealing with the man who was committing immorality: “Remove the wicked man from among yourselves” (1 Corinthians 5:13). We cannot remain in fellowship with one who continues living in sin.

We are also not to accept one who teaches error. John wrote that one who “does not abide in the teaching of Christ, does not have God” (2 John 9). In other words, he does not have fellowship with God. Can we have fellowship with such false teachers? John explained in the next two verses that we cannot: “If anyone comes to you and does not bring this teaching, do not receive him into your house, and do not give him a greeting; for the one who gives him a greeting participates in his evil deeds” (2 John 10-11). The word translated “participates in” is from the Greek word koinoneo which is from the root word meaning fellowship, sharing, or partaking. We are not to accept one who teaches error. Instead, Paul told the saints in Rome, “Keep you eye on those (mark them, KJV) who cause dissensions and hindrances contrary to the teaching which you learned, and turn away from them” (Romans 16:17). We cannot accept one who comes and teaches something other than the truth.

Tolerance – Paul mentioned the disagreement over the right to eat meat (Romans 14:3). The one who believed it was right to eat meat was “not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat.” Likewise, the one who was not convinced he could eat meat was “not to judge the one who eats.” They were to be tolerant toward each other despite their disagreement. Why? “God has accepted him” (Romans 14:3).

We are to be tolerant to a certain extent (Ephesians 4:2), but we are not to tolerate sin and error. Jesus commended the Ephesian church for their understanding of this: “You cannot tolerate evil men” (false apostles), and “you hate the deeds of the Nicolaitans” (Revelation 2:2, 6). Regarding the deeds of the Nicolaitans, Jesus added, “Which I also hate.” The Lord does not tolerate sin and error. We must not tolerate them either. But tolerance and acceptance are at the heart of the unity-in-diversity doctrine – first tolerate sin and error, then accept the impenitent sinner and false teacher. This is not the tolerance that is commended to us in the Bible. Yet it is the tolerance and acceptance proposed by those with a skewed view of Romans 14.

Not Judging – Paul instructed those who disagreed in the matters mentioned in Romans 14 to not judge one another: “But you, why do you judge your brother?” (Romans 14:10). “Therefore let us not judge one another anymore” (Romans 14:13). When a concerned Christian speaks up about sin that has ensnared someone or error that can lead others to destruction, many criticize him for “judging” others when passages like this teach that we should not judge.

Another passage that many use is this: “Do not judge so that you will not be judged” (Matthew 7:1). These passages are used as “proof” that we should not say that someone is wrong. But these verses have a context. Jesus did not condemn all types of judging in this passage. He condemned hypocritical judging (Matthew 7:2-5). After all, Jesus said in another place that we are to “judge with righteous judgment” (John 7:24). We must consider the context.

Likewise, in Romans 14, a certain kind of judging was being condemned. It was not a blanket prohibition against all judging. It prohibits judging according to a human standard – one’s opinions. Paul told the brethren to not pass judgment on another’s opinions (Romans 14:1).

Liberty – Paul spoke of liberty in Romans 14. He argued that one was at liberty to choose to eat meat or not eat meat. Liberty existed because “in the Lord Jesus…nothing is unclean in itself” (Romans 14:14). He said in another place, “Where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty” (2 Corinthians 3:17). From what did Christ make us free? We are free from sin (Romans 6:18, 22). We are free from the commands of men in matters of religion (Colossians 2:16-23; Matthew 15:7-9). Therefore, the one who did not eat meat could not make a law that said the one who ate meat could no longer do so. They had liberty to practice these things.

However, it is important to note those things from which we have not been made free. We are not free from obeying Christ’s teaching. When we are “freed from sin,” we are not then at liberty to live any way we wish. We become “enslaved to God” (Romans 6:22). We are also not free to teach falsely. Anyone who speaks regarding spiritual matters has a divine obligation to “speak as the oracles of God” (1 Peter 4:11, KJV). Do we have liberty in Christ? Absolutely! Should we try to restrict another man’s liberty? Of course not. But the liberty we have in Christ does not allow us to practice sin or teach false doctrine.

Love – Love is the greatest command (Matthew 22:36-40). It is the greatest characteristic that a Christian ought to possess (1 Corinthians 13:13). Paul appealed to love in Romans 14. He said, “If because of food your brother is hurt, you are no longer walking according to love” (Romans 14:15). Love is a favorite topic among many in the religious world and in the Lord’s church. Yet many have redefined love as tolerance, even towards sin. This is how some would use the term love in Romans 14.

However, Biblically speaking, love is an intolerance of sin. Paul listed the qualities of love in his first letter to Corinth (1 Corinthians 13:4-8). One of those qualities is that love “does not rejoice in unrighteousness, but rejoices with the truth” (1 Corinthians 13:6). Love does not desire to see one continue in sin (unrighteousness). Love desires one to be practicing the truth (righteousness).

The simplest definition of love – the way it is used in the Bible – is that love causes one to seek the best interest of others ahead of himself. The most important aspect of someone’s life is his spiritual life. If we love someone, we should be looking out for his spiritual well-being. We recognize that “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23). If we love someone, we should strive to help him avoid that fate. That means we help him see and correct his sin, not ignore and tolerate it.

Peace – Paul said we are to “pursue the things which make for peace” (Romans 14:19). Everyone wants to be able to get along. This goes back to the idea of acceptance – we continue in fellowship with no conflicts, controversy, debates, etc. But Jesus said that conflicts will arise (Matthew 10:34-36). There will even be factions among those claiming to be God’s people. Paul told the brethren in Corinth, “There must also be factions among you, so that those who are approved may become evident among you” (1 Corinthians 11:19). Yes, peace is desirable and should be pursued; but we can only pursue peace within the bounds placed for us in God’s word.

What Does this Chapter Teach?

We cannot interpret this chapter in such a way so that it conflicts with all of these other passages. Jesus said, “The Scripture cannot be broken” (John 10:35). If one’s interpretation of Romans 14, or any other passage, does not harmonize with the rest of Scripture, then that one’s interpretation is wrong. So what is the correct interpretation of this chapter?

The disagreement over Romans 14 comes when some try to put matters of faith in the context instead of matters of opinion. Are the differences in Romans 14 matters of faith or matters of opinion? This was clearly answered in the opening verse of the chapter: “Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions” (Romans 14:1). Therefore, if we differ in matters of opinion, we ought to continue to accept one another.

But the verse also says, “Accept the one who is weak in faith.” Does that mean we can include matters of faith here? That is what some would like to do. But is this faith the same faith in Christ by which we are justified (Galatians 2:16) or “the faith which was once for all handed down to the saints” (Jude 3)? If it is, then we can include matters of faith in Romans 14. But it is not. How do we know? Consider the context of the chapter. “The faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God” (Romans 14:22). The faith in Romans 14 is to be kept to oneself and not imposed on others. Clearly, this cannot be faith in Christ or the faith (the word of God). If it was, then we would be prohibited from teaching the gospel to others. No, the faith in Romans 14 refers to the opinions that one might have about certain matters. Some were called “weak in faith” because their personal opinions did not allow them to engage in certain practices, though they were at liberty to engage in them. Paul said we are to accept such a one and not pass “judgment on his opinions” (Romans 14:1).

How do we know that interpretation is correct? Consider another question: Do the differences mentioned in Romans 14 involve sin or error? No, they do not. Regarding these differences of opinion, Paul said, “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” (Romans 14:14). Someone may be at liberty to do something, but if his conscience will not allow him to do it – that is, he does not feel right doing it – he should not do it. “But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and whatever is not from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). But again, notice that Paul was discussing matters in which there was nothing unclean (Romans 14:14).

Sin and error can never be classified as clean. Therefore, we know Paul was not discussing sin or error in this chapter. Notice the areas of disagreement mentioned: eating meats and observing days. Regardless of whether one did these or not, he did not sin: “God has accepted him” (Romans 14:3). One may eat meat without committing sin. On the other hand, one may not eat meat and still not commit sin. No sin is committed by one regarding one day above another, nor by one who regards every day alike. These differences do not involve the practice of sin or the proclamation of error. They are not parallel with some of the things that brethren want to include in Romans 14 today (that one may remain in an adulterous marriage, use instruments of music in worship to God, engage in social drinking, etc.).

We are to accept one another despite differences of opinion. That is what Romans 14 teaches. But sin and error cannot be tolerated.

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