NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER FOURTEEN (Lesson XVIII)
On the theme of not speaking badly about what others consider good, and thereby causing weak believers to stumble, early church scholars have much to say. Chrysostom is impressed that Paul has, in the name of love, given the weak so much space in which to make a decision. It was his intention to persuade those weak believers in Rome, in the same way, Yeshua persuaded him to comprehend the freedoms they have in Christ. For even though he had been freed from his own fears, he does not want to drag these Roman believers kicking and screaming to the altar for repentance. His goal is to let them make such decisions on their own. He also wanted the strong believers to realize that abstaining from certain foods they deem permissible is not in the same category as seriously injuring somebody by going ahead and eating them in spite of the other believer’s convictions. They must value their fellow Christians enough to forego their own freedoms at the price of abstaining from certain types of foods in order not to offend them and cause them to go against their conscience. After all, Christ did not refuse to become a servant and even to die for them so why should they not be willing to give up a particular piece of meat in order to give their undecided fellow believer piece of mind?1
I like what early church writer Gennadius had to say about this. He was amazed at how skillfully Paul develops his argument. He starts off by referring to the dispute over certain foods as “unimportant.” However, he then promptly refers to the person who insulted a fellow believer as a brother. He calls what has been done to the weaker individual as being “destructive.” He then points out that no insulting behavior should be committed against someone “for whom Christ died.” He implies that someone who does this causes “godliness to be blasphemed.” Finally, he notes that we have not come to faith in Christ in order to enjoy this or that but “in order to be able to stay right with God” by doing what He said, not what we think it should be. That means we can have love, peace, and joy in our hearts because of our relationship with Christ as well as with our fellow believers.2
Also, Origen asked how was it possible for what is good to us to be spoken of as evil by others who disagree with us? Paul’s words, “What is good for you,” refers here to what is permitted according to the spiritual interpretation of the Law. We should not depend, therefore, on the ungodly and foolish teachings of heretics and those engaged in spreading their personal philosophy concerning unclean and polluted foods. However, notes Origen, a Jew for example, or one of the so-called Encratites,3 might think that in order to believe in Christ it is necessary to practice celibacy or abstain from certain types of food. They might even quote Scripture in support of this notion. If anyone insists that in order for a person to be saved or to come to Christ they must agree to eat everything, including foods from which they prefer to abstain, or not eat many of the things they are absolutely comfortable in eating, then they are blaspheming the good element in the Spiritual Law. By ordering such restrictions on new converts it will cause them to think that eating or abstaining from such foods is an essential part of their faith, when in fact it is a small matter to the whole Body of Christ.4
Martin Luther strikes the right cord when commenting on what Paul says here. He wonders why anyone would choose such a trivial matter as food to show disrespect for a fellow believer in complete disregard for their eternal salvation. In his mind, one believer might understand the decision of another believer if it was made on account of certain things being affordable, or as a way to protect the welfare of their body or any other matter that is more important to them than certain foods. For food merely serves to meet a momentary benefit and for enjoyment. That’s why the Apostle uses such sharp words to rebuke and reprimand any lack of love on the part of those who look with contempt upon a fellow believer on account of certain foods.5
During the early years of the Pentecostal movement in the United States, while there was very little, if any controversy over foods there were other matters that were given high priority in the debate over whether one was saved, sanctified, and filled with the Holy Spirit. Among them were the length of a woman’s hair and dress, the wearing of jewelry (including the wedding ring), playing cards (including Old Maids), going to see motion pictures, dancing, modesty of dress (mostly for women), attending baseball or football games, etc. Disputes over these matters not only caused disharmony among congregants but often resulted in splits in churches and even denominations. Apparently, what the Apostle Paul said here, was not the subject of many sermons or theological discussions.
As a result of such ultra-conservative dogmas and strict orthodox practices, many who might have been persuaded that being a Christian was the best God could offer were instead turned away and saw no reason to seek salvation. Luther touches on this as well when he points out that the Apostle Paul calls something “good” because of being persuaded by Christ that it was good. Luther believer that Paul is really saying here is that Christians should be careful that the people of the world have some reason make fun of their faith, their religion, and their whole Christian lifestyle over such trivial matters. Instead, the way we live for Christ should be attractive because the joy and peace it brings, and by the wonderful changes it makes in a believer’s life. Luther then goes on to reference what Paul said to the Corinthians: “We put no stumbling block in anyone’s path so that our ministry will not be discredited,”6 and also later to the Romans: “Be careful to do what is right in the eyes of everyone.7”8
John Calvin also talks about how we can make the best use of good things to encourage a weaker brother rather than using bad things to embarrass or dishearten them. For Calvin, the first thing to be aware of is that love is violated when a Christian brother or sister is made to grieve over something so unimportant to their salvation. He reminds the believers in Rome that such an attitude and action is contrary to God’s love when they cause grief to anyone. Furthermore, when the weak believer’s conscience is wounded and they turn away from Christ, the price of His blood might end up being wasted. After all, even for the person we like the least has been redeemed by the blood of Christ. That’s why it is a heinous crime to destroy them just to gratify one’s stomach or list of “do’s” and “don’ts”. In addition, when such a believer makes the eating or abstaining from certain foods precious to them, that are making Christ worthless with their attitude. And finally, since the liberty attained for us by Christ is a blessing we ought to take care in how we apply such liberty so that those who may disagree with us cannot say uncomplimentary things we are responsible for saying, or about how we are supposedly live for Christ in spite of our questionable behavior. Flaunting such trivial liberties is an unreasonable use of God’s gifts. Such reasoning ought to influence our thinking so that we don’t end up thoughtlessly causing others to lose faith in us and our words and actions.9
John Bengel says that liberty is a privilege for believers since it flows from being part of the kingdom of God.10 But when we recklessly misuse such liberty, it is an abuse of our freedom in Christ. In the writings of our early church scholars, the Lord’s Supper is usually put forward as a good and respected ordinance. This is indeed not inconsistent with what Paul is saying here in verses 15 and 16,11 In other words, if a person participates in eating the bread and drinking the wine in communion even after they have offended someone by their liberal actions, they are abusing their privilege of being invited to the Lord’s table with them. However, in this case, Paul is speaking about being dismissive or critical of a weak believer just to show how spiritually strong we may think we are. Remember, that same person is trying to deal with your liberty because they see it as a sign of irresponsibility on your part. This does very little in encouraging them on what they can do for the glory of God.12
Robert Haldane feels that true love will prevent any believer from doing anything to cause discontent and disappointment to another, especially those who are considered the stronger of the two. A stronger believer should always be ready to exercise self-denial. When any believer refuses to abstain from gratifying their own appetite to avoid hurting a fellow believer, it shows that they are deficient in love. Haldane goes on to say that what may be permissible to a strong Christian might be considered a sin to a weak Christian, and if the strong Christian’s example induces the weak believer to follow suit, it could lead them into feeling condemned. Haldane wants every believer to take into consideration that since Christ died for the weak believer, how un-Christlike it is a strong believer to continue doing what they know might destroy a fellow believer. Especially, if they were to follow their example without knowing why it’s being done or what it’s being done for! The love Christ had in giving His life for this weak believer is contrasted by this other person’s actions in spite of their objections and shows how disrespectful they are being to them.13
Haldane feels that Paul was championing the liberty that Christians have in Christ. After all, look at the privilege given to them to disregard the old Jewish distinctions made concerning certain meats in the legal and ceremonial laws. This is a good thing to them because the Law was in itself a yoke and a grievous burden. They were doing what was good and right in itself in using this liberty. However, they should be careful to use it in such a way that it does not become a stumbling block to those who are less informed about how Christ fulfilled the law, and that by being in Him the law is fulfilled for us. This points to a decisive distinction between the dispensation of Christ and that of Moses. It was an advantage to be delivered from the peculiar restraints of ceremonial laws, but it would be of no advantage if it ended up causing a weak believer to lose faith in what Christ has already done in their lives. This shows the sovereignty of God in subjecting His people in one dispensation to carrying burdens which He removes in a later dispensation.14 Yet, such liberty should not be exploited if it might mean the loss of faith and falling away of a weak believer.15
1 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans 26
2 Gennadius of Constantinople: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
3 An Encratite was a member of an ascetic Christian sect led by Tatian, a 2nd-century Syrian rhetorician. The name derived from the group’s doctrine of continence (Greek: enkrateia). The sect shunned marriage, the eating of meat, and the drinking of intoxicating beverages, even substituting water or milk for wine in the Lord’s Supper.
4 Origen: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
5 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 202
6 2 Corinthians 6:3
7 Romans 12:17
8 Martin Luther: ibid., p. 204
9 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
10 1 Corinthians 10:29-30
11 Ibid. 10:16
12 John Bengel: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 354
13 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 603
14 Matthew 11:29-30
15 Haldane: ibid.