One clear message in the Bible is that believers are to walk in unity. Psalm 133 tells us “how good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity.” In Jesus’ last prayer before the crucifixion, he prayed that we, as believers, would be one (John 17:21-23). In Ephesians 4:3, Paul tells us that we are to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” And finally, though we could list much more, Paul tells Titus that after warning a person who is stirring up division in the church a couple of times, “have nothing more to do with him” (Titus 3:10). Clearly, unity among brothers and sisters, especially in a local church, is crucial. We all know that, I trust.
But here’s a question: how do we walk in unity as a church when we find ourselves differing in our convictions in areas where the Bible gives us freedom? Here’s what I mean. Let me use an example. Among those in our congregation today, there are some who think someone should never drink alcohol and that even if it’s not sin, it’s minimally unwise for a Christian to do so. And we have others who joyfully partake of alcohol (without getting drunk, of course), noting the Scripture commendation of wine gladdening the heart of man. Or as another example, we have some who believe that the way a Christian should spend each Sunday, in addition to worship, is by making sure you get rest while having others in our congregation who plan their business around spending a majority of Sunday afternoon working. And you and I know that this is just the tip of the iceberg. I haven’t even gotten into the topics of schooling, food production, or government.
So the question is, how in the world can we walk in unity as a local church where you may differ over convictional matters in life with the person sitting next to you? And as lofty and weighty of a question as that is, the nice thing about this issue is that we’re not the first believers to face it. In fact, this is precisely what our text this morning is about, as we look at Romans 14:1-12. Therefore, what I want to do this morning is simply walk through Paul’s argument, seeing what he said to the Romans and then apply those truths to us along the way. And Paul starts by nothing that:
Now, in order to spell out this point from the text, I feel like we need to note a few things. First, let me give you what I think is the most likely background against which these verses were written. The church at Rome was most likely made up of both Jewish and Gentile Christians. And the Jewish Christians were feeling convicted that they still needed to practice some things in the law of Moses like observing the Sabbath or abstaining from eating certain foods. And Paul labels this group as “weak,” not in a derogatory way, but indicating that he has a weakness in being assured that Christians are no longer bound to these things. After all, Paul had written in Colossians 2:16-17, “Therefore let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food or drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ.”
With that, Paul had made clear that believers aren’t bound to avoid certain foods or drink. We aren’t required to hold up certain days on the calendar as holy days, like festival days or the Sabbath. With the coming of Christ, we are no longer bound to these things in the same way that we’re not bound to make animal sacrifices. They were always pointing to something—like shadows pointing to a substance—and that substance was Christ, who has come. Therefore, the shadows fade away and believers aren’t required to hold certain days in honor or avoid certain foods or drink. That is to say, this is an area of freedom for the believer.
But, again, certain Jewish Christians were struggling with walking in this area of freedom. They were, as I’ve noted, weak in the sense that they lacked assurance to believe and practice the freedom that the New Covenant had given to them in these areas of food, drink, and the Sabbath.
The Gentile believers, on the other hand, whom Paul identifies as the “strong” (in that they walked in full assurance of the freedom they had in Christ in these matters), happy ate and drank whatever, and esteemed no day as better than another but all days to be alike.
Now that I’ve described the setting, let me confirm this for you by identifying these realities in the text. In verse 2 Paul says, “One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables.” Then, in verse 5, he writes, “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike.”
And Paul is ultimately going to tell us that both are okay. Again, this is an area of freedom. There is no sin in eating and drinking whatever, and there is no sin in picking up sticks in your yard on Saturday, or Sunday, or Easter, or Christmas, or whatever other day. This is why Paul can tell the Colossians in the text I noted earlier that they shouldn’t let anyone pass judgment on them in terms of food or drink or certain days. They had freedom in these areas, not being required by Scripture to avoid certain foods or drinks or to esteem certain days as different than others.
However, it’s also true that Christians have freedom, if they so desire, to avoid certain foods or drink or to uphold and honor certain days. Just because we have the permission to do something in obedience to Christ does not entail we’re obligated to do that thing. Thus, we are talking about an area of Christian freedom, where we are free to choose what we desire.
And here’s the deal, in these areas of freedom, Christians may well differ on what each thinks he or she should do. And what’s more, we may have strong convictions about it. For example, let’s come back to the example of alcohol. Though the Bible condemns drunkenness, it clearly does not condemn the drinking of alcohol. We’re told in Psalm 104:15 that the Lord made wine to “gladden the heart of man.” Jesus turned water into wine in John 2. And the drinking of wine seemed to be commonplace in the taking of the Lord’s Supper so that the Corinthians were getting drunk on it. Nor will it do simply to suggest that wine in biblical times was of lesser alcohol content because though that was the case, it was still an intoxicating beverage and drunkenness was possible (and apparently a concern enough that the Bible condemns drunkenness as a sin). So, the Bible condemns drunkenness and not simply drinking of alcohol. In this area we have freedom (with some exceptions).1 And many of you partake of alcohol, enjoying this freedom.
But I am certain that others feel pricked in conscience about this issue and believe that a Christian should not drink alcohol. Maybe even if you see the Scripture not condemning drinking wine, for example, you still think it utterly unwise, citing all kinds of reasons for believing that.
This, then, is an area where we are like these early believers in the church at Rome. In this area of freedom, we may well differ. And the starting place for us is to recognize that this is okay. This happened in this Roman congregation, and Paul held out freedom for those who wanted to abstain from eating and drinking certain things and for others who wanted to partake of those same foods, he held out the freedom to do so. If either abstaining or partaking were a matter of sin, Paul would have said so, but he holds out the freedom for each to practice what each desires, in accord with their conscience. And so it is for us. In matters of Christian freedom, we may well differ with one another on our convictions or how we choose to exercise or not exercise those freedoms.
But, how do we then walk in unity, when our differences may be at deep, convictional levels? Well, there are two things we need to practice, and this brings us to the thrust of the teaching in this text and our second sermon point:
What I mean is that in these areas of freedom where we disagree over what we should do, we’ve got to guard ourselves from responding to our brothers and sisters in certain (unbiblical) ways. Paul starts with the group he labels the “strong” (i.e., the group who felt free to eat, drink, and see all days alike), telling them that they shouldn’t mock or despise those who are weak in conscience.
Paul starts, addressing the strong, in verse 1, saying, “As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions.” That is, when these Roman believers received into the church someone who thought certain foods should be avoided and certain days should be honored over others, they weren’t to receive them simply to begin criticizing or attacking them over their convictions. Then again, he tells them in verse 3, “Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains.” Finally, he asks them in verse 10, “Why do you despise your brother?”
You see, it can be tempting for those who exercise certain freedoms to want to mock or deride their brothers who feel like they lack freedom to do those same things. It can be tempting for those who see their brothers as needlessly shackling themselves to rules and laws that aren’t necessary and ridicule them for it. And Paul tells us repeatedly not to do it. Don’t despise him for choosing to abstain from these things. Don’t mock him. Paul notes specifically that what drives this brother in his practice is his desire to honor the Lord, saying in verse 6 that the one who abstains “abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.” Why would you think it okay to despise, deride, or mock your brother who is attempting to honor the Lord by his choices? Thus, the strong brother is exhorted not to despise those who are weak in conscience. But the strong isn’t the only one addressed. Paul also tells us:
As Paul addressed the strong, he similarly addresses the weak, saying in verse 3, “Let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats.” And again in verse 10, “Why do you pass judgment on your brother?”
You see, just as it can be particularly tempting for the strong brother to mock, despise, or deride the weak, the weak brother’s temptation is to pass judgment on his strong brother. And the reason this is the case makes sense if you think about it. In the case of the strong toward the weak, the strong brother simply thinks the practice of the weak brother in his abstaining from certain foods or drink is unnecessary and maybe even foolish, thus the temptation to mock or deride him. But the weak brother looks on the strong and thinks he is at best practicing something unwise and at worst doing something he absolutely should not do. Thus the temptation to judge.
Let’s use the model of Sundays. We all agree that we need to gather with the saints on Sundays. The Scripture tells us that we shouldn’t forsake the assembling of ourselves together. However, what we do on Sunday afternoons may greatly differ. One brother might look at his yard and mow it, while another Christian brother thinks that believers must rest on Sundays and that mowing one’s yard on Sunday is minimally very unwise. In the sense of working, he esteems this day different than another, while his brother esteems this day just like any other. So, whereas the brother who is mowing may be tempted to deride his brother for letting his grass grow on Sunday afternoon, the brother who thinks Christians must rest will be tempted to drive by his neighbor’s house, see him mowing, and think, “Sinner!” That’s why Paul exhorts the brother weak in his conscience not to pass judgment on the one who eats or considers all days alike.
But why shouldn’t he pass judgment on him if he thinks the practice is at best unwise? Paul gives us three reasons. First, he tells us in verse 3 that God approves of exercising the freedom. Paul writes, “Let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him.” In other words, God welcomes him to his table as he eats meat and drinks wine, so why should you judge him when he does what God welcomes?
Second, Paul reminds us that our brothers aren’t under our judgment but the Lord’s judgment. He writes, “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand” (v. 4). Now, it’s important to recognize at this point that we’re not talking about an issue of sin. Paul wouldn’t say, for example, “Do not pass judgment on your brother who is committing adultery.” He actually commands us in 1 Corinthians 5 to judge those inside the church who are walking in sin. He’s talking about issues of freedom, and he’s telling us that we don’t have to judge our brother for how he practices his freedom because we’re not his judge; God is.
Nor does Paul say this to suggest our brother will get it when he stands in judgment. Actually, right after saying that it is before the Lord that he will stand or fall, he tells us that God will enable him to stand on the day of judgment. That is to say, don’t judge him, God will, and God has already judged that we have freedom in this area and will uphold our brother on that day.
Finally, Paul tells us that we don’t pass judgment on the one who chooses to exercise his freedom because he is eating, or drinking, or treating all days alike “in honor of the Lord.” He writes in verse 6, “The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.”
You see, we need to understand that your brother isn’t eating or drinking in rebellion against God. He isn’t mowing his grass on Sunday afternoon in order to thumb his nose at God. He’s actually attempting to honor the Lord and give thanks to him, walking in the freedom God has given him. He eats his meat and drinks his wine, honoring the Lord and gratefully giving thanks to God for his gracious provision. He’s mowing his yard, thanking the Lord for the strength and ability to do this. Therefore, don’t judge your brother who is attempting to honor the Lord.
Thus, Paul tells the strong not to despise, mock, or ridicule the weak and the weak not to pass judgment on the strong. These are things we, in whatever category we find ourselves, must make sure to obey as well. And we can do this if we remember this important note:
Brothers and sisters, I recognize that what we’re talking about for a local congregation requires great maturity. It actually requires tremendous Christian maturity, grace, and charity to walk together well in unity with brothers and sisters who disagree with you in areas of freedom over which you feel strong conviction. But in addition to obeying the last two exhortations, we can aid ourselves by remembering and practicing the following things:
Paul says in verse 5, “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” Now, it is that last phrase about being fully convinced in our own minds that is crucial. In the text we’ll look next week, Paul will say in verse 14, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.”
In other words, Paul is telling us not to sear our consciences. He knows there’s nothing wrong with eating meat, for example. But if you think it’s sinful to eat meat, don’t do it. That would be sinning because you think what you’re doing is sinful. We see the same thing in children. Have you ever seen a child defiantly do something he thinks is wrong when it’s okay? It may be that eating that package of raisins is fine for him to do any time he wants, but if he’s eating, thinking his disobeying by doing it, then we’ve got a problem. He’s actually sinning. That’s what Paul is talking about. Each of us do what we are fully convinced will honor the Lord. And that leads us to our next note:
Paul just takes for granted that this is our heart in all matters. He says simply as a matter of fact that each group is doing what they’re doing with a desire to honor the Lord. And he then notes that everything in our life (or death) is about the glory of the Lord, writing, “For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living” (vv. 7-9).
This is how we must live, always remembering that we belong to the Lord at all times and are to live unto his honor and glory in everything. Thus, if as a congregation we seek to glorify the Lord in all matters, there is no need despising or passing judgment on one another in matters of freedom. Finally,
Paul ends by writing, “Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written, ‘As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.’ So then each of us will give an account of himself to God” (vv. 10-12).
Now the fact that we will stand before and give an account to the Lord is helpful in two ways. First, it’s helpful as we live our own lives. Let this motivate you to make decisions that honor and glorify the Lord. But it’s also helpful in that it frees you from passing judgment on your brother. After all, he’ll stand and give an account before Christ, not you, so entrust him to the Lord.
As I mentioned, I think this takes great maturity within a congregation to walk in unity as we disagree on matters of freedom—even matters where we have deep convictions. But as long as we do not despise one another, do not judge one another, and remember that we’re all living our lives before the Lord, before whom we’ll give an account, then I think it’ll help us walk with grace toward one another. And if we find that challenging, we need only remember the grace that we ourselves have been shown by one who was and is infinitely more righteous and wise than we are as Jesus lived, died, and was raised for us. Let us remember that now as we come to the table. Amen.
1 These exceptions include (but may not be limited to) if you’re under twenty-one or have entered a contract/agreement with an institution or employer not to drink alcohol. This would include, for example, Union students or students at any of our Southern Baptist Seminaries. It would also include, I believe, some employed by certain SBC entities. Also, it may be altogether unwise to consume alcohol if one has a history of sin in this area. So, there are no doubt many exceptions.