NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER FOURTEEN (Lesson V)
H. A. Ironside sees this seething controversy not as something involving new converts wanting to join the church in Rome, but those who were already a part of the congregation. So these were not people who rarely attended worship or participated very little in fellowship, these were members already inside and fully engaged in the congregation. Paul said that such individuals just starting out on their Christian journey should not be looked down upon coldly and unappreciated because of their doubtful thoughts but received warmly and cordially with the idea that their easily offended consciences should be carefully considered when suggesting any changes they should make.
Paul advises caution, however, because the one being dealt with might be one who is still under Law as to things clean and unclean or one who has difficulty grasping the importance of certain holy days. In the first case, the believer who is strong in the liberty that is in Christ believes they may, as a Christian, eat all things without raising any questions as to their ceremonial cleanness under the Law of Moses. Then there is the more cautious believer, who is so afraid of defilement that they subsist only on a vegetable diet rather than possibly partaking of what has been offered to idols and not considered as “kosher”1 according to Levitical Law. The one who is “strong” must not look with contempt upon their over-scrupulous fellow believer. On the other hand, the weak are forbidden to accuse the stronger of insincerity or inconsistency.2
Karl Barth has an interesting way of treating this subject on being tolerant with one another’s preferences. He says that those who have a carefree and unattached manner of living only reflect one of many variations of lifestyles that people choose for themselves. But at the same time, it is one of the most subtle because it lacks specific characteristics. That’s why many people shake their heads at such happy-go-lucky individuals and go on with their own lives. That makes it hard to point to any particular thing they do but point to the person in particular. In other words, when something is done that some object to it’s not the action that gets the attention but the person themselves. You’ll overhear it explained this way, “Oh that’s just the way he or she is.”
What Paul is pointing out here is how this all fits into a harmonious fellowship. Certainly, any action that might offend a few would clearly question the value of having such an individual in the group. They may be peculiar, but does their peculiarity help anything? Everyone must be aware that there are many possibilities on how to handle things such as what ethics and virtues are required. The strong believers in the group are not those who always have their way, but the ones who are willing to abstain if they know it helps someone whose faith is just beginning to blossom.3
Douglas Moo gives us his impression of what Paul was dealing with here. He sees Paul trying to get both groups to change their attitude toward the other. The mature believers should stop “looking down on” the immature. The English translation can be stronger than what the KJV supplies because the Greek verb exoutheneo has in this context the nuance of “reject with contempt.”4 But the weak are also at fault. They must stop “criticizing”(Greek krino) the strong believers. Krino means to pronounce doom on a person, to deny someone’s right to call themselves a sanctified Christian. Paul will later argue that only God has the right to make such a determination. But here he points to a more specific issue: God has accepted the strong and weak believers alike. So how can we reject anyone from our fellowship whom God has accepted? This constitutes Paul’s theological bottom line in his critique of judgmentalism in the church.5
One Jewish writer shares his thoughts on Abraham’s faith related to this subject. As he sees it, Abraham was counted as being right with God, not due to his efforts of faith but due to his decision to trust in God despite the circumstances. This theme is continued in verses 19 and 20 in this chapter to show that his faith was not “weak.” That’s why Paul points to Abraham to teach us that there is one “work” that we can and must do in order to achieve salvation. We must choose to “trust God” as Abraham did. All else was out of his hands as it is ours. This is consistent with what the Talmud teaches.6 In the words of Rabbi Hanna, everything is in the hands of God except reverence for God.7 This means that all a person’s qualities are fixed by nature but their moral character depends on their own choices.8
Verse 4: You cannot judge the servants of someone else. Their own master decides if they are doing right or wrong. And the Lord’s servants will be right because the Lord is able to make them right.
As we can see from this verse, Paul speaks of “belief” as something a person hears or is taught or preached to them. But it goes beyond their conviction that what they heard is true; that what the preacher is saying is real. Instructing a new believer should concentrate on their relationship with God and other spiritual matters, not just on their fellow Christians and man-made rules of the church. It is one thing to instruct and build up a new believer in the Lord and quite another thing to go over the line with personal preferences. In an effort to counsel them, we may end up overriding their level of understanding and replace it with our personal convictions based on custom or tradition. This has been especially true when older Christians attempt to emphasize practical theology rather than systematic theology. Both are needed, but teaching a person how to decorate and furnish a house before they are taught how to lay the foundation and build is a waste of valuable time and very confusing. Remember, when one plants a new tree, they may not know what the tree will look like later. But, let it grow and sink its roots deeper and its fruit will soon identify it for what it is. Then it can be pruned and watered to make it grow stronger.
Now Paul elevates his argument to another level. Not only are we admonished not to judge one another on things that really have nothing to do with salvation but are designed to define Christian conduct, but Paul says we have no right to tell the master of another house how to treat their servants. This is especially true of how God treats His children. Peter learned this at Cornelius’ house.9 No doubt that testimony of Peter made a great impression on Paul. In fact, he told the Corinthians that they should think of one another as servants who are owned by Christ.10 Today we could liken this to one pastor telling another pastor how to treat his or her congregation.
The Apostle James seems to have encountered a similar attitude, so he wrote: “Christian brothers, do not talk against anyone or speak bad things about each other. If a person says bad things about his brother, he is speaking against him. And he will be speaking against God’s Law. If you say the Law is wrong, and do not obey it, you are saying you are better than the Law.” Of course, James was not talking about those things the Scriptures clearly identify as sin and an abomination to God’s sense of holiness. But those that are man-made rules imposed by a congregation. That’ why he continued: “Only God can say what is right or wrong. He made the Law. He can save or put to death. How can we say if our brother is right or wrong?”11
But Paul has another thing he wants to emphasize. That is, while we may desire, and even need, the advice, help, and encouragement of our fellow believers, it is God’s approval that matters most. In his prayer to God, David had this to say: “My steps have followed Your paths. My feet have not turned from them.”12 That path not only includes the path of righteous living described in Psalm 1 but where that path leads according to God’s destiny for the believer’s life. In another Psalm, David proclaimed that the Lord upholds those who do what’s right,13 and if they stumble He won’t let them fall but will grab them by the hand.14 That’s because: “The Lord loves what is fair and right. He will not abandon the people who belong to Him. He will treasure them forever.”15 That allowed Isaiah to tell the children of Israel: “He gives strength to the weak. And He gives power to him who has little strength.”16
Jesus confirmed this commitment of God to His chosen, especially those who faithfully serve Him: “My Father Who gave them to Me is greater than all. No one is able to take them out of My Father’s hand.”17 It doesn’t mean that God will hold onto someone who is kicking and screaming, “Let me go!” But it does mean that as long as we hold on to Him He will never let go of us. Paul made this abundantly clear to the Roman believers earlier in this letter.18 Peter shared the same thought with his readers: “You are being kept by the power of God because you put your trust in Him.”19 And Jude ended his letter with the same promise: “There is One Who can keep you from falling and can bring you before Himself free from all sin. He can give you great joy as you stand before Him in His shining-greatness.”20
Early church scholar Augustine notes that Paul asked: “Who are we to pass judgment on others?” Augustine tells us that Paul had a reason for asking this question. He says that when something might be done with either good or bad motives we should leave the judgment up to God and not presume that we can rightly judge the other person’s heart. But when it comes to things which could not have been done with good and innocent intentions, it is not wrong if we inform the wrongdoer that this is not in accordance with God’s Word. So when it comes to what foods to eat, that’s another story, Paul does not want anyone but God to be the judge. But in the case where Paul sharply rebukes the son who is having intimate relations with his stepmother, Paul is teaching us to speak up if we see that it is wrong.21 For that man could not possibly claim that he committed such a gross act of indecency with good intentions. So we must share our opinion on things which are obviously wrong.22
1 In Hebrew, “Kashrus,” from the root kosher (or “Kasher”), means suitable and/or “pure,” thus ensuring fitness for consumption. The laws of “Kashrus” include a comprehensive legislation concerning permitted and forbidden foods.
2 Harry A. Ironside: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
3 Karl Barth: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
4 See Acts of the Apostles 4:11; 1 Thessalonians 5:20
5 Douglas J. Moo: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.,
6 Messianic Bible: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
7 Babylonian Talmud: Seder Zera’im, Masekhet Berachoth, folio 33b
8 Babylonian Talmud: ibid, footnote (25)
9 Acts of the Apostles 11:16-17
10 1 Corinthians 4:1
11 James 4:11-12
12 Psalm 17:5
13 Ibid. 37:17
14 Ibid. 37:24
15 Ibid. 37:28; See Psalm 119:116-117
16 Isaiah 40:29
17 John 10:29
18 Romans 8:31-39
19 1 Peter 1:5a
20 Jude 1:24 – New Life Version
21 I Corinthians 5L1
22 Augustine: On Romans 79