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Doctrinal Matters: Bible Interpretation

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Romans 14: Faith vs. Opinion

by  Dave Miller, Ph.D.

To sort out the difference between faith and opinion as it relates to the Bible, one must first define terms. By “faith” we mean those actions that are directed by God, arising from the Word of God (Romans 10:17). For example, partaking of the Lord’s Supper on Sunday is a matter of “faith,” in that it is stipulated by God (Matthew 26:26-29; 1 Corinthians 11:23-26). It is an action that God requires us to perform. When we speak of “opinion,” we are referring to a viewpoint or action that God has placed within the realm of personal preference. For example, whether we have two songs before the sermon vs. three; or whether we partake of the Lord’s Supper near the beginning of the worship period, or near the end. God has left as optional a great amount of viewpoints and actions—allowing people to exercise their own personal discretion.

God did this very thing at the beginning of human history. On the one hand, Adam and Eve were placed under very specific articles of “faith.” For one, they were not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. That stipulation was a matter of “faith,” i.e., God had legislated the matter. But the original pair was also given considerable latitude in exercising their own opinions. They could eat the fruit of any other tree on Monday, select another tree from which to eat on Tuesday, and still another on Wednesday. Eating from the Tree of Knowledge was a matter of “faith,” while eating any other tree was a matter of “opinion.”

Romans 14

Having defined our terms, let us turn our attention to two chapters in the New Testament that provide us with valuable information in sorting out the application of these principles in everyday life. Romans 14 has been a passage that has been used frequently in recent years to foster fellowship with denominationalism. They have contended that those denominational beliefs and practices with which churches of Christ disagree are not to be allowed to affect fellowship. For example, they have insisted that instrumental music in worship is strictly a matter of personal preference and tradition, and should be decided individually based on conscience. An appeal is made to Romans 14 to equate the use of the instrument with the eating of meat. It is then argued that those who are more spiritually mature may use the instrument in their worship to God. Those whose consciences prevent them from using the instrument are free to refrain from doing so. But they are the “weaker brother” and must not withhold fellowship from those who do use the instrument.

The first observation that is critical in making sense of this chapter is the fact that this context applies only to matters of opinion and indifference—not to matters of faith or doctrine. In his commentary on Romans, Moses Lard recognized this point when he wrote, “In matters of indifference, each man is a law to himself” (p. 412). He further stated, “it shows what liberty we have in the absence of divine command” (p. 412). In his commentary on Romans, David Lipscomb understood Romans chapter fourteen in the same fashion (1943, pp. 242ff.).

But what are “matters of indifference”? Matters of indifference refer to those practices that are indifferent to God—not to the individual. Obviously, the individual who believes he should not eat meat views his position as a serious “doctrinal” matter and, therefore, hardly “indifferent.” But we must understand that Romans 14 is speaking of those matters that are, in actuality, indifferent in the sight of God. For example, God has commanded Christians to spread the Gospel. The how of this action, whether by Internet, television, or automobile, is a matter of indifference to God. He authorizes us to use various means based upon our own good sense—our own consciences.

It is a misuse of Romans 14 to apply its teaching to any matter that is not indifferent to God. For example, God has specified that in order for a person to become a Christian, he/she must be immersed in water. Suppose a man believes that baptism can be by immersion, sprinkling, or pouring. To him, the “mode” of baptism is a matter of opinion—not faith. So he thinks that the person who limits the “mode” of baptism to strictly immersion is “narrow” and “weak in faith.” He would maintain that it is fine for his critic to be immersed if he so chooses, but this “weaker brother” should not bind his opinion on those who are “stronger” by insisting that only those who are immersed may be fellowshipped. This “stronger” fellow might even appeal to Romans 14 as support for his stance.

Yet, what this fellow would be failing to realize is that Romans 14 applies to matters of option that are indifferent to God. Where God has given His guidelines, all must conform to those specifications. Baptism, in God’s sight, is strictly immersion. Those who insist upon obeying God in this regard are not “weaker brethren.” Rather, they are faithful brethren; and those who differ are unfaithful to God.

Just as God has specified the action and design of baptism, He has been very specific with regard to the action of music in worship. If the use of the mechanical instrument in worship to God was optional, that is, if God left people free to offer musical worship in any form they so chose, then Romans 14 would be one passage that would be germane to such a discussion. But God has not left music in worship unaddressed. Neither has He left the question of the legitimacy of the denominations unaddressed. Denominationalism represents a departure from God’s simple will for His church. Romans 14 is of no help in assessing the legitimacy of either instrumental music or denominationalism.

Observe, then, that the one who is “weak in faith” in this chapter refers to the Christian whose knowledge, and therefore faith, has been insufficient in sorting out a particular issue that, in God’s sight, is a matter of opinion. Where the brother is “weak” is in the fact that he thinks that the issue under consideration is not a matter of opinion, but is, in fact, a matter of faith. The specific issues that Paul discusses pertain to the eating of certain foods and the observing of certain days. Regarding the former, one brother thinks that all foods may be eaten by Christians, while another brother thinks that Christians should be vegetarians. Regarding the latter, one brother thinks that certain days must be set aside and observed in special ways, while another brother recognizes no such requirements.

What is God’s view on this matter? Clearly, God’s view is that Christians are free to eat all foods. Jews had not been free in this regard. The Law of Moses contained numerous dietary regulations. But with the coming of Christianity, no such dietary regulations have been enjoined. Imposing such regulations on others constitutes “doctrines of demons,” as Paul explained in referring to those who were “commanding to abstain from foods which God created to be received with thanksgiving by those who believe and know the truth. For every creature of God is good, and nothing is to be refused if it is received with thanksgiving; for it is sanctified by the word of God and prayer” (1 Timothy 4:3-5). You remember the vision that Peter had in which he was commanded to kill and eat certain animals, to which he responded that he had never eaten anything that was “common or unclean.” The voice responded: “What God has cleansed you must not call common” (Acts 10:15). Paul states this point very emphatically in Romans 14:14—“I know and am convinced by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself.”

So the Christian who understands that no restrictions apply to food under Christianity is the one who has grasped God’s view correctly. The Christian who thinks he should not eat certain foods is “weak in faith,” that is, his faith/belief on that particular point remains immature and uninformed by the Word of God (from whence faith arises). Due to previous beliefs and/or actions, likely learned while a non-Christian, his conscience was trained by his belief that he should not eat that particular food. A specific example would be a Jew who lived his whole life abstaining from pork which was deemed “unclean.” When he became a Christian, he might not immediately sort out the change. And even when he became aware of the correct viewpoint, it would be very difficult for him to start eating pork without his conscience bothering him. That is precisely why Paul insists that neither the stronger nor the weaker should “dispute” (vs. 1), “despise” (vs. 3), “judge” (vs. 4), or “show contempt” (vs. 10) for each other. Instead, both should want to show proper regard for each other’s consciences and spiritual well-being, and strive to encourage each other to be right with God and prepared for judgment (vss. 11-12).

The same may be said for the observance of a particular day. The context shows that the days under consideration are those that have no religious significance, i.e., they are days that are indifferent to God—like a birthday. The only day that has been legislated by God under Christianity is Sunday, the first day of the week. Christians are to assemble for worship on that day and approach God through the five avenues of worship that He, Himself, has stipulated (e.g., Acts 20:7; 1 Corinthians 16:2). Sunday worship, therefore, is a matter of faith—not opinion. But other days, like birthdays, or national holidays like July 4, are matters of option that the Christian is free to observe. For the Jew who had lived his life observing the Sabbath, to suddenly not be required to abstain from labor on that day, he likely would have felt both a sense of release, but also a sense of fright and uncertainty. He would have to go through a period of struggling with and re-educating his conscience to bring his “head knowledge” into harmony with his feelings and long-term, deeply ingrained habit, before his conscience would not condemn him for Sabbath activity.

Notice, then, that the context refers to the observance of days that are religiously neutral and indifferent to God. They do not involve the observer in any unscriptural religious practice. Placing in juxtaposition this admonition in Romans 14 with a similar one in Galatians 4 will help us to see the distinction:

Again, Paul is not endorsing those who create their own “holy days” which they practice religiously. Christendom has generated an entire “Christian calendar” with numerous observances linked to events that occurred in the life of Christ (e.g., Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, Lent, etc.). All such observances are unscriptural since they presume to impose human thinking onto biblical precept, and dictate to God how to practice Christianity. Has God clearly indicated what event, if any, in the life of Christ He wants observed or commemorated? Absolutely—even stipulating the precise procedures to be enacted. He authorizes Christians to observe the death of Christ, every first day of the week, using bread and grape juice to symbolize the body and blood, and to think about His sacrifice while also taking an introspective look at one’s self (1 Corinthians 11:20-34). Beyond that, if God had wanted other events in Christ’s life to be commemorated, He would have said so.

But could a Jewish Christian continue to observe the Sabbath? Yes, if he did so without linking its observance to religious obligation. Since he could no longer be justified by the Old Law (Galatians 5:4), he must not observe it as if it is binding upon himself to be pleasing to God, and he must not bind it on others.

Paul issued another directive to be followed by the more mature Christians toward those Christians who had not yet assimilated proper teaching on the subject of food and days. The brother who recognizes that God permits the eating of a particular food must refrain from eating that food item under the following condition: if his eating would tempt or encourage or incite the brother who thinks it is wrong to eat it, to go ahead and eat it. The brother who thinks eating a particular food is wrong (even if, in God’s sight, it is not wrong) sins if he eats it. He has committed the sin of damaging or defiling his conscience.

1 Corinthians 8

This sin is clarified more vividly in the similar discussion that Paul directed to the Corinthian Christians regarding the eating of food that had been previously used in a pagan offering to an idol: 1 Corinthians 8. Paul insisted that no pagan gods exist (vs. 4) and, as long as a person does not intend to honor or worship a fake god, eating food that had been offered to them was optional. However, “there is not in everyone that knowledge; for some, with consciousness of the idol, until now eat it as a thing offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled” (vs. 7). The term “conscience” in verses 7, 10, and 12 of 1 Corinthians 8 is suneidasis and refers to that inward faculty of moral/spiritual awareness that was created by God. We must not act in ways that damage (or “sear”—1 Timothy 4:2) our consciences. To do so is sin. The Christian who thinks a particular practice is wrong, when it is not wrong in God’s sight, should be about the business of re-educating his conscience, getting his thinking straight as informed by the Word of God. By that process, in time he will be able to rise above his immature assessment and feel fully “at home” with God’s view of the matter.

Furthermore, returning to Romans 14, the more mature Christian sins if his eating an authorized food prods the immature Christian to go against his conscience and consume a food that he thinks is wrong (“evil”—vs. 20) for the Christian to consume. The mature Christian is guilty of “grieving” (vs. 15), “destroying” (vss. 15,20), “offending” (vs. 21), “making weak” (vs. 21), and causing the weaker brother to “stumble” (vs. 21). In Paul’s treatment of this matter in 1 Corinthians 8, the stronger brother that so conducts himself is guilty of causing the weak brother to “perish” (vs. 11) by “wounding his weak conscience” (vs. 12).

Some Applications

Many churches have undergone internal disruption over an infinite variety of disagreements. These disagreements might be over what color of drapes ought to hang in front of the baptistery or what carpet should be on the floor. Dissension might occur over whether to build a new auditorium or multipurpose room, how to equip the kitchen, which songbooks or Bibles to buy for the pews, or whether a preacher ought to be hired or fired. Some attempt to derail the majority’s decision and get their own way by appealing to Romans 14. They insist that implementing the decision of the elders or the majority of the men would “offend” them. This tactic has been used far and wide to stymie the work of the church and prevent many positive actions from going forward.

In such instances, Romans 14 is misapplied in at least two ways: (1) Paul did not use the term “offend” merely to mean that a brother disagrees with or feels hurt by the decision. “Offend” is not defined as “ruffled feathers.” He used the term to refer to the weaker brother being led into sin. Specifically, Paul said the mature Christian ought to forego committing an action (like eating a particular food), if doing so would cause the immature Christian to engage in the same behavior in direct violation of his conscience. Placing red rather than beige curtains in front of the baptistery would hardly cause the dissenting brother to sin! (2) Those who use this tact would never cast themselves in the role of the weaker brother. They consider themselves the stronger brothers.

The fact is that if such individuals have scriptural grounds for objecting to a particular decision, rather than objecting solely out of personal opinion or preference, they should stake their case on scriptural grounds. Unfortunately, the church has always been plagued by some brethren whose ego, pride, and perhaps lust for power (like Diotrephes—3 John 9), drives them to attempt to control the church. In stark contrast, mature Christians will be extremely flexible, open-minded, and accommodative when it comes to matters of opinion in the church.

Another consideration regarding Romans 14 that helps us to distinguish between faith and opinion is seen in verses 22-23—

Do you have faith? Have it to yourself before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves. But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because he does not eat from faith; for whatever is not from faith is sin.

To “have faith” in a viewpoint/doctrine means that we are familiar with God’s view of the matter, knowing it to be optional and a matter of opinion. To “doubt” is to lack complete awareness or knowledge of a divine doctrine and/or to have hesitation to accept and enact it in one’s life. Specifically in the context, if a brother was uncertain about (doubted) whether he should eat a particular food, he would be guilty of sin if he went ahead and ate the food, because he would not be doing so “from faith,” i.e., he would be engaging in the action without being fully informed (by God’s Word) or fully convinced that such an action was acceptable to God. Since “faith comes by…hearing the word of God” (Romans 10:17), any action that a person engages in that does not have the authority/permission of God’s Word behind it, is a sinful action.

But how may the average Christian distinguish between matters of faith and matters of opinion? When a question or issue arises in the church, how do we know whether it is optional or obligatory? The answer is that we must study God’s Word carefully in order to apply its principles to the matter at hand. Excellent books have been written by Christians over the years detailing proper exegetical procedure for ascertaining God’s will on matters that are not specifically alluded to in Scripture. These include Thomas Warren’s When Is An “Example” Binding? and Logic and the Bible, Roy Deaver’s Ascertaining Bible Authority, D.R. Dungan’s Hermeneutics, et al. Such books help the student of the Bible to think through the principles involved in understanding God’s Word and applying that Word to the multitude of circumstances that arise in our lives. God’s Word was obviously written with a view toward the average human being capable of understanding God’s will for his or her life. Of course, diligence and effort must be brought to bear on the task (2 Timothy 2:15; Acts 17:11). But with adequate effort and interest in knowing God’s will, the goal can be achieved. No one can stand before God at the end of time and legitimately maintain that he was unable to recognize matters of faith and opinion.

CONCLUSION

May God help us to “pursue the things which make for peace and the things by which one may edify another” (Romans 14:19). May we never “do anything by which our brother stumbles or is offended or is made weak” (vs. 21). May God help us to grow spiritually every day, that we might be people who are “strong in faith” (Romans 4:20), well able to distinguish between matters of opinion vs. matters of faith.

REFERENCES

Lard, Moses (1875), Commentary on Paul’s Letter to the Romans (Delight, AR: Gospel Light Publishing).

Lipscomb, David (1943), Romans (Nashville, TN: Gospel Advocate).




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