Romans 14: 1 - 12
Christians love to fight over our deeply-held beliefs. Unfortunately, sometimes we fight for things that don’t matter very much. If 2 Christians agree on 79 out of 80 points, they will usually focus on the area where they disagree. Often, the smaller that final point, the more likely they are to argue about it. I don’t know what it is, maybe just human nature that causes us to focus on the small things that don’t matter while ignoring the large areas where we agree 100%.
This is a message about the dangers of a judgmental spirit. Even though this problem exists outside the church, my focus in this message is inside the church. I want us to think about the tendency we all have to criticise people who don’t do or say things the way we think they ought to be said or done. I want us to think about the terrible things that can happen when we are too quick to offer personal judgments on believers who don’t meet our personal standards. Before we finish next Sunday, I would like to offer some concrete suggestions on how we can overcome the impulse to criticise our brothers and sisters in Christ.
As we begin, let’s note that this problem is neither isolated nor new. Churches have struggled with this issue for 2,000 years. The New Testament makes it clear that the earliest Christians had difficulty accepting new or different people into their assemblies. When Paul wrote to the church at Rome, he devoted almost 2 full chapters to this difficult issue. Romans 14 teaches us an important truth about accepting other believers. I believe this is an important word for us to hear. As you hear this message, please listen for the message God has for you personally from this text. Let’s begin with a brief look at the historical background of these verses.
1. Historical Background
Rome was the centre of the world in Paul’s day. It was the capital of the empire and the seat of the Caesars. You’ve heard it said, “All roads lead to Rome.” In the 1st century that statement was certainly true. All roads did lead to Rome. That meant that the city had become a kind of melting pot where people from many different cultures mingled together. As ambassadors and envoys from the various provinces came to Rome, they settled in the city, creating a complex mix of races and ethnic groups. Add to that the foreign slaves and prisoners of war who lived in Rome. When the gospel came to Rome (not long after the Resurrection), it crossed many of those racial and ethnic lines. As a result, the church at Rome reflected the diverse makeup of the city itself.
That background helps us understand Paul’s words in Romans 14. He is writing to a growing church with a wide variety of people in the congregation. Human nature being what it is, it’s not surprising the various groups within the church had trouble getting along. As I read this chapter, it reveals –
Conflict in the church in 5 different areas:
New Converts and Long-Time Believers
Converted Jews and Converted Gentiles
Vegetarians and Meat-Eaters
Observers of Special Days and Those Who Observed No Special Days
Total Abstainers and Wine-Drinkers.
We should not assume from this list that there were only 2 groups in the church with these characteristics. It may well have been that individual believers had differing convictions - a new believer who was a converted Gentile, a vegetarian, a Sabbath-keeper, and a wine-drinker. I believe you could find church members in Rome who didn’t fit into just 1 or 2 neat categories. Evidently these believers had difficulty getting along. The meat-eaters didn’t trust the vegetarians and the vegetarians thought the meat-eaters were compromisers. The converted Jews kept kosher, but the converted Gentiles thought that was a waste of time. The wine-drinkers felt that drinking wine was permissible so long as you didn’t get drunk. The total abstainers thought that was nothing more than a convenient excuse for drinking alcohol.
In short, the church at Rome was anything but one big happy family. It was big, it was a family, but it was far from happy. Paul understood the conflict. After all, he had been raised in the womb of Orthodox Judaism. He knew all about keeping kosher, following the strict dietary laws, and living under the law. No doubt he had struggled with many of these issues in the years following his conversion to Christ. Now he writes to help others who were wrestling with these same issues. Romans 14: 1 - 12 contains 3 basic exhortations:
A. Accept one another—God has accepted you! v. 1 - 4
v. 1 gives us the theme of the entire chapter: “Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters.” The word “accept” means to open your heart and your home to other people. “Disputable matters” are things like eating meat, drinking wine, and keeping special days. These matters—while important—should not stand in the way of our relationship with other believers. To “pass judgment” means to come to a negative conclusion about other Christians on the basis of their outward behaviour in disputable areas. We could paraphrase v. 1 this way: “Make friends with everyone in the church without stopping to worry about whether they agree with you on everything or not.”
Here is Paul’s point: If you want to cook some steaks, cook some steaks. If you want to have tofu and chocolate-covered bean curd, have at it. It doesn’t matter to God! He’s not up in heaven checking your menu to see if it passes. Eat whatever you like. Don’t feel that you need to explain yourself to anyone else.
The danger is that the meat-eaters will look down on the vegetarians and the vegetarians will condemn the meat-eaters. But we must not fall into that trap. The last phrase of v. 3 explains why we are to accept those whose lifestyle may be quite different from ours: “For God has accepted him.” God’s grace has nothing to do with eating meat, drinking wine, or keeping special days. But neither does it extend only to vegetarians, total abstainers or those who observe no days at all. Since God accepts people solely on the basis of their faith in Jesus Christ, so should we. Or to put it another way - Who are we to reject the person whom God has accepted? If God has accepted him, how can we reject him?
B. Have your own convictions—Jesus is your Lord v. 5 - 9
v. 5 says it plainly: “Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” To be fully convinced means that after looking at all the evidence and considering the various views on a given issue, you have come to a settled conclusion in your own mind. It assumes an honest investigation coupled with an open mind.
Notice how many times Paul mentioned the Lord Jesus Christ in these verses: “He who regards one day as special, does it to the Lord. He who eats meat, eats to the Lord … He who abstains does so to the Lord … If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living.” 7 times in these verses Paul relates our lifestyle choices directly to our relationship with Jesus Christ. If we are fully surrendered to his lordship in our lives, then we are free to make up our own minds in these disputable areas.
Do you want to eat meat? Eat it for Jesus is your Lord. Do you prefer to be a vegetarian? Have your bean sprouts and give thanks to God. Are you a total abstainer? If so, rejoice that you know Jesus Christ. Do you drink wine with your dinner? Give thanks to God that Jesus is your Lord.
If Jesus is your Lord, you can make your own decisions, knowing that he alone will be your judge. In this section Paul mentions a particular area of contention. One group at Rome observed certain days as holy (perhaps the Sabbath or possibly the various Jewish feast days), while another group said that all days were alike because every day belongs to the Lord. That has many practical ramifications. If you want to go to church on Tuesday night, go ahead. Nothing wrong with that. But don’t judge those who prefer to go to church on Thursday morning.
Another way to look at this is to consider that Christmas is coming in just a few weeks. That means we will have a Christmas dinner with decorations and a Christmas tree. We’ll have a carol service with candles and a special Christmas Day service. We’ll give presents and celebrate the birth of Jesus in numerous ways. I’m very happy about that because Christmas is always a favourite time of the year for me. But consider these facts: Nowhere in the New Testament are we told to celebrate the birth of Christ with a special season of the year. Nowhere are we told to have carols and Christmas Day services. For that matter, we don’t even know for certain the precise day of Christ’s birth. Scholars even argue about the exact year. The word “Christmas” isn’t found anywhere in the Bible. There is no command to sing “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing” or “Angels We Have Heard on High” or “Away in the Manger.” No command to recreate the manger scene. There is absolutely nothing that tells us to do anything on Christmas Eve. Most of what we do stems from long-held (and deeply-felt) tradition handed down across many generations. It is a noble and worthy tradition that goes far back in church history but it doesn’t come directly from the New Testament.
My point is, we don’t have to have Christmas this year. We could just cancel the whole thing. I am not suggesting that we could stop believing in the incarnation or the virgin birth because those things are non-negotiable. But we aren’t compelled by the Bible to do all the things we’re going to do in just a few weeks. Which means that if a church somewhere decided not to observe Christmas in any particular way, that church would not be sinning. They should not be despised for that choice any more than we should be judged because we choose to make a great emphasis in celebrating the birth of Christ each year. There is room in the body of Christ for significant differences in the way we approach the traditions of our faith.
C. Don’t judge others—We will each answer to God v. 10 - 12
Paul asks 2 pointed questions in v. 10: “Why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother?” To “judge” in this context means not simply to evaluate his lifestyle. The word implies that you come to a negative conclusion about the way he lives. “Judging” in this context soon leads to “looking down” on other believers—i.e. believing that you are better or superior to others because a) You do things they don’t do or b) You don’t do things they routinely do. Either way, you end up seeing yourself as just a little bit better than your brothers in Christ. 3 different times Paul reminds the Romans that each of them will stand individually before God. No one will answer for anyone else. God will not judge you for how someone else lives. When you stand before the Lord, he won’t quiz you about what Mr. Jones did or how Susie Johnson lived. You’ll answer for yourself and for no one else.
If God will judge your friends, why should you get involved? He knows them better than you do, he loves them more than you do, and he reads the thoughts and intents of the heart, which you can’t read at all.
Furthermore, if we all spent more time worrying about ourselves, we’d have very little time left to worry about other people.
From Rome to Wilro Park
WPBC is becoming like the church at Rome. With each passing year we become more and more of a melting pot. We’ve become a very diverse congregation. You may have a Baptist to your left, a Catholic to your right, an Anglican one row in front of you and a Lutheran sitting behind you. There are some Charismatics lifting hands in praise to the Lord. We’re not all from the same background in any sense. WPBC covers a broad spectrum of denominations, ages, races and ethnic backgrounds. We come to this place on Sundays joined by one united purpose—to worship the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the great unifying factor. Without him we’d never get a group like this to stay together. Because we are an increasingly-diverse congregation ministering in an increasingly-diverse community, we need to listen to Paul’s words and put them into practice. Romans 14 is not for some other church. It’s for WPBC today.
Prayer - O Lord, shine the light of truth on each one of us. Show us our judgmental spirit and our critical attitudes. Forgive us, Lord Jesus. Give us hearts like yours—filled with love and compassion. Help us to love all those who truly love you. Amen.