What Is Romans 14 About?
In order to answer our question let’s briefly notice what the Roman letter is about.
Justification by faith is the theme (1:16-17) and through chapter 11 this subject is developed. In chapter 12 the language changes and from a discussion of “doctrinal” themes Paul moves to a consideration of some “practical” matters. Having shown that they have been justified by faith, he now urges the Romans to live in a way that reflects that justification, and “therefore” in 12:1 signifies, “Because you’ve been justified by faith, here is the way you should live.” Those justified by faith have a wide range of duties to others who’ve been saved (12:1-21), obligations to civil government (13:1-7), and mankind in general (13:8-14). They also have responsibilities to one another as brethren in a more specific matter and this brings us to the section covered by 14:1-15:7.
Romans 14 is about “clean” things
When Paul said, “nothing is unclean of itself” (14:14) and “all things indeed are clean” (14:20b), he spoke of the disputable matters among the Roman brethren. Morally and spiritually the practices which were being engaged in or not being engaged in were pure. Likewise, they were of such a nature that, whether a man did or did not participate in the activities, “God hath received him” (14:3) and made him to “stand” (14:4), i.e., both the practices and those participating/not participating had God’s approval, whether they were “weak” or “strong”. Obviously, Paul is not talking about individuals who engage in such conduct as he had mentioned at the beginning of the letter (1:24-32) or that the Corinthians were rebuked for tolerating (1 Cor. 5), nor that which the Galatians were warned about (Gal. 5:19-21). Likewise, those choosing to “walk as the Gentiles” (Eph. 4:17-32) and not as “children of light” (Eph. 5:3-14) are not discussed. Things such as these are not under consideration in this chapter; it is not about removing restraints and objective standards of right and wrong.
Romans 14 is about divergent views
There were those in Rome who regarded as “unclean” things which were, in fact, “clean” (14:14,20b) and whose consciences led them to act accordingly. There were some, on the other hand, who recognized the moral and spiritual “cleanness” of these things and whose consciences led them to act in a different manner. Some could eat all things while others ate only herbs (14:2-3) and there were those who esteemed one day above another while some regarded all days alike (14:5-6). Paul called some of these brethren “weak” (14:1-2; 15:1) and others he said were “strong” (15:1). As stated previously, God accepted those in both “groups”.
Romans 14 is about being united
Twice in this section (14:1; 15:7) Paul issued a command to “receive” the “weak in faith” (a “welcome” that is accompanied by a “special interest on the part of the receiver, [The Expanded Vine’s, p. 860]). The apostle also ordered (15:2) the Roman saint to “please his neighbor” (“to strive to please; to accommodate one’s self to the opinions, desires, interests of others”, (Thayer, p. 72). And then there are the admonitions to “follow after things which make for peace, and things whereby we may edify one another” (14:19) and that “with one accord ye may with one mouth, glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (15:6). Paul obviously wanted the Romans united.
Romans 14 is about attitudes and conduct
In order to be united certain attitudes and conduct need to either be avoided or included in our character. Let’s look at what some of these are.
Receive each other (14:1; 15:7) “Receive” in 14:3 describes God’s reception of us. Luke uses it in Acts 18:26 to describe the treatment of Apollos by Acquilla and Priscilla, and in Acts 28:2 to illustrate the kindness of the barbarians toward Paul. It also defines the way in which Philemon was to treat the runaway Onesimus upon his return (Philem. 17). We are to receive one another “without passing judgment on disputable matters” (NIV, 14:1) and “even as Christ also received you.”
Don’t set at nought (14:3,10) Those whose consciences permitted them to do what others could not are ordered not to “treat with contempt” (Thayer, 225) or “look down on” (NIV) those with whom they differed, an all-too-common problem with those whose knowledge has led to arrogance (1 Cor. 8:1).
Don’t judge (14:3-4, 10, 13) Paul is concerned that those whose consciences don’t allow them certain liberties which others take, not pass condemnatory judgment on those with whom they differ and reminds them that such judgment is forbidden because only one is our Judge (vss. 9-12).
Don’t cause to stumble (14:13b, 21) Those justified by faith will not cause another to stumble (sin) by providing an occasion for such. Conduct like this would cause a brother or sister to violate their consciences, causing them to grieve (14:15) and thus destroying (14:15) or overthrowing (14:20) them (“to destroy utterly, to overthrow completely, Vine, p. 294).
Follow after (14:19). “Follow after” is translated “persecute” elsewhere (Matt. 5:10-12) and demands a diligent effort (see also Eph. 4:3, “give diligence”) of striving for an atmosphere in which peace and edification are possible.
Faith (14:22) Have that (subjective) faith in those matters we’ve determined to be “clean” or “unclean” (vs. 14) to ourselves before God and at the same time be of the same mind, and with one accord, glorify God (15:6) along with those we have differences with.
Bear infirmities (15:1). Make whatever concessions need to be made and in so doing fulfill the final injunction…
Please your neighbor (15:2-4). Act in an inoffensive way in order that the consciences of others not be troubled.
Romans 14, then, is about maintaining unity in the midst of the type of diverse situations such as those Paul describes in this context, and the attitudes and conduct which will either bring about this unity or destroy it. Those who have been justified by faith should consider this is a serious responsibility.
By David Smitherman
From Expository Files 11.12; December 2004