Romans 14:13-21.
Embracing our Differences

Copyright © 2011, John W. (Jack) Carter.  All rights reserved.

When others think of your attitudes and actions, what do they think?  Every individual shares a testimony of what they truly believe in the way they live.  We refer to those whose testimony does not match their lives as "hypocrites," and it is probably safe to say that most people would prefer that they were not perceived in this way.  Yet, when we hear criticisms of the church by people both inside and outside of its doors, the word, "hypocrite" seems to keep coming up.  Apparently this problem is not a modern one, but one that also vexed the early church.  One of the most lengthy discussions in Paul's epistle to the Romans defines and illustrates "love without hypocrisy," a lesson that both the early church and today's churches apparently need. 

One of the most predominant areas where hypocrisy is demonstrated is in the way in which Christians respond to their differences.  The early church did not have the denominational architecture that is characteristic of the church today.  Today's church avoids contact with different ideas by fragmenting into a mosaic of different approaches to worship and church polity.  Though scripture clearly provides for the expression of worship in a variety of ways, it does not encourage the church to divide into groups that do not love, or fellowship with, one another.  The early church was a mixture of Jewish and Gentile members, with those Gentile members coming from every pagan culture in the Mediterranean region.  Paul's teaching reveals that there was conflict within the church between those who brought different ideas concerning appropriate religious behavior to the church community.  Those with a legalistic preference despised those who broke their laws.  Those who broke those laws saw the legalists as unenlightened.  Rather than working together toward the purposes of the Kingdom of God, the church was fragmented and conflicted. 

Paul teaches that the solution is simple:  express unconditional agape love without hypocrisy.[1]  Paul then illustrates how this love should inspire us to embrace our differences.

Romans 14:13.  Let us not therefore judge one another any more: but judge this rather, that no man put a stumblingblock or an occasion to fall in his brother’s way. 

We now find ourselves in the middle of Paul's teaching on appropriate Christian conduct, a discussion that Paul intended for the membership of the church in Rome, a church that he had not yet visited.  Paul is writing to a quite eclectic group.  The Christian church started as an exclusively Jewish sect, and its acceptance of Gentiles was initially difficult and controversial, particularly in and near Jerusalem.  Consequently, there was a great disparity in the world views of those who came to worship and fellowship together.  People, naturally driven for a need for self-worth, tend to treat those differences with disdain.  Pride focuses on those differences and uses them to separate one's self from others, refusing or breaking fellowship, and dividing the church. 

The church today is a product of centuries of division, with clearly identified denominations that focus on their distinctives in order to maintain separation instead of focusing on their common foundation, Jesus Christ: whose Spirit serves only to promote their unity.  Within denominations churches are divided by the same cultural biases that divide pagan society: race, ethnic heritage, economic status, etc.  The modern church is not a melting pot of cultures, but a mosaic of firmly maintained and disparate groups.  Martin Luther King, Jr. stated, “You must face the tragic fact that when you stand at 11 o’clock on Sunday morning … you stand in the most segregated hour of Christian America.”  Rev. Michael Katt found himself quickly fired by his all-white Mississippi congregation when he quoted King’s statement.

“There are currently between 300,000 and 350,000 congregations in the U.S., according to Michael Emerson, a sociology professor and co-director of Rice University’s Kinder Institute for Urban Research in Houston, Texas. Ninety-two percent are homogeneous, meaning at least 80 percent of the congregation is comprised of a single racial group.[2]

Within the local church itself, it is not unusual to find another mosaic of cliques.  This stratification is a product of pride and arrogance, works against the biblical imperative of unity, and is not a fruit of agape love.

Recognizing this problem of division in the early church, Paul has been teaching on this subject.  This passage begins with "therefore," providing a connection to his previous discussion on the tendency we have to pass judgment on one another.  Paul clearly states that the only One who has the knowledge of the heart and the authority to judge His servants is God, and God alone.  When we choose to take upon ourselves that authority to judge we are failing to be demonstrating agape love, a love that shows no arrogance or hypocrisy, a love that is the hallmark of the changed life brought about by true faith in Christ.  We tend to judge one another in areas of our differences, and so it is our differences and how to live with them that Paul covers next.

First, Paul states a clear imperative:  do not let your differences cause another to be hurt in any way.  The first area of conflict Paul mentions is the "stumbling block" that such behavior can place in front of another Christian.  A young Christian is not going to seek to emulate those who treat him/her with arrogance.  Christian arrogance is certainly not included in the formula for evangelism.  Many people avoid the church today because of the arrogant and judgmental nature of its members.  This kind of behavior places a tremendous stumbling block in front of those who might be seeking answers to their questions of faith.  The church has the answers to those questions, but members who fail to exercise agape love in their relationships tend to keep those answers locked behind the church’s fortressed walls.  Only satan wins in this scenario.

Consequently, Paul simply states, "do not" do this.  "Let no man" carries the implication that all Christians have a responsibility before the LORD to teach one another the characteristics of mature Christian behavior.  There is no place for an arrogant or judgmental attitude among Christians.  All Christians are sinners who deserve eternal separation from God, saved only by God's grace.  Agape love shares that same grace with others.

Romans 14:14.  I know, and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus, that there is nothing unclean of itself: but to him that esteemeth any thing to be unclean, to him it is unclean. 

The Jewish members of the early church had deeply ingrained beliefs concerning what is acceptable social behavior, particularly those that were governed by Jewish law.  They were most comfortable living within the boundaries of many of those laws.  Their Gentile Christian brothers had no such legalistic beliefs, coming from pagan and godless communities that participated in all manner of sinful behaviors.  It is only natural that conflict would arise when one group flaunts their freedom in front of another that chooses not to engage in practices outside their set of beliefs.  Paul states that he learned from Christ Himself that there is no thing that is intrinsically unclean.  This statement reveals much about the change that came into the life of Saul, the Pharisee, when He met Jesus.  We may remember Peter’s struggle with this same issue concerning Jewish traditions that linked righteousness to legalistic rules of cleanliness.[3]

Jesus taught this to his disciples,

Matt.  15:17-20.  “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body?  18But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean.’ 19For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.  20These are what make a man ‘unclean’; but eating with unwashed hands does not make him ‘unclean.’” 

The sole, yet complete basis for this freedom is salvation by grace.  Salvation is not of works, and keeping of the Old Testament laws concerning dietary rules is not a saving work of faith.  These rules, and others, had become the foundation of the Jewish religion, actually displacing the necessity of faith and trust in God.  Jesus pointed out, and Paul repeats, that there is nothing in and of itself that is "unclean," or unacceptable to God.  Salvation comes only from faith in God, and that faith comes from the heart of the person.  It is only that heart that rejects God that is eternally separated from God, remaining “unclean” to the end of the age.

Regardless of their Christian theology, many of the faithful and sincere Jewish believers still felt more comfortable when they obeyed the old traditional dietary laws.  We can observe a little of this today in the Jewish preference for Kosher foods.  Those who abstained from eating what they considered unclean foods wholly believed that they are honoring God in their abstinence, and indeed they were.  Many Christians today abstain from consuming products that in and of themselves are not evil or unclean, but they sincerely believe that such abstinence honors God.  Some referred to as “tea-totallers” fit well in this description.  It is simply one of the ways that they seek to honor the LORD.

Romans 14:15.  But if thy brother be grieved with thy meat, now walkest thou not charitably.  Destroy not him with thy meat, for whom Christ died. 

When one allows these contrasting opinions to produce conflict, love is not being demonstrated.  If the abstainer truly loves the partaker, he/she will still care for him as God does, and the differences they hold in religious practice are simply not important enough to compromise that love.  At the same time, the partaker can demonstrate love to the abstainer by a caring and disciplined abstinence when in their presence, and my not making the differences in religious practice an issue to be raised. 

When the church uses legalism as a means for evaluating an individual's worth, it is steeping far outside of the bounds of grace.  When the legalist despises those who do not share their religious practice, not only are they failing to demonstrate agape love, they are failing in their calling as a Christian to love others, and to share the gospel of Jesus Christ: the gospel that frees us from the bondage of law.  When believers choose to judge the behavior of others, the effectiveness of Kingdom work is diminished, and the one subject to such religious prejudice comes away hurt, insulted, and unlikely to pursue the faith with that group.  If that individual is shunned or otherwise turned away, it is quite possible that he/she may never have another opportunity to hear the message of the gospel of Grace.

Romans 14:16-17.  Let not then your good be evil spoken of: 17For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost. 

Do not let your beliefs concerning religious practice be used to discourage those of differing beliefs.  When there is a disparity of beliefs concerning what is considered “appropriate” behavior, he who demonstrates freedom should not flaunt it in the face of he who demonstrates abstinence, for to the latter, the partaking of the freer behavior is perceived as doing wrong.  The one demonstrating freedom may believe that the issue is of little or no theological importance, but it may be of great importance to the former.  Paul states that saving faith is not a matter of religious practice, but of righteousness that comes from faith, and the peace and joy that salvation brings.  Both the saved partaker and the saved abstainer have obtained that righteousness, so it is inappropriate that such issues would serve to divide them from one another.

Romans 14:18.  For he that in these things serveth Christ is acceptable to God, and approved of men. 

True, saving faith is based upon the acceptance of the Lordship of God in the heart, not upon any form or methodology of religious practice.  The Christian faith is comprised of quite varying denominations that express their faith in variant religious practices, all of which are intended to honor God.  What makes a denomination a Christian one is the common foundation of faith in Jesus Christ, and an agreement with the basic biblical doctrines that define who He is: LORD and Savior.  The point is that we love and honor God.  Whether we be Catholic, Baptist, Presbyterian, Methodist, Lutheran, Episcopal, Congregational, Reformed, or any of the hundreds of Christian groups, the key is that we are all Christians.  We are all brothers and sisters in Christ, each honoring God in a manner that we choose, a manner that is based upon our freedom from the law.  The way my church serves God may be different than the way that your church serves God, but both of us are servants and God accepts that service.  The way my church worships God may be different than the way that your church worships God, but both of us are worshipping from the heart and God accepts that worship.

Many of our churches today have gone to multiple worship services, with each service following a different format.  One may follow a traditional stoic order, and another one that is more contemporary.  One may use traditional testimonial music while the other uses more contemporary prayer and worship choruses.  These variations are often taking place within a single church, a church that celebrates the differences, giving its members a choice of which order of service provides the more meaningful experience for them.  This practice models how the entire Christian body could relate:  each different in their approach, each group celebrating and approving those differences, and continuing to genuinely love one another because each practice is acceptable to God. 

Romans 14:19.  Let us therefore follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another. 

Paul clearly teaches the acceptability of variant worship styles, and the need for those expressing those styles to also accept one another fully and without reservation, because we are all Christians.  Therefore, recognizing our differences, we can embrace one another, both within our churches and across denominations, edifying one another instead of criticizing or shunning one another. 

To this end, Paul gives us some very specific advice: serve to work towards the goal of peace in a manner that edifies, or lifts up, one another.  We often observe just the opposite when our members choose to work in ways that do not demonstrate true agape love.  These people, rather than serve to work towards peace would gladly disrupt that peace in order to press their own agenda or exercise personal power and control over others.  This behavior is quite the opposite of these two simple imperatives, again:  let all that we do serve to promote peace, and to do so in a way that edifies one another.

Romans 14:19-21.  For meat destroy not the work of God.  All things indeed are pure; but it is evil for that man who eateth with offence.  21It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak.  22Hast thou faith?  have it to thyself before God.  Happy is he that condemneth not himself in that thing which he alloweth.  23And he that doubteth is damned if he eat, because he eateth not of faith: for whatsoever is not of faith is sin.

Paul then summarizes his points.  It may be interesting that Paul's teaching to the church in Rome is so relevant for the church today.  Any cursory study of the early church reveals that it dealt with the same issues that we still deal with today.  Each member of the church brings their world experience and world view to the table of Christian fellowship.  Much of that viewpoint is sometimes intrinsically pagan and secular, and quite contrary to biblical doctrine.  Furthermore, we often bring a very logical and humanistic viewpoint to an environment where God is not limited by human logic.  As much as we sometimes behave as though we believe the contrary, God's mind is not our mind.[4]  It can become difficult to fully shed our secular presuppositions, views, and prejudices and embrace one another without regard to our differing viewpoints. 

As we look at Paul's teaching, we find at least the following list of imperatives.

We may have some work to do.

[1] Romans 9:1.

[2] _______.  (September 29, 2011).  Churches Remain Highly Segregated in 2011.  Nashville:  TN,  Associated Press.

[3] Acts 10:9-16.

[4] Isaiah 55:8-9.