1Him that is weak in the faith receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations.
Christians come from many different backgrounds. Some are former Catholics, some come out of Protestant denominations, some were raised Baptist, some had no religious background whatever. And just about all of them bring some kind of baggage with them, some beliefs that they've acquired over the years, that can't be backed up from Scripture. Or that they base on one or two carefully picked Bible verses that somebody taught them a long time ago, but which go against the plain teaching of the rest of Scripture.
Verse 1 is telling us that, if a Christian with some, uhh, unusual beliefs about this and that wants to attend your church, you let him in. And when you let him in the door, you don't have a pack of deacons lurking behind the door, waiting to jump him with a concordance and prove what a nutcase he is. You receive him because Jesus died for him and he's put his faith in Jesus for salvation, and if Jesus received him, we ought to do the same.
This isn't talking about letting people become members of the church. A church should have a doctrinal statement that is in accord with the Bible, and it's good to require that a formal member agree to all of it. Otherwise, you're inviting heresy into your church, and your membership will wind up so splintered by contradictory beliefs that the whole church will suffer.
This also is not talking about doctrines and sins that are spelled out in the Bible. If someone has a wrong belief, and you have book, chapter and verse to show him he's wrong, you have a Christian obligation to speak to that person and try to teach them what God says, and if they won't hear it, you are required to have no fellowship with that person (that's in Titus 3:10).
This chapter isn't about the obvious rights and wrongs. It's about questionable beliefs, those doubtful disputations. What's a doubtful disputation? In verse 2, Paul gives us an example.
2For one believeth that he may eat all things: another, that is weak, eateth herbs.
You may recall that Paul used three whole chapters of I Corinthians (chapters 8-10) on the issue of eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols. This was a very big issue in the early church, because most of the Gentile Christians came out of idol worship.
These new believers had spent their whole lives associating sacrifices with idols. Now they'd embraced Jesus, but they still had this religious baggage in their minds. If they ate meat from an idol sacrifice, it brought their evil past back to their minds, and it reminded them of all the other degraded practices that went with idol worship. So they didn't want to eat that kind of meat — it hurt their relationship with Jesus. Okay, no problem there.
But how do you know if the meat sold in the marketplace came from an idol sacrifice or not? Cuts of meat back then didn't have a stamp that said, "USDI Approved" (that's the United States Department of Idolatry, in case you didn't know). So, to be safe, these weak Christians ate no meat at all. They were vegetarians, for the sake of their conscience. So far, so good.
But then they'd see a mature Christian eating meat, and they'd think, "Well, So-and-So is eating meat, even though it might be from an idol, and he's a mature Christian, so it must be okay." And they'd take a bite, and it wouldn't taste bad, and God didn't strike them dead for it. But, in their minds, it was still wrong for them to be doing it, and their conscience would bother them. They'd have this internal conflict which would wreck the peace that God wanted to give them.
Or they'd see a mature Christian eating meat, and they'd think, "Well, So-and-So is eating meat, even though it might be from an idol, and he's supposed to be a mature Christian, but now I wonder about him. Doesn't he know that's wrong? I guess he isn't as mature as I thought he was." And they'd judge their brother falsely, and have a problem with him, and reject anything else he said, because the meat issue made him look bad.
That's the issue Paul is dealing with here. Someone who is Biblically saved, but who has a strongly-held belief that isn't a Biblical commandment. These are what we call personal convictions. We all have them, and we all have to have them, because the Bible doesn't literally address every issue in life. The Bible gives guidelines for just about anything, but it doesn't explicitly mention movies, or musical styles, or what kind of clothes we should wear to church. We have to consider the whole teaching of Scripture and make up our minds about these issues. The trouble starts because we don't all come to the same conclusions.
Being a vegetarian is still an issue here and there in the church. But we have other such beliefs as well, things that come from someone's past and stay with them once they become Christians. Others get some odd beliefs from teachers in the church who spread man-made doctrines instead of Bible truth. And it seems like we spend more time fighting over these doubtful disputations than we do contending for what really matters. How are we supposed to deal with beliefs like those? Verse 3:
3Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not: and let not him that eateth not judge him that eateth: for God hath received him.
This is one of the three key verses in this chapter, the meat of the chapter, if you will.
When someone joins your fellowship, and that person has some belief on a peripheral issue that you know is a little off, it's not your job to whack him over the head with a Schofield until he repents. That's the Holy Spirit's job. God has been using His Word for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, and for instruction in righteousness for a very, very long time, and He's good at it. We, on the other hand, tend to be impatient, heavy-handed, and less than gracious. "Where did you get such a stupid idea?" "How could you possibly believe that load of nonsense?" "I've lost all respect for you, thinking something like that!" Is that any way to treat a brother in Christ?
But it's not just the ones who know better. Paul also tells the one who doesn't allow something that he must not judge the one who does. "How can you call yourself a Christian and eat meat?" "How can you call yourself a believer and let your hair touch your ears and your collar?" "I question your salvation — you're listening to Christian rap songs!" Is that any way to treat a brother in Christ?
That kind of judgment, when you don't have book, chapter and verse to back yourself up, is just as wrong as jumping all over the brother who doesn't allow something. Why? For God hath received him. And on what basis did God receive him? By faith in Jesus. Not by whether he eats meat, not by the length of his hair, not by what style of music he listens to. Not by any of these side issues that we get all heated up about.
4Who art thou that judgest another man's servant? to his own master he standeth or falleth. Yea, he shall be holden up: for God is able to make him stand.
If God wants another Christian to get a haircut, that's between God and that believer. And God is quite capable of getting His message across, amen? He doesn't need us making ourselves into mediators between Him and other Christians. "There is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus." (I Timothy 2:5) If you take up the role of bringing messages from God to men, which God didn't include in the Bible, do you know what you're making yourself out to be? You're making yourself a priest. You're saying that the high priesthood of Christ isn't good enough, that God needs your help. You're saying that other believers can't understand God's will for themselves, so you've got to beat it into them or they'll never get it. What arrogance! What pride!
God has not appointed us to decide what other people's personal convictions ought to be. He is our master. I'm not your master, and you're not my master. If I don't have book, chapter and verse to prove that what you believe is wrong, then what you believe is none... of... my... business. If you need to be dealt with on that issue, God will deal with you. And He'll do a much better job of it than I could ever do.
5One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.
This is another example of things that believers got heated up about in his day. Some Christians thought that there were holy days that were special before God. Others thought that every day was a good day for worship and thanksgiving. And, as you can imagine, they would get into disputes over who was right. Paul is telling them, and us, to be fully persuaded in our own minds. In our own minds! We're not supposed to try and get everyone around us fully persuaded. I'm supposed to consider the whole teaching of Scripture, pray, and decide what God wants me to believe. And that's where it's supposed to stop.
6He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord; and he that regardeth not the day, to the Lord he doth not regard it. He that eateth, eateth to the Lord, for he giveth God thanks; and he that eateth not, to the Lord he eateth not, and giveth God thanks.
This statement is absolutely amazing. Paul is saying that, if an issue isn't a clearly defined sin, two sincere Christians can be on opposite sides of it, and God is just as honored by one as by the other. Let me say that again, because it runs so completely opposite to our usual way of thinking: it is possible for two sincere Christians to be on opposite sides of an issue, and God is just as honored by one as by the other. God receives the thanks from the one as much as from the other. God is just as pleased with one as with the other. To our Western way of thinking, where the opposite of right is wrong, the idea that something and its opposite can both be right is hard to swallow. But that's what it says.
Do you know what this means? This means we don't have to convert everyone to our way of thinking on every little issue! We don't have to beat up our brothers and sisters over these doubtful disputations! We don't have to waste our time and our energy attacking other Christians; we can put all our time and effort into spreading the Gospel and equipping the saints for ministry. What a liberating idea! Can you imagine how the churches of God would take off if we all understood this and lived it out?
I've got news for you: we were supposed to be living it out all along. This is not a secret message that I'm bringing. It's been around ever since Paul wrote Romans, well over nineteen centuries ago. So how come we don't do it? Paul hints at the problem in the next verse.
7For none of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself.
The problem is self. My self, your self. We get our eyes off of God and onto ourselves. And if all I'm looking at is me, then of course my way of thinking is going to look right.
We don't realize how sinful we are until we look at God's perfection. We don't realize how small we are until we remember how big God is. If we take our eyes off God and His standards, we tend to set ourselves up as the standard. And from there, obviously, anyone who misses my standard must be wrong, and they need to be set right. And that's my job, because no one knows my standards better than I do, right?
I'm reminded of the Texas politician who was running for office and giving a speech. He said, and I quote, "My opponent deserves to be kicked to death by a jackass, and I'm just the one to do it." That's the message we send when we try to pound some other Christian into our own likeness, and make them believe what we believe.
But when we accept Christ as our Savior, we give up the right to focus on ourselves. We're supposed to be "looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith." And if we're looking at God, we won't be so tempted to make our own pet beliefs the yardstick by which everybody else gets measured.
8For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord: whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lord's.
If you're a Christian, you are God's personal property. You do not belong to me. I do not have the right to intervene in your life and attack you over things that are not important to God. That would be like me trying to discipline your children without your permission. God can discipline His children if they're wrong, and He's good at it. If we try it, all we do is mess things up for God and give Him more work to do — He not only has to undo the damage Satan has done in their lives, He also has to undo the damage we've done in their lives.
When you were young, your mother taught you not to play with other kids' toys without asking first. As an adult, you know you can't take someone else's car for a ride without their permission. So why do we feel so free to mess with God's most cherished possessions, the saints He died for?
9For to this end Christ both died, and rose, and revived, that he might be Lord both of the dead and living.
Paul is really driving this point home: Christ is lord. He has all the authority and He has all the power. I don't. I am not lord of anybody, dead or living. But when I tell you what style of music you should not be listening to, or whether the ladies in your household should wear pants or not, I'm asserting lordship over you. And I do not have the right to do that. Do I want to put myself in Jesus' place? That doesn't sound wise.
10But why dost thou judge thy brother? or why dost thou set at nought thy brother? for we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. 11 For it is written, As I live, saith the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God. 12 So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God.
Isn't the judgment seat of Christ a good enough judgment? Do you really think you can do a better job of judging a believer than Jesus can? If not, then why are you trying to do it anyway?
We are bought and paid for by the blood of Jesus. He has a vested interest in bringing His saints to perfection. His Holy Spirit is at work in every believer, working to bring us closer to Him and make us more like Him. He has a perfect timetable for what He's doing in my life, and a perfect timetable for what He's doing in your life. Where do we get off, barging into other Christians' lives without God's permission, messing up His timetable, over issues that He couldn't care less about?
13Let 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.
This is the second critical verse.
Paul has made it clear that, if you want to play an electric guitar, that's between you and God. I don't have the right to tell you you're wrong. But if I think electric guitars are wrong, and you don't, is it right for you to point your amplifier at my house and crank it up? Or is it wrong?
If I think any drinking of alcohol is wrong, and you don't, is it right for you to invite me over for supper and offer me a glass of wine? Or is it wrong?
If I think going to movies is wrong, and you don't, is it right for you to ask me to go see a movie with you? Or is it wrong?
The answer to these questions is a very clear "It's wrong." That's not how we're supposed to treat our brothers and sisters. You don't wave your freedom in their face and say, "Look what I can do, neener neener neener!" You don't entice them to go against their own convictions. You don't try to persuade them to do something that they think is wrong. You know it's not a sin, but in their minds, it is. Do you want them to think of you as Satan's right-hand man? Satan is the tempter. If you urge someone to do something that they think is wrong, you're tempting them to do wrong. Whose side are you on?
And Paul is commanding us to judge whether this is happening or not. If you find yourself urging someone else to go against their convictions, or if you find yourself flaunting your own convictions at someone else's expense, you need to stop and repent before God for this sin that you've committed.
You see, when we started this chapter, we were talking about doubtful disputations, not actual sins. But the way you handle these doubtful disputations can lead to actual sins.
14I 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.
Mark this down. Nothing is unclean. Nothing. Paul said, "All things are lawful for me" in I Corinthians 10:23. But that didn't mean Paul could do anything he wanted. Here's the whole verse: "All things are lawful for me, but all things are not expedient: all things are lawful for me, but all things edify not." Paul could do anything he wanted, but there were a lot of things he just didn't want to do, because he loved Jesus. This is as good a test as any of whether you're a mature believer or not.
When you refuse to do something because you think it's wrong, what is your motive? Is it because it's forbidden? Or is it because you know it would displease your Savior, and you love Him too much to displease Him? If it's the second one, you may be a mature believer. You make decisions based on what's best, not on what's allowed.
But someone who is still a little weak in their faith will tend to see things as permitted or forbidden, and make decisions on that basis. And if a Christian considers a movie or a hairstyle off limits, then it would be an actual sin for that Christian to see that movie or wear that hairstyle. And if you're one of the mature ones, and you go to that movie or wear that hairstyle, you are committing a sin in that weak Christian's eyes. Don't try to convince him you aren't, because he esteems it to be unclean, and so, to him, it is.
15But if thy brother be grieved with thy meat, now walkest thou not charitably. Destroy not him with thy meat, for whom Christ died.
That word "charitably" is a reference to agape love, the kind of love that puts the other person's well-being at the top of your list. We're supposed to have that kind of love toward all Christians. But sometimes we have a strange way of showing it.
If you know that another Christian has a problem with something in your life, you need to make a decision. What's more important, that thing in your life, or your brother in Christ? Is your freedom to do whatever-it-is more important to you than seeing your brother grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ? Then what are you going to do about it?
Maybe you should stop waving your freedom in your brother's face. Maybe you should ask your brother's forgiveness for what you've been doing. Maybe you should keep whatever-it-is in your own home, where your brother won't have to see it or deal with it. Maybe you should think about getting that thing out of your life altogether, out of love for Jesus and His saints. You may miss out on an innocent pleasure that the Bible doesn't forbid. But you'll promote the unity of the Gospel in the bond of peace. You'll show your brother that you really love him with the love of Jesus. You'll show the world that Christians aren't all a bunch of hypocrites, that a few of them really do walk the walk instead of just talking the talk.
You might say, "Why should I apologize when I haven't done anything wrong?" If you've made another Christian angry, or made them think wrongly about you, or enticed them to do what they think is a sin, then you have done something wrong, and you do need to ask for forgiveness.
You might say, "What about my believer's freedom?" My freedom to swing my fist around ends where your nose begins. Jesus set us free to serve Him and rejoice in Him, not to cause problems for others. That's an abuse of our freedom as believers. The Bible doesn't back you up on that one.
You might say, "But won't that make the other person think he's right and I was wrong?" It doesn't matter. That's not your worry. To his own master he stands or falls. You do what's right in the sight of God.
16Let not then your good be evil spoken of: 17 For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost. 18 For he that in these things serveth Christ is acceptable to God, and approved of men.
Let me bring this home for you.
The kingdom of God is not drums and electric guitars, but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost. The kingdom of God is not suits and neckties, but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost. The kingdom of God is not KJV's and NIV's, but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost. The kingdom of God is not wine and grape juice, but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.
And if any of those things in your life is working against righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost in someone else's life, then you are the one who has the problem, not that other believer. Because your good will be evil spoken of. Your actions will not be acceptable to God or approved of men. You will be known as one who causes strife, one who makes divisions between brothers, one who splits churches in two, one who makes Christianity a joke among the unsaved, because you couldn't stand to see somebody else believing differently than you do about something that doesn't really matter.
19Let us therefore follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another.
I don't think Paul could say this any more clearly. We are commanded, in the Bible, by holy apostolic command, not to follow after the things that needlessly divide us. Anyone who does focus on such things is sinning against the church and against God. Romans 14:19, book, chapter and verse, there it is.
If you want to be zealous for God, be zealous in the things He's commanded in His word! Follow after preaching the Gospel to the lost! Follow after teaching the Bible to young people and new believers! Follow after being one who encourages, and exhorts, and shows mercy! There are plenty of things to do around here that could use the time and effort we're wasting on things that don't make for peace or edify each other.
20For meat destroy not the work of God. All things indeed are pure; but it is evil for that man who eateth with offence.
You can take this verse two ways. One, it means that the person who believes it's wrong to do something, but does it anyway, is doing evil. Or two, it means that the person who believes it's right to do something, but causes problems for another person by doing it, is doing evil. They're both true.
Is the work of God worth destroying over food? Is the work of God worth destroying over musical styles? Is the work of God worth destroying over the way we dress? Is the work of God worth destroying over anything, anything at all? God is doing a work in each of us. Do you want to stand before Him some day and hear Him say, "I meant for So-and-so to become an evangelist and lead hundreds to Jesus, but you tied him up in knots over that meaningless side issue, and he didn't grow. Eternal souls were lost on account of you. Why did you do it?"
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.
This goes back to what Paul was saying in verse 15. It doesn't matter what God has allowed you to do in your own life and in your own beliefs — eating meat, drinking wine, going to church without a tie, listening to Christian rock, whatever. If another Christian is led into sin by your doing it, then it's wrong for you to do it.
22Hast thou faith? have it to thyself before God. Happy is he that condemneth not himself in that thing which he alloweth.
If you're a mature Christian, and you know you're free to do all these doubtful things with a good conscience before God, and you limit your actions by God's perfect will instead of a man-made list of do's and don'ts, Paul says that's great. Keep it to yourself.
Our freedom in Christ is not a club to beat weaker Christians over the head with. It's not a way to dump guilt on another believer's head because they aren't where you are, spiritually. If God has brought you to that place of liberation, it's between you and God. You can rejoice in Him for what He's done in you, and you can avoid the sin of making trouble for other believers. They'll grow; they'll be where you are some day, and they can rejoice right along with you. Unless you undermine God's work in their lives, and bring His rebuke down on your own head, by misusing that freedom.
23And he that doubteth is damned if he eat, because he eateth not of faith: for whatsoever is not of faith is sin.
This verse is in my Top Ten list of Bible verses that every Christian should memorize. This verse, if we would live it, would keep us from a world of hurt.
Like most churches, my church always need more teachers for Sunday school and junior church. But if someone came up to me and said, "Mike, I'm not sure if I should be a teacher or not. Should I try it?" My answer will be "No." If you don't have faith that it's right in God's sight for you to teach, then don't do it — it's sin for you to do it!
If you don't have faith that it's right in God's sight for you to go see a particular movie, then don't do it — it's sin for you to do it!
If you don't have faith that it's right in God's sight for you to listen to contemporary Christian music, then don't do it — it's sin for you to do it!
It might be okay for other Christians. You may see other believers doing things that God won't let you do. But you can't go by what other people do. You can try to argue with Jesus about how He's not being fair, and do you know what His answer will be? Peter complained that Jesus wasn't treating all His followers the same, and what did Jesus say? "What is that to thee? Follow thou Me." What God is doing in other Christians' lives is irrelevant. Just do what He's commanded you.
Whatsoever is not of faith is sin. That is so beautifully simple. And it's not hard to live out, either. All it takes is the humility to let God guide you.
Of course, most of us don't do that. We chart our own course, and then ask God if that's what He wants us to do, with our preconceived notions affecting everything He tries to tell us. We hear what we want to hear, and we misinterpret what we don't want to hear. So we wind up going our own way, like a car going the wrong way on a one-way street, and it's just a matter of time until we crash. And then we have the nerve to say, "God, what went wrong?"
We're like people sitting around a camp fire, trying to see how close we can put our hands to the fire without getting burned. What is going to happen if you keep doing that? You will get burned.
Verse 23 is telling us that the answer isn't to see how close we can get to the fire, but to stay as far away from the fire as we can. If we'd just let go of everything in our lives that isn't of faith, we'd have a much easier time of it. We might miss out on an innocent pleasure here and there. But we'd also miss out on a lot of sins against God and a lot of offenses against other believers. And if living a life that's pleasing to God is important to you, then staying away from the fire is a wise course. The good that you'll miss is far outweighed by the evil that you'll miss.
And in the next two verses, the start of chapter 15, Paul sums it all up:
15:1 We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves. 2 Let every one of us please his neighbor for his good to edification.
15:1 We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves. 2 Let every one of us please his neighbor for his good to edification.
This is the final nail in the coffin for any selfishness we've been harboring in ourselves.
We are forbidden to live for ourselves and what we want. We are commanded to live for others, setting aside our own pleasures and desires if they conflict with what's good for others. It doesn't matter if the other person has some belief that's off the wall. If it's not a Biblical sin, you do whatever you have to do to avoid causing a problem in that believer's walk.
When a doubtful disputation comes up, if there's going to be peace, somebody has to give way. God has laid that burden on the strong believer, not on the weak believer. And why not? If you need someone to carry a heavy load, you want to find someone strong, right? It's common sense, it's Bible, it's the way God has set up His church to function. When two roads merge into one, traffic on one of them has to yield their right of way, and God has put up a "Yield" sign on the road of the strong believer.
It may cost you. No, it will cost you. How much did it cost Jesus to do what was best for us in our weakness? Do you think you'll have to lose more than He did? And it's the same principle: agape love, doing what's best for another, whatever the cost.
I can assure that, if you give up some of your rights out of love for another Christian, you will be rewarded at the judgment seat of Christ, because that's the kind of thing our Savior longs to see. I can also assure you that anything you give up will be outweighed by the good that comes from it, even if you don't see it happen yourself.
And, most of all, I can assure you that you'll avoid a sin, you'll be an encouragement to other Christians, weak and strong, and you'll be obeying God's command. That part is not a doubtful disputation.