NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER FOURTEEN (Lesson XXVIII)
What Paul is saying here about being true to your conscience may sound very elementary to many believers, but not when it is applied to every situation they might face. That’s why Canadian/American Bible teacher Harry Ironside specifies that if any believer has such faith that they feel free in doing what their conscience allows them to do, just keep it to themselves and God. Don’t go around flaunting it before other believers who don’t feel so free. But at the same time, when a believer is not sure and would feel self-condemned if they did participate, don’t end up pretending that it’s alright just to appear spiritually strong. That will bring an even worse sense of guilt. Not only are they acting wrong before others, but they are acting wrong before God. When we stand before the judgment seat of God, not only will we be judged by what God said was right or wrong, but also those things that we believed to be right or wrong. God will not say, it was alright with Me so you could have gone ahead and participated. He will ask since you believed it was wrong why did you go ahead and do it anyway? Even if there was nothing morally wrong in your behavior, you were really sinning against conscience and thus against God.1
Why is this so important? Because since God seldom speaks to anyone verbally, He does speak to all of us through our heart and conscience, and He gave us his Holy Spirit to us so that He can best interpret what God is saying. So if we go against our conscience, we may be going against the advice of the Holy Spirit. In professor F. F. Bruce’s opinion, if a person does something about which their conscience is uneasy, their heart will condemn them and they will feel a sense of guilt. That’s because their action did not harmonize with their convictions.2 But when a believer does something that they know is not only permissible but positively right, they do so in faith.
Dr. Bruce tells us that he found this principle applied in an incident recorded in one of the apocryphal work called the Codex Bezae3 (which is not included in many English translations), which tells how our Lord “Seeing a man working on the Sabbath, said to him, ‘Man, if indeed you know what you are doing, you are blessed; but if you do not know [what you are doing], you are accursed and a transgressor of the Law.’”4 The implication of this statement clearly shows that any action performed against the voice of conscience, even if it is alright for others to do, can never be right.5
One Jewish writer gives his impression of this last verse. For him, the flow of the text indicates that the above verses, including this verse 23, continue to be aimed at the “strong believer” and not the “weak believer.” The weak Synagogue Jews6 believed that “situational faith” spoken of in the Talmud was legitimate and honored by God. However, Paul is supporting a principle found written in the Torah. That is, what we perceive as “our rights” take a back seat to the higher principle of being leaders of God’s people. The writer talks about where, in the Jewish Talmud, Rabbis were discussing when and under what conditions a person may nullify a vow. For instance, a couple planned to get married and each had to agree to live together, Rabbi Kahana issued a legal opinion that said if she declares that having her husband live with her was unacceptable, but she would grant him that right anyhow. Or, if she declared that her living with him was unacceptable, then he need not grant her the right to do so because no one should force another to go against their conscience. So the groom had every right to annul the marriage vow.
One of the Rabbis who was listening asked Rabbi Kahana, “Who is the author of what you are teaching?” Don’t you know that this is already a part of our teachings, that when something is acceptable to one person yet is unacceptable to another, they cannot annul the other person’s right to do what they find acceptable? This same Rabbi then asks Rabbi Kahana again, “Who authored this opinion?” Rabbi Kahana replied, “It was the revered Rabban Gamaliel who said this. He stated that it is written that a person shall not break their vows.” So the groom had every right to annul the marriage because otherwise it would have forced him to do something he was against and his bride to do something that she was against.
No person can erase their convictions just because it is convenient. In other words, they are not justified in going back on their word by forgiving themselves that they made a certain vow.7 We must remember, that Gamaliel was Paul’s teacher while he studied in Jerusalem.8 So Paul’s teaching that once a person is convicted that something is not permissible for them and they vow to abstain, they cannot exempt themselves from doing what their conscience is telling them to do or not to do just for convenience sake, may have its roots in Gamaliel’s teaching.
The writer goes on ask everyone to keep in mind that to Paul, the term “brother” included both his traditional Jewish kinsmen (regardless of their position on Yeshua) and the new Gentiles coming into the faith of Israel. This section of Paul’s letter comes immediately after he addresses Gentile arrogance toward Israel in chapters 9-11. The immediate literary context is important here. These verses reveal the characteristics of the “strong” believer in that although they have disdain for certain practices of the “weak” believer, they should abstain for their sake so they won’t stumble by trying it themselves. The indication is that these are Gentile believers who do not see any need for the Torah of Israel as kept by their Jewish neighbors – whether they are followers of Yeshua or not. These Gentile converts were coming into their new faith directly from a very anti-Semitic Roman culture, one particularly critical of the customs of the Jews and their Torah. So it was a hard task that Paul took upon himself but he performs it admirably in this fourteenth chapter.9
SUMMARY OF ROMANS CHAPTER FOURTEEN
Let me share some of the things that I understood and some things that other scholars point out that are part of the larger context of this letter. The Apostle Paul contrasts those who are “weak” with those who are “strong.” From all that Paul has to say, we can safely draw the conclusion that the strong are those who have a greater degree of understanding their Christian faith. The stronger faith was that characterized by a more precise understanding of Christian doctrine
The stronger (more knowledgeable) faith, for example, perceived that certain meats, formally “unclean” under the Mosaic Law were no longer forbidden to those in Christ. These saints understood that certain “days,” formerly esteemed as “holy,” would from now on be viewed as such under the law of Christ.
Furthermore, the strong Christian must exercise patience so as to understand that the weak have not reached their same level of knowledge. Therefore, the strong must extend compassion and patience by allowing the weak person time to grow, thus reaching a level of comprehension wherein they can move forward in Christ without violating their conscience.
Paul then goes on to strongly admonish the brethren to be united in matters that do not affect the integrity of the Christian faith, e.g., the eating of certain foods or the honoring of particular days. Those who conscientiously refrain from eating “unclean” meats were not to be condemned. Even though their knowledge was incomplete, they meant well; and their efforts, though misguided, were aimed at bringing glory to God. Similarly, the man who refused to labor on the Sabbath, even though that restriction was abolished in Christ, was doing so with the purest of motives – to honor their Creator.
These Christians with sincerely held differences, with varying levels of knowledge, and with distinct degrees of conscious awareness were admonished to strive for oneness in Christ. The cause of Jesus and the worth of a soul must be paramount, and in many cases brothers and sisters in Christ must be willing to yield to one another rather than cause heartache and heartbreak.
Does this mean that fundamental truths may be pushed aside for the sake of accommodating heretics or placating every mumbler and complainer in the church? No, it doesn’t Such a low view of this exalted text would force the scriptures into self-contradiction in many places. It would nullify all passages requiring discipline and, when necessary, sever all ties of friendship and fellowship with those who pursue degenerate lives and/or who advocate anti-Christian teachings. Christians must follow after things that make for peace; we must strive to build up one another, not the reverse. All of this, of course, is to be accomplished in an atmosphere of loyalty to the truth.
The inspired apostle cautions each child of God not to be a stumbling block nor to put one in his brother’s way. They must be aware of the value of each soul and why Christ paid such a high price to redeem them. We are not required to live in self-imposed isolation. What one does affects others. If the Christian has a calloused disregard for the weakness of a brother or sister, and knowingly wounds their conscience with little regard for that person’s soul, the result may be the “destruction” of the weak brother or sister. Wouldn’t that make the work of Christ on behalf of that precious soul to have been in vain? And who wants to share the blame for their loss of faith and backsliding?
That’s why Paul admonishes that when a Christian proceeds with a certain action, they must “be fully assured in his own mind,” so that what they are doing does not violate their conscience. The conscience is a sensitive instrument and is a person’s most valuable endowment in keeping them on course as they grow in the knowledge of Christ and His teachings. The conscience is not the final expert on what is right and wrong. That comes from education and learning. Yet, in its proper place, it is a prized gift from God, and the Christian must guard against it becoming hardened.
This is why, at the conclusion of the chapter, Paul cautions against doing something in violation of one’s conscience. It’s not so much what the Bible says about what type of behavior is permissible or not permissible but what it doesn’t say. One must be able (in the case of eating “meat,” for example) to eat or drink with a clear conscience. A clear conscience does not make a wrong act right, but a violated conscience can make a right act wrong for certain individuals.
That’s why no Christian has the ability to look into the heart of another child of God, and judge the motives behind their actions. Therefore, in many matters, final judgment must be left up to God who will always do what is right. In the ultimate reckoning, we are responsible first to the Lord, then to our fellow man, and lastly to ourselves.
With that being the case, we are not required to conform our entire lives to the personal convictions of our less-informed kinsmen in Christ. Were that the case, we would have no church buildings, no baptisteries, no Bible classes on the Lord’s day, no Bible literature, no individual communion cups, no fully supported preachers, no corporate orphan homes, no church benevolence to non-Christians, etc. Over the years, well-meaning but misguided brethren have opposed these expediencies. Yet, we do have the responsibility not to deliberately wound their spirits and engage in public, frivolous acts that could jeopardize another’s salvation. There is a delicate balance here, and much wisdom is required in pursuing it. For Paul, the protection of the consciences of the weak was of far greater value than placating the insensitive criticisms of their Pharisaical brethren who attempt to strain out the liberal gnats while restrictions and rules like camels were stuck in their throats.
As one writer put it: Let us all pray that God will help each of us to inhale the fragrant aroma of Romans 14, to digest the principles of this magnificent narrative, and thus be willing to divest ourselves of our petty inclinations of self-interest for the ultimate goal of increasing heaven’s population. The motto of every Christian should be: To have “Compassion without compromise.” – Dr. Robert R Seyda
1 Harry A. Ironside: On Romans, op. cti., loc. cit.
2 See Romans 14:23 in the New English Bible
3 Codes Bezae is a volume containing most of the four Gospels and Acts of the Apostles written in both Greek and Latin around 400 AD
4 This would be inserted between Luke 6:4 and 6:5
5 F. F. Bruce: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., Vol. 6, p. 253
6 The writer identifies these Synagogue Jews as those who lived by what the Rabbi’s said in their teaching, not by what God said in His Word.
7 Babylonian Talmud: Seder Nashim, Masekhet Nedarim, folio 81b
8 Acts of the Apostles 5:34
9 Messianic Bible: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.