“There is neither Jew nor Greek, there is neither slave nor free, there is no male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus,” (Galatians 3.28). We believe that statement to be true because God declared it to be true. However, God’s people don’t always feel like they are one. We know that the unity we possess in Christ transcends gender, racial, generational and economic differences, in fact we marvel sometimes that such diverse people can share a common faith in Christ. Yet, sometimes we wonder if we actually possess a common faith, especially when we disagree over how a particular text should be applied or we disagree in how we practice our faith. Is it possible to be one body and yet have varying opinions in that body? That is the matter Paul addresses in this passage.
However, a word of caution must be given as we begin looking at this text. Paul is not addressing matters of revealed will. Disciples are to be taught the will of Christ (Matthew 28.20) and are to continue in His will (2John 9-11). Every teaching is to be examined to see if it accords with what Jesus said (1John 4.1), those who refuse to follow His will are to be admonished (1Thess. 5.14), those who will not repent are to be avoided (2Thess. 3.6). So, this passage CANNOT be used to justify teachings that are contrary to Scripture, or as a way of justifying immoral behavior so long as it doesn’t offend a person’s conscience. Paul is addressing matters of opinion in areas where God did not legislate. In such matters there is great freedom and Paul exhorts us to respect each other’s opinions and practices in these areas.
It is plain from the text that Paul’s immediate area of concern was the relationship between Jewish and Gentile Christians, particularly within the Roman congregations. Two issues are singled out:
- The eating of meats (vs. 2).
- The observance of days (vs. 5).
Both Jews and Gentiles had issues with meat. For the Jews, they had long lived under a Law that forbade them from eating certain “unclean” meats (Leviticus 11). They were now free to eat these meats, but many would have a hard time doing so with a clear conscience. Likewise, Gentile Christians may associate meats with idolatrous worship (see 1Cor. 8.1-8). While it would be possible to eat meat not offered to idols, some had a hard time doing unless they were absolutely sure the meat had not been offered to an idol. So, to some the eating of any meat would have been a conscience issue. Regarding the observance of days, it is unlikely that Paul was referencing any civic days since most of those would have been in honor of a Roman deity. He probably has in mind the Jewish observance of the Sabbath and Jewish Feast Days. While such days were no longer binding (Col. 2.14-17), some of the Gentiles may have viewed any observance of them as living under the Law.
Jew-Gentile tensions have been a constant theme in Paul’s letter to the Romans. Paul’s presentation and defense of the gospel was due to the Jewish notion that the Law maintained significance in marking out God’s covenant people, thus excluding the Gentiles unless they also observed the Law. But, as Paul ably pointed out, salvation could only be attained through faith in Christ Jesus. The Jew-Gentile tension was also prevalent in chapter 9-11 where Paul lamented Israel’s loss, all the while showing how the Jews could be brought in and warning the Gentiles against any arrogance on their part (see 11.18). So, we are not surprised to see that at the end of this section Paul exhorts the saints to “welcome one another,” (15.7) because Christ came to serve both the circumcised (15.8) and the Gentiles (15.9). The relationship between Jew and Gentile in the church was very much on Paul’s mind!
Refrain From Judging (14.1-12)
Paul began by instructing them to “welcome” the “one who is weak in faith”. While Paul did not define what he meant by “faith”, it is clear from the context that he was NOT speaking of someone being weak in their conviction that Jesus is the Lord, or in their trust in God. Rather, the already mentioned issues of meats and holy days posed a problem for some (i.e. weak members) and not for others (i.e. the strong, see 15.1). The last thing on Paul’s mind was belittling someone because of their conviction.
The theme of this section is on judging others. Three times in this section Paul warned against judging: “not to quarrel over opinions” (vs. 1), “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another?” (vs. 4), “Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother?” (vs. 10). If God had not legislated regarding the necessity of eating meat, why should they judge a brother if he refused to do so? If God had not forbidden a Jew from observing the Sabbath, why should Gentile Christians condemn them if they did? Three points are stressed:
- Do not judge a person that God has accepted.
- Whatever your practice (in matters of liberty) be fully convinced in your own mind
- We all live and die for Christ, so by extension we are doing the same for the family of Christ.
Be Sensitive To Conscience (14.13-23)
While addressing the “strong” in this passage, Paul revealed the beauty of a heart longing to serve God. Paul understood that the “weak” were not partaking of meats or were observing certain days because it was what their conscience demanded. And conscience issues are sin issues!
Three times in this section Paul states the severity of violating one’s conscience: “it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean,” (vs. 14) and “whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin,” (vs. 23). The “strong” (probably Gentiles) were no doubt ready for the “weak” (probably Jews) to grow up, to realize that there was nothing unclean about meat. They wanted them to eat with them! Paul issues a strong warning: “if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died,” (vs. 15). Again, these were not matters of doctrine, no commands of Christ were being violated. These issues called for patience, understanding and love. But Paul feared that bad attitudes would lead to pressure, pressure would lead to violated conscience, and a violated conscience would be sin (sin for the person who violated his own conscience, sin for the person who through lack of love encouraged his brother to violate his conscience).
In this we see a picture of what a Christian’s heart should be toward his brethren: “So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (vs. 19) and “It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.” (vs. 21) Christians may be at liberty to eat meat and observe certain days, but they are not at liberty to cause others to stumble. Only when we truly view the needs of others as more important can we truly say that we are pursuing peace.
Imitate Christ (15.1-13)
Perhaps Paul had already said enough, but he capped off his argument with an appeal to the life and mission of the Master, Christ.
- The reason why we are to serve others and not please ourselves is that Christ came to serve others (vss. 1-6).
- We should accept each other because Christ came to serve both “the circumcision” (Jews) and the Gentiles (vss. 7-13).
When we have the same attitude toward each other that Christ has towards us, we can confidently expect the blessing found in vs. 13: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope.”
So many principles in this section need to be applied in any situation where brethren are dealing with each other. We need to refrain from judging each other on matters of opinion (whether those opinions are related to our faith, we must be sensitive to each other’s conscience and we must always emulate the love of Christ. However, remember that there are some important keys to applying this text to any given situation:
- The strong were practicing something God had given them liberty to do (14.14). If this were a matter that God forbade, they would be sinning.
- The weak were not refusing to practice something God required. If this were a matter God required, they would be sinning.
- If either party compelled the other party, they would be sinning (see Acts 15).
Particular application could be made to how we should treat new converts/members. Each one will come to us with a particular history and background. Their conscience may prick them over things that are not issues for many of us. Consider a few examples:
- A converted Catholic may choose to not eat meat on Fridays.
- A converted Jew may choose to keep the Sabbath as a day of rest and prayer.
- A converted Muslim may never be able to eat a ham sandwich.
- Christmas could be a big issue for many. While it would be wrong for us as a congregation to set up Christmas as a special, holy day, many do see Christmas as a day worthy of reflection and remembrance of Jesus’ birth (regardless of the unlikeliness that Jesus was actually born on that day). Their conscience may move them to “keep Christ in Christmas”.
The principles outlined in this section must be used in dealing with these and a host of other matters of opinion and conscience. Let us always strive to “welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (15.7).
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