NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER FOURTEEN (Lesson III)
Bible teacher H. A. Ironside offers his view on what Paul says here by pointing out that those unsure in their faith, that is, those whose uninformed consciences cause them to be troubled by things of little significance, are to be welcomed with open arms and not to be judged for their questionings or doubting thoughts. The principle is a far-reaching one and indicates the breadth of Christian love that should prevail over the spirit of legality into which it is so easy to fall. Seeing the full light on all issues is not the ground of being accepted as a believer in Christ. Having the life we all enjoy in Christ is the first requirement. All those who are children of God are to be recognized as fellow-members of the Body and, unless living in evident immorality are to be accorded their blood-bought place among all Christian believers. Wickedness and weakness are not to be misconstrued as being the same. The wicked person is to be dismissed, while the weak believer is to be welcomed and protected.1
F. F. Bruce gives us insight into Paul’s mind on this subject by noting that Paul enjoyed his Christian liberty to the fullest. Never was a Christian more thoroughly emancipated than he was from being chained to old Jewish traditions, rituals, and ceremonies. So completely was he liberated from spiritual bondage that he was not addicted to it anymore. He respected Jewish customs when he was in Jewish gatherings as cheerfully as he went along with Gentile mannerisms when he was among Gentiles. The interests of the Gospel and the highest well-being of men and women were paramount considerations with Paul. To these, he subordinated everything else. But he knew very well that many other Christians were not so completely independent as he was, and he insisted that these must be treated gently. A Christian’s faith in many respects might be weak, immature, and lacking in instruction but we must welcome them warmly as fellow Christians and not immediately challenge them to a debate about those areas of life in which they are still battling their conscience.2
John Stott sees Paul advocating a two-part positive principle. The first part is to accept those whose faith is weak (Verse 1a). We note that there is no attempt to conceal or disguise that these brothers and sisters were considered weak in their faith. They were easily convicted, immature, untaught, and as Paul’s unfolding argument makes clear, mostly mistaken. Nevertheless, they are not to be ignored or treated with disrespect. When this is done too early, they may not seek to be corrected. So they should be welcomed into the community of believers with open arms.
Having reflected on the acceptance part of this principle, Stott suggests we now take a look at the second part of the principle. This involves their qualifications as fellow believers without passing judgment on disputable matters (Verse 1b). Both Greek nouns used by Paul have a range of meanings. Dialogismoi (translated by KJV as “doubtful”) can mean “deliberating within oneself as to one’s purpose or design and questioning what is true, hesitating, doubting, disputing, arguing.” Then we have Diakrisis (translated by KJV as “disputations”), which can mean “passing judgment, discerning, or distinguishing.” Thayer in his Greek Lexicon defines it as “passing judgment on opinions to determine which is to be preferred as correct.”
Paul is saying that we should not be judgmental when receiving an immature Christian into the fellowship of believers, nor should we question such insecurities as evidence that they are not real believers. They should be welcomed “without debate over their misgivings or scruples” (Revised English Bible), or, “not for the purpose of getting into quarrels about opinions” (Bauer-Arndt-Gingrich-Danker Greek Lexicon). For Stott, this means that we are not to turn the church into a debate club whose chief characteristic is argumentation nor should the church become a court of law in which weak persons are put on the witness stand, interrogated, and arraigned. The welcome we give them must include respect for them as fellow Christians and their opinions.3
Current Bible commentator Douglas Moo feels that if we are to understand the point of this section as a whole, we must recognize that the phrase “whose faith is weak,” (which literally means, “one who is weak with respect to faith”) does have a special subtlety in meaning as Paul uses it in this context. “Faith” refers not directly to one’s belief generally but to one’s convictions about what that faith allows him or her to do. The weak in faith are not necessarily lesser Christians than the strong. They are simply those who do not think their faith allows them to do certain things that the strong feel free to do. Paul does not want the strong to begrudgingly offer tolerance to the weak but to welcome them (the Greek verb proslambano, used here, means to gladly receive or accept someone into one’s society, home, or circle of acquaintance). Believers should not allow differences over disputable matters to interfere with their full fellowship in the Body of Christ.4
One Jewish writer believes that the term “weak” must be understood in its Hebraic sense, where it carries the meaning of “unable” or “incapable,” with regard to their measure of faith. The Complete Jewish Bible renders it, “whose trust is weak.” The Hebrew verb kashal in Jewish Biblical literature has to do with “stumbling.”5 Paul actually introduced this concept back in chapter 4 of this letter, when he explained how Abraham’s faith was considered “strong” when he trusted in God’s promise even when circumstances dictated otherwise. This principle is important to understand when considering why Paul views his Jewish brethren who do not yet accept Yeshua to be “weak” in faith. Their faith is valid (as was Abraham’s prior to the binding of Isaac), but is weak in that they have not yet taken the step in trusting God by accepting Yeshua which is the “measure of faith.”6 This “measure of faith,” has nothing to do with the 613 commandments found in the Torah, since (as Paul teaches in chapter 4), Abraham had faith before the giving of the Torah and circumcision. The “strong” in faith are both Jews and Gentiles who are of the faith of Abraham, whose “strength” was shown long before the Law was given at Mount Sinai.7
Verses 2-3: Some people believe they can eat any kind of food, but those who have doubts eat only vegetables. Those who know they can eat any kind of food must not feel that they are better than those who eat only vegetables. And those who eat only vegetables must not decide that those who eat all foods are wrong. God has accepted them.
Now Paul more or less revisits what happened between him and the Apostle Peter at the church in Antioch where Paul accused Peter of being hypocritical for eating only with the Jewish members.8 Meanwhile, in Rome, it apparently had to do with meat purchased at the local market that was the same meat offered to idols. Paul had given advice on this to the Corinthians: “Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising questions of conscience, for the earth and everything in it belongs to the Lord.”9 “If some unbeliever invites you to a meal, and you want to go, eat whatever is put in front of you without raising questions of conscience.”10 In fact, Paul told Timothy that everything God made (not what man-made) that is good for us to enjoy it.11 And in the Book of Hebrews, we find this advice: “Do not be carried away by various strange teachings; for what is good is for the heart to be strengthened by grace, not by foods. People who have made these the focus of their lives have not benefited thereby.”12
But Paul’s point here is not an apology for vegetarians nor an endorsement for eating meat. He is talking about people developing a superiority complex by which they think so highly of the things they do that they speak disparagingly of those who disagree. Jesus gave a perfect description of such an attitude in his story of the prayer offered by a pious Pharisee compared to a prayer offered by a distraught tax collector.13 The story pointed out that there are some who trust in their own righteousness so much that they look down on everyone else, even holding them in contempt. Paul told the Corinthians: “Food will not bring us nearer to God. We are no worse if we do not eat it, or we are no better if we eat it.”14 Perhaps you have heard some Christians say derogatory things about those who do not fast as many days as they do, or pray as long each day as they pray.
I’m sure Paul was fully aware of the ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras and his argument for a vegetarian diet. We read that Greek teacher Pythagoras was born on the island of Samos in 580 BC and studied in what are now the countries of Greece, Egypt, and Iraq before establishing his school in southern Italy at the city of Crotone. While Pythagoras is famous for his contributions to math, music, science, and philosophy, it is his philosophy that is of particular interest. He taught that all animals, not just humans, had souls, which were immortal and reincarnated after death. Since a human might become an animal at death, and an animal might become a human, Pythagoras believed that killing and eating any animal tarnished the soul and prevented union with a higher form of reality. Additionally, he felt that eating meat was unhealthy and made humans wage war against one another. For these reasons, he abstained from meat and encouraged others to do likewise, perhaps making him one of the earliest campaigners for ethical vegetarianism.15 Greek philosophers Plato, Aristotle, Epicurus, plus Seneca and Plutarch (who both lived during the time of the Apostle Paul), were all influenced by this teaching of vegetarianism. So this was not a new subject to the Christians in Rome.
Paul also had the teaching of Jesus to point to on the subject of one believer using his own interpretation of the moral code to become the judge of another believer. In his Sermon on the Mount, Jesus told His listeners: “Don’t complain about what’s wrong in other people’s lives so other people won’t complain about what’s wrong in your life. You’ll end up being guilty of the same things you find in others because what you pointed out being wrong in their lives will be used against you in your life.”16 Jesus saw this first hand when some disciples of John the Baptizer complained that while they and the Jewish religious leaders fasted so their prayers could be more effective, Jesus’ disciples never fasted in order to improve their prayer life.17 Of course, Jesus compared their thinking to asking people to fast during a wedding banquet instead of enjoying a meal with the bride and groom.
1 Harry A. Ironside: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
2 F. F. Bruce: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., Vol. 6, p. 244
3 John Stott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
4 Douglas J. Moo: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
5 See Proverbs 4:12, 16, 19
6 Romans 12:3
7 Messianic Bible: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
8 See Galatians 2:11-21
9 Psalm 24:1; 50:12; 89:11
10 1 Corinthians 10:25-26
11 1 Timothy 4:4-5
12 Hebrews 13:9
13 Luke 18:9:14
14 1 Corinthians 8:8
15 Pythagoras: Encyclopedia Britannica
16 Matthew 7:1-2
17 Matthew 9:14