Disputable Matters in Romans 14: What They Are and What They Aren't

Four guysThis weekend at my home church, Good Shepherd Community, three good friends and I brought a group message from Romans 14. As you can see, we were having a good time. And hopefully we helped open up the passage. Different people bring different insights to a passage, and this passage is about differentness.

That's me on the left, with Dan Franklin next to me. Dan's our Pastor of Scriptural Enrichment (I think that's the title, but we're not big on titles, so somebody correct me if I'm wrong). He's a real student of God's Word, an excellent communicator, and he has a lot of wisdom. One of his wise choices was marrying my daughter Karina. (He and Dan Stump, my daughter Angela's husband, are both followers of Jesus who I'm proud of and thankful for as husbands of our precious girls, and fathers of our grandsons.)

Next to Dan is my old friend (and compared to Dan, who's thirty, we're all old) Steve Keels. Steve's been my best buddy for many years. We've had thousands of phone conversations, and hundreds of early mornings and late nights opening Scripture and praying together and pouring out our hearts and laughing until our stomachs hurt. Over thirty years ago, he used to show up at Nanci's and my apartment after midnight, with questions about the Bible. (Sometimes we didn't answer the door, pretending we were asleep.)

Next to Steve, on the far right, is Stu Weber, another dear friend. Stu and I met in 1971 when I'd known the Lord just two years. I was a senior in high school, and he became my youth pastor at Powell Valley Covenant Church, when he came out of the Army to attend Western Baptist Seminary in Portland. Six years later Stu and I became the original pastors at Good Shepherd. The church started when he was just shy of 32 and I was almost 23. Stu, Steve and I meet every Wednesday morning to open the Word and pray and hold each other accountable. (I mentioned them, though not by name, in my previous post, Who are You Roped to for the Climb?)

Anyway, we have countless memories together, and it was really an honor to be on the platform this weekend with Dan, Steve and Stu.

Romans 14 has a great deal to say about Christian liberty and responsibility, and I'll only touch on one aspect in this blog. The key to understanding what Romans 14 does and doesn’t refer to is found in the first verse. The NIV, NASB and ESV translate the first part of the sentence similarly: we should be accepting of the brother or sister “whose faith is weak.”

The NIV then says, “without passing judgment on disputable matters.” The NASB “not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions.” The ESV “not to quarrel over opinions.”

Understanding what is not to be quarreled about and judged is critical to grasping the passage. The crucial word is the one translated “disputable matters” or “opinions.”

Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8-10 are parallel passages. Understanding the longer passage in Corinthians can help enlighten us concerning its parallel passage in Romans 14. 1 Corinthians 5, which is part of the buildup to 1 Corinthians 8-10, can help us see what does not qualify as a disputable matter. It also shows us when we really should pass judgment on our brother.

1 Corinthians 5 begins, “It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that does not occur even among pagans: A man has his father’s wife. And you are proud! Shouldn’t you rather have been filled with grief and have put out of your fellowship the man who did this?”

A man in the church was having sex with his step-mother. Paul says that, in a spirit not of self-righteousness but grief, they should have confronted this man and, if he refused to repent, put him outside the fellowship. This would require them to pass judgment upon him.

Paul says in verse 7, “Your boasting is not good.” This echoes his statement in verse one, “A man has his father’s wife, and you are proud!” But why would they be proud of and boasting about this terrible sin in their midst? The only answer that rings true to me is that they imagined they were taking the high ground by exercising Christian liberty. “You want to see grace and tolerance and liberty and not being judgmental? Look at us. One of our brothers is having sex with his step-mom!”

Paul explains why decisive judgment must be passed in such cases: “Don’t you know that a little yeast works through the whole batch of dough? Get rid of the old yeast that you may be a new batch without yeast.” He commands in verse 11, “you must not associate with anyone who calls himself a brother but is sexually immoral or greedy, an idolater or a slanderer, a drunkard or a swindler. With such a man do not even eat.”

Paul concludes by saying, “What business is it of mine to judge those outside the church? Are you not to judge those inside? God will judge those outside. Expel the wicked man from among you.” The reader of 1 Corinthians 8, where the issue of eating meat offered to idols is raised, will have in his mind this powerful statement from chapter five. He will know that the debatable matters of Christian liberty, dealt with three chapters later, are something very different than clear-cut sins such as sexual immorality.

Paul and his original audience understood that the “disputable matters” in Romans 14—behaviors which Christians are not to pass judgment on their brothers concerning—are not matters God has revealed in His Word as sin.

Rather, the disputable matters are things which God does not explicitly condemn, and which fall within the circle of Christian liberty. Whether these behaviors are right or wrong depends on the convictions and heart attitude of the one doing them. Of course, not everyone will agree about what God’s Word clearly condemns and what it doesn’t. Sometimes this is the basis of dispute.

In 1 Corinthians 5 we are commanded to judge our brother, and in Romans 14 we are commanded not to judge our brother. This appears to be a contradiction. But it isn’t, because the passages are talking about two very different issues. 1 Corinthians 5 is talking about definite sins for which we are to judge our brothers in light of God’s revealed truth. We are to go to them in love, confront them, and call them to repentance.

There's an Internet article by a former pastor who claims homosexual behavior is a disputable matter and that according to Romans 14 we should consider it acceptable in the body of Christ. Of course, this was not considered disputable to Paul or the early church. It's not considered by him to be a gray area, any more than a man having sex with his step-mom.

Romans 14 addresses matters of Christian liberty. It tells us we shouldn’t judge our brother if he doesn’t feel the liberty to do what we do. And we shouldn’t judge our brothers who feel the liberty to do what we in good conscience cannot.

In 1 Corinthians 5 Paul calls upon the Corinthians to narrow their view of Christian liberty. In 1 Corinthians 8-10 (and again in Romans 14) he calls on them to broaden their view of Christian liberty. In the one case, where it is black and white, we should exercise judgment concerning sin. In the other case, where it is gray, we should withhold judgment and give our brother the benefit of the doubt.

Satan’s two-step strategy is simple: first, to tempt God’s people not to judge our brother when we should, in primary areas revealed in Scripture (rather than take appropriate steps by going to him, and following through if he doesn't repent). Second, to tempt us to judge our brother when we shouldn’t, in secondary areas not revealed in Scripture. A third strategy, where there is indisputable sin, would be to tempt us to judge it with a spirit of self-righteousness, rather than with what Paul encourages: a spirit of grief and humility.

Next blog I'll talk about another main component of Romans 14, stumbling blocks—what they are and what they aren't. (They are not simply things that people take offense at.)

Randy Alcorn, founder of EPM

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over fifty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries