Romans 14:1&2 “Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. One man’s faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables.”
Like congregations today the churches of the New Testament consisted of people from very different backgrounds. They had brought into the kingdom of God with them a lot of baggage from the years when they weren’t Christians. They shared different opinions, attitudes, judgments, practices and beliefs, but once they became believers in Jesus Christ they were all committed to changing themselves. So they put themselves under ministry just like this teaching which is recorded for us in this letter, one of the most profound theology and the highest ethic. Thus they continued steadfastly in the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship. They had no pick’n’mix attitude to Christianity. They had no thought of looked for a preacher who mirrored their own ideas. They sought a preacher who mirrored the teaching of Christ and his apostles. Life was too short to give their Sundays to anything else.
Whenever influences alien to the Christian message entered a church the apostle would write to that congregation a letter, and his written counsels would be circulated and read and memorized in all gospel churches. In Galatia some Christians in the congregation had begun to swallow the errors of a Judaizing sect, a group which tried to synthesize Old and New Testament religions. They had moved in on the church after Paul moved on. To trusting in Christ for salvation the Judaizers added being circumcised and also keeping Old Covenant food laws and feasts and the seventh day Sabbath. Again, in the Philippian church two of the leading women were at loggerheads, Euodia and Syntyche, and as each had friends and sympathizers battle lines were being drawn up between these two leaders both of whom were conscious of their rights. Again in the Corinthian church there were many divisions concerning such matters as the legitimacy of eating meat that had once been sacrificed to an idol and then had been sold on to the local butcher. Could a Christian eat meat with such a history? There were also divisions in Corinth over a competitive adulation of Peter or Apollos or Paul. “Who is the best?” They each had self-appointed cheerleaders. There were also divisions in Corinth over an inordinate esteem of men who had got rich with this world’s goods, which some Christians thought was a divine validation of men’s lives and beliefs. There were also divisions in Corinth over other issues, how to deal with a man guilty of sexual immorality, over lawsuits, marriage, the doctrine of the resurrection, the Lord’s Supper, love feasts, propriety in worship and spiritual gifts. Just a single one of those problems would be enough to drop any board of elders into hours of discussion and sleepless nights, but to have a congregation pulling away in eleven different directions in one assembly cried out for a fulsome letter from an apostle himself. In the providence of God that is what we have in the sixteen chapters of the first letter to the Corinthians and the thirteen chapters of the second letter. These God breathed epistles have kept most congregations from such a superfluity of divisions ever since.
1. WHAT WAS THE CAUSE OF THE DIVISION IN THIS CONGREGATION?
The Roman congregation also had a problem that was leading to division. It is explained and addressed by the apostle in chapters fourteen and fifteen of his epistle to the Romans. Paul puts the issue in the category of “disputable matters” (Rom. 14:1).
i] It was not a dispute between believers and some unbelievers who had crept into the church cunningly. All the people involved in this dispute were Christians, that is, they believed that their sinful lives merited death and hell but Jesus Christ because he loved them had died as the Lamb of God in their place. So all of the people caught up in this disputable matter, no matter what side they were on, made a credible profession of faith.
ii] Again, we must say that none of these disputants was at all heretical in his grasp of Christian doctrine. They were all Trinitarian in their view of God, that is, they believed that the Father was God, and the Son was God, and the Spirit was God. These three are one God. All sides also believed that Jesus of Nazareth was true God and true man, two natures in one indivisible person. They all believed that he was born of a virgin, lived a wholly righteous life, died an atoning death for sin, and rose on the third day. They all acknowledged that Christ sat on the right hand of the majesty on high and that he was building his church. They all confessed that one day he would come again to judge the quick and the dead. They preached that a believer in Christ was declared righteous by God who justified him, imputing to the repenting sinner the righteousness of Christ while imputing his sin to the dying Saviour. So everyone involved was orthodox.
iii] Again we must say that there was no immorality practised or taught by any of these groupings. All sides sought to live by the ten commandments, the Sermon on the Mount and such great apostolic exhortations as those received by them all in the twelfth chapter of this epistle. So I am saying that in grasping the nature of these disputable matters this was no Christian versus non-Christian division. This was no orthodoxy versus heresy division. This was no godly versus ungodly division. So what was the problem?
It was over something trivial and yet basic, to do with our daily living. In this fourteenth chapter there are references to clean and unclean foods. A mention is made of vegetables. There is an allusion to abstinence from wine. There is also a reference to the observance of special days. Ordinary issues like that, not profound theological themes, were at the heart of the dispute. “How then should we live day by day as Christians in Rome?” There was a group in the congregation who were hypersensitive about partaking in meat and in drink. This scrupulosity of theirs came from religious convictions. Their consciences forbade them to eat meat, or drink wine, and they could not treat certain days during the course of the year as mere ordinary days.
2. WHO WAS THIS GROUP?
They were quite a diverse company in the Roman congregation;
a] They might have included Christians saved from idolatry. They had been trapped for years by a wretched temple with its idols and priests and priestesses. These poor people in the course of their lives had taken hundreds of calves and sheep and goats and pigeons to be sacrificed in order to obtain deliverance from their guilt, but nothing had succeeded in lifting a single ounce from this crushing burden. Then how precious to them the gospel had become! How mighty the salvation found in the blood of Christ cleansing them from all sin. How they blessed God for it! How could they have anything at all to do with meat which came from sacrifices to idols, perhaps from that very temple which had enslaved them and their parents before them for decades?
b] Again they might have included Christians saved from Stoicism and asceticism. They had been always been very high living men who despised the gluttony and debauchery all around them in Rome. They hated the Coliseum, the butchery of gladiators and the killing of wild animals, the frequent riotings and drunkenness of Roman society. They were like that before they became Christians but now they were conscious of the Saviour’s counsel about taking up their own crosses and denying themselves and following him. “Be ye holy as I am holy,” were the words ever before their eyes. Had he not said that it would be better for them to pluck out the right eye and go to heaven than have two eyes and go to hell? So they were people who abstained from meat and drink. They had seen only too clearly what indulgence had done in destroying their family and friends. They were virtually Christian ascetics.
c] Again, they might have included Christians who had an overemphasis on keeping the law. Our Lord had told the rich young ruler to keep God’s commandments and to sell all he had and give it to the poor and then he would gain eternal life. Our Lord taught that if we loved him we showed it in keeping his commandments. He was, of course, talking about the declarative way of receiving eternal life, not the meritorious way. The meritorious way was by faith in Christ alone. But verses and passages like those with their stress on obedience were dominant in the minds of these people. They were not as balanced in the Christian life as they should have been. They were afraid of Christian liberty becoming license, and of daily standards slipping, and so they wanted a zeal for righteous living to be shown by every professing Christian in the congregation. So they themselves refused to eat meat, and they kept special days for fasting and prayer just as the Wesley brothers and the Holy Club did in Oxford in the 18th century. They felt that in Rome every first century Christian ought to live like that.
d] Again they might have included Christians saved from Judaism. Their whole upbringing had been in observing Jewish regulations about diet and days. They never ate pig meat or venison or crab and shrimp from the Mediterranean. They said, “The Levitical prohibitions could well be for health reasons so then we ought to keep them. If you want to be wise then you should all follow the instructions of Jehovah.” They thought that slaughtering animals in a certain way was also essential, and so they encouraged Gentile Christians in Rome to reject most meats.
So I have suggested to you that representatives for such backgrounds as these were likely to be present in the Roman church, and all of them would bring their own pressures to bear on other Christians exhorting them to abstain from meat and wine, urging them to keep other days in the year for prayer and holy contemplation. I would think that this moral crusade could have been gaining some momentum and was beginning to take over the congregation, and that there was a minority left to resist such pressures. Soon the Christian church in Rome would become the Evangelical, Vegetarian and Teetotal Assembly of God. You see the danger of this? You remember the rise of all the cults in the USA in the early 19th century? Men, and women too, with extraordinary fervour, intelligence, eloquence and glowing faces gathering a following around them and saying those very things. “If you want to be a real serious Christian . . . if you really want the blessing of God on your life . . . if you don’t want to grieve the Holy Spirit . . . if we are really going to see revival then this is the way . . .” This is what the cult leaders said then, and today, in the 21st century, the followers of these cults are not just here but all over South America, Africa, Asia and the Pacific and have done hideous damage to the kingdom of God.
This gospel congregation was heading for a takeover in Rome just like the Judaizers had taken over the Galatian church. In other words, there was this single minded influential group of men in the church with their list of taboos and their cry of “No surrender.” If you yourself enjoyed meat and didn’t keep feast days in the year then you were one of the people targeted. Your ordinary conduct became the cause of banter, argument and barely disguised criticism. When the Roman church held the equivalent of our fellowship lunches then fighting talk could be heard in the congregation itself. Some people pointedly refused to sit down and eat certain foods with others. That was the fruit of this disputable matter.
3. HOW DOES PAUL ANALYZE THE PROBLEM?
How does Paul deal with this issue? From the very first he passes a judgment on one of the sides in the dispute. He wants to be above board on this issue from the beginning. He is not going to fudge this matter. He is going to give leadership from the outset. He doesn’t try to be nice to everybody by speaking out of both sides of his mouth, but he if full of grace in what he writes. He judges that the basic cause of these church tensions is that the faith of one group of Christians in the church was weak. In fact, that statement is how this fourteenth chapter begins (v.1); Paul passes this apostolic judgment and hence a divine judgment upon them – your “faith is weak” he says to one of the groups, repeating this in the next verse. What does that mean? How can a Christian, you or me, become weak in faith? We must know the answer to that! Let us be helped today, and delivered from any weakness. If there is one thing I must learn from today’s message it is the answer to that question.
Let me ask how do we use this phrase, when we say that ‘someone has a weakness for something’? What are the circumstances when we use it?
i] A man has a weakness for drink. What do we mean by that? He has a raving thirst for the drug alcohol. He spends all his money on it and he drinks to excess. Is that ‘weakness’ culpable? For example, a man may have a genetic weakness so that he has lost all his hair before he’s twenty, and also his eyesight is weak so that he has needed spectacles even as a little boy, and he is also barely five feet tall. He can’t help any of those things; they were not choices he made; they were a weakness providence thrust upon him. Can he help his weakness for alcoholic? Yes he can. That is a choice he makes each day. We insist on holding him responsible for his drinking. His drinking is not like the colour of his skin. His drinking is a sin in which he chooses to indulge; it is not an illness. We don’t indulge him with Get Well cards. Such weakness is culpable and blameworthy. It is an evil weakness. It will take him to hell. No drunkard will inherit the Kingdom of Heaven. I shall be the best friend a drunk ever had by telling him that.
ii] Again, let me tell you of a student I was actually introduced to by his father. This older man is a missionary in Brazil and he was telling me about his various children. “This boy,” he said to me after the son had left us, “likes nice things.” The boy had a weakness for expensive clothes, and jewelry, and computers, and cars, and houses. That again is a blameworthy weakness. In other words the son of the missionary was ignoring what the Bible warns us about – covetousness, idolatry and materialism. The Bible urges us to be contented with food and raiment. The boy had a culpable weakness. He couldn’t plead, “I can’t help liking nice things.” Yes you can if you are following a crucified Saviour who said that foxes and birds had more than he possessed; he had nowhere to lay his head. He said that we’re not to make it our aim in life to do better than him. If God gives us possessions then thank him, but that is never to be our all consuming goal. The cross forbids it.
So some kinds of weaknesses need to be mortified, that is, murdered! Other kinds of weaknesses need to be regulated. We are all on the journey from the City of Destruction to the Celestial City. God has warned us of the dangers ahead and he has given us a road map for the way. Our conscience should ring some alarm bells when we approach some dangers. The map of the Bible should unequivocally tell us of many more. Be aware of moral weakness. That is a theme of the Bible. Rather be strong in the Lord and in the power of his might.
These Christians in Rome who were against meat and drink had weak faith, Paul tells us. He is not referring to their orthodoxy or morality. Then what is he referring to? Is he meaning that their assurance was weak? Or does he mean that they were weak in trusting in the Lord? It must mean that their trust was weak. Consider verse two, where we can imagine two Christians approaching the meal-table at Fellowship Lunch where every housewife in the Roman church had brought along her favourite dish. One Christian, we are told, helps himself from a bewildering array of plates and bowls of food on display. He doesn’t know where to begin, maybe taking a little bit of everything, the sausage rolls, the chicken legs, the ribs of pork in special barbecued sauce, the steak, the freshly cut ham, the clam chowder and the lobsters, the slices of veal, the brawn, the young piglet revolving on the spit, a little he takes from all those meats. Such delicacies are piled up high on his plate. The other Christian is repulsed at the very sight and he rigidly sticks to the bowls of vegetables. All the meats are rejected.
The first one believes strongly that he can eat vegetables and meat; the other considers it’s bad for any real Christian to be eating meat. When one declares, “I have this faith that Christians can eat anything” then you know that that person’s faith is strong faith. Paul and Peter had been taught by the Lord to believe that eating meat is right for the Christian, and every single follower of the Lord Jesus should believe the same. You are a strong Christian if you do exactly what the Lord and his apostles teach; life consists of keeping within Jesus’ careful parameters. We can read this in Paul’s words in verse fourteen; “I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself.” That is a strong and faithful life response to Christ. Most of you know that this is so and you are persuaded of its truth. These things are what you believe, and you never doubt them. Other Christian attitudes are weak, in other words it is a display of weak faith to reject eating meat because one believes that one cannot – without sinning – swallow venison or a shrimp starter or a bacon sandwich.
God has made the eating of meat perfectly permissible to the Christian. The passage that indicates this beyond all doubt is found in Acts chapter ten, verses nine to sixteen; “Peter went up on the roof to pray. He became hungry and wanted something to eat, and while the meal was being prepared, he fell into a trance. He saw heaven opened and something like a large sheet being let down to earth by its four corners. It contained all kinds of four-footed animals, as well as reptiles of the earth and birds of the air. Then a voice told him, ‘Get up, Peter. Kill and eat.’ ‘Surely not, Lord!’ Peter replied. ‘I have never eaten anything impure or unclean.’ The voice spoke to him a second time, ‘Do not call anything impure that God has made clean.’ This happened three times, and immediately the sheet was taken back to heaven.” Here is Peter, a Jewish Christian, someone who has never eaten ham in his life and yet here is God telling him to kill a pig and eat the meat. You can appreciate the devastating nature of this command and his curious reply, “No, Lord!” You know that the Lordship of Christ is going to kill the refusal, or the refusal will terminate Christ’s total Lordship over Peter. There are no forbidden animal foods for the Christian. He may be a Masai or an Aborigine or a Mongolian believer, and eat what we might find repulsive, but he is not sinning in what he chews and swallows.
So that is why those who refuse meat for religious reasons are called ‘weak in faith.’ They do not believe the Lord when he tells them plainly to go ahead and eat this food. Of course you may choose to be a vegetarian for medical or personal reasons – you don’t like the taste and texture of meat in your mouth, and you are protesting about the way poor animals are treated. I can sympathize with you. Being anti-meat for such reasons is perfectly permissible, but you are not able to plead Christian new covenant reasons for your vegetarian beliefs. If you say you don’t eat meat for a gospel reason then you are weak in the faith.
4. WHAT ARE THOSE WEAK IN FAITH TO LEARN?
i] Let all weak Christians learn that there is nothing unclean of itself.
This is stated by the apostle in the fourteenth verse; “I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself.” Nothing edible or usable is intrinsically evil. No mushrooms, or poppy seeds, or caffeine, or alcohol, or substances from bark in a tree, or taken from a sea creature, or even derived from an insect can contain degrading or demoralizing elements. In fact they are the basis of both ancient and modern medicine in Europe and Asia. A doctor may prescribe them for you in their contemporary purified form; they may be a means of delivering you and your children from pain. A determination to totally abstain from them for gospel reasons is contrary to the teaching of Scripture, though one may challenge the prescription on health grounds; “these tablets are doing me no good” – and you may well be right. Paul tells Timothy, “For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.” (I Tim. 4:4&5). So there is a man who occasionally worships with us who is now taking over twenty tablets a day and he receives them all from God, with thanksgiving. He consecrates any health and strength he derives from them to serve the word of God.
Now let’s go back to the first century and this church in Rome. Here were this group of men and women, weak in faith, and they were saying that certain things must be refused and scrupulously avoided. Paul tells them plainly that no food is unclean in itself. He is not talking about what are called recreational drugs, and addictive drugs, and mood changing drugs, and health destroying drugs, and excess drugs. All of them are forbidden for the Christian.
The apostle in his letter to the Corinthians is addressing the mirror image group of Christians from those in Rome. In Corinth the problem was license not asceticism. They were ringing the bell of Christian liberty until the rafters rang. “Everything is permissible to us! Everything is permissible to us,” those followers of the Lord cried. Paul quietly replied; “‘Everything is permissible for me’ – but not everything is beneficial. ‘Everything is permissible for me’- but I will not be mastered by anything.” (I Cor. 6:12). It is permissible to imbibe any food or drink, but not all foods and drinks may be beneficial for you, and if you are coming under the power of anything so that, for example, you can’t get through a day without inhaling nicotine regularly then you must cry mightily to God to deliver you from that dependence. There is no law against self-control, but there is a law against self-harm.
Let me clarify this further. When Paul says that every creature of God is good then a distinction must be made between creation and culture, between what God has made and what we make. God made sand, but people manufacture silicon chips. God made sexuality, but people make pornography. Celluloid comes from the creation, but films come from people. Cocaine comes from creation, but people make crack cocaine. God enables physical movement, but people organize close dancing. There are things in the world which cannot be received with thanksgiving. There are at least a million Internet web sites which no Christian could receive into his home with thanksgiving. They should never enter his life. I was speaking to a Christian teacher this week who this year in her school and on its computer had casually visited a site on the Internet to get some images for her class. The most horrible pictures appeared which frightened her. She went to the headmaster immediately and told him what had happened. She feared that school inspectors would trace the visiting of that pornographic site back to her and she would be suspended from her work. The headmaster sent a strongly worded letter to the web site protesting about the discrepancy between its innocent name and the horrid nature of its contents. He entered the incident in the school log book to protect her. I say that there are creativities that you cannot receive with thanksgiving because they are the expression of fallen culture rather than God’s creation. So there are some safeguards concerning this basic principle that there is nothing unclean of itself.
ii] Not all weak Christians can make the transition from being a vegetarian to eating meat, or treating the seventh day of the week as an ordinary day.
It is one thing to lay down the principle that everything is permissible to us because no food is unclean of itself. It is another thing to change the habits of a lifetime. Take for example an imaginary person in Rome like little Mrs. Abraham who has come to trust in Christ at 60 years of age after following Jewish customs for those decades. She will always go through Saturdays quietly, barely coming out of her house. She will never eat pork. She understand all your arguments but she will smile wryly at you and say, “Pastor, you can’t teach an old dog new tricks,” and you are not going to make it your mission in life to change her. If she goes against her conscience then she will be inconsolable. Paul ends the chapter with the words, “Everything that does not come from faith is sin” (v.23). If Mrs. Benjamin weeps, “I cannot believe that it is right for me to eat an unclean animal,” then she is going against her own conscience in cooking let alone eating pork sausages. To do such a simple thing is for her an unclean act – not to you, but to Mrs. Abraham it is. You have sought to edify her mind and conscience by the word and she understands your teaching and might agree that what you say is true, but the momentum of tradition which she has brought into the Kingdom of God means that for the rest of her life Saturdays will be quiet days and she will be a kosher cook. I hope you have not the slightest intention of pressurizing her into going against her conscience as a weak believer. Meat and drink and days may be things indifferent, yes, however Mrs. Abraham and others like her are never in a situation that is indifferent. Things are indifferent, but people never!
Paul says to the church, “For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone” (v.7). Why do we live? What is our great principle in living? To be well-pleasing to the Lord. Mrs. Abraham talks to the Lord every day. She says, “I’m sorry Lord that I find it hard to eat the good food you have made for us all. Please forgive me. I give my diet to you. What I eat and what I don’t eat is all to your glory who gave yourself for me.” And God accepts her funny ways as he accepts mine.
iii] The Christians who are weak in faith may not impose their judgments on the rest of the congregation.
Their problem is doubting and questioning what God has said in his word. They are zealous; they are sincere; they are concerned for morality; they are troubled by the wickedness they see all around and every time a Christian falls it has confirmed the rightness of their own understanding, but they are still wrong. They have not reached that full understanding that nothing is unclean in itself, and that every creature of God is good and nothing to be refused. They are saying “No” to that message from God. They cannot believe it and so are weak in their faith. There is a place in the congregation for them. Mrs. Abraham is welcome to all the means of grace and to vote in church meetings, but she and others who share her opinions may not promote their views in the Bible class, or in frequent conversations, or in spreading literature, or in opposing teaching on this theme that comes from New Testament epistles with the authority of Christ and the apostles behind it. That would result in the truth of God being compromised and the integrity of the Creator to be maligned. They may not agitate to change the testimony of the church on these themes. They may not require that every church member keeps certain days and refrains from certain foods and drink. There is one lawgiver. Let us stick to his laws. “We dare not attempt to be holier than God’s law, and we dare not impose upon the Christian’s conscience what does not have the authority of divine institution” (John Murray, Collected Writings, Volume 4, Banner of Truth, 1982, p.157)
iv] Christians who are weak in faith must be aware that censorious criticism of strong Christians is an attitude that God condemns.
There was once an old widower in our congregation named Mr. Price who lived by himself in Bow Street and smoked a pipe. I never once mentioned to him, even in jest, his pipe. He missed his wife, his sons lived far away and he did not have much of this world’s goods, and he enjoyed an occasional pipe of tobacco. Incidentally, pipe smoking is less dangerous than cigarette smoking, but there are great words of God given us to guard our behaviour towards our brethren. They are found in verses three and four, “The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.”
It is tempting for the weak in faith to write letters to a preacher who has preached a message like this, and judge him censoriously, charging him with opening into the church the flood gates of indulgence and vice, and warning that the young people will be led astray and that their blood will be on his head. “You must tell them, ‘Sign the pledge and refuse to eat and drink such things.’” Such condemnation is the condemnation of the self-righteous.
I remember a man speaking at a Bible rally the month before I did in Cornwall, and half way through his message turning on the congregation he cried to them, “Some of you have television sets. You should be ashamed of yourselves.” Now the decision to possess or not possess a television set, or a video player, or a DVD player, or a radio, or the worldwide web is a choice that should be taken very seriously. Many factors are involved especially where children of all ages are concerned. Having a TV set shouldn’t be drifted into without considering the family, and praying through the issue as husband and wife and children. There are factors for and against the choice. Many of you have TV sets while some of you don’t. My concern with the preacher in Cornwall is this, that he was speaking to a congregation with many non-Christians who were hearing the Bible preached for the first time in years. They lacked the first clue as to what was the gospel of Jesus Christ, and yet the only thought that really exploded in their minds as they listened to him preach and that lingered there afterwards was the sinfulness of possessing a TV set. That is not the gospel. Let them come to the Saviour in faith and repentance and then the great change of heart will begin to work itself out in their daily lives. You don’t iron dirty clothes; they must first be washed. Let sinners enter the great laver of divine regeneration and then their lives and homes will begin to change from the inside.
John Wesley was once having lunch in the home of a man whose attractive daughter had been very impressed with Wesley’s preaching. One of Wesley’s fellow preachers was also at the meal. He was a man of plain manners and little tact, and he noticed that the daughter wore a number of rings. The man pointed this out to Wesley asking him: ‘What do you think of this, sir, for a Methodist’s hand?’ The young woman was embarrassed, but the old preacher merely replied, ‘The hand is very beautiful.’ That evening the young woman appeared at the service and she listened intently to Wesley’s preaching. There is no place within a gospel congregation for censorious criticism of fellow Christians. That is what our Lord is referring to in his most well known, oft repeated and much misunderstood words, “Judge not, that ye be not judged.”
No one has been appointed the lord of the consciences of this congregation by God. This is his grand prerogative. We dare not give up our Christian liberty to those who are too eager to dictate the tougher decisions we all have to make. Let us use our liberty as an opportunity to acknowledge God’s headship and liberality toward us. Let us use our freedom in serving our brethren for whom Christ died.
17th September 2006 GEOFF THOMAS