With regard to Romans 12 and 13 it has been observed that the apostle places emphasis on the way those who are saved relate to others. Chapter 14 is taken up with the importance of the way other believers are treated, particularly where they differ on some matter of conscience.
It seems from reading the chapter that there was a problem, potential or actual, among the saints in Rome that was different from the Galatian problem. In Galatia the difficulty, simply put, was legalism. There were false teachers seeking to impose requirements extra to the Word of God. In fact, what they preached was contrary to Scripture and was false. In Rome, there were many saved Jews rejoicing in the liberty of salvation. They no longer observed the ceremonial law in relation to what they ate, or in the days they observed, no doubt believing that Christ was the "end of the law" (10.4) in that sense. However, the point at issue seems to be that these "strong" believers looked down and judged "weak" but genuine believers who still had a conscience about observing these things.
The general import of the chapter is to emphasise to the saints the need for tolerance in relation to non-fundamental matters of conscience. This writer also believes that, by application of these verses, the same principles apply to matters of preference as they arise in assembly life. This chapter, and hence the comments that follow, is and are not concerned with fundamental doctrinal error, or the overlooking of moral misconduct. However, in the writer's life-time he has observed that personal relationship difficulties (and most saints have seen them arise repeatedly) most often occur over saints insisting on their own preferences, or not being willing to tolerate a different view, even when these matters may be equally consistent with Scripture.
The Treatment of the Weak
In the first six verses of the chapter the apostle makes clear how those that consider themselves "strong" ought to treat the "weak". First, in relation to reception (which may well include personal fellowship, but, in the writer's view, by implication will certainly include assembly fellowship) it is made clear that those who have differing convictions on matters of conscience are to be received. The phrase "matter of conscience" is used purposely given that the apostle makes clear later that what is in view here are situations where one believer is convicted about certain restrictions imposed on themselves personally, while on the other hand another believer genuinely feels no such restriction (and, to be contextually accurate, where no matter of morality or fundamental doctrine is in view).
Note, however, that reception is not to be a mechanism to try to put the weak brother "right". The thrust of this first section is to make clear that it is not necessary or appropriate for saints to judge other believers over such matters. Paul uses the example of eating meat; some had a conscience about doing that, while others did not, and those eating had no right to judge or refuse those who abstained, given that God had accepted them (they seem to have treated this abstinence as a moral deficiency).
Just as one master has no right to pass judgement on the servants of another master, so believers must understand that generally it will be for God to judge (Mt 7.1). There are times in Scripture where saints are called to judge themselves (1 Cor 11.31), or times when the assembly will have to judge particular prescribed moral matters (e.g. 1 Cor 5). However, these are exceptions to the general principle that believers answer to the Lord. Is it not the case that too often there is a rush to judgment when there is no fundamental matter of principle at stake?
To draw further lessons, the apostle then uses a second example - the setting up of particular days as being "special".. He teaches first (v.5) that in these matters of conscience it is vital that each believer has formed their own individual mind before the Lord. That is, believers ought to be marked by conviction rather than simply conformity to their peers. There is, of course, wider application to this principle, and it is a worrying state of affairs that so many believers in assembly fellowship comply with Scriptural practice but do so out of habit or to appease relatives, without any spiritual discernment or mind about what they believe. Where such a situation is prevalent there is likely to be weakness.
The important issue is that having formed their convictions, both strong and weak hold and practise that genuine belief to the glory of God. For, as will be seen, given that the saint belongs to God, their behaviour reflects His testimony. In other words, each saint must be obedient to genuinely formed God-given convictions. Note, however, that God will not contradict Himself, so genuine conviction will not be contrary to the Word of God.
The Divine Assessment
As has been observed, the saint is answerable to the Lord. Whether in life or in death (in eternity) saved people are accountable to the Lord (v.9). This second section reminds the saints that, following the rapture, they will have to appear before the Judgment Seat of Christ (2 Cor 5.10). That is familiar truth. The New Testament teaches variously that believers will be assessed in relation to their contribution to the assembly (1 Cor 3.12-15); they will be assessed in relation to their manner of life (2 Cor 5.10); they will be rewarded if they love His appearing (2 Tim 4.8). Here, it is sobering to note that the assessment is not in relation to assembly activity or soul-winning, but actually how other believers are treated.
On that basis, in these circumstances believers should not be looking down on the "weak" or passing judgment (v.10). Each and every saint will stand before the perfect Judge, who knows what the motives really were. That is the time, and it is to the Man on that Seat, that explanations will be demanded and given (v.12).
The Exercise of Liberty
In the final section of the chapter, Paul turns to address those who feel at liberty to eat the contentious meat. He exhorts these strong believers to forego the offensive behaviour, whether or not they have a conscience about it, rather than destroying a brother "for whom Christ died" (v.15).
That is because, while in the example the meat is not "unclean", the weak brother's conscience operates to render this breach in the ceremonial law unclean. In fact it would be a sin for the weak brother to go against his conscience in this regard (v.22). The text of v.17 makes clear that this liberty over food and drink should not cause disrepute in the testimony. The fellowship enjoyed by being subjects together in the Kingdom of God is more important than enforcing a view in these matters of conscience (and by inference today certainly than in matters of preference). What is important is righteousness, peace, and Holy Spirit given joy. By implication these things can and should be present in an assembly even when there are differing convictions on non-fundamental matters. It is important to note that matters do not become fundamental just because a preference is held strongly; rather it is when Scripture teaches something clearly. Conversely, let it not be argued that some practice or belief should be tolerated as a preference, if the Word of God clearly teaches against it!
The chapter closes by exhorting the pursuit of peace and edification of each other, rather than the selfish exercise of liberty (v.19). The section concludes by the beginning of chapter 15 encouraging the strong to support the weak, being selfless rather than selfish, and in doing so following the example of Christ (15.2).
This article has tried to set the chapter in its context. Its contextual interpretation has many lessons. However, there are further legitimate applications to testimony today. Are the saints willing to forego their preferences to support the "weak"? What priority is given to the pursuit of peace and edification of the saints? The writer understands that "peace at all cost" is not necessarily correct. However, it is observed that often there could be peace amongst God's people if it was pursued, and very often the absence of peace has more to do with selfishness and relationship difficulties than doctrinal disagreement.
The example of the Saviour (15.3) is used in relation to the building up of others, and suffering loss and reproach for their benefit. The writer has to be honest and concede that he does not demonstrate such selflessness, but assembly testimony would be the richer if the apostle's ministry on relationships from this chapter were heeded. Such is the conduct expected from each saint who has come into the good of God's salvation.
To be continued.