NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER FOURTEEN (Lesson II)
Luther looked around at the conditions of the church during his day and advised that everyone should carefully examine their intentions when they pray, or give an offering, or enter the choir loft, or what else they may do to discover whether they do all this of their own free will and not because they were told this is something they must do to prove themselves a true Christian. Then God will help them see themselves as He sees them. Everyone must live with their own conscience for the choices they make. They should not be pressured to do or not to do something different than they would do if it were left up to them alone to choose.1
Fellow reformer John Calvin sees Paul as laying down a principle that is necessary for the instruction of the Church – that they who have made the most progress in Christian doctrine should take the time to truly understand those who are less informed and employ their spiritual wisdom to help them deal with their misgivings. It is clear that among the people of God there are some less confident than others, and who, unless they are treated with great tenderness and kindness, will become discouraged and might feel alienated from their faith. It is highly probable that this was happening in Rome and elsewhere, especially at that time where many Churches were integrated with both Jews and Gentiles.
It would make sense then, that the Jews, who having been long accustomed to practicing the rites and rituals of the Law of Moses, having been brought up in them from childhood were not easily persuaded to give them up. At the same time, there were the Gentiles, who, having never practiced such things refused to be yoked together with the Jews in observing customs they were not familiar with. Calvin then goes on to note that Paul is uncomfortable with the Romans debating those questions which can disturb a person’s mind, especially those issues that have not yet been determined to be something that raises more questions about one’s faith. Furthermore, why bring up any difficult and challenging subjects by which those with weak consciences might become uncomfortable and distraught. First, we ought to consider what questions new Christians are seeking answers to and structure our teaching to the capacity of each individual to understand what is being taught.2
John Bengel makes an important point here about being careful when trying to persuade another believer to do what we are doing just because it’s okay with us. Anyone who tries to convince another person to go against their conscience will only cause them to have more doubts about their faith and their understanding of the Gospel. Paul calls it, “doubtful thinking,” for those who may be imagining more than they can understand or explain.3
Adam Clarke looks at the two Greek nouns combined here by Paul. One is translated by the KJV as, “doubtful” (Greek “dialogismos” – which means: “inward reasoning”), and the other, “disputations” (Greek “diakrisis” – which means: “passing judgment on opinions”). Clarke points out that these words have been variously translated and understood by various Bible scholars. So it is important that we do our research carefully before using them to teach new believers what the Bible says about the path they should follow in meeting the expectations of others.
Dr. Daniel Whitby believes we can understand how Paul uses these Greek nouns when we take them to mean overriding another person’s convictions with our own. We should never reject or dismiss anyone from our Christian circle because of their particular opinions on things which, in reality, are unimportant. There’s no reason to dig into their religious ethics, nor condemn them on what is found. Be courteous to fellow believers who are dealing with personal issues related to their faith rather than lecturing them and forcing them to change. It is alright to request more information on what they are dealing with, but only for better understanding. Never should it be made a matter of church doctrine.4
Robert Haldane addresses this subject of the unnecessary debating of insignificant matters. As always, there are many different interpretations of Paul’s words, but from Haldane’s point of view the meaning seems to be that when a believer encounters a brother or sister who is still uncertain about things they are doing they should not be pressured into accepting someone else’s view after engaging them in discussions on issues for which they have little knowledge. Such conduct would either end up causing a wound to their conscience or keep them from seeing the light on their own. Such disputes seldom bring about unanimity. It is very important that believers who have inadequate or uninformed views of any part of the Gospel be given the opportunity to study or read more in order to get a clearer picture of what the Bible teaches.
A good way to get this started is to avoid engaging them debates or arguments in areas of theology where they’ve had little instruction. To push them forward faster than they can absorb directions from the Word and Spirit of God will only cause them to stumble and injure their faith rather than making them strong. When it is necessary to explain to a less informed brother or sister involving things they may misunderstand as to what the Bible says, it is best to begin by building a foundation with the most fundamental truths they already accept. This will at least give them solid ground to stand on as they try to gain better understanding of higher discernment. This is called edification in that we are trying to build them up rather than tear them down. The whole purpose of this is to help them grow stronger in their faith and more mature in their comprehension of greater Biblical truths. When done this way we can count on the internal spiritual influence and guidance of the Holy Spirit to help both the one teaching and the one being taught.5
Charles Hodge offers his scholarly view by noting who these struggling believers in Rome were, and what was the nature of their ethical virtues being brought into doubt. Some say they were Jewish converts who were still holding on to their continued obligation to Ceremonial Law. But to this, it is questionable since it is reported that they abstained from all meats (verse 2,) and refused to drink wine (verse 21). These were things not prohibited in the Law of Moses. Others think they were persons who had misgivings about the use of foods which had been offered in sacrifice to idols and of the wine employed in making a toast to false gods. But for this, there is no clear evidence in the text. However, it is plain that these individuals held onto parts of Jewish Ceremonial Law which converts from among the Gentiles were not be likely to understand. But there is nothing inconsistent with the assumption that the fainthearted believers spoken of here were the highly scrupulous Jewish Christians.
Hodge tells us that Jewish historian Josephus records that some of the Jews in Rome lived exclusively on fruit out of fear of eating something unclean due to the way it was used by Gentiles. When Paul talks of people being weak in faith, he is referring to their uncertainty about understanding the truth of the Gospel. A person may be strongly persuaded as to certain truths, and yet very uncertain about other truths. Some of the early Christians were, no doubt, fully convinced that Jesus was the Messiah, and yet felt great doubts whether the distinction between clean and unclean meats was entirely done away with. This was certainly a great stumblingblock for some Christian because it arose from the want of an intelligent and firm conviction of their new freedom to be what they wanted to be in Christ and of the spiritual meaning of the Gospel. Since, however, this weakness was not inconsistent with sincere devotion to Christ, such persons were to be accepted as fellow believers6.7
Albert Barnes has his take on what Paul meant by doubtful debates. For him, the plain meaning is that believers should not open the door to people for the purpose of debating a matter in an angry and harsh manner. At the same time, don’t just send them away without them having a chance to explain their point of view. This will only confirm the doubts they already have. Furthermore, don’t try to persuade them to change their views on how they feel about certain foods, drinks, religious holidays, certain rites, rituals, ceremonies, etc.
The main point Paul is trying to make here is that they should not participate in any harsh and angry denunciation of other believers over things that are not scripturally wrong but are a matter of conscience based on what they have been taught or the customs and manners of their race or ethnic group. Rather than leading to more understanding, it will only generate more misunderstanding. To welcome them affectionately does not mean you automatically agree with them. But it does show that you are willing to talk freely and openly with them and to help them see other views. This will do more to help them trust you and confide in you about their feelings. So when it comes to questions about modes of dress, different modes of water baptism, serving communion, about other rites and ceremonies practiced by various congregations, this is by far the wisest way to address such issues if we wish to be helpful to a brother or sister as they deal with matters of conscience and conviction.8
Charles Spurgeon had an interesting way of illustrating what he hears Paul saying here. He did not think that is was worthwhile to go through a horse pond and get covered with filth just for the pleasure of taking a bath later! It may be that some strong person, like Samson, may have to go in among the Philistines and pull their temple down around their ears,9 but poor Hannah could not do that, and those who are like her – women with burdened hearts – had better go home and get out of the way of such troublemakers.10 They may even be contentious professors squabbling about this doctrine and that – and perhaps not understanding any of them properly – so the Savior said to the woman who touched the hem of his garment that because she dared to believe she now has the assurance of being made well again. And don’t let anyone try to take away her peace by persuading her otherwise.11 This is what the Apostle Paul means when he says to welcome those who are uncertain in their faith but without intending to engage them in doubtful disputes.”12
1 Luther: ibid., p. 197
2 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
3 John Bengel: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 350
4 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 267
5 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 594
6 See Acts 28:2; Romans 15:7; Philemon 1:15, 17
7 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 646-648
8 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
9 Judges 16:29
10 1 Samuel 1:3-7
11 See Mark 5:34; Luke 7:50
12 Charles Spurgeon: Sermon titled: “Go in Peace,” on the text: Luke 7:50, Delivered at the Metropolitan Tabernacle, Newington, England, Sunday evening, September 23, 1883