Figuring Out Christian Freedom:What Romans 14 Does and Does Not Say

Figuring Out Christian Freedom:What Romans 14 Does and Does Not Say

Have you ever disagreed with another believer about whether or not something was allowable behavior? Your disagreement might have been about whether Christians may, or should not, watch sports on Sundays, watch R-rated movies, or hold jobs where serving alcohol is required. Christians on the “may” side of such disagreements usually argue that these types of activities are not specifically forbidden in the Bible. Christians on the “should not” side either point to a passage of Scripture they believe does settle the dispute, or they contend that the activity is prohibited by biblical principle. Often (if not usually), these types of disagreements are resolved either by “agreeing to disagree,” or classifying the argument as a “Romans 14 issue.” 

The label “Romans 14 issue” comes from Romans chapter 14, a key text concerning the subject of Christian freedom and how it should be exercised. As you might expect, being on the right or wrong side of any particular disagreement is not the main issue. You will see as you read the chapter for yourself that Paul does not address the issue of freedom for the primary purpose of ending disagreements between believers. His aim is to tell us how to treat one another when we continue to disagree.  
 

Romans 14:1-15:1

 
(1) Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions. (2) One person has faith that he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats vegetables only. (3) The one who eats is not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat, and the one who does not eat is not to judge the one who eats, for God has accepted him. (4) Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.
 
(5) One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind. (6) He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God. (7) For not one of us lives for himself, and not one dies for himself; (8) for if we live, we live for the Lord, or if we die, we die for the Lord; therefore whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s. (9) For to this end Christ died and lived again, that He might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.
 
(10) But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. (11) For it is written,
         
"AS I LIVE, SAYS THE LORD, EVERY KNEE SHALL BOW TO ME,
               AND EVERY TONGUE SHALL GIVE PRAISE TO GOD."
(12) So then each one of us will give an account of himself to God.
(13) Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this—not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way. (14) 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. (15) 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. (16) Therefore do not let what is for you a good thing be spoken of as evil; (17) for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. (18) For he who in this way serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. (19) So then we pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another. (20) Do not tear down the work of God for the sake of food. All things indeed are clean, but they are evil for the man who eats and gives offense. (21) It is good not to eat meat or to drink wine, or to do anything by which your brother stumbles.     (22) The faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves. (23) But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and whatever is not from faith is sin.
 
(15:1) Now we who are strong ought to bear the weaknesses of those without strength and not just please ourselves.
 
The issues that were dividing the Christians in ancient Rome were probably related to certain ritual requirements in the Old Testament Law. Some of the Roman Christians felt bound to adhere to what they saw as ongoing dietary and ceremonial requirements of the Law, while others felt no obligation to adhere to what they saw as obsolete standards that were fulfilled by Christ. Both sides held what they saw as biblical arguments to support their view.
 
For modern Christians a “Romans 14 issue” might take any one of a number of forms. In addition to those mentioned above, Christians might have sincere but differing convictions regarding the wearing or not wearing of head coverings (or other issues related to clothing), whether or not celebrating secular holidays is permissible, public school vs. homeschooling, or the use of birth control vs. trusting God to determine family size. Though believers take strong stands on both sides of issues like these on what they see as biblical grounds, the disagreements are not settled in the Bible in terms that remove all legitimate debate.
 

What Romans 14 Does Say

 
For the Romans as well as modern Christians, while the specific issues may be different, Paul’s point is the same: In “matters of conscience” (i.e., personal convictions regarding practices that are neither explicitly commanded nor prohibited in the Bible), Christians must adhere to two standards: 
 
  • Refrain from judging or condemning believers whose opinions differ from your own (14:1-12). 
  • Refrain from exercising your freedom in ways that would pressure, embolden, or encourage another believer to sin by going against his own conscience (14:13-23). 
The bottom line for Paul was love. As he had already said in Romans 13:8, “Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another; for he who loves his neighbor has fulfilled the law.” Romans 14 then follows as an illustration of how Christians can fulfill the law of love even when they disagree about specific requirements in their daily conduct.
 

What Romans 14 Does Not Say

 
The usefulness of Romans 14 in promoting love and unity in the church becomes apparent when the two principles described above are understood and consistently applied. But Romans 14 is commonly misunderstood and misapplied. This wonderful chapter about how to love one another while living out one’s freedom in Christ can even be used to pressure believers to go against their own consciences or to restrict their freedom in unbiblical ways. Having summarized what the passage does say, I want to point out six things it does not say.
 

1. Romans 14 does not say that all opinions regarding matters of conscience are equally valid.

As Paul makes clear, the “strong” Christians in Rome (15:1) were those who rightly understood their freedom from the ritual requirements of the Law, while the “weak” Christians (14:1) were those who mistakenly perceived themselves to still be bound by these ritual requirements. Paul chose not to exercise any sort of “political correctness” by remaining neutral on these issues. Instead he boldly (though tactfully) aligned himself with the “strong” position (14:14; 15:1). His main goal was not to correct the weaker brother’s errors, but rather to foster unity in the church despite the differences of opinion. Nevertheless, his approach clearly demonstrates that one position was more biblically accurate than the other.
 
Paul’s approach tells us that discussing differences of opinion, and even pointing out a brother’s doctrinal errors in a gentle, patient manner, is perfectly appropriate when done in love, with proper tact and a spirit of humility. In fact, this type of loving instruction and correction is often necessary in order to preserve harmony in a local church. Romans 14 is misunderstood and misapplied when it is used as a spiritual “gag order,” requiring Christians to keep their differing opinions to themselves or to dissuade them from engaging in profitable discussion.    
 

2. Romans 14 does not say that Christians should go against their own conscience in order to accommodate believers who disagree.

 
One example of how Romans 14 can be misapplied in this way concerns the centuries-old debate over baptism. Christ commanded His followers to baptize every new Christian (Matt. 28:19-20). Many Christians believe this command can be obeyed through the sprinkling of infants. Other believers, myself included, are strongly convinced from Scripture that baptism is immersion in water (as opposed to the mere application of water in other ways), that it is for people who have made a credible profession of faith in Christ (as opposed to infants who obviously cannot do so), and that it is required before church membership may be granted.    
 
Romans 14 has often been appealed to, by well-meaning Christians seeking unity, as a means of urging baptistic churches to accept into membership those who were sprinkled as infants but never immersed in water as believers. Even though believers on both sides of this debate are convinced that their view represents the teaching of Scripture, asking baptistic believers to yield for the sake of unity is not a valid application of Romans 14. I say this because it would require them to go against their own conscience, the very thing Paul was trying to avoid when he wrote Romans 14:13-23. They would have to either agree, against their conscience, to a definition of baptism that included the sprinkling of an unbelieving infant, or disregard what their conscience tells them is a strict requirement from Christ: Baptize (i.e., immerse) every new convert.    
 

3. Romans 14 does not say that moral strictness classifies a believer as “weak,” or that an unburdened conscience proves that a believer is “strong.”

 
The weak Christians in Romans 14 were those who abstained from eating meat and carefully observed special days.[1] They held convictions that impacted their daily lives and they lived them out strictly. This sometimes leads people to think that modern Christians who carefully avoid certain worldly influences, holding themselves and their families to strict moral standards of conduct, must be weak in faith. There is even a subtle pressure in some cases for these “strict” Christians to relax and enjoy their freedom in Christ. But those who reach this conclusion or apply this kind of well-intended pressure often fail to remember that while Christians may (and should) enjoy their freedom, they are also commanded in the Bible to pursue holiness (Heb. 12:14), to “abstain from every form of evil” (1 Thess. 5:22), to be holy in all their behavior (1 Pet. 1:15), and not to allow themselves to “love the world nor the things in the world” (1 John 2:15). The point is, Christian freedom and Christian piety are perfectly compatible, not mutually exclusive. Freedom from the Law does not amount to freedom from God’s moral requirements. Therefore, if he is seeking to be obedient about matters God has required, the careful (or “strict”) Christian is an obedient Christian, not a weaker brother who needs to be pitied.  
 
As one might expect, many people who misapply Romans 14 in the above way also conclude that the believer who lives a carefreelifestyle with a conscience that is always at ease is strong in faith. This perspective stems from Romans 14:22 where Paul writes, “Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves.” This might initially seem to be a valid application of Romans 14, but true happiness is found in being freed from sin, not from the obligation to practice righteousness. Paul did say, “whatever is not from faith is sin” (v. 23), but he didn’t say, “Everything done with an unburdened conscience is not sin.” A carefree believer might be a careless believer, one who is sinning with an unburdened conscience only because he is ignorant, misinformed, deceived, or even unconcerned about what pleases or displeases Christ.
 
There are many godless, immoral people who profess to be Christians and who happily refrain from condemning themselves in whatever ungodly behavior they approve of and/or practice. Rather than falsely justifying themselves or others like them on the basis of Romans 14, they should read passages like 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 and 1 John 2:3-4 where their profession of saving faith in Christ would be called into question on the basis of their pattern of behavior. Better still, they should rewind to Romans 1:24-32 where the same Paul who wrote Romans 14 lists a number of categorically sinful practices, saying that “those who practice such things are worthy of death” (Rom. 1:32). The liberty spoken of in Romans 14 is not the liberty to condone what is elsewhere condemned.     
 

4. Romans 14 does not say that Christians should refrain from judging a believer who is engaging in obvious sin.

 
At one point in Romans 14 Paul says, “But you, why do you judge your brother? . . . For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God” (v. 10). A few lines later he says, “So then each one of us will give an account of himself to God. Therefore let us not judge one another anymore . . .” (v. 13). In our morally tolerant age it is often assumed that Paul’s instructions endorse a form of Christianity that is so accepting of differing opinions and lifestyles that even sinful lifestyles are condoned. Jesus’ statement in Matthew 7:1, “Do not judge so that you will not be judged,” often plays a supporting role for those who commit this error.
 
Based on this misunderstanding of Paul (and Jesus), it is commonly (and often loudly) alleged that any Christian or Christian group that dares to “judge” another professing Christian by condemning his behavior is in plain violation of Romans 14. Amazingly, this charge is often leveled regardless of what the Bible says elsewhere about the ungodliness of the brother’s behavior or the church’s proper response to such behavior. As the faulty reasoning goes, anyone who would “judge” his brother like this has obviously forgotten that he will give an account of himself, not his brother, at the judgment. When all is said and done, the supposedly evil ones in this interchange are those who “disobediently” judge others by calling their sinful lifestyles evil, while the supposedly righteous ones are those who go on practicing their ungodly lifestyles while “obediently” minding their own business.       
 
The context of both Romans 14 and Matthew 7 is overlooked completely in making the interpretive error described above. Paul clearly prohibits judging in Romans 14:10-13, but only in matters of conscience (as is made clear in verses 1-9). He says nothing that would restrict Christians from judging (i.e., condemning) ungodly or immoral behavior in another professing Christian. In 1 Corinthians 5 Paul rebuked the Corinthian Christians for not judging a “so-called brother” who was practicing sexual immorality. In Matthew 7:1 Jesus clearly prohibits hypocritical judging—arrogantly condemning someone else for the same behavior you are practicing—but He says nothing that would restrict those who are practicing righteousness from judging those who are practicing evil. If people would read past verse 1 and all the way through verse 5, they would—or at least should—come to see that this passage gives no support whatsoever to the modern definition of “tolerance.” Jesus gave plain instructions later in the same gospel account for Christians to rebuke a brother if he sins, to enlist other believers to assist in calling him to repentance, to tell the whole church of his ungodliness if necessary, and to consider him an unbeliever if he still refuses to repent (Matt. 18:15-17). This is precisely the type of judging that “tolerant” people despise, but it is clearly not what Jesus or Paul prohibited in Matthew 7:1 and Romans 14.        
 

5. Romans 14 does not say that the convictions of the weakest brother or sister should determine the acceptable exercise of liberty in a local church.

 
What if your church were in the habit of eating meals together that consisted partly of meat? What if a new member held the sincere conviction, based on a misunderstanding of a biblical text, that eating meat is sinful? Should you radically alter the practice of the whole church for the sake of this weaker brother? If so, at what point would the restricting of your liberty stop? If your church took this approach, the constraining of your liberty would never stop until you were reduced to practicing Christian freedom only according to the most restrictive conviction of the weakest member. In practice, the church would be living under an ever changing and always binding set of man-made regulations rather than living under grace. In this context the term “freedom” would retain no appreciable meaning. Remember that Paul rebuked the Colossians for submitting to decrees that restricted their freedom in Christ—decrees such as “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” (Col. 2:21).  
 
Think of another potential situation, one where a new member is convinced on the basis of various Bible passages that family members should not be separated from each other in church meetings. His conviction (sometimes called “family-integration”) basically rules out Bible study just for ladies, separate meetings for teenagers, and children’s Sunday school if conducted apart from the parent(s).[2] If Romans 14 can be obeyed by the other members of this church only if they conform to his convictions when in his presence, then the whole church would be required to completely restructure its meeting habits, eliminating any age-specific or gender specific gatherings (outside of men’s meetings). Just to be clear, this man’s conviction regarding a “family-integrated” church practice is not unlawful, but permissible. It is a conviction held by many fine Christians and practiced in many solid churches. But Romans 14 does not teach us that this man’s convictions should be forced upon a church where a different practice is the accepted (and also permissible) norm.
 
Consider a few more examples of how a restrictive application of Romans 14 could cause serious trouble in a local church: Think of how a local church would be affected if a single member became convinced that since there is no mention of musical instruments in the New Testament, the only permissible music in church gatherings is that produced by the human voice. Many gifted musicians in the church would be forced to lay aside one of their best ways of praising God: their instruments. What if a new member believed that the only permissible words to sing in corporate worship were the actual words of Scripture? Hymnals and collections of praise choruses would need to be put away, removing from the church a precious legacy of solid biblical teaching and worship. What if one of the ladies in a local church became convinced on the basis of an interpretation of 1 Corinthians 14:34 that says women are to keep totally silent in the gatherings of the church. From that point forward, none of the ladies would be allowed to sing or pray in the public meetings for fear of causing this weaker sister to stumble. This cannot be how Paul intended his teaching to be applied.
 
The only potential violations of Romans 14 in cases like these would be:
 
  • if the weaker brother or sister became judgmental or divisive by insisting that the whole church adopt his or her minority view. 
  • if the weaker member were marginalized by the stronger members, ridiculed for his or her restrictive views, or otherwise pressured to go against his or her conscience and conform to the majority view. 
For a church to continue having youth meetings and ladies Bible studies, for a church to go on singing with the accompaniment of musical instruments, or for the women in a church to continue singing and praying in the public meetings, would be no sin at all as long as the member(s) who held the more restrictive convictions were loved, accepted, and allowed to live out their personal convictions (as much as possible without disrupting the life of the church), while being treated with respect. 
 

6. Romans 14 does not say that strong Christians should hide the exercise of their liberty from the weak.

 
Paul did not tell the strong Christians in Rome to refrain from eating meat wherever a weak Christian might happen to see them. In other words, he wasn’t telling them to quickly hide their steak under their salad if they happened to “get caught” exercising their liberty. He didn’t even tell them to always abstain from eating meat in the presence of a weaker brother (although there certainly may have been occasions where such abstinence was appropriate).
 
When Paul said, “The faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God” (14:22), he was not telling the strong to exercise their liberty secretly. The weak Christians obviously knew that the strong ate meat because Paul instructed them not to judge the strong for doing so (14:3). They still would have known this even if the strong were to begin eating meat only in private. Rather than making the issue less problematic, secrecy would have made things worse by giving the impression that the strong were trying to deceive the weak, or that they were practicing their liberty even though they were ashamed of it. Rather than producing unity, this would have destroyed it by creating even more distinct separations and/or a unity that was tense and artificial.
 
The unity Paul wanted was the kind where believers accept each other despite their differences, not a unity achieved by hiding differences. In verse 22 he was urging the strong Christians in Rome not to publicly emphasize or demand their freedom in ways that would draw unnecessary attention to the weaknesses of the weak. Rightly understood in our modern context, Romans 14:22 informs us that strong Christians, while free to exercise their liberty in any context, should never flaunt it in ways that might portray a weaker brother as foolish, immature, or naive, or otherwise cause him to feel pressure to conform.
 

Summary

 
A good measure of wisdom, love, maturity, and humility will be needed in order to know how to exercise your liberty in many situations. Ask yourself questions like, “How much temptation will my exercise of liberty cause for believers who don’t recognize their freedom in the same area?” “How much harm might someone suffer if my exercise of liberty frees his conscience to do as I do, but then he finds that he is not able to practice the same behavior in moderation?” “Should I politely but firmly defend my exercise of liberty in some situations given the fact that Christians are not supposed to live in bondage under man-made systems of religion?” (see Col. 2:20-23). “Will laying aside my liberty in a particular case serve to strengthen a person or religious system that might bring other Christians into harmful bondage?” The answers to these questions will not always be easily discerned, but God will provide wisdom for the person who truly seeks it (James 1:5). 
 
We should handle whatever issues we face concerning the exercise of Christian freedom with the overall good of the church as our highest goal. We should be happy to exercise our liberty in ways (and contexts) where no harm is caused to a brother who differs with us, but we should also be willing when necessary to say with Paul, “If [________] causes my brother to stumble, I will never [_________] again, so that I will not cause my brother to stumble” (1 Cor. 8:13).


[1] Paul’s mention of certain believers regarding “one day above another” (v. 5) and “the day” (v. 6) may not have been references to the Sabbath day specifically, but almost certainly included the Sabbath.
[2] Not everyone who holds to a family-integrated church practice would state their conviction in these exact ways. This is only intended as one example of what a family-integrated practice might look like.