(Rom. 14:1) Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters.
Whenever we in the Churches of Christ discuss the scope of grace, Romans 14 inevitably comes up. One side argues that certain doctrinal issues are disputable matters (KJV: “doubtful disputations”) and hence covered by grace. The other side says only matters of indifference are disputable matters, that is, only questions that God does not answer in the pages of the Bible.
While there are many other passages that bear on the question, Romans 14 seems to be pointed specifically at that question. And so–is a disputable matter only such questions as what color to paint the foyer? or does disputable matters include such questions as instrumental music?
Rom. 14. involves two disputes: whether Christians may eat meat and whether Christians should celebrate holy days. Now, within the Churches of Christ, vegetarianism has never been an issue, but treating some days as more sacred than others has been for at least the last 100 years.
It seems clear to me that “disputable matter” is any dispute that Christians might have and still be fellow Christians. It may be more helpful to say that a “disputable matter” is anything we are disputing over other than–
* denying faith in Jesus (1 John 4:2-3 says you are lost if you don’t believe in Jesus.);
* denying Jesus as Lord (Heb. 10:26-27 says you’re lost if you no longer repent, that is, if you willfully continue to sin. This doesn’t mean that you must repent perfectly, only that you must genuinely make Jesus Lord of your life and keep him there.); or
* denying Jesus as Saviour (Gal. 5:4-6 says that if you seek salvation through law rather than faith, you’re obligated to obey all of God’s law, which is impossible.)
Obviously enough, Paul is not treating the plan of salvation as a disputable matter. He is writing to Christians, and only Christians have their errors covered by grace.
I reject the notion that Rom. 14 deals only with matters of indifference for these reasons:
The topics Paul was discussing were not matters of indifference to the people disputing or to Paul.
We dispute over whether one day is more sacred than another even today! Some insist that Sunday is the Christian Sabbath and so must be a day of rest. Others consider that Sunday is the day to go to church but that work on Sunday is no sin. And we dispute over whether a church may celebrate Easter. Christmas is even more controversial.
Clearly, if we were discussing whether Sunday is bound on Christians as a day of rest, we’d be discussing a doctrinal issue, and both sides would be citing scripture to make their point.
Moreover, Paul plainly condemns binding holy days in Col. 2:16-17 and Gal. 4:9-10. And in Rom. 14:14 and 1 Cor. 10:25, Paul concludes that it’s permissible to eat meat. These questions didn’t come to Paul as matters of indifference! Rather, Paul gave us very clear, very specific answers.
Paul declared that those in error would be saved–but only by grace.
(Rom. 14:4) 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.
Paul’s language is metaphorical but clear. The man who is in error will “stand” despite his error because God will “make him stand,” that is, grant grace so he can stand even though he cannot stand on his own.
Why would grace be needed unless the man is guilty of sin? No grace is needed for matters of indifference! And you can’t sin unless the answer has been revealed.
How can we dispute over matters if they’re not disputable?
It seems just so obvious that the very fact we’re disputing over the question (and we’re both Christians) means the question is disputable! Isn’t that definitional?
Some say the distinction is between clear and unclear questions. But in so saying, they make themselves the judges of everyone else. Just because it’s clear to me doesn’t mean it’s clear to you! Which of our consciences will God use as the test of “clear”? Pray to God it’s not God’s, because then we’re all lost! And if it’s not God’s knowledge of doctrine, why yours and not mine?
There is no great objective test in the sky of what is clear. And my experience is that there are many among us who declare something “clear” when they are in fact wrong to the point of absurdity! In fact, I’ve been absurdly wrong, and so I know it happens. And so, should I judge the clearness by my current level of understanding? Last year’s? Or next year’s?
This whole idea of distinguishing clear from unclear questions is hopeless. If it was all that clear, why would entire congregations of highly educated people, with gobs of Bible education, still be in disagreement? Why would church divisions on many of these questions last for decades if not centuries?
Of course, many object to this line of reasoning. Here are some objections and my responses.
Some argue that Paul declared these issues matters of indifference. And Paul did indeed say that both sides of the issues would be saved–but by grace. Moreover, as previously noted, Paul gives very definite answers to these questions, meaning it’s quite possible to be in sin as to these questions by practicing or teaching error.
If we were arguing about whether Sunday is a day of rest or whether we may serve fried chicken at a covered dish meal, we’d unquestionably treat these as doctrinal issues today!
But there’s a more subtle mistake being made here, and it’s one very pertinent to the Churches of Christ of today. You see, when you and I dispute over whether a question is a law, if you think it’s not a law, you say it’s a matter of “opinion.” But if seek to bind the law, I say it’s a matter of “faith.” You say it’s a disputable matter, and I say it’s not disputable at all.
Nearly every issue that has divided the Churches of Christ (and there have been many!) are faith/opinion disputes. And since only the more “liberal” side says it’s a disputable matter, the more “legalistic” side always insists on breaking fellowship.
Paul shows shows us how to break this impasse. He tells the sacred day celebrators (the “faith” side), “Stop passing judgment on one another” (v. 13). But he also tells the anti-sacred day celebrators (the “opinion” side), “Stop passing judgment on one another” (also v. 13). You see, his commands are carefully, precisely parallel. The commands not to judge and not to look down on our brothers (v. 3) are binding BOTH on the man who thinks it’s a faith issue and the man who thinks it’s an opinion issue!
Of course, this has to be the answer! If this isn’t, then the “faith” brother will never unite with the “opinion” brother, and we’ll just go on splitting and splitting every time some preacher decides an issue is a faith issue.
After all, there is little real value in the opinion brother refusing to judge the faith brother if the faith brother insists on judging the opinion brother. Fellowship only exists in fact if both brothers extend fellowship to the other. How can you shake hands with someone who won’t shake back?
Paul intended to provide a realistic, practical, working solution–not just a means of feeling morally superior to our weaker brothers. This was to supposed to lead to actual unity, not just a willingness by one side to unite and a refusal by the other.
Moreover, Paul did not answer the sacred-day question in Romans. Why not, when he so vigorously condemned those wanting to celebrate sacred days in Col. and Gal.? What’s different about the sacred days in Rom. 14?
(Col. 2:16-17) Therefore do not let anyone judge you by what you eat or drink, or with regard to a religious festival, a New Moon celebration or a Sabbath day. 17 These are a shadow of the things that were to come; the reality, however, is found in Christ.
(Gal. 4:9-11) But now that you know God–or rather are known by God–how is it that you are turning back to those weak and miserable principles? Do you wish to be enslaved by them all over again? 10 You are observing special days and months and seasons and years! 11 I fear for you, that somehow I have wasted my efforts on you.
In both passages, it’s clear that sacred days were being turned into salvation issues. The problem wasn’t so much that they wanted to rest on a Saturday as they were treating these practices as essential to being right with God. See also Col. 2:8 and Gal. 5:4-6.
The sin in Galatia and Colosse was binding something as a condition to remaining saved other than continuing to accept Jesus as the Christ, Lord, and Savior. Paul says, in effect, “Don’t let them judge you by this!” and “Don’t be enslaved by this!”
The reason Paul considers that the Galatians have fallen from grace and that the Romans will stand is that the Romans were not making these disputes into matters of “faith” while the Galatians were.
And here’s a key point: faith in the New Testament is faith in Jesus–not faith in a cappella music, or support for orphans’ homes, or what have you. JESUS! Look it up. And if that’s true, then the only matter of faith is, well, faith.
But, as previously noted, faith has three key elements. First, faith is all about the events of the gospel, the fact that Jesus is the Messiah, crucified, buried, and resurrected.
Second, faith is also faith in Jesus as Lord, that is, someone to be obeyed. Obedience demonstrates faith because faith includes repentance.
(Rom. 10:9-10) That if you confess with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you confess and are saved.
Third, faith includes reliance on the blood of Jesus for salvation.
(Rom. 10:13) “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved.”
Of course, salvation isn’t referring to those who say “Lord, Lord,” but those who count on Jesus for salvation, rather than their own works (Gal. 5:4-6).
Because faith includes the Lordship of Jesus, then it makes perfect sense when Paul says,
(Rom. 14:23) But the man who has doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.
He’s not saying you have to have authority for everything you do. Rather, Paul is saying you have to act out penitence, that is, honoring Jesus as Lord. If you act contrary to what you think Jesus wants, then you are not making Jesus Lord, and so you are not acting in accordance with your faith.