************ Sermon on Romans 14:1 ************
By: Rev. Adrian Dieleman
This sermon was preached on April 18, 1999
Romans 14:1 - 15:2
"The Weak, The Strong, and The Strict"
A certain Christian couple were against anything new being introduced in worship. They didn't want the people to say or sing the Apostles' Creed together. They didn't want the New International Version of the Bible to be in the pew rack. They objected to any and all special music. They didn't like the advent wreath. They didn't want banners hanging in the sanctuary. They insisted that the Ten Commandments as found in Exodus 20 had to be read every single Sunday. It made no difference to them what the consistory decided or what the vast majority of the people wanted. Their one and only response was to turn to Romans 14 and say, "You are offending us, so you can't do it." For 15 years they were allowed to hold back and frustrate their fellow believers in worship.
What does Romans 14 actually say? A close study of the passage shows us that the couple misused, misunderstood, and misquoted Romans 14.
I Disputable Matters
A Our text makes clear that we are talking about "disputable matters." What are "disputable matters." There are three things that we can say about them.
First, "disputable matters" are ones that are not essential to our salvation or faith. Decisions reached on them may vary from denomination to denomination, from church to church, from household to household, and even from individual to individual, but it is okay to differ and disagree, it doesn't really make all that big a difference. This is so because the matters are not all that important when set against issues like the trinity, the full humanity and divinity of Christ, and salvation by grace through faith; in comparison to these the "disputable matters" are trifling, small, and petty and certainly not worth too much trouble or argument.
B Second, "disputable matters" have a right and a wrong position and the Bible or Biblical principles teach us the right position.
In Romans 14 Paul mentions two "disputable matters." The first is found in verse 2:
(Rom 14:2) One man's faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables.There were Jewish Christians in the Roman church who believed that some of the Old Testament ceremonial laws were still binding on New Testament Christians. Because of these laws they thought believers must be vegetarians – that they couldn't eat meat prepared by pagans. Paul would disagree. He says "no food is unclean in itself" (vs 14) and "all food is clean" (vs 20). And, he has solid Biblical support for saying this: "The earth is the Lord's and everything in it" (1 Cor 10:26; Ps 24:1).
A second disputable matter mentioned by Paul is found in verse 5:
(Rom 14:5) One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.This has to do with the day we worship God. Seventh Day Adventists believe that when God made the seventh day holy, He intended this for all times and all peoples. So they worship on Saturday and think that we sin when we worship on Sunday instead. But Paul says,
(Col 2:16-17) Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. (17) These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.It makes no difference what day we set aside as our Sabbath, as long as we have a day set aside for rest and worship with our fellow believers. In this country we do that on Sunday. In Muslim lands that is done on Friday. In Israel that is done on Saturday.
Notice, with both disputable matters – the eating of meat and the observance of a Sabbath – the Bible does teach a right and a wrong position.
C Third, though "disputable matters" do have a right and a wrong position, whether you are right or wrong is not particularly relevant or important in God's eyes. What is relevant and important to God in all disputable matters is the nature of your relationship with the brothers and sisters you disagree with. In other words, when you disagree on disputable matters, how do you disagree? Do you disagree with anger, with hostility, with contempt, with condemnation? Or do you disagree with love, with concern, with humility, with tenderness?
D There were a number of "disputable matters" that provoked considerable discussion in the early church. Two I already mentioned: eating meat or eating only vegetables and the observance of the Sabbath day. Other "disputable matters" were pagan feast days, meat sacrificed to idols, and circumcision (cf Gal 4:10; Col 2:16-23; 1 Cor 8; 1 Cor 10:14-22).
In the second and third centuries, the date of Christmas and Easter as well as their observation became a disputable matter.
In the first half of the 20th century movies, TV, jazz, dancing, mixed bathing, card-playing, and Halloween were all "disputable matters."
"Disputable matters" among Christians a generation ago included things like tobacco, alcohol, inter-racial marriages, and the right of women to vote at church meetings.
"Disputable matters" among Christians today include things like worship style, music in worship, instruments in worship, women in church office, and the age of the earth.
As I already mentioned, as far as the Lord is concerned, the most important thing on such issues is not your position – whether you are right or wrong – but how you agree or disagree with each other.
Does this mean the death of all standards in the church? Not at all. There are a number of nonnegotiable items: the Trinity, the human and divine natures of Christ, salvation by grace through faith, the Ten Commandments, the inspiration of Scripture, the articles of the Apostle's Creed, and so on. None of these could ever be or can ever be regarded as "disputable matters."
II The Weak, Strong, and Strict
A In looking at the various churches under his care – Rome, Galatia, Colosse, Corinth – Paul was able to identify three different groups of people arguing with each other about the "disputable matters."
First, there is the weak. The faith of the weak in Rome does not allow him to eat anything but vegetables. His motto is "Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!" (Col 2:21). Paul calls him weak because his "faith is weak" (vs 2) and his "conscience is weak" (1 Cor 10:7,10,12). A weak brother or sister is an immature, newborn Christian who clings to and depends on unnecessary rules. A weak brother or sister is insecure and fragile in the faith. He or she needs much prayer, much patience, and much instruction in Biblical truths. He or she needs to grow-up in the faith.
B Second, there is the strong. The faith of the strong in Rome allows him to eat everything. He doesn't need to observe Jewish feast-days. The faith of the strong in Corinth allows him to eat meat first sacrificed to idols, and to do so giving thanks to God. He is able to observe pagan feast days without compromising his faith. The strong, like Paul, are free from a reliance on petty rules and restrictions. Their life is not molded by "don't, don't, don't."
C And then there is a third category, what I call the strict. In my experience, these are the ones who most often refer to Romans 14 in order to limit behavior and get their way. That couple I mentioned at the beginning of the sermon, they fall into this category.
Who are these strict? They aren't new Christians. Most, if not all of them, have grown up in Christian homes and been nurtured all their life in the Christian faith. They are sincere, disciplined, saints-in-progress. So they aren't weak Christians. Theirs is not a weak faith and a weak conscience; in fact, their faith is solid. But Paul wouldn't call them strong Christians either – though they may see themselves that way. They are, quite simply, unreasonably strict.
These strict people are legalists. They have rigid rules about behavior. They have definite lists of dos and don'ts. And, they expect everyone else – the weak as well as the strong – to conform to their standards and their expectations. When it comes to "disputable matters" they want their way. Though the issue may be small – after all, it is a "disputable matter" – they want to fight about what they see as being right or wrong.
III Advice to Weak, Strong, and Strict
A Every Christian falls into one of the three categories. Every believer is either weak, strong, or strict. As I depicted each category and mentioned its characteristics, I hope you were able to identify yourself. I say that, because Paul has advice to give to all three categories as they deal with "disputable matters."
First of all, there is a general word of advice regardless of what category you are in. When it comes to "disputable matters," the weak, the strong, and the strict are to "make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification" (vs 19). "Each of us should please his neighbor for his good, to build him up" (15:2). And, says Paul,
(Rom 13:8) Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for he who loves his fellowman has fulfilled the law. Or, as Paul puts it later, we are to "act in love" (vs 15).
Every person who calls himself Christian – whether they are one of the weak, the strong, or the strict – have to be like Christ and show love in action. Everyone of us must make sure that we act in love and out of love in "disputable matters" – and in all other matters too.
B Paul has specific advice for the weak on how to deal in love with "disputable matters." He says the weak "must not condemn" the strong (vs 3). He says do not "judge your brother" (vs 10). The weak are not to take offense so easily, especially on "disputable matters." They are to realize it is okay to have disagreement on certain matters. They are to realize that people are more important than issues; that relationships are far more important than being right or wrong. So Paul's advice: don't take offense so easily; live and let live.
C But Paul also has advice for the strong on how to deal in love with "disputable matters." He says the strong must "accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment" (vs 1). They must "not look down" on those who are weak (vs 3,10). And, they must not cause the weak brother to stumble or fall so that salvation is in danger (vs 13,21). Let me offer an illustration:
The minister who performed my wedding ceremony had some new-born Christians in his congregation who were offended by travel for pleasure on Sunday. Knowing this, he made a point of never leaving on vacation until 12:01 Sunday night. Now there is nothing Biblically wrong with traveling on Sunday, and the minister knew that, but he did not want to offend a "weak" brother, someone who was a baby in the faith.
Paul's rule for the strong is this: they too are to realize it is okay to have disagreement on certain matters; they too are to realize that people are more important than issues; that relationships are far more important than being right or wrong. So Paul's advice: don't give offense; live and let live.
Let's make sure we understand what this says to the strong. Paul is saying that the strong are to cater to the weak lest they stumble and fall. But Paul is not saying that the strong are to cave in to the demands of the strict. That strict couple I mentioned at the start of my sermon tried to force their way on "disputable matters." They used Romans 14 to get their way, claiming offense. "Hold it," I said to them. "Are you one of the weak Paul talks about? And are you in danger of losing your faith? If so, I want to meet with you on a weekly basis for prayer and Bible study so that you can grow and mature." Of course they were not willing to say or do that. I and my consistory rightly refused to cave in to their demands. Paul never tells the strong to cater to the "strict," but he does tell them to cater to the weak lest they stumble and fall.
D Paul has a whole different type of advice for the strict. And don't forget, Paul knows the strict firsthand because he used to be one of them. As a Pharisee he was guided by a host of rules that governed even the smallest detail of life. Knowing legalism firsthand, Paul realizes how destructive it is. He knows it sabotages unity and humility. He knows it turns the focus of the gospel from a dependence on God's grace to a focus on one's own righteousness.
Paul's advice to the strict: abandon your legalism; forget about your dos and don'ts; don't put any hope in human effort; don't force people on "disputable matters." They too are to realize it is okay to have disagreement on certain matters. They too are to realize that people are more important than issues; that relationships are far more important than being right or wrong.
IV To the Lord
A The weak, the strong, and the strict – none of them are to force their way on "disputable matters." Four reasons are given.
First, "God has accepted" (vs 3) the weak, the strong, and the strict. The point is, if a person's conduct on a disputable matter is no bar to his acceptance by God, then it should be no bar to his acceptance by those on the other side of the issue either. It is iniquity for us to condemn what God approves. We can never presume to be holier than God.
B Second, each of us is God's servant (vs 4). When it comes right down to it, it is the Lord's standards that count, not those of another believer. Can you imagine the church secretary telling Gerben's employees how to do their work? No person would dare to act in such a fashion because (to use Biblical language) they are interfering with the servants of another. To force your viewpoint on a disputable matter is to wrongly interfere or meddle in such a relationship – the relationship between a believer and his Lord. Each of us must live to or for the Lord (vs 6-8) and not for anyone else.
C Third, someday we will "all stand before God's judgment seat." It is He Who is judge. We must answer to Him and not to any other for our own behavior in disputable – and other – matters. So how dare we take His place and presume to judge and condemn each other?
D Fourth, "Christ has set us free" (Gal 5:1). This is one of the great themes of Paul. As a Pharisee, he used to be a slave to the Law and to the categories of right and wrong. His world had no gray areas, only black and white. He would deny that there were any "disputable matters" in which each person was allowed to follow his own conscience. But once he experienced that first great sensation of freedom in Christ, he could never go back.
The weak, the strong, and the strict – we all need to realize that in "disputable matters" being right or wrong just does not matter. We all need to realize it is okay to have disagreement on certain matters. We all need to realize that what counts is love. What counts is relationships between people. What counts is peace and mutual edification.
One of the saddest things in life is that many people never learn this lesson. They put their petty rightness on a petty issue before the people God has given us to love and to cherish. How I hope and pray this will not happen to you or to me.
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