What’s a “Disputable Matter”?


(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.

About Jay F Guin

My name is Jay Guin, and I’m a retired elder. I wrote The Holy Spirit and Revolutionary Grace about 18 years ago. I’ve spoken at the Pepperdine, Lipscomb, ACU, Harding, and Tulsa lectureships and at ElderLink. My wife’s name is Denise, and I have four sons, Chris, Jonathan, Tyler, and Philip. I have two grandchildren. And I practice law.
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0 Responses to What’s a “Disputable Matter”?

  1. Jeff says:

    Interesting. I’ve never heard “matters of indifference” defined in that way. I would say it’s matters that *God* (not man) is indifferent to.

    I agree completely with your earlier statement, though: “It seems clear to me that “disputable matter” is any dispute that Christians might have and still be fellow Christians.” What is such a matter? One which doesn’t affect either’s state of salvation, since fellowship with each other depends first on fellowship with the Lord. What can sever that bond? Sin coupled with a lack of confession (I John 1:6-9) and repentance.

    So, what’s a “disputable matter”? That which isn’t sinful… that which God doesn’t care if we do or don’t do… a matter of indifference.

  2. Jay Guin says:

    Would it be your view that any sin not specifically confessed and repented of leaves the sinner in a lost state? If I commit a sin unaware of having done so (I didn't know it was a sin or I forgot a promise I made or I just forgot that I lost my temper and never asked forgiveness…) am a lost until I become aware of the sin?

  3. Jeff says:

    I think the question you’re asking is if one can repent of sins (change, not merely sorrow or apology) without being aware of them? What does the Bible say?

  4. Jay Guin says:

    (Acts 20:21) I have declared to both Jews and Greeks that they must turn to God in repentance and have faith in our Lord Jesus.

    (Acts 26:20) First to those in Damascus, then to those in Jerusalem and in all Judea, and to the Gentiles also, I preached that they should repent and turn to God and prove their repentance by their deeds.

    (Acts 17:30) In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.

    (Acts 2:38) Peter replied, "Repent and be baptized, every one of you, in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins. And you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.

    (Luke 17:4) If he sins against you seven times in a day, and seven times comes back to you and says, 'I repent,' forgive him."

    In each case, repentance is with regard to all sin, not just some particular sin. Repentance is to turn to God. If repentance is ineffective unless you actually defeat the sin repented of, then the only penitent people are those who no longer sin!

    Repentance is, however, shown by works, but this is because a changed heart will act differently, but not necessarily perfectly. If I repent of, for example, alcoholism, you'll see my efforts to overcome it, even though I may struggle and even relapse on occasion.

    Jesus' statement in Luke should be compared to the commands that teach us to forgive as God has forgiven us (e.g., Col. 3:13). If we are to forgive people who fail to stop sinning, then surely God will treat us the same way. God will, of course, insist on a heart truly turned toward him (and he knows) and expects that we will make an effort to do better, and that an effort will have an effect, but he doesn't expect us to completely stop sinning as a condition to forgiveness, or else there'd be no forgiveness.

    Sadly, we sometimes impose a stricter standard of repentance for doctrinal error than for moral error. The standard should be the same in both cases. In fact, the standard for moral sin should be, if anything, tougher, as moral sins are rarely committed in ignorance.

    On the other hand, this all assumes that you are in grace, that is, have been saved.

  5. Jeff says:

    I’m sorry; I wasn’t very clear with my previous post. Was in a bit of a hurry, and I apologize.

    Is confession of sins ever tied to either repentence or forgiveness? I’m thinking particularly of I John 1. The “walking in the light” passage here is usually used to justify some sort of “continuous cleansing,” but in fact, the means for being cleansed is given in verse 9. Or is it your belief that “confessing our sins” only means that “we confess we have sins”?

    Repentence is a turning. A change. (See Acts 3:19, for example) It seems of little use to try to separate the change of mind from the change of life. If the latter didn’t take place, neither did the former; nor can the latter occur without the former. While godly sorrow leads to repentence, repentence isn’t mere sorrow. I think we agree on this.

    So, the question we come down to is if one can remain habitually committing the same sin(s) and still be pleasing to God because of ignorance? If so, we need to burn our Bibles and stop teaching truth, because ignorance truly would be bliss.

  6. Jay Guin says:

    No, I don't think you have to confess a particular sin to be forgiven of that particular sin. I believe we've misread 1 John 1:9. The reasons are set forth beginning at p. 100 at http://jayguin.files.wordpress.com/2007/02/the-ho…. Other supporting arguments appear throughout the book, which I strongly suggest you download and read.

    But consider this. When we accept someone for baptism, we ask them to "repent," but not to confess every single sin ever committed. Nor do we expect them to repent in the sense that they never commit one of their former sins again. Rather, we want them to turn to the Lord, making Jesus Lord of their lives, and reform their lives. But this means trying from the depths of their hearts, but not necessarily getting it right every time on every point. And we consider all sins forgiven when the convert is baptized, even though we know the convert may struggle to live the life he has committed to.

    I would certainly agree that repentance includes fleeing willful sin. If you intentionally continue to sin, then you're lost under Heb. 10:26-27–after all, you've surrendered the repentance that was required for your salvation in the first place.

    But sinning out of ignorance is an entirely different matter. If I marry a Christian woman scripturally divorced and years later learn that her divorce was defective, then we've both been guilty of adultery, but I'm confident had we died before learning of this mistake, God would have considered our sins forgiven. Of course, once we learn of the mistake (are no longer ignorant), we'd have to separate until the divorce can be rectified.

    Just so, if after careful study, I teach the preterist view of Revelation and later conclude that the historicist view is right (I really don't know), I wasn't lost while teaching false doctrine. Rather, grace covers the error.

    On the other hand, grace doesn't cover how to get into grace. God won't overlook even the most innocent failure to have faith in Jesus. We shouldn't be afraid that by admitting the scope of God's grace we someone become universalists.

  7. Jeff says:

    If that’s the case, then don’t you do people (especially the divorced) a disservice by teaching them the truth? After all, if they can remain happily married and in an adulterous relationship without repentance, should you give them knowledge they may resist – and that will cause them suffering and pain even if they choose the right path?

    It would seem to me that under your conception of a continuous cleansing grace, ignorance is bliss and a proclaimer of truth would be the greatest villain there is.

    In fact, your appeal to Luke 17 undermines your case here. In v. 3, Christ tells His disciple to rebuke a brother that they see sinning. And the sinning brother is then to repent. Of what? Why, the sin he was just rebuked for – the one the other saw him commit!

    The other passages to which you refer could be talking in a more general sense. However, each one is addressing a non-Christian’s actions, not a Christian. In addition, passages such as Matthew 3:8-10, Isaiah 55:7, and Proverbs 28:13 show forsaking our sins is a part of turning toward God. Can one “repent” without changing?

  8. Jeff says:

    Ah, almost forgot.

    As far as the interpretation of Revelation goes, I don’t see anything in Scripture that would cause one to lose one’s soul by misunderstanding it. Provided one’s interpretation doesn’t blaspheme, doesn’t lead one to sin, doesn’t lead to the violation of one’s conscience, doesn’t cause dissension and division, etc.

    But passages such as II Peter 2 show that the doctrine being taught is “destructive” or “damnable.” Has to be something that causes one to sin in some way.

    And, before you get to it, instrumental music and the like cause at least two of the above, not to mention being presumptious.

  9. Jay Guin says:

    Regarding the divorced and remarried, please read my essay at /but-if-you-do-marry/.

    But let’s the case of a couple that’s been converted but who are living together. Should we tell them to stop? Well, of course. But why?

    Your entire line of thought is based on the assumption that the only thing that matters is rewards and punishments. I only obey for fear of hell, you seem to say. But the better view is that we obey out of love for Jesus and because we trust God that obedience is better for us and the world. And because obedience brings joy!

    By teaching the couple to give up sexual immorality, I bring them the BLESSING of obedience, not the BURDEN of one more rule. I show them one step among many toward being more like Jesus and one more way to please God. A Christian WANTS to obey and takes delight in God’s will.

    For example, if were to only help around the house for fear of being divorced, my marriage would be miserable. However, if I help because of the delight it brings my wife and because my heart has been so attuned to hers that I share her delight, then housework becomes a blessing both to me and to her–and my marriage is incalculably enriched.

    If my children only obey me because of fear of being disowned, I’m an ogre and very bad father. If they obey me out of love, respect for my greater wisdom, and because they care about the same things I care about, then I’m a father like God is a father.

    When I correct my child’s mistake, does he change from disowned to owned? Does he have to repent to remain my child? No. Does he have to change? Certainly, but for altogether different reasons.