I Am My Brother's Keeper: Romans 14
Introduction: Accepting Diversity in the Body of Christ
In a June 22, 1992 article in the devotional entitled 'Today in the Word' there are the following words:
"At a meeting of the American Psychological Association, Jack Lipton, a psychologist at Union College, and R. Scott Builione, a graduate student at Columbia University, presented their findings on how members of the various sections of 11 major symphony orchestras perceived each other. The percussionists were viewed as insensitive, unintelligent, and hard-of-hearing, yet fun-loving. String players were seen as arrogant, stuffy, and unathletic. The orchestra members overwhelmingly chose "loud" as the primary adjective to describe the brass players. Woodwind players seemed to be held in the highest esteem, described as quiet and meticulous, though a bit egotistical. Interesting findings, to say the least! With such widely divergent personalities and perceptions, how could an orchestra ever come together to make such wonderful music? The answer is simple: regardless of how those musicians view each other, they subordinate their feelings and biases to the leadership of the conductor. Under his guidance, they play beautiful music."
The Body of Christ, like this orchestra, is made up of many diverse people with various abilities, gifts, talents, and personalities. None of us are exactly alike. And, none of us thinks completely alike either.
Sadly, because of this, we can get quite judgmental of our fellow Christians. This is especially true if they don't see things quite as we see them in areas not specifically addressed in Scripture. Further, if we are not careful, this judgmentalism can destroy the unity of the Church as well as the faith of the weak brother or sister. And it can ruin our testimony to non-believers as well.
It is only as we see that we are not the ones in control, and it is not our job to be each other's judge that we can maintain unity in the church. Jesus is the great orchestra leader and it is He who is building His church. And, quite frankly, it is ultimately He who will bring each of us individuals to obedience and maturity in Christ.
In chapter 14 of Romans, the Apostle Paul is continuing his look at the practical outcome of being saved by grace alone, through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. Those who have faith in the Lord Jesus are being transformed by the Holy Spirit to be conformed to the image of Jesus.
After salvation, we have now been placed in a new, righteous community called the Church, the Body of Christ and this body of believers is characterized by agape love, both for one another and for the world around us. That is the sacrificial and unconditional love that God demonstrated when He sent Jesus to die for us on the cross (John 3:16).
The apostle had told us earlier in Romans 13:8 that we are to owe nothing to anyone except the continuing debt of love. It is this selfless, other-centered love that we should bring to bear when dealing with disputable matters that don't affect the fundamentals of the Christian faith and salvation but still can cause division in the Church.
Keep in mind that Paul is not talking about condoning open sin here that God has clearly told us not to do. An example of this type of sin is found in I Corinthians 5 where Paul condemns the local church for not dealing with a man who was openly sleeping with his father's wife. The Apostle, in Romans 14, is not talking about such things. He is rather discussing those gray areas that the Bible neither clearly condemns nor condones.
Obviously, Paul himself had an opinion on who was right and wrong in the disputes mentioned in this passage since he called some strong in faith and some weak. However, he wasn't going to act in a non-loving way and use his maturity and knowledge to destroy the unity of the Church and the faith of the weak brother or sister. And he tells us we shouldn't either.
I entitled this message: "I Am My Brother's Keeper" because I believe that this passage before us answers the age-old question, posed by Cain to God after Cain slew his brother Abel and the Lord asked him where his sibling was. He said to God: "Am I my brother's keeper?" The answer to Cain here is an unashamed: "Yes you are!" As members of the Church, we are responsible for one another. It is no longer simply me and my needs and only how what I do will affect me. We are to love one another and care how our actions affect our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ as well.
With that in mind, let us look at the ways in which we should deal with the brother or sister with whom we have a dispute over how we are to live and worship.
I. Accept the Weak Brother Without Judgmentalism (14:1-13)
The first thing that Paul tells us is that we are to accept the one weak in faith without having a judgmental attitude toward them. The King James translation is a little vague here. In verse 1 it says:
"Him that is weak in the faith receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations."
The New American Standard captures the Greek meaning quite well when it says:
"Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions."
Just who is the weak believer in this passage? I like how Pastor Paul LaBoutillier defined him when he gave this definition. He said that the weak believer is:
"One who has convictions over matters of misdirected or non-salvation related importance.
In other words, they have strong convictions about things that are not as important as they think that they are. They are, rather, matters that limit the freedom we have in Christ even though the Lord hasn't told us to do it.
John R.W. Stott had this to say about the weak:
"It is important to be clear at the outset that Paul is referring to a weakness, neither of will nor of character, but of faith. It is a weakness in the assurance that one's faith permits one to do certain things. So if we are trying to picture a weaker brother or sister, we must envisage a vulnerable Christian full of indecision and scruples. What the weak lack is not the strength of self-control but the liberty of conscience."
In the case of the weak Roman Christians, those who were strong in faith understood their freedom in Christ. The Jewish Christians knew that the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament were no longer binding. Those that were Gentiles realized that the pagan gods they used to worship were not real and no gods at all. Therefore, it was all right to eat meat offered to them when it was later sold in the marketplace.
The weak, however, were not quite able to let go of the religious ceremonies of the past. The Jewish believers that were weak had trouble abandoning the rites and the prohibitions of the Old Covenant. They felt a need to observe the dietary requirements and observe the Sabbath. They also thought that they had to offer sacrifices in the Temple.
The weak-in-faith Gentile, because he had been steeped in idolatry in his past with the offerings of sacrifices to pagan deities, felt that it was wrong to have any further contact with that practice. He or she felt that any contact with the practice or the meat offered to the idols was a sin.
The problem with both the weak Jewish and Gentile Christians was that they had very sensitive consciences, and were not mature enough to break away from these convictions.
It was not that these people saw these things as necessary for salvation. If that were true, then these practices would no longer be disputed areas. Rather they would fundamentally change the Gospel. God clearly tells us that salvation doesn't come from works, either from abstaining from or indulging in an action. Rather, it is by grace alone, through faith in Christ alone. The problem was that the weak Christians thought that they had to follow these things in order to obey the God who saved them.
So, what does one do with these Christians with sensitive consciences? Paul insists that we don't act in a judgmental manner or look down on them for the weakness that causes them to do practices that are different from our own. Here are his words:
"The one who eats is not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat, and the one who does not eat should not judge the one who eats, for God has accepted him. Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master, he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand." (3-4).
He goes on in verses 5-9 to tell us that some follow a holy day and some don't. Some eat certain things and some don't. But either way, they are doing it for the Lord whom they love. And we both live for Him and die for Him.
Verse 9 tells us that it was Christ who died and rose again that He might be Lord of both the dead and the living. That includes all of us. Paul is basically being very blunt and telling us that no one died and made us God. So we have no business judging our brother regarding the disputable things that they do.
And we will all stand before the judgment seat of Christ anyway. We should worry about our own maturity and what the Lord will say about us.
Every knee will bow and every tongue will give praise to God. We will all give an account of ourselves to the Lord.
To bring this problem up to date, there are a number of Romans 14 issues today that can break up the unity of the Body of Christ and lead our Christian brothers and sisters to stumble. They include such things as:
- Should Christians watch Sports on Sundays Or should they go to restaurants on Sundays because it is giving a reason for the restaurant to be open and have staff work on the Lord's Day?
- Should a Christian ever look at an R rated movie?
- Is it all right if a Christian drinks alcohol as long as they don't get drunk?
- Is it all right for a Christian to work at a place where alcohol is served?
- Is it biblical for a Christian to still observe the Sabbath? Or, since Christ arose on Sunday, has the Sabbath changed to Sunday rather than Saturday? What sorts of activities are permissible to do on the Sunday Sabbath, if there is to be such a thing?
- Do you believe in the Rapture of the Church, i.e. the Church being caught up to meet the Lord in the air? If so, how do you treat those who don't believe in the Rapture? Or, if you don't believe, how do you treat those who do? Also, you get extra bonus points for putting the Rapture at the right place in biblical prophecy, either before the Tribulation, in the middle of it, at the end of the Tribulation, or for some, a pre-wrath Rapture of the Body of Christ.
- Is it all right for males and females to swim together? In some places in the South, this is called mixed bathing and is frowned upon.
- Should Christians observe pagan holidays such as Halloween?
- Is it OK to put up Christmas trees, give presents, or talk about Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny to your kids?
- What kinds of music are appropriate? Should a Christian listen to Rock, Rap, or any other music that has been deemed inappropriate by some Christians?
These are just a few of the many issues that can and have come up in various churches throughout the world. You can, no doubt, think of more to add to the list. But the bottom line is that they are all gray areas and cannot be dogmatically proven by Scripture. But they are areas in which we can accept those who either adhere to them or don't adhere. We need to let Christ do His job and acknowledge that He is Lord of all His children. He can show them where they need to mature and where they need to stand firm.
After talking about all of us giving an account of ourselves to God, Paul transitions to his next point. He tells us:
"Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this- not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother's way." (13).
So, not only are we to accept the weaker believer without judgmentalism, we are also to put their needs above our own.
II. Have a Self-Sacrificial Attitude Toward the Weaker Believer (14-23)
Once again, in this section, agape-love and the whole self-sacrificial attitude that accompanies it are seen. This is especially true when dealing with the weaker Christian.
In any community of believers that is growing in number as they reach out to the world with the Gospel, there will be a number of carnal Christians that don't realize that nothing is unclean in and of itself. And seeing others exercise their freedom will likely lead them to either be judgmental themselves, or it may lead them to follow the practices of others against their own conscience.
The word for unclean in this section originally meant common but took on the idea of that which is evil or impure. Paul says that if someone thinks that something is evil, even if his assessment of it is wrong, then he should never do it. Because to him, it is sin.
An example of this is if you think that God forbids eating ice cream. Now all of us know that God never said anything against eating ice cream. But if someone thinks that the Lord does forbid it and decides to eat it anyway, aren't they disobeying what they think is a direct command from God? Even if eating ice cream isn't a sin, their attitude is that of disobedience.
By doing it he will violate his conscience which will lead to guilt and perhaps also will cause him to be more legalistic rather than to experience the greater and greater freedom which comes with following Jesus Christ.
As a believer who is stronger in faith, it is our job not to cause a weaker believer to stumble by our freedom. If we do, we aren't walking in love.
This may mean, in some instances, that we curtail our own freedom for the sake of those who may be hurt by it. As stated earlier, I am my brother's and sister's keeper. It is my duty as a member of Christ's Body, to help them in any way I can in order for their relationship with God to grow and become stronger. And it is my duty not to in any way destroy the faith of my fellow believer for whom Christ died by exercising my freedom. (14-15).
Paul says, in a parallel passage, something similar when talking about meat sacrificed to idols. He states:
"But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if someone sees you who have knowledge, dining in an idol's temple, will not his conscience, if he is weak, be strengthened to eat things sacrificed to idols? For through your knowledge he who is weak is ruined, the brother for whose sake Christ died. And so, by sinning against the brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause my brother to stumble." (I Corinthians 8:9-14).
The bottom line is that you sacrifice your own freedom so that a brother or sister doesn't get harmed by you. You are to see them for the loved object of God's grace and mercy that they are. And you, as a strong believer, are to love them too.
By us harming our brother, the good freedoms that have been given to us by God will begin to be spoken of as evil. The word used here is the Greek word for blaspheme. When the unbeliever sees a strong Christian abusing his or her freedom in Christ, leading to the harming of a weaker brother, they will wrongly conclude that Christianity is filled with a bunch of unloving people. This, in turn, will harm the reputation of our God. People will blaspheme Him, as well, and the good that is done in His name.
Besides all of this, he goes on, the Kingdom of God is not about eating and drinking anyway. These are mere non-essentials and outward observances. Rather it consists of righteousness or holy and obedient living. It also consists of peace. This is the loving tranquility that is produced by the Holy Spirit. Peace should characterize our relationship with God and with our fellow believers. Finally, God's Kingdom is made up of joy in the Holy Spirit. This is fruit that the Spirit produces in the believer. It describes an abiding attitude of praise and thanksgiving no matter what the circumstances in life may be. Joy comes from knowing that, no matter what is happening, God is still in control and causing all things to work together for good for them that love him (Romans 8:28).
Those who have these Kingdom characteristics are both acceptable to God and approved by men. Paul is assuming here that Christians are under the microscope of the world as they see how we treat them and one another. If we pursue the things that really matter and love one another we will have the world see what it is like to truly live under the Kingdom of God. And it will impress them (18).
So we need to continue that which leads to peace and the building-up of the Body of Christ, the Church. Paul says that we mustn't tear down the work of God for something as unimportant and non-eternal as food. Even though it is all clean and not evil in itself, it becomes evil if you use your freedom carelessly and selfishly, thus offending your weak fellow-believer (19-20).
This chapter ends by the Apostle recapping what he has said and elaborating on it. He tells us in verse 21:
"It is good not to eat meat or drink wine, or to do anything by which your brother stumbles."
He then tells us that we should keep the faith and convictions that we have, celebrate them but ultimately keep them between God and ourselves. We don't need to condemn ourselves if the Lord has given us liberty in Christ. Rather, we should be happy that we have these convictions. And done in private before God and out of the sight of the weak brother, they continue to be fine.
But, at the same time, the weak believer who has doubts about them should not practice those things which hurt his conscience because it will lead to self-condemnation. If he condemns himself, he will not be acting in faith and that which doesn't come as a result of faith is sin.
Someone has said that the last sentence regarding faith is: "the most penetrating and devastating definition of sin that I know. The reason it is penetrating is that it goes to the root of all sinful actions and attitudes, namely, the failure to trust God."
And that, in the final analysis, is how the weaker brother ends up if he is lead to practice that which he believes to be against the will of God. By going through with it He isn't trusting God. He's putting his trust in himself and his own uninformed views on what is right and wrong.
There is a poem, written by C.D. Meigs that might help sum up what Paul is telling us regarding the treatment of our weaker fellow Christians. It is a poem that reminds us that life in Christ is not one of selfishness and getting our own way but one that is centered on loving and caring for those whom God loves. It is simply entitled 'Others.' Meigs writes:
Lord, help me to live from day to day
In such a self-forgetful way
That even when I kneel to pray
My prayers will be for others.
Help me in all the work I do
To ever be sincere and true
And know that all I do for You
Must needs be done for others.
Let "self" be crucified and slain
And buried deep; and all in vain
May efforts be to rise again
Unless to live for others.
And when my work on earth is done,
And my new work in heaven's begun,
May I forget the crown I've won
While thinking still of others.
Others, Lord, yes others!
Let this my motto be,
Help me to live for others,
That I may live like Thee.
This world is all about looking out for number one, putting my needs first and frankly not really being concerned about those who aren't part of my immediate biological family, as long as my family is doing o.k. But God so loved the world and was so concerned that He sent his one and only Son to die for it.
Then He took those whom He saved and placed them in an entirely new family called the Church. It is in that large family that we are to fulfill His mission of starting a whole new and different humanity. It is to be composed of those who love Him, care for one another as well as others, and will be trophies of His love and grace for all eternity.
We are no longer to be about just ourselves. Rather, we must care about the good of others, especially those that are in the household of believers. And we need to be concerned about how our individual actions will either build up or tear down those in the family of faith.
May the world look at us and see, in the Church, a people who love each other and put the needs of our neighbor ahead of our own. And let that stir those who see us to glorify our Father who is in Heaven. For to bring Him glory is to have fulfilled our highest purpose for existence on this planet. My prayer is that God will make it so in my life and in the life of the community of believers in which I am involved! Amen!!
© 2019 Jeff Shirley