Pastor David B. Curtis


Liberty & Unity - Part 4

Romans 14:16-23

Delivered 01/13/2002

We have been studying the 14th chapter of Romans. Now, the specific issue Paul is addressing here is how Christians should relate to each other when they disagree about "disputable matters." There are certain topics that followers of Jesus have honest differences of opinion about. I'm not talking about differences in areas of essential Christian doctrine or clear moral absolutes, but I'm talking about differences in how to best apply a biblical principle. The issue back in Rome was over food and days, over whether Christians should only eat kosher food as defined by the Old Testament law of Moses, and whether Christians should continue to observe the Jewish Sabbath and Jewish festivals, like Passover. You see, some Christians from a Jewish background couldn't imagine pleasing God unless they continued to follow these practices, so their spiritual liberty was narrow because it excluded things they were perfectly free to do. However, the majority of non-Jewish Christians in Rome had no problem eating all kinds of foods and worshiping on any day of the week, and they felt no need to celebrate Passover or any other Jewish holidays.

The issues have changed in our day, but the principles are the same. Today some of the disputable matters are things like debate over drinking alcohol; debate about contemporary or traditional worship style; and debate about whether to home school, public school, or private school your kids.

Let me give you an analogy to help you understand how important this issue of food and Sabbath was to the church in Rome. Imagine a married man named Joe who's been taught all his life that if he ever takes off his wedding ring he breaks his marriage vows. This belief about his wedding ring - a belief we might consider odd - has been passed down in Joe's family from generation to generation. You can imagine that Joe would be very cautious about never taking off his wedding ring because, in his mind, that means he's unfaithful to his wife. Now imagine Joe has a friend named Randy who's never even heard of this teaching. Joe and Randy decide to get together on a Saturday to work on Joe's car, because Randy is a good mechanic. As they get ready to work on the engine, Randy takes off his wedding ring and puts it in his pocket so it doesn't get grease on it. Can you imagine Joe gasping as Randy takes off his ring? And can you imagine Randy saying, "What's the big deal? I just don't want to get it dirty. It has nothing to do with how much I love my wife."

That's kind of like what the food laws and Sabbath laws were to the Jewish people. The Jewish people believed breaking the food laws and Sabbath laws violated their vows to God. So when the Jewish Christians saw non-Jewish Christians eating non-kosher food and not observing the Sabbath and festivals, they gasped in horror, because, in their mind, that meant unfaithfulness to God.

So some in the church in Rome were strong in faith and others were weak in faith in this area of food and days. Now, that doesn't mean that the strong in faith were better Christians. It simply means that the faith of the strong gave them freedom of conviction in areas where the weak in faith didn't have freedom of conviction. Remember, we're not talking about doctrine or morals, but about honest differences of opinion in how to best apply biblical principles. Now, Paul wants to motivate these two groups to pursue love rather than their own happiness, because he knows that selfishness will destroy the church in Rome.

In verses 1-12 Paul raises high the standard of liberty in non-moral areas; we have great freedom, great liberty in Christ. Paul is here echoing Jesus' teaching that it's not what goes into a person that makes that person unclean, but that it's what comes out of the heart that defiles us. In fact, Mark 7:19 tells us, "In saying this, Jesus declared all foods clean.'"

In verses 13-23 of Romans 14, Paul raises the standard that is designed by God to check and balance the liberty of the Christian in his daily life. The principle of responsibleness involves love. We not only have the law of liberty, but as its check and balance, we have the law of love. The believer who exercises his liberty responsibly will be a believer who does it by love. Liberty apart from love can be very destructive. The primary message of verses 13-23 is that we must be willing to limit our liberty. We are to set aside the prerogatives of our liberty for the sake of not injuring a weaker brother.

In verses 13-23 Paul gives us four aspects in which Christian love will work itself out in the believer's life in the area of exercising his Christian liberty. The key is love.

A. Love in the Area of Liberty forbids Doing Anything That Would Harm a Believer Spiritually:

Romans 14:13-15 (NKJV) Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother's way. 14 I know and am convinced by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself; but to him who considers anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean. 15 Yet if your brother is grieved because of your food, you are no longer walking in love. Do not destroy with your food the one for whom Christ died.

We looked at these verses last time. Here Paul uses several words to describe what might happen to a person who's weak in faith if a person strong in faith flaunts his or her freedom. Verse 13 talks about putting a "stumbling block" or "obstacle" in another Christian's path. In verse 15 he talks about the weak in faith being "distressed" because of the behavior of the strong in faith, and that when the strong in faith parade their liberty they risk "destroying" their Christian friend. Love in the area of liberty forbids doing anything that would harm a believer spiritually.

A lot of people misunderstand what Paul is saying here. Paul is not saying, "If your freedom irritates another Christian, give up your freedom." A stumbling block is something that trips a person up in their walk with Jesus, causing them to fall away from their faith. And the Greek word "destroy" (apollumi) in verse 15 refers to the loss of spiritual blessedness. So Paul is talking about more than hurting someone's feelings or irritating a person's preferences. He's talking about injuring a Christian's spiritual life to the extent that they risk falling away from their faith in Christ.

I raised the question last time, "How far do you go with limiting your liberty?" Let's face it, just about anything you do will offend someone. Should we not wear zippers or use electricity so as not to offend the Amish? Should women never wear pants or make-up? Should men never wear a beard or allow their hair to touch their collar? Should we all use only the King James Version of the Bible? Should we not have musical instruments in the worship of the church? Are we to live in bondage to every legalist? Dr. Barnhouse writes this:

Some people need to be scandalized. They need to get out of their narrow rut of legalism and enter the boulevard of liberty in Christ. Many years ago, I led a Bible conference at Montrose, Pennsylvania. About 200 young people were present, and a few older people. One day two old ladies complained to me in horror because some of the girls were not wearing stockings; these ladies wanted me to rebuke them. This was about the year 1928. Looking them straight in the eye, I said, "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, and by the time of Queen Victoria stockings had become the badge of the prude."

I don't think we are to be concerned about those who are well established in Christianity but also in the rut of non-biblical legalism. The grounded believer who is a legalist will not be tripped up or spiritually damaged by our exercise of liberty. They might become angered or critical and condemning.

What we want to guard against is hurting a weak believer, a young believer who doesn't understand their freedom in Christ. More often than not, the young believer who has just come out of the world is more damaged by the narrow legalism of some believers than by the normal life of the so called "worldly" believer. I am not a slave to a legalist. I am not obligated to live in their bondage.

I heard of a pastor who grew a beard. One of the older members of his congregation told the pastor she was going to buy him a razor for Christmas. She suggested that his facial hair was distressing to her and causing her to stumble. What she really meant is that she didn't like facial hair, but it was cloaked in spiritual terms. The pastor felt obligated to shave his beard off. Now, I'd submit to you that shaving his beard off had absolutely nothing to do with our text, because I find it highly unlikely that the presence of a beard was risking this lady's relationship with Jesus or somehow tempting her to grow a beard herself.

Let's go back to our imaginary friends, Joe and Randy, as they talk about wedding rings. Imagine Randy pressures Joe to take off his wedding ring. Joe gives in to the pressure and takes off his wedding ring. Now in Joe's heart, he feels as though he's broken his marriage vows, he's been unfaithful to his wife. Even though there's nothing inherently wrong with taking off your wedding ring, to Joe, he's just violated his promises to his wife. Now imagine how that action might affect his marriage. As Joe goes home, he inwardly feels guilty. For the first time in his life, Joe has crossed that line, at least the line in his own mind. Perhaps Joe might be tempted to do other things to cross that line as well; perhaps like take his new secretary to lunch, even though he knows it's not a good idea. You see, what's no big deal to Randy could ultimately destroy Joe's marriage.

What Paul is telling us here is to contribute to people's spiritual growth rather than tearing it down. If we're really going to pursue love, as verse 15 tells us to do, then we'll think about how our liberty will affect other people's spiritual growth. When we use our liberty to tear down people's spiritual growth, we're no longer using our liberty to pursue love.

B. Love Never Behaves in Such a Way as to Cause His Personal Liberty to Be Blasphemed(Verses 16-18).

Romans 14:16 (NKJV) Therefore do not let your good be spoken of as evil;

"Good" refers to our liberty in Christ. When the damage to the weak, mentioned in verse 15, results, then this liberty is evil spoken of. We are to use our liberty very carefully so a weak brother won't speak evil of it. To... "be spoken of as evil"... means: "to speak reproachfully, rail at, revile." Some understand this term of slander by the unsaved who find occasion to deride the Christian community for its fighting over such minor matters. This is surely possible, but it seems best to see it as the weak who are blaspheming the liberty of the strong.

1 Corinthians 10:27-33 (NKJV) If any of those who do not believe invites you to dinner, and you desire to go, eat whatever is set before you, asking no question for conscience' sake. 28 But if anyone says to you, "This was offered to idols," do not eat it for the sake of the one who told you, and for conscience' sake; for "the earth is the Lord's, and all its fullness." 29 "Conscience," I say, not your own, but that of the other. For why is my liberty judged by another man's conscience? 30 But if I partake with thanks, why am I evil spoken of for the food over which I give thanks? 31 Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. 32 Give no offense, either to the Jews or to the Greeks or to the church of God, 33 just as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved.

We are to limit our liberty; our "good" so it won't be blasphemed. Our testimony to the saved and unsaved is always important.

I read a story recently about a church that got into a fight over whether or not to put a Christmas tree in the church. Some members argued that Christmas trees were inherently pagan - much like the "weak in faith" argued that certain foods were inherently unclean; while other members said that there was nothing wrong with having a Christmas tree in church. The two groups got so mad they actually got into fist fights with each other; with one group dragging the tree out, and the other group dragging it back in. They filed a lawsuit against each other (if you can imagine that), and the fight became public for the entire community to see. Can you see how something the strong in faith considered good - in this case exercising their liberty to have a Christmas tree - was spoken of as evil in the community? People would think that being a Christian was all about whether or not to have a Christmas tree.

Romans 14:17 (NKJV) for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.

This is why we restrict our liberty. The kingdom of God is not meat and drink. There are many Christians who don't understand this. They think that being a Christian is a matter of whether you smoke or not, or drink, or go to movies - all morally indifferent things. We have made the issue of the kingdom of God externals! What you do and don't do!

The kingdom of God is "...righteousness peace and joy in the Holy Spirit."Paul doesn't mean to say that Christianity consists in morality, that the man who is just, peaceful, and cheerful is a true Christian. This could be said of Mormons. The righteousness, peace, and joy intended are those of which the Holy Spirit is the author. Righteousness is right standing with God. Peace is peace with God. Joy is the product of having righteousness and peace.

Romans 14:18 (NKJV) For he who serves Christ in these things is acceptable to God and approved by men.

"For he who serves Christ in these things..." - that is in the conscienceness of having been justified by God; having peace with God; and experiencing the joy that was imparted to him by the Holy Spirit. The word "serves" is a present participle and means: "who keeps on serving as a slave".

" acceptable to God and approved by men." - The word "acceptable" is from the Greek word euarestos, which means: "well pleasing". He lives a sanctified life by faith in Jesus Christ restricting his liberty for love. The word "approved" is from the Greek word dokimos, which means: "to be approved after close examination". This is the opposite of the disrepute referred to in verse 16:

Romans 14:16 (NKJV) Therefore do not let your good be spoken of as evil;

Paul made many sacrifices to gain the approval of men:

1 Corinthians 9:1-9 (NKJV) Am I not an apostle? Am I not free? Have I not seen Jesus Christ our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord? 2 If I am not an apostle to others, yet doubtless I am to you. For you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord. 3 My defense to those who examine me is this: 4 Do we have no right to eat and drink? 5 Do we have no right to take along a believing wife, as do also the other apostles, the brothers of the Lord, and Cephas? 6 Or is it only Barnabas and I who have no right to refrain from working? 7 Who ever goes to war at his own expense? Who plants a vineyard and does not eat of its fruit? Or who tends a flock and does not drink of the milk of the flock? 8 Do I say these things as a mere man? Or does not the law say the same also? 9 For it is written in the law of Moses, "You shall not muzzle an ox while it treads out the grain." Is it oxen God is concerned about?
1 Corinthians 9:15 (NKJV) But I have used none of these things, nor have I written these things that it should be done so to me; for it would be better for me to die than that anyone should make my boasting void.
1 Corinthians 9:19-23 (NKJV) For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more; 20 and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law, that I might win those who are under the law; 21 to those who are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God, but under law toward Christ), that I might win those who are without law; 22 to the weak I became as weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. 23 Now this I do for the gospel's sake, that I may be partaker of it with you.

Paul restricted his freedom for love's sake.

C. Love Pursues Peace and Edification over Personal Rights and Privileges.

Romans 14:19 (NKJV) Therefore let us pursue the things which make for peace and the things by which one may edify another.

The word "pursue" is from the Greek word dioko, which is a strong verb, generally used for: "persecute, following hard after, as in hunting." Metaphorically, it has the idea of: "to seek after eagerly, earnestly endeavor to acquire." What is it that we are to "seek after eagerly, earnestly endeavor to acquire"? 1. The things which make for peace - we should follow all things that tend to produce peace and avoid anything that would cause strife. Humility makes for peace:

Philippians 2:1-5 (NKJV) Therefore if there is any consolation in Christ, if any comfort of love, if any fellowship of the Spirit, if any affection and mercy, 2 fulfill my joy by being like-minded, having the same love, being of one accord, of one mind. 3 Let nothing be done through selfish ambition or conceit, but in lowliness of mind let each esteem others better than himself. 4 Let each of you look out not only for his own interests, but also for the interests of others. 5 Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus,

Don't pursue the exercise of your liberty, pursue peace. 2. The things by which one may edify another - The word "edify" is the Greek word oikodome, which means: "to build a house, erect a building". Metaphorically: "to build up, to promote growth in the spiritual walk." Paul saw the building up of Christians in the faith as most important:

1 Corinthians 14:26 (NKJV) How is it then, brethren? Whenever you come together, each of you has a psalm, has a teaching, has a tongue, has a revelation, has an interpretation. Let all things be done for edification.

Our aim, our pursuit should be to help one another grow in the faith.

D. Love Never Flaunts its Liberty in the Face of Weak Believers:

Romans 14:20 (NKJV) Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All things indeed are pure, but it is evil for the man who eats with offense.

Again, food is symbolic for liberty. The word "destroy" is not apollumi, of verse 15, but is the Greek word kataluo, which means: "to loose down, to tear down" as one would tear down a building - it is the opposite of oikodome, - "to build up" of verse 19.

The verse says, "Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of your liberty" - the phrase "work of God" is probably referring to a weak believer who, though weak, is still God's workmanship. God is building them up, but loveless brandishing of liberty tears down.

Principle: "all things are pure" (verse 14), non-moral things, the context here is liberty. Paul goes on to say, "but it is evil for the man who eats with offense." Some understand this as the weak who are stumbled by the strong, but I think this is referring to the strong who by their liberty cause the weak to stumble. We could translate this: "but for the man who eats in such a way as results in the presence of a stumbling block, it is evil. This is a qualification of the principle - "all things are pure".

Let me ask you a question, "Is it a sin to drink an alcoholic beverage?" The answer is "No!" The Bible does not forbid drinking alcohol. All things are pure.

Mark 7:15 (NKJV) "There is nothing that enters a man from outside which can defile him; but the things which come out of him, those are the things that defile a man.

The answer could also be, "Yes", if your having an alcoholic drink results in the presence of a stumbling block. The flaunting of your liberty can hurt another believer:

1 Corinthians 8:13 (NKJV) Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.

Let's go back to Joe and Randy. If Randy, as someone who has the liberty to take off his wedding ring, knows that Joe believes taking off your wedding ring is breaking your wedding vows, then Randy should just leave it on while they work on the car. Randy is perfectly free to take it off when he's working on his car alone, but if he knows that Joe is weak in faith in that area and might be tempted to break his wedding vows, then he shouldn't make an issue out of it. Remember, Randy isn't just concerned that he might offend Joe, but he's concerned that his freedom might tempt Joe to follow his example - which, in Joe's mind, would be breaking his wedding vows.

Paul goes on to give a word of encouragement to the strong:

Romans 14:21 (NKJV) It is good neither to eat meat nor drink wine nor do anything by which your brother stumbles or is offended or is made weak.

The word "good" here is from the Greek word kalos, which means: "beautiful". It is used figuratively for: "morally good, noble, praise worthy, blameless, excellent, but above all it is used for that which is pleasing to God." It is good - pleasing to God - not to use your liberty if it will hurt your brother.

In conscience, we have liberty, but, in conduct we restrict it for the sake of others. It's good (pleasing to God) to restrict our liberty. Paul is telling us that we are to be conformed to the weakness of our brother in Christ. We are to accommodate our walk to his. That's not easy, but it is loving. When I go for a walk with my granddaughter, I have to walk at her pace, walking at my pace could hurt her. But walking at her pace is really not a burden, because I love her.

NOTE: wine is a non-moral thing. It is not a sin to drink wine or he wouldn't use it here as an illustration. Drunkenness is a sin, but drinking is not!

Romans 14:22 (NKJV) Do you have faith? Have it to yourself before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves.

This verse taken out of context could be used as an excuse for not sharing your faith - "Do you have faith? Have it to yourself before God".

Faith is used here of a firm and intelligent conviction before God- that one is doing what is right. If you have faith, don't flaunt it, enjoy your liberty before God. The word "happy" has the idea of spiritually prosperous or blessed. The man who has a clear conscience and is not all bogged down with scruples and taboos is blessed.

Romans 14:23 (NKJV) But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because he does not eat from faith; for whatever is not from faith is sin.

The danger of the weak brother is brought in contrast with the blessed condition of him who is strong in faith. The word "doubts" tells us that he is not convinced; it's an area of liberty, so if he partakes in it he is condemned. His conscience condemns him because he doesn't have faith to do it (verse 5). "Whatever is not from faith is sin" - To violate what you think is right is self-will and sin.

Balance is critical. We have liberty, but love will restrict it for the benefit of others. The obligation is on the part of the strong, we must exercise our liberty responsibly. We should all have the attitude of Paul:

1 Corinthians 10:31-33 (NKJV) Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. 32 Give no offense, either to the Jews or to the Greeks or to the church of God, 33 just as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved.

This is not easy, because we're all so selfish. Let's each ask God to change our hearts.

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