NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER FOURTEEN (Lesson XV)
Robert Haldane comes to the conclusion that Paul’s admonition now appears to be addressed to both Jews and Gentiles. The Apostle having asserted what was peculiar to each group, now declares what is equally applicable to both. Criticizing or condemning was not particularly the fault of just one side; both of them were criticizing and condemning each other. The strong believers who despised the weak virtually criticized them by condemning them. At the same time, the weak believers who condemned the strong were, in fact, criticizing them because they despised them. So neither group could claim to be holier than the other. Paul now focuses on both and warns them to be cautious. He extends this exhortation to himself, and to the whole Body of Christ. First, they are not to assume authority over one another, nor to take for granted that they have the right to criticize one another concerning such small matters. Secondly, Christians are to avoid doing anything that has the danger of making someone else stumble, or cause anyone to fall back into their old habits. This is particularly applicable to the strong, who, by an improper use of their liberty might convince weaker believers to go against their conscience.1
Charles Hodge too sees the importance of the responsibility on the part of any strong believer for their weaker brother or sister when it came to dietary or moral liberties. They are not to feel as though they automatically have the authority to judge their shortcomings. Hodge points to Paul’s instructions in the previous discussion, that everyone should leave the office of judging in the hands of God. Now he’s ready to introduce the second leading topic of this chapter, namely, the manner in which Christian liberty is to be exercised. Paul teaches that it is not enough that some are persuaded that a certain type of behavior is, in itself, considered right in order for them to act in some particular way. They must be careful that they do not injure others in the use of their liberty. The word “judge,” also means, “to determine, to make up one’s mind.” Paul first uses it in the one sense and then in the other: “Do not judge one another, but determine to avoid giving offense.” The Greek noun proskomma rendered first as “stumblingblock,” and skandalon then rendered as “an occasion to fall” (KJV), do not differ in their meaning. Proskomma is simply a narrower interpretation of skandalon.2
Albert Barnes sees a moral component in what Paul is saying here. If a person finds themselves in a position to critique others, then they should go about in the best and most constructive way. For Barnes, this means reaching a conclusion without doing harm to the cause of Christ or to their fellow believers. Some people have been placed in positions where they must sit in judgment and draw a conclusion. But let them do so without doing any injury or harm to the one being judged. Rather, inspire them to change their ways for the good. So, instead of first forming an opinion on whether or not another person’s actions were right or wrong, begin by determining if their own conduct in judging others will be right or wrong.3
Frédéric Godet finds a subliminal thought here in what Paul says. He notices that after Paul addressed the strong and the weak simultaneously, the Apostle further gives a warning to the strong to persuade them not to use their liberty except in conformity with the Law of Love. It must be observed, however, Paul had nothing similar to recommend to the weak. That’s because someone who is emotionally committed to a strong opinion finds it hard to change their mind. On the other hand, someone who feels free to change may see no problem in waiving their liberty to do something in favor of the one who is struggling with what they see them doing. To induce the strong believer to sacrifice their liberty, the Apostle asks them to take the following two judgment methods into consideration: First, their duty not to wound the heart of the weak by making them feel guilty.4 Secondly, be careful not to destroy God’s work within the heart of the weak believer that would result in their being persuaded to go against their conscience out of fear5.6
Even though Charles Spurgeon preached to his congregation dealing with this subject, using the ethics and virtues of the mid-1800s in England. It is obvious that he confronted some of the same attitudes we see prevalent in the church today. First, he asked them why is it that so many believers seem to think that they are superior to others? Then, where do they get the idea that it is alright for them to criticize the Lord’s other servants? Spurgeon knew of some Christians in his congregation who not only formed unsubstantiated opinions but sought severe punishment without due process. They did this on nothing more than rumors. Furthermore, when they heard of what someone they never met or even knew was reported to have done this or that, without any facts whatsoever, they demanded that this individual be openly rebuked.
Spurgeon considered this to be a product of their obstinate prejudices and biases. Furthermore, they seemed to have no problem taking what this person may or may not have said, then twisting the words to mean what they wanted them to mean. They didn’t bother to find out if that individual even said such things. But Spurgeon wasn’t finished, there were even others who without so much as having a right, or a reason, or an excuse to condemn them, went ahead and wished bad things against a fellow believer they didn’t even know.7 Back then, such rumors or insinuations were passed on from one to another by mouth. So it took days or even weeks before the word was out. But today, such vitriol can be shared with, if not millions on social media. The sad thing is, once it goes out it is impossible to reel it back in.
John Stott gives a good explanation of the two words used here that are characteristics that strong believers should avoid developing or becoming. He points out that there is a play on words in the Greek text which contains a double use of the verb krinein, “to judge.” We see it in the following words from Paul: “Let us, therefore, cease judging one another, but rather make this simple judgment…”8 The judgment or decision which we are to make is to avoid putting either a hindrance (proskomma) or a snare (skandalon) in our brother or sister’s path, causing them to trip and fall.9 In other words, there are two ways that strong Christians can use insights and wisdom to counsel a weaker Christian. One is to always keep their best interests in mind and design their counseling to assist them in discovering the source of their weakness so they can end up helping themselves. The other is not make them feel ashamed and pressure them into repenting and making a change to comply with the stronger believer’s opinion. By doing so, it only puts a stumbling block in their path and lays a trap for them in uncharted territory.
Jewish writer David Stern has an interesting interpretation of what Paul is instructing believers to do here. He notes that the teaching presented in this verse expresses the same central point found in a Jewish Midrash (Commentary) on Leviticus 19:14, where it says: “You are not to place a stumbling block before the blind,” or, more generally, “you are not to bring cruel unintended harm upon someone who is helpless.” The Rabbis interpreted “blind” metaphorically to mean “those unlearned in the Torah.” This meaning for “blind” would include both those whom Paul calls weak in trust but inclined to ridicule, and those he considers strong in trust but inclined to pride. Until their attitudes change, both are relatively helpless. It is wrong to for those who judge to charge others of sinning, either in fact or according to their opinion.10
When professor Stern mentioned how the Rabbis interpreted the term “blind,” he was referring to a portion of the book containing Jewish civil and ceremonial law and legend called the Talmud where Rabbis are discussing charging interest on loans, forbidding that one Jew to do so to another. Rabbi Abaye said it would be like putting a stumbling block in the path of a blind person.11 And in another place, we find where Rabbi Simeon ben Eleazar was talking about the principle involved where Jews allowed sharecroppers to lease their land for farming. The Rabbi said, that if a Gentile sharecropper who leased the land was told by the Jewish owner not to work the land on certain Jewish holy days, most likely they would obey. But if a Samaritan rented the land was told the same thing, they would no doubt disobey. Rabbi Eleazar is convinced, that not only would a Samaritan not obey but would tell the Jewish owner of the land: “Do you think I’m that stupid?” If that is so, why should the Jew insist on leasing the land to a Samaritan when they could have leased it to a Gentile without having such problems? As the Rabbi sees it, what the Jew is doing is the same as placing a stumbling block before the blind. He mentions that this would make the Jew responsible for two errors. First, leasing his land to a Samaritan. And secondly, thereby placing a stumbling block before a blind person,12 So we can see that placing a stumbling block or trap in the path of a weaker believer can be the result of the stronger believer insisting that they must always have their way.
Verse 14: I know that there is no food that is wrong to eat. The Lord Jesus is the one who convinced me of that. But if someone believes that something is wrong, then it is wrong for that person.
Some might think that the Jewish members of the church in Rome would be offended by such talk of eating non-kosher food or drink. But we find that Rabbi Moses Maimonides points to a situation where a Jewish army enters the territory of Gentiles to conquer and take them captive, are permitted during the invasion to eat meat from animals that died without being ritually slaughtered or which were called trefe [non-kosher], and the flesh of pigs and similar animals if they become hungry and can only find these forbidden foods to eat. Similarly, they may drink wine used in the worship of idols. This license is derived by the writers of ceremonial law from Deuteronomy 6:10-11: “God… will give you… houses filled with all the good things such as pigs necks and the like.”13
Today we call this “situational ethics.” In other words, something that is considered wrong can in certain circumstances be considered right. American Episcopalian priest and professor Joseph F. Fletcher offered this illustration in his book on Situation Ethics: A German woman in a Russian Concentration Camp learned that the Russians let pregnant women leave. She had not seen her husband or children for some time. So she talked a Russian guard to commit adultery with her so she could go back home to her family. Therefore, while adultery is forbidden by God’s Word, it should be considered the right thing to do under such circumstances.
1 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., pp. 60-602
2 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 655
3 Albert Barnes: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
4 Romans 14:13-19a
5 Ibid. 14:19b-23
6 Frédéric Louis Godet: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
7 Charles Spurgeon: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
8 New English Bible
9 John Stott: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
10 David H. Stern: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
11 Babylonian Talmud: Seder Nezikin, Masekhet Bava Metzia, folio 75b
12 Babylonian Talmid: ibid, Masekhet Avodah Zarah, folios 21b-22a
13 Mishneh Torah, Sefer Shoftim, Melachin uMilchamot, Ch. 8:1