(Read the series so far.)
Every believer must prayerfully study the Scripture and be fully persuaded in his mind about the issues of life. Along with this sense of persuasion comes a tendency to think that everyone should join him in it. You’ve studied the Bible and logically applied it. You’re sure of your conclusion. Of course others will come to the same conclusion. We must remind ourselves that God might not intend our brothers to have the same conviction He gave us. And we must examine how we ought to behave in light of that.
Romans 14 begins and ends with appeals to welcome. Romans 14:1, “As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him.” “Welcome” (προσλαμβάνω, proslambano) is a call to companionship, friendship, even to “grant access to one’s heart.”1
Romans 15:7 reads, “Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” Paul uses God’s welcoming of us as the basis for welcoming one another.
Welcoming takes priority over influencing. Romans 14:1 instructs readers to “welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions.” “To” (εἰς, eis) can be “towards” or “for the purpose of” (NASB).
Instead of a prohibition against discussing convictions, this should be seen as forbidding those debates as the purpose of welcoming. This must be especially true for the strong. In Romans 14:1 the appeal is made to the strong. And in 15:7 the appeal is made as a conclusion of an argument to the strong to accommodate the weak. We should be okay with it if our fellowship never results in convincing others to take our conviction.
Why do we want fellowship? First, because God wants it. “For God has welcomed him” (Romans 14:3). How arrogant does one have to be to reject someone that God has welcomed? Second, we need each other for encouragement from the Scriptures (Romans 15:1-7). In the Roman 1st century case, it was the “weak” Jews2 who knew the Scriptures best. For them, the “strong” needed the “weak” for their encouragement in the Scriptures. The third reason for our fellowship despite these sort of differences is to glorify God: “Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Romans 15:7-13).
What does it mean, practically, to welcome one another? Romans 14:1-3 tells us that welcoming includes not judging and not despising. We allow them to live out their convictions without calling them sinful or stupid.
That we have already seen. But we have other sinful tendencies elated to differing convictions. And welcoming means living in such a way that we don’t tempt others to sin. What sinful tendencies do we have in this area?
Don’t Encourage the Weak to Act Against His Conscience
Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 agree that those who are strong must be very careful not to do what they have a right to do in such a way that it tempts a weak brother to act against his conscience. That can lead him to grieve (λυπέω, Romans 14:15), which is the sadness of guilt at having sinned before Christ. Embracing this grief with hardening of the heart eventually can lead him to spiritual destruction (ἀπόλλυμι, Romans 14:15, 1 Cor 8:11; and καταλύω, Romans 14:20). 1 Corinthians 8:7-11 says,
However, not all possess this knowledge [that an idol is nothing so go in and eat]. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died.
Instead, those who are able to enage in the activity in quesiton should take up the inabilities of those who are unable3 rather than simply doing whatever they are personally able to do. The strong should not do what they have the right to do if this sacrifice is what it takes to make fellowship with the weak possible.
The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. (Rom. 14:22)
Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble. (1 Cor. 8:12-13)
Don’t Encourage the Weak to Blaspheme God by Blaspheming His Gifts
So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. (Rom. 14:16)
A weak brother may have a conviction against something and not understand that his conviction is for him and not everyone. This leads to a sinful tendency to call the action evil of itself. But in v. 6, we see that the one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord. And in 1 Corinthians 7 we find that a wife is a gift of God. And in 1 Corinthians 10, we find that eating and drinking, for those whose conscience is able, glorify God. We also find in 1 Timothy 4 that such things as marriage4 and food are created by God, and may be received with thanksgiving. For those who are strong, their good things are not simply neutral. They are means to glorify God. We honor Him by enjoying the things He made for us to enjoy and thanking Him for them. To call these things evil is to insult not only the gift, but the Giver.
As a whole, Romans 14:15-15:7 is a message to the strong to keep their faith to themselves for the protection of their weak brother and the promotion of peace and fellowship with him. The way we keep our good from being blasphemed is to not do it right in front of someone we know will be tempted to commit this blasphemy.
Do these principles mean that the strong must always and completely conceal their strength from the weak? Clearly not, otherwise Paul was guilty as he wrote in Scripture things that he was able to do. Was Paul tempting some of his brothers to sin when he said, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself”? Or “To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law.”
Hiding strength is necessary whenever a brother might be encouraged to act against his conscience by another’s use of liberty. It is not an easy thing to know when that is. This practice compels us to know one another and freely talk about our convictions together.
It is not weakness alone in a brother that compels the strong to hide his strength. It is weakness and a belief that the thing is wrong of itself rather than simply wrong for him. Therefore, you must lay aside the use of your strength for the sake of your brother when you know he is inclined to judge or when he thinks his conviction is universal. Sometimes this sounds impossible. But if we know one another, we can have a pretty good idea when we need to do this.
Listen for people who tell you it is an issue for them. 1 Corinthians 10:25-29 says,
Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. For “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.” If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience— I do not mean your conscience, but his. For why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience?
After clearing up the issue of eating in the temple, Paul assures them that what is in the market is acceptable. In the house of an unbeliever, they can eat, “without raising any question on the ground of conscience.” However, if someone says, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” Paul’s instruction is don’t eat it. Why not? Because this other person has just shown you that he himself is conscientious of the issue of idolatry with regard to that meat. It could be another unbeliever, who has worship in his heart for Asclepius and wants to assure you that you’re getting meat that will cure your illnesses. Or it could be a believer who knows it’s tainted by idolatry and to him it matters. Either way, this person respects the presence of idolatry in the meat and if you eat it with that knowledge in front of him, you participate in that idolatry as far as that person knows.
It is not because now you know that it has been offered and your knowledge of the source means your own conscience says you shouldn’t eat. Paul makes that clear. He says in this situation he doesn’t eat—but not for his conscience’s sake—only for the the sake of the other person’s. It would still be accepted by his own conscience, even knowing where it came from.
Focus on Principles, Not Applications
One of the reasons for welcoming one another is to be encouraged together by God’s Word. Romans 15:2,4 says,
Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up… For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.
That “for” in v. 4 is a logical connection back to the laying aside of rights for the purpose of fellowship. We can build one another up by studying the Word and exploring the principles we find there. We should strive for an environment of fellowship around God’s Word in which we study and learn Bible principles. And in which those with convictions can share them as testimonies of ways to apply the Word and those without those particular convictions can express their own thinking, all without judging or belittling one another.
Even though we obey Romans 14:1 and 15:7 and welcome one another to real fellowship without the motive of debating their convictions, there will still be times when we want to advocate for our convictions. Especially when we live in the same culture, it is likely that God’s Word will convict all of us in similar ways. In Parts 10 through 12 we will examine how to adjust the conscience—both your own and your brother’s.