We have seen that the God-given diversity in the Body of Christ can conflict with our Lord’s high call to unity. Diversity and unity are in natural antithesis because we humans tend to criticize and censor those who do things differently from us. Judging one another according to our little lists is one of the favorite sports of Christians today.
In answer to this problem, Romans 14 tells us three things we need to know if we are to maintain unity amidst diversity. First, genuine acceptance of one another is the only option available to believers. The tendency of the liberated Christian to look down on his less broad-minded brother and the tendency of that brother to judge his less restricted brother must be put away. Second, individual Christians can disagree over customs and social habits and both be perfectly right with God. Third, we must submit to the Lordship of Christ and refrain from judging others because we will all stand before the Judgment Seat of Christ and give account of ourselves to Him. These three elements are essential if we are to maintain Christian unity amidst our amazing diversity.
In this study we will see what we need to do in order to experience unity in diversity. Perhaps we have understood and accepted the logic of Paul’s argument against passing judgment. However, the extremely delicate conscience of the “weak” brother remains. What are we to do? The apostle’s choice of words in verses 13-15 calls for a complete determination not to be an obstruction because the word for “stumbling block” means something carelessly left about over which someone stumbles, whereas “hindrance” means something deliberately left to ensnare another. We must determine not to be a witting or unwitting cause of a weaker brother’s stumbling as we exercise our Christian freedom. Our Christian lives must be salted with refusal to do anything that will harm the spiritual life of weaker brothers.
Paul views any behavior that distresses another’s conscience as unconscionable (v. 15). “What you eat” alludes to one’s petty insistence upon having meat regardless of the consequences to others. The idea is flaunting or deliberately shocking the weaker brother with a display of Christian freedom. Paul is horrified at the thought. Rather, the key to exercising Christian freedom in all matters is “walking in love” (v. 15). Christian liberty does not mean flaunting your freedom and doing as you please. As Christians, we are all immensely free in Christ. Our only bondage is the bond of love to our fellow believers. It is our Christian duty, when exercising our freedom, not only to think about how our actions affect us but others. We must always remember that it is not our display of Christian freedom that commends our faith to the world, but our demonstration of agape love. The strong, mature Christian voluntarily limits his freedom out of love for his weaker brothers and sisters.
Not only ought we to determine not to be stumbling blocks, we should also live as citizens of the Kingdom of God. Here in verses 16-18 Paul, with finely tuned pastoral insight, lifts the entire discussion to a higher level than mere eating and drinking. The Kingdom of God is not mainly a matter of externals (how one eats, drinks, what one wears etc.) but of eternals – “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” The primary eternal element of God’s Kingdom is “righteousness.” The experience of God’s righteousness in our lives produces as infinite longing for holiness, a driving desire to know Him better, an intense thirsting in the inner parts. David’s longing is expressed in Psalm 42:1-2a: “As a deer pants for flowing streams, so pants my soul for you, O God. My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.” Jesus enjoined the pursuit of righteousness as the recommended pursuit for all humanity in Matthew 5:6 –“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”
Properly following the eternal element of righteousness is “peace,” that profound inner satisfaction that only God’s presence can give. Peace with God is the secret of peace with one another. Kingdom peace is an inner unflappability that remains undisturbed by minor irritations, a quiet assurance that God is at work.
Lastly, there is the eternal element of “joy in the Holy Spirit.” This joy is the outward mark of Christ’s presence. When joy flies as the flag over our lives, the world knows the King of Heaven is in residence in our hearts. The Kingdom of God consists not of externals but of eternals. How wonderful it would be if we would concentrate on these things. How easy it is then to forgo some external freedom for the sake of another believer.
Paul concludes this thought in verse 18. We are then acceptable to God who sees our hearts and approved by men who see our actions. The overall principle here is this: whether we be “weak” (limited in freedom) or strong (more liberated), we make a great mistake if we focus on externals. The weak shrivels his Christianity by seeing the externals as a road to greater righteousness. The strong trivializes his faith by insisting on his rights to the externals. If we flaunt our freedom, we are far less emancipated than we imagine.
The Kingdom of God is not operative in your life if your rights are so important to you that you are willing to separate from a brother who does not agree with you. The fact is, the man who feels he must demonstrate his emancipation on every possible occasion is a slave in spite of his apparent freedom, for the need to prove his liberty has become a tyranny. Whether we are strong or weak, we are to live as citizens of the Kingdom of God, focusing not on the externals, but on the elements of eternity – “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”
Romans 14:13-18 Study Questions:
Paul says in verse 14 that nothing is unclean in itself, but how does he say something can become “unclean” (vv. 13-23)?
Paul is concerned that Jewish Christians, returning to Rome, may see Gentile Christians doing things that, from their point of view, were associated with paganism, and they may look on in horror. They might even conclude that they had made an awful mistake, call down curses on this new movement (v. 16) and give up the faith altogether. How might believing in accordance with love prevent this from happening?
What were, and are, the essentials of faith and practice about which there should be no compromise?