Passing Judgment on Doubtful Matters
It is important for us to remember the principles laid down in scripture for our guidance in scriptural disputes.
In Romans 14:1-12 Paul instructs the believers that they should refrain from judging one another in doubtful (or disputable: NIV) matters. This is a particular temptation for those brothers and sisters whom Paul calls “weak”. They believe that everyone should refrain from certain practices which they believe to be displeasing to God, but which other brothers and sisters feel to be legitimate.
In the first century, these doubtful matters often involved Jewish traditions and customs. These customs arose from the Law of Moses, and especially focused on dietary and ritual laws which were no longer applicable for Jewish Christians. Nevertheless, all serious Jews felt the extremely powerful force of long-held national traditions and practices.
They may have known in their intellects that such practices were no longer of the first importance, but in their emotions and their subconscious they found it terribly difficult to make the break. The examples specifically given in Romans and 1 Corinthians included:
- Eating foods previously unclean under the Law;
- Eating meats that had been offered to idols; and
- Observing and/or disregarding special days according to the Mosaic calendar.
The lesson for us today is that we should refrain from judging our brethren in similarly doubtful matters, and we should not treat such doubtful matters as though they had “first principle” implications.
The Greek for “accept” is proslambano. It means to take, receive or accept into one’s company. More specifically, it means to take another aside, to hold him close and to confide in him. It is a warm, inviting and comforting word, and conveys a sense of fullness of fellowship and wholeheartedness in sharing.
The verb here is in the middle voice, and continuous: “to go on receiving.” The RSV is even more gracious: “Welcome him.” Here is no grudging, grumbling acceptance, but an open-hearted and open-armed full fellowship. It has a positive meaning: “to welcome into a circle of friends, or coworkers.” We, who may feel ourselves to be “strong,” must accept him who is weak in his faith, because God has accepted him (Rom 14:3).
It is the business of the “strong” to go the extra mile in receiving and helping, not looking down upon, the “weak” (Rom 15:1, 2). And again, Paul exhorts: Accept (proslambano) one another, then, just as Christ accepted (the same word) you, in order to bring praise to God. (Rom 15:7). “Him whose faith is weak” (NIV) is definitely not “him who is weak in the faith” (KJV, NET), as though he did not understand the first principles of the faith. Rather, the meaning should be “weak in faith” (ASV, RSV), or “in his faith” (NEB), i.e., in his own personal faith.
That is, his faith is not strong enough to enable him to perceive the full liberty he should enjoy in Christ. More specifically here, he is not troubled by questions of doctrine, but by doubt as to whether it is right for him to eat some foods (cf. v. 23).
“Weak,” both here and in the next verse, is the Greek astheneo, referring to one who is without strength, or even one who is sick or ill (cp. Phil 2:26, 27; 2 Tim 4:20). The brother or sister who is “weak” is sick and perhaps unable to care for himself; he is not wicked. James uses the same word when he writes: Is any one of you sick (astheneo)? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord. (James 5:14).
The one who is “weak” should be able to expect care and comfort, not judgment and contempt (cf. 1Cor 8:11,12). The “weak” (astheneo) should, if possible, be “healed” (Matt 10:8; Mark 6:56; Luke 4:40) and cared for (Matt 25:36, 39). Paul catches the spirit of this perfectly when he writes about his care for all the ecclesias: “Who is weak (astheneo), and I do not feel weak (astheneo)?” (2 Cor 11:29). Without passing judgment on disputable matters. (Rom 14:1).
The NIV word “disputable” in this phrase is the Greek dialogismos; it suggests dialogs or debates, involving doubts, arguments and disputes. Neither the ecclesia, nor any member, should attempt to take any “doubtful matter” and elevate it to the status of a “first principle” question.
The ecclesia, and each individual, ought to welcome, warmly and lovingly, those whose faith is weak, without trying to decide between their changing opinions, or about their questionable scruples. They should be welcomed as equals in the family of believers, without condemning or censuring them, even in thought, much less publicly.
Bro. Harry Whittaker puts this quite well, while writing of the “weak” brother who may be troubled by somewhat peculiar ideas, which are not particularly founded upon Scripture:
“It is easy to see why Paul so advises. As long as the weak brother with (slightly) off-beat ideas continues in the fellowship of sounder brethren there is some hope that by degrees he will achieve a more balanced point of view. Such things have been known to happen. But the necessary condition must be observed: ‘Not to doubtful disputations’. If such a problem individual is to continue to share the blessings of the community, he must be prepared to cease all forms of propagation of the ideas he has espoused. Only on these eminently reasonable terms can his membership in the family of Christ be tolerated.”1
When Harry Whittaker refers to “a problem individual” who “propagates” his personal ideas, he is plainly referring to the brother or sister who is always dabbling in what Paul called “doubtful matters.” This is the sort of member who occasionally decides, on a whim, that since their family never observed Christmas when they were growing up, then everyone else in the ecclesia should also swear off celebrating the holiday! Or since they don’t have a television in their home, then all their brothers and sisters should also get rid of their televisions.
Plainly, “problem individuals” are entitled to their own opinions, but they have no right to burden others with those opinions. Instead, brothers and sisters should be instructed as to the significant difference between a “first principle” and a “doubtful matter.”
One man’s faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. (v. 2) Paul did not say why the weaker brother chose not to eat meat. This brother’s reasons were immaterial to Paul. The point is that for some reason this Christian believed that he would please God more by not eating meat than by eating it. He was wrong, since God has not forbidden Christians to eat any food (1 Tim 4:3, 4).
AT A COMMUNAL MEAL
The concern about which foods were acceptable would be much more than a matter of personal or family preference in the first century, because communities of believers would all be expected to share meals together. Even if some were Jews and others Gentiles, and even if some were scrupulous about which foods were acceptable while others were not, they were all supposed to come together to share a meal and to remember together their Saviour.
The very heart of their worship, the memorial meeting itself, was generally part of a communal meal. Paul’s daily dietary differences and scruples about foods would impact much of Christian fellowship. This is unlike today, where believers may share small portions of bread and wine at a memorial meeting, but not necessarily have regular meals together around the same table.
The person who eats should not view himself as superior even though he feels he is right. Nor should he look down on his extremely sensitive brother with contempt or a condescending attitude, because God has accepted the sensitive one. On the other hand, the weaker brother, who is overly scrupulous, should not judge the more liberal or open-minded believer as unacceptable to God either, because God has accepted the less fastidious one too!
The Greek word exoutheneo means to look down upon, to despise, or to treat with contempt or even ridicule. Its usage in the New Testament conforms to this:
Christ is the object of contempt in Mark 9:12, and the despised (exoutheneo) “stone” in Acts 4:11 (citing Psa 118:22). Herod and his soldiers “ridiculed” (exoutheneo) Jesus (Luke 23:11).
“Servant” here is not the more common doulos, which is sometimes translated “slave”, but rather is oiketes (Luke 16:13; Acts 10:7; 1 Pet 2:18): a “houseservant,” a domestic or personal servant, and thus one who is closer to the master and his family.
Sometimes this same word may refer to an actual member of the family, even a child of the master. The weaker brother needs to remember to whom the stronger brother is responsible, and then he needs to leave the judgment of that brother to God. Paul assured the weaker brother that the stronger brother would stand approved by God because God approves his liberty.
JUDGING ONE ANOTHER?
To think that we are exempt from the same faults that trouble others is to become self-righteous.
The Lord is exemplified by the twin characteristics of righteousness and mercy. The ecclesia, if it is to reflect His divine image, must balance these two qualities also. While being available to show mercy where there is proper repentance, the ecclesia must also demonstrate that it can discern between righteousness and unrighteousness in the first place. Yet even when they must sometimes make such judgments, believers must remember that they each stand under God’s scrutiny also.
To be blind to one’s own faults while putting the alleged faults of others under a microscope is wrong. To think that we are exempt from the same faults that trouble others is to become self-righteous. When judgment is necessary, then there are safeguards against going too far in our demands upon others. The first safeguard is, as above, to look at oneself at least as severely as one looks at the supposed sinner. The second is to keep always in mind that there ought to be a clear distinction between:
- matters of essential doctrines, on one hand, and
- non-essential matters where no such issues are at stake.
These non-essential matters are what Paul calls “disputable matters,” i.e., doubtful points or differing opinions (Rom 14:1). Also, in the category of “doubtful matters”, in which we should not “judge”, is the motives of others. A man’s actions are almost always subject to more than one interpretation.
Those who expect to have good motives attributed to themselves (as surely we all do) must be ready, even eager, to give others the benefit of the doubt, and attribute the best possible motives to them (Matt 6:14,15; 7:1,2).
A man’s actions are almost always subject to more than one interpretation.
We need to remember to give the benefit of the doubt, also, when we do not know all the facts of a case. It is often all too easy to know part of a story, and then make what might be called “educated guesses” to fill in what is not known. It can be too easy to portray another person in the worst possible light, if we have already decided to discredit him or her.
We may be right in putting the worst interpretation on the story, but we may also be wrong. When our Lord was confronted with a woman allegedly taken in the act of adultery, he asked for other witnesses, and when they did not come forward, he concluded the matter with, “Neither do I condemn you.” (John 8:11). The woman may very well have been guilty as alleged, but the Lord would not join in a rush to judgment.
FOOD AND HOLIDAYS
Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind: In this case it is the weaker brother who actively does something, while the stronger brother is passive and does nothing in this regard. This is the opposite of the situation pictured by Paul in the previous example, where the strong brother was active, and the weak was restrained.
The reason the weaker brother observes the day is immaterial. The point is that he does observe it. When Paul wrote, observing the Sabbaths and Jewish feast days was a matter of disagreement among Christians. Some Jewish believers chose to continue observing these while the Gentile believers did not.
The observance of special days such as the Sabbath is a matter of indifference, or personal preference. No one should impose the keeping of days on another as a condition of salvation, or even of shared fellowship (Col 2:13-17, Gal 4:10,11, 5:1-4): It really does not matter if one follows the Law of Moses or not, so long as one understands that doing so provides no righteousness.
The Law was (and is) a valid lifestyle choice. However, the redemptive work of the Lord Jesus Christ has put the Law to the side as a possible means of salvation. Therefore, if one keeps the Law with the hope of gaining salvation, he is sorely mistaken and ought to be taught otherwise.
Nevertheless, if one does so as a matter of preference, then it matters no more in the eternal sphere than choosing to be a vegetarian, or not, or observing some days differently than others, or not. One can keep any manner of laws, both personal or divine, or follow various practices, or not, without being legalistic. But it is reliance on the Law for salvation that is the problem.
Legalism is declaring one’s own righteousness through ceremonially following the Law of Moses, or any law. If this is what a person is doing, then he or she is simply wrong.
BE CONVINCED IN YOUR OWN MIND
“Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind” (KJV). The same word, “plerophoreo,” with its cognate forms, occurs in Romans 4:21 (“being fully persuaded”); it can mean to realize full satisfaction, be fully assured, be filled or fulfilled, or believe fully, i.e., to be certain of (cp. also Luke 1:1; 2 Tim 4:5; Rom 15:13; Col 2:2; 4:12; Heb 6:11; 10:22).
One person should not be forced to act according to another person’s conscience, but that everyone should be satisfied in his own mind and be careful not to do what he considers wrong. He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. (v. 6).
Any two believers may well choose divergent lifestyles, and even philosophies, as regards non-essential, doubtful matters, as mentioned in verses 1 and 2. Which course of life one chooses, or which other choices one makes, the key factor for any and all (when dealing with uncertain details of the faith) is this: It is important to recognize the LORD God and His Son in all aspects of one’s life, give them thanks for whatever comes, and trust in them for the future.
Then, whether one chooses one path or another, he may still hope in the promise that God works in all things for the good of His elect (Rom 8:28). The constraint in this matter is obvious. One man eats any food, and another man eats only vegetables. But if each man can in his own conscience truly thank God for what he eats, then it is evident that each man is acting according to his own conscience and not by coercion. And in doubtful matters, that is acceptable for each.
Comparing three different verses, we have these three equally true ideas:
- In essential things, the church or ecclesia ought to be characterized by unity (Phil 1:27).
- In doubtful things, the ecclesia ought to be characterized by liberty (Rom 14:6).
- In all things, it ought to be characterized by love (1 Cor 13).
PLEASE THE LORD
The giving of thanks, especially for the bread and the wine, with a reverent understanding of everything symbolized by those elements, is not an incidental or optional matter. According to Paul, it is a uniquely definitive activity of true believers.
Paul meant that no believer should live to please himself alone, but rather should live to please the Lord. The context makes this clear by the repetition of “to the Lord.” (vv. 6, 8). The believer’s desire to please the Lord will continue beyond the grave, so Paul could also say that we do not die for ourselves. Our whole existence, both now and in the age to come, should express our commitment to please the Lord:
It is possible that dying here may also be Paul’s symbolic way of referring to dying to the “flesh” or putting to death the ways of this world (see v. 8 below, note) This may be the more appropriate counterpart to “living to Christ”, mentioned earlier in the verse.
In the context here, “live” could mean: to enjoy, or indulge oneself (i.e., to eat everything: v. 2; to live to oneself: v. 7), and “die” could mean: to deny oneself (to eat only vegetables: v. 2; to die to oneself: v. 7). For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living. (v. 9).
Jesus Christ also lived, died, and lives again, now and forever. Consequently, he is Lord both of those who have died and those who are still alive. Paul’s point, simply put, is that Jesus is the Judge. The obvious corollary is that we are not. In some sense it was always true that the Son of God was Lord, but the title has become particularly and uniquely appropriate after his resurrection and glorification.
As one example, “Lord Jesus” occurs only a couple of times in the Gospels, but more than 100 times in the letters. Christ “returned to life” in that he was raised from the dead because he was sinless, and “it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him.” (Acts 2:24). God designed this, in His mercy, for our justification (Rom 4:25).
Thus, Jesus received the pre-eminence (supremacy: NIV) (Col 1:15, 18) as the “Lord” (Acts 2:36), upon whom the Father has conferred supreme power over the living and the dead (1 Thess 5:10).
Both the critical weaker brother and the scornful stronger brother, even as they see things from very different perspectives, may be guilty of the same offense, i.e., judging prematurely and on improper grounds. To “look down on” (Greek “exoutheneo”) is translated “despise” (RSV, NET, Diaglott, Rotherham). It can also mean: to treat with contempt, scorn or ridicule. The KJV and ASV have “set at nought.” The same word is used in Romans 14:3:
All judgment has been entrusted to the Son by the Father (John 5:22). The Father has appointed a day when He will judge the world with Justice, by this man whom he has appointed (Acts 17:31; cp. also Matt 16:27; 25:31).
Austin Leander, TX
We will continue our examination of “When We Disagree” with another article by Bro. George Booker on, “What Are The First Principles?” This article will appear, Lord willing, in the November 2021 issue.
1 Harry Whittaker, “Block Disfellowship (2)”, Testimony, vol. 43, p. 344.