(Rom 14:13b ESV) 13b rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.
Paul is ever the pastor, and while he is very concerned that we not divide over differences, he is also concerned that our differences not lead to subjective sin.
(Rom 14:14 ESV) 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.
Paul does not content himself with teaching what is true: “Nothing is unclean in itself.” Why not stop there? Because he realizes that not everyone will be persuaded in his heart — even if taught by an apostle from the Lord! Humans are frail, weak beings. We struggle to align our consciences with our intellect. We can know something is not sin and still feel like sinners when doing it.
And Paul recognizes the severe peer pressure that community life brings.
(Rom 14:15-16 ESV) 15 For 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. 16 So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil.
“Destroy” is a word often used of the fate of the damned at Judgment. Paul is speaking literally of a brother falling away — becoming damned — because a stronger brother chooses to exercise his faith in an unloving way.
If a Christian eats food sacrificed to an idol, knowing that there are no idols and the pagan ritual was meaningless, he has a strong faith. But a weak Christian, freshly converted from paganism, may see his brother as a rank sinner, worshiping idols in the love feast among Christians. He’d be appalled. Worse yet, the peer pressure of eating in community may lead him to eat what he considers sinful, and thus to sin in his heart — which Paul sees as a very serious offense. After all, each sin we commit makes the next one easier, hardening our consciences. And the result is the same even if we’re wrong and it’s not really sinful.
(Rom 14:17-18 ESV) 17 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. 18 Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men.
The essence of Christianity is not what we do or don’t eat. It’s about bigger things.
“Righteousness” in Romans is about being like God, who is faithful to his covenant to forgive those with faith. It includes many things, including graciousness and generosity.
“Peace” in Romans is about right relationships, being restored to right relationship with God and with our fellow man.
“Joy” is, of course, a gift from God that comes from receipt of the Spirit.
Rare would be the Church of Christ preacher who declares, “For the kingdom of God is … a matter … of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” We want it to be about how we organize our churches and conduct our assemblies, but at its core, the Kingdom is about becoming like God by sharing in his heart and being restored to right relationships with God and with our fellow man — which results in God-given joy.
And knowing this puts our priorities straight. We should be much more about healthy, spiritual relationships with each other than tempting one another to sin and dividing just to prove how very smart we are.
(Rom 14:18-19 ESV) 18 Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. 19 So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.
Note v. 18 well. Paul tells us plainly that the test of what is acceptable is “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” That’s very, very far removed from how we often teach and think. But this language fits perfectly with Kingdom theology and the narrative of the scriptures.
Therefore, our discipline is to build each other up and to pursue peace. Blessed are the peacemakers.
(Rom 14:20-23 ESV) 20 Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. 21 It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble. 22 The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves. 23 But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.
Now, being disciplined is not always easy. But here’s what I read Paul to be saying —
* The peace of the local congregation is of paramount importance because Jesus came to restore us to right relationships with each other and with God. Don’t let issues of food and drink (or whatever else is the controversy of the day) destroy that peace.
* The burden is on both sides. Neither side gets to claim to be the weak brother and make demands on the other side. This is not about getting your way. Indeed, it’s about not getting your way.
* Don’t condemn. Don’t look down on your brother. Don’t judge.
* Don’t tempt anyone to sin against his or her conscience.
* You win by not getting your way — by submitting to your brother. The path to peace is submission and redefining a “win.” A win is peace, not getting your way.
* Thus, Christians who’ve been baptized for 30 years aren’t allowed to claim “weaker brother” status as leverage on others. This is about submitting, not compelling others to submit. That’s the opposite of submission. It’s control. Both sides submit. Neither side controls the other side.
Now, working these principles out in practice is really hard — in part because we’ve been trained by experts to use these principles to destroy harmony and to damn each other — showing just how perverse our preaching can sometimes be.
For example, a church wishes to introduce a second service with instruments. Some members consider instrumental music sin. Some are theologically okay with instruments but hate the thought of no longer being a “Church of Christ,” because in their minds, our identity is defined by a cappella singing, not by our relationship with Jesus.
Those who advocate for the second service are motivated by a desire for improved evangelism and to keep their children in the church. Those who are opposed are motivated by sincerely and deeply held beliefs. The elders decide to add the second service.
Those who oppose the instrument could argue that they are the weaker brothers (admitting they are in error, I suppose, but any knife will do in a knife fight) and that therefore the “stronger brothers” (who they actually believe are weaker) should submit to them under Romans 14.
Those who favor the instrument would never take the position of “weaker brother,” but would acknowledge that they should not place a stumbling block before their brothers — meaning they should not tempt them to sin against their consciences. Thus, they readily agree to maintain the a cappella service so that no one is forced to sing with an instrument.
But there are other issues. We’ll take them up next.