Relationships between “Strong” and “Weak” Believers Part 2 Don’t Offend Your Weaker Brother! – Romans 14:13-23
Pastor Mark Hardy January 26, 2014
In 1928 Dr. Donald Grey Barnhouse was speaking at a youth conference in Montrose, Pennsylvania where about 200 young people were present. One day two women came to him in horror because some girls were not wearing stockings! These women wanted him to rebuke them. Barnhouse says that he looked these women straight in the eye and said to them, “The Virgin Mary never wore stockings.” They gasped and said, “She didn’t?” I answered, “In Mary’s time, stockings were unknown. So far as we know, they were first worn by prostitutes in Italy in the 15th century, when the Renaissance began. Later, a lady of the nobility wore stockings at a court ball, greatly to the scandal of many people. Before long, however, everyone in the upper classes was wearing stockings. . . .”
Barnhouse went on to say, “These ladies, who were holdovers from the Victorian epoch, had no more to say. I did not rebuke the girls for not wearing stockings. A year or two afterward, most girls in the United States were going without stockings in summer, and nobody thought anything about it. Nor do I believe that this led toward the disintegration of moral standards in the United States. Times were changing, and the step away from Victorian legalism was all for the better.”
As we continue on in our study of Romans 14:1-15:13, we are looking at how Paul handled the differing opinions in the church at Rome over certain issues, often called the “grey areas” of Christian living, which are not directly commanded or forbidden in Scripture. There have been numerous things down through church history that have fallen into this category, but remember these things have nothing to do with sin or false doctrine, but that of personal preference. However, unless such “non-sinful things in themselves” are “handled correctly,” believers can be greatly harmed, unity in the church can be destroyed, and churches can be ripped apart. This is what we are going to be looking at this morning. Turn in your Bible to Romans 14.
In Romans 14:13-23 we see five reasons why “strong” believers must be careful to not insist on always exercising their Christian freedom on matters of opinion.
The first reason is because:
I. Exercising Freedom can cause Believers to Stumble
A. Look at the first part of v. 13: Therefore let us not judge one another anymore… (Stop there)
1. As we come to v. 13 Paul both concludes vv. 1-12 and begins a new paragraph. The word “Therefore” (oun) refers particularly to vv. 10-12, in which Christ alone as God has the authority to judge His people, who will all individually stand before His judgment seat and give account of themselves to Him.
2. In the first part of v. 13, Paul addresses both “strong” and “weak” believers commanding them to “…not judge (i.e. to criticize and condemn) one another anymore” over the non-sinful issues of diet and days. Both groups are to stop because God has accepted each one, and it is to Christ alone their one Master that each is answerable, no one else.
3. Now last time we saw that the “weak in faith” are immature and uninstructed believers who are not strong enough in their faith to enable them to appreciate and exercise their freedom in Christ. For various reasons they are still carrying along some kind of legalistic baggage.
4. The “strong” are mature in the faith, have a greater biblical knowledge, and understand and enjoy their liberty in Christ, which frees them from the rules and regulations of legalism and ceremonialism.
5. However, since Christian freedom was never intended by God to be an open season license to exercise it regardless of the impact upon others, the “strong” can never rightly say, “I’m free in Christ and I’m going to do whatever I want, like it or lump it!”
6. Since the “strong” have a greater biblical understanding of their Christian freedom, they are more responsible before God to handle it correctly. This is why Paul directs his primary focus on them in this paragraph.
B. So instead of “judging” or condemning the “weak,” with a play on words Paul commands the “strong” at the end of v. 13: but rather determine this (i.e. make this judgment)—not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way.
1. Last time we saw that Paul referred to the “weak” as a “brother” in v. 10. He does so again here and will repeat this two more times in vv. 15 and 21.
2. The “strong” are not to exercise their Christian freedom in a way that can cause “weak” believers to stumble. Although the words “obstacle” (skandalon) and “stumbling block” (proskomma) are different Greek words, in this context they are essentially synonymous and carry the idea of stumbling into sin.
3. Paul warned the “strong” in the same way in 1 Corinthians 8:9, “But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.”
4. Since the “strong” can cause “weak” believers to stumble into sin by their example or by pressure, Paul commands that they determine to never allow their liberty in Christ to be a booby-trap in another believer’s way.
5. The second reason why “strong” believers must be careful is because:
II. Violating Love spiritually Harms the weaker Brother
A. Look at v. 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.
1. Although the “weak” have an inadequate biblical understanding of what their Christian faith permits them to do, here Paul goes on record to emphatically side with the theology of the “strong” by saying, “…nothing is unclean in itself…” The word “unclean” (koinon) means impure or sinful.
2. Now this isn’t just Paul’s personal opinion. Notice again that he declares, “I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus.” His certainty that “nothing is unclean in itself” was by divine revelation.
3. Even Jesus Himself said in Mark 7:15, “There is nothing outside the man which can defile him if it goes into him; but the things which proceed out of the man (i.e. from his heart) are what defile the man.” (vv. 18-23; 1 Tim. 4:3-5)
4. The Bible alone determines what is sinful. Therefore, whatever is not directly commanded or forbidden in Scripture is not sinful.
5. Nothing physical or material in itself is intrinsically sinful. It is morally neutral, amoral, non-moral or non-sinful; it doesn’t make us worse or better before God (1 Cor. 8:8).
6. However, for various reasons (e.g. tradition, personal upbringing, religious background, etc.) not everyone has this knowledge or conviction (1 Cor. 8:4-7). Believers’ subjective opinions are not always in line with objective biblical truth.
7. Even the apostle Peter had a problem letting go of his legalistic baggage concerning food until God straightened him out (Acts 10:9-14) and told him in Acts 10:15, “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy.”
B. Therefore, although the biblical truth is that “nothing is unclean in itself,” Paul goes on to say in v. 14: but to him (i.e. the weak) who thinks anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean.
1. Now just because the “weak” “thinks” (logizomeno) or reckons that something not directly commanded or forbidden in Scripture is “unclean” or sinful, does not in reality make it sinful because it’s not.
2. However, since he thinks it is, therefore for him to partake of what he believes is wrong—it is sin because he is doing what he believes God doesn’t want him to do and violating his conscience.
C. Therefore, Paul tells the “strong” in v. 15: For if because of food your brother is hurt, you are no longer walking according to love. (Stop there)
1. Whenever the “strong” knowingly insist on exercising their Christian freedom, in this case eating meat in the presence of “weak” believers who believe it is wrong, Paul says, “…your brother is hurt.” The word “hurt” (lupeitai) here means to grieve, to cause sorrow, pain and distress.
2. This has to do with a moral grievance, in that, by the insensitive example or pressure of the “strong” the “weak” also eats what he believes is wrong and in so doing violates his conscience. By his violation of love the “strong” has spiritual harmed his “weaker” brother, who is now full of guilt, and he is out of fellowship with the Lord.
3. The key to exercising Christian freedom is “…walking (i.e. living our lives) according to love.” Christlike “agape” love is God’s preeminent standard (12:9-21; 13:8-10).
4. When it comes to our liberty in Christ loving relationship is always more important than personal rights. The “strong” are responsible to always lovingly consider the impact of their Christian freedom upon others not merely themselves (1 Cor. 9:19).
5. For without the central qualification of “love” we have no right to call it “Christian” freedom. It is merely license that violates love!
D. Warning of the serious spiritual harm that can be done to the “weak,” Paul goes on to command the “strong” at the end of v. 15: Do not destroy with your food him for whom Christ died.
1. The word “destroy” (apollue) is a strong word that often means eternal damnation in hell (Matt. 10:28; Lk. 13:3; Jn. 3:16; Rom. 2:12). Because of this, some scholars believe Paul is talking about the “strong” having the ability to cause the “weak” to sin to the point of eternal destruction.
2. Obviously, not all “professing” Christians are “true” Christians and if one continues in an unbroken pattern or lifestyle of sin he has no biblical basis for being a Christian and has revealed himself to be an unbeliever.
3. However, in this context the person who is “weak in faith” is repeatedly called a “brother,” which makes him a fellow believer in Christ. Therefore, for him to be “destroyed” cannot mean that he can lose his salvation, for every believer will by God’s steadfast love persevere to the end (8:28-39).
4. Greek scholar W.E. Vine accurately states, “The idea is not extinction (i.e. eternal damnation) but ruin, loss, not of being, but of well-being.” (pg. 294)
5. Therefore, for the “strong” to “…destroy with your food him (i.e. the weak) for whom Christ died,” speaks of the “strong’s” loveless exercise of their freedom whereby the “weak’s” spiritual growth and development is devastated.
6. Paul said a similar thing in 1 Corinthians 8:11-12, “For through your knowledge (i.e. liberty) he who is weak is ruined, the brother for whose sake Christ died. And so, by sinning against the brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ.”
7. Notice how God Himself is defending the heart of the “weaker” brother here, who is a valuable person in God’s eyes, one “for whom Christ died.”
8. Since Jesus Christ has lovingly sacrificed His life for the “weaker” brethren, how can the “strong” refuse to lovingly refrain from flaunting their freedom and causing spiritual harm to the “weak.” To violate love and sin against one’s “weaker” brother by wounding his conscience is a serious matter because it is to sin against Christ.
9. The third reason why “strong” believers must be careful is because:
III. Eternal Priorities matter More than external Pleasures
A. Not only does the behavior of the “strong” impact his “weaker” brother next to him in the pew, it also impacts the kingdom of God. Look at v. 16: Therefore do not let what is for you a good thing be spoken of as evil; for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.
1. In this context, the “good thing” (agathon) Paul talks about here is best taken as the believer’s liberty in Christ, not the gospel of salvation or one’s Christian testimony, etc., although those things can also be negatively impacted by the abuse of Christian freedom.
2. The Christian’s liberty in Christ is a gracious gift from God and a wonderfully “good thing,” but whenever the “strong” selfishly insist on exercising their freedom at the expense of spiritually harming the “weak,” then Christian freedom becomes something that can be “spoken of as evil” by both believers and unbelievers alike. This should never happen!
3. When it does, the “strong” are guilty of a grave lack of perspective and priority. Even though the views of the “strong” are drastically different from those of the Pharisees, they actually fall prey to the same error of sacrificing the eternal on the altar of external.
4. Douglas Moo insightfully states “…the Pharisees insisted on strict adherence to the ritual law at the expense of ‘justice, mercy, and faith’ (Matt. 23:23), the ‘strong’ are insisting on exercising their freedom from the ritual law at the expense of ‘righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.’” (pg. 856)
B. Look what Paul says about the eternal priorities of the kingdom of God in v. 17: for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.
1. Now the “kingdom (Basileia) of God” that Paul is referring to here is the present reign of God in the heart of every believer to which he now belongs. It was inaugurated at Christ’s first coming when He established His church.
2. The essence of God’s kingdom has to do with eternal priorities not the external pleasures of eating and drinking.
3. Whereas some say that these eternal priorities refer to the righteousness of justification (1:17; 3:21-22; 5:1; 10:3, 6), peace with God (5:1), and the joy of salvation. However, in this context “righteousness” (dikaiosune) refers to ethical righteousness or right behavior in accordance with the Word and will of God.
4. “Peace” (eirene) has to do with the harmonious living and mutual support of believers with one another. And “joy” (chara) refers to the internal reality of believers who are living by these eternal priorities in dependence on the Spirit of God.
5. Notice that all of these eternal priorities are “…in the Holy Spirit.” They are the manifestations of the Holy Spirit in the lives of kingdom citizens who are allowing Him to control their lives.
C. Paul further explains the importance of living by these eternal priorities in v. 18: For he who in this way serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men.
1. Those who live according to these eternal priorities as manifested in their lives by the Holy Spirit “in this way serve Christ,” in that, they are wholehearted committed to Him. And as a result, Paul says that they are “…acceptable (or well-pleasing) to God.”
2. They are also “approved (e.g. as by testing) by men.” When we are truly serving Christ by manifesting in our lives that eternal priorities matter more than external pleasures, this will be experienced and approved by both believers and unbelievers alike. This stands in stark contrast to v. 16 where the “strong” who brazenly flaunted their freedom now have their liberty “spoken of as evil.”
3. The fourth reason why “strong” believers must be careful is because:
IV. Abusing Freedom doesn’t Edify but tears Down
A. Since living by the eternal priorities of God’s kingdom is His design, Paul commands the “strong” in v. 19: So then we pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another.
1. Since God is all about His people living in “peace” (eirenes) and harmony with each other (Eph. 4:3) and “building up” (oikodomes) or edifying one another (1 Cor. 14:26; Eph. 4:11-16), He commands us to “pursue” these things.
2. The word “pursue” (diokomen) means to seek, chase, and follow after. The present tense of the word indicates that the goals of peace and the mutual building up or edification of the body of Christ are to be an on-going, continuous pursuit.
3. However, this cannot happen when the “strong” are abusing their Christian freedom among the “weak.”
B. Therefore, Paul commands in v. 20: Do not tear down the work of God for the sake of food. (Stop there)
1. The one Greek word translated “tear down” (katalue) is the opposite of “building up” the body of Christ, and since it is in the present tense Paul is telling the “strong” to stop doing what they are already in the process or habit of doing.
2. The phrase “work of God” (ergon tou theou) here in this context clearly refers to believers, all of whom are, according to Ephesians 2:10, “…His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus.” All true believers constitute God’s building—we are all a block in the building of His church (1 Cor. 3:9).
3. Paul is saying that the “strong” must not abuse their freedom in Christ “for the sake of food,” and in so doing, become a wrecking ball that tears down the “weak” and the very purposes of God for His church.
C. So everyone knows what Paul is talking about, he reminds us that he is not speaking about sinful things. Look at v. 20: All things indeed are clean, but they are evil for the man who eats and gives offense.
1. Paul has already said in v. 14 “nothing is unclean in itself,” and now he states that “all things indeed are clean.” He is referring to those things not directly commanded or forbidden in Scripture.
2. However, even though this is objective biblical truth, the danger comes when “strong” believers abuse their freedom by having no concern for the impact of what they do on others. Paul says that by doing this these non-sinful things in themselves now “…are evil (i.e. sin) for the (“strong”) man who eats and gives offense” to the “weak.”
3. Just because something may be right for us to do doesn’t mean that is always right for us to do it.
D. Because of this, Paul declares in v. 21: It is good not to eat meat or to drink wine, or to do anything by which your brother stumbles.
1. Paul now adds “drinking wine” to the other two examples of diet and days that separated believers in the Roman church. Whereas drunkenness is always forbidden in Scripture, Paul is not prohibiting all drinking of alcoholic beverages, which neither the Old nor New Testament forbids.
2. John MacArthur is correct when he states, “If Paul considered the drinking of wine to be sinful in itself, it would not make sense to use it as an illustration of discretionary, nonsinful practices.” (pg. 300)
3. In addition to diet, days, and drinking, Paul tells the “strong” that it is “not good. . . . to do anything (fill in the blank) by which your (weaker) brother stumbles.”
4. Just because we may know that we have liberty in Christ to do certain things doesn’t mean that we always have to exercise our freedom. For certain reasons we may choose to not exercise it, especially when we know that it might cause a “weaker” brother to stumble into sin.
5. No wonder Paul, who was the most free of any Christian, said in 1 Corinthians 8:13, “Therefore, if food causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause my brother to stumble.” (1 Cor. 10:23)
6. The fifth reason why “strong” believers must be careful is because:
IV. One’s Conscience before God cannot be Violated
A. Paul first addresses the conscience of the “strong” in v. 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.
1. The “strong” have a mature faith and a correct biblical “conviction before God,” so that they are assured that a certain activity is not sinful and they are free to do it.
2. They alone are said to be “happy” (makarios) or blessed, in that, what they “approve” or partake of “does not condemn” them. In other words, their conscience is not violated and they don’t feel any guilt.
3. The “weak” are not “happy” or blessed in this regard, for instead of having “faith” or confident assurance they have “doubt.”
B. Paul then addresses the conscience of the “weak” in v. 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.
1. The “weak” does not have the “faith” (pisteos) or assurance that he free to eat. Therefore, if he eats what he believes is wrong (i.e. “doubts”), he is “condemned” (kekritai), in that, he sins against his conscience before God and is guilty.
2. Our conscience is not an infallible guide, but it is always wrong to go against it (1 Tim. 4:2). Paul then concludes “…and whatever is not from faith (i.e. the assurance or conviction that this is right before God) is sin.”
3. Therefore, it is always wise to go by the principle: When in doubt—don’t!
In closing, since we are all growing and maturing in our Christian lives, we all are “strong” in some areas and “weak” in others. Therefore, we should never flaunt our freedom or force our opinions of things not directly commanded or forbidden in Scripture on others.
Instead, we need to let Christlike “agape” love be our guide in all issues of personal preference. For Jesus said in John 13:35, “By this all men will know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another.”