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The Proper Place of Personal Convictions–Romans 14

Should I…

  • Drink wine socially?
  • Smoke a fine cigar?
  • Wear my hair long or short (depending on my gender, that is)?
  • Sport a tattoo?
  • See that really good war movie that happens to be rated R?
  • Have a television in my house?
  • Send my kids to public school, private school, or homeschool?
  • Listen to music that isn’t “Christian” (however you define that term)?
  • Vote Democrat or Republican?
  • Tithe on net income, gross income, or not at al?
  • Use this or that version of the Bible?
  • And the BIG ONE for tonight—Is it wrong to stay home from church to watch the SuperBowl?

As the above list illustrates, all of us live with a set of personal convictions—our views of what is right and wrong, what we feel is pleasing to God or not, what we are comfortable or uncomfortable in doing. Some issues are very crucial, like it is wrong to murder. Others are not quite as crucial, like there’s just something not right about cheering for the Yankees. Some things are based solidly on Scripture, some are based partially on Scripture, and some are just a personal thing between God and the person.

If you start a list, every person could probably come up with hundreds of items that together form what they feel is right and wrong, a blueprint of how they walk with God according to their conscience. Here’s the rub: every single person on this planet has a different list. If we asked enough questions, we would find differences in everyone’s personal convictions.

The question then becomes, what is the proper place of personal convictions in the Christian walk and in the church? And how do we handle interacting with our brothers and sisters in Christ who have differing personal convictions—which actually means everybody, since everybody has differing personal convictions? Those are the questions that Paul answers in Romans 14.

First, let’s deal with two things that Paul is NOT talking about, because this passage has often been misused. Paul is NOT talking about doctrinal issues. Paul throughout his writings takes a strong stand against anything he sees as inaccurate doctrine. This “as long as they believe in Jesus that’s all that matters” stuff would have repelled Paul as much as it repels me—truth matters, and people who do not know the truth are making a fatal, eternal error. Now many of these areas of personal conviction get a “correct doctrine” or “that’s what the Bible says” label in order to give ammunition to the argument, but by doctrine I mean the truth about the nature of God and the nature of salvation, which has nothing to do with any particular lifestyle conviction unless God has specifically spelled it out in Scripture, like murder, lying, sexual sin, or the like.

The second thing that Paul is NOT talking about is any type of agreed upon standards for those in spiritual authority. If a pastor has a conviction that he should not drink alcoholic beverages because of his position, or if a elder board decides that all in positions of leadership should tithe, Romans 14 has bearing on their decisions but does not specifically speak to them, because this chapter is speaking to all members of the body as a whole, and does not specifically forbid or endorse holding leaders to a “higher moral standard.”

That said, let’s get into the meat of this important teaching:

In verse 1 Paul lays straight into the problem that the Roman church was having: they were welcoming people of differing personal convictions into their church fellowship, but then “laying into” them about their convictions. “We welcome you with open arms, but now that you’re here, here’s the list of things you have to get straight!” Have you ever been in a group of believers that ever either gave you that feeling or actually handed you a list? Have you ever heard a sermon where the pastor “worked in” a little aside about some moral standard you should or shouldn’t hold? Paul sharply renounces this behavior then spends the rest of the chapter explaining why it is wrong in the whole context of dealing with personal convictions and the Kingdom of God.

First, Paul gives two examples of hotly contested personal convictions that were particular problems in the church at that time. He mentions the problem of eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols. For some believers, they felt this meat, which was ceremoniously given to idols then sold at a cut rate in the local market, was tainted by false religion and/or a poor testimony. Other Christians thought they were just getting a great deal on some steak. The second example was regarding observing special days(probably Jewish feast days). Here again, some thought it appropriate and God-honoring to hold these feast days, while others thought it smacked of rules-based religion.

After giving these examples, Paul launches into a discussion which bounces back and forth among several concepts, which I will coalesce into three main points:

1. The Proper Use of Personal Convictions

It is important to note that Paul just doesn’t say “you all should just iron out all of your differences and decide to agree on one thing.” That’s NOT the right answer, even though our pride makes us think it is (and wants to iron out what everyone else has wrong!). Instead, Paul urges the Romans to deal with their personal convictions according to three principles:

  1. Let your convictions be reasoned—in verse 7 he urges each person to be “fully convinced in his own mind.” Paul instructs us to think seriously and prayerfully about our personal convictions, to know why we take a personal stand about an issue and be comfortable in it.
  2. Let your convictions be personal—in verse 22 Paul wants our faith(our belief in the rightness of our position regarding the ethics of a practice) to be between ourselves and God, a private matter.
  3. Let your conscience be clear—In verse 22 he says that we will be happy or blessed in what we have been able to approve (in the Greek literally tested or assayed to be true) for ourselves.

2. The Misuse of Personal Convictions

Most of Romans 14 deals with Paul’s answer as to the mishandling of personal convictions, both of your own and that of others. His main points are:

  1. Do not judge another’s convictions—Paul warns against judging in v.1, v.3, v.4, v.10, and v.13. Paul’s basis of this command is that we do not have the authority to do so—we are not in authority over another believer—only God is (v.4, v.12) Paul’s original command in verse 1 states to not try to argue anyone out of their convictions. David Brown in his commentary on Romans 14 says that accepting a brother in Christ whose convictions are different than mine is NOT “for the purpose of arguing him out of them; which indeed usually does the reverse.”
  2. Do not hurt anyone by your convictions—Paul warns that we can destroy another person’s faith by careless & selfish use of our own convictions. In verse 15 it says literally that if we offend someone in this way that we are “love walking not”—and I really like the way the Greek phrases it—”love walking”—that should be the way we should always be walking in this life, to be thinking, planning, speaking, acting all from a basis of love. In Newell’s Romans commentary he notes that “walking in love is not easy, it is always costly to the one loving.” In verse 21, Paul lists the ways we hurt people by our convictions: (1) causing them to stumble–something we do causes someone else to fall away from their stand in the faith (2) offenses—this is not hurt feelings per se, but if someone ends up sinning(causing an offense) because of another’s behavior (3) making weak—this word is rendered sick in other places in the Greek, meaning that our self-centered flaunting of our convictions can make others spiritually sick and weakened.
  3. Do not cause someone to violate their conscience—in verse 23 Paul specifically warns that “whatever is not from faith is sin”—and if we by example or goading or guilt cause someone to violate their conscience, we have caused them to sin against God, even though the thing might not be a sin for us. Brown’s commentary on this passage states, “with what holy jealousy ought the purity of the conscience be guarded.” Newell adds, “No one’s conscience but his own can direct him.” As brothers in Christ we ought to be helping others guard their conscience, not helping them sin against it.

I cannot say it enough: we cannot let the excuse of being “free in Christ” give us license to hurt someone. Martin Luther, in On the Freedom of a Christian Man, wrote, “A Christian Man is a most free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian man is a most dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”

3. Above Convictions: Giving the Kingdom First Place

Finally, Romans 14 emphasizes that this whole area of personal convictions, while it has a proper place, should not be taking first place in our Christian life. Instead, Paul challenges us to subjugate our thoughts and actions regarding our personal convictions, just like every other part of our life, toward the “first place” of the kingdom of God. Paul stresses three things the kingdom is about:

  1. The Kingdom is About Pursuing Fellowship—verse 1 starts it out: Paul’s command is to welcome brothers in Christ, regardless of the weakness or strength of their faith, regardless of their personal convictions. Brown states, “Acceptance with God is the only proper criterion of right to Christian fellowship.” Our acceptance is to be born out of genuine love, compassion, and spiritual community. This teaching is summed up in chapter 15, verse 7: “Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” Catch that reason for welcoming all believers? The same one that should permeate everything we do? For the glory of God.
  2. The Kingdom is About Pursuing the Spiritual—verse 17 can’t make it much clearer—”For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” Paul has spoken much of righteousness in chapter 8. In 8:4 he states that “the righteous requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” God indeed calls us to be righteous, but not the corrupted rules-based righteousness of religion, but to a life of right living, peace, and joy that can only come through the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.
  3. The Kingdom is About Pursuing Building the Body—Paul’s admonition in 14:19 is to pursue what makes for building up, edifying, or mutually upbuilding one another. The importance of building up each other is clear throughout Paul’s teachings, as he mentions it multiple times in Romans, 1 Corinthians, and Ephesians. (A word study on this particular theme is here.) God put us here and gave us gifts to serve Him, and one of the primary ways we serve God is to build up, strengthen, encourage, and help grow all the members of the body of Christ, no matter their thoughts on alcohol, hair, politics, or the SuperBowl—we are here to love and serve and build up every brother and sister who Jesus loved and gave His life for. Let us not let anything stand in our way.

The Priority of Building the Church

While doing a study on Romans 14, I disgressed and ended up doing a word study on the Greek word that is often translated “build up” in the writings of Paul.  In the gospels the word specifically refers to the physical buildings of the temple, while Paul uses the word to apply to the spiritual building or temple which is composed of the “stones” of believers in Christ.  In 1 Corinthians 3 Paul specifically tells the church that they are “God’s building”, and Paul uses this word in several of his writings, each time to highlight the priority of building the church, but each time highlighting a specific way we should hold up the priority of building the church.

In the passage in 1 Corinthians 3 Paul warns anyone to be careful how they build on the foundation he has laid, to use ”precious stones” rather than “hay & straw”.  This likely refers to the soundness of doctrine and teaching, which Paul knew was vital to the healthy building of the church.

In Romans 14:19 Paul urges us to pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.  In this passage his principle is that personal convictions(regarding matters like eating, drinking, and feast days) are not to interfere with building the church.  “Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God.”  Can’t get much more direct than that.

In Romans 15:2 Paul brings out a related theme, that we should “each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.”  Building the church takes precedence over pleasing ourselves.  Start to see a pattern?

In Ephesians 2:21 Paul says that the prejudice between Jew & Greek has been nullified by our oneness in Christ.  All separations and divisions are to come down in the name of building Christ’s church.

In Ephesians 4:11 Paul switches gears and speaks of the special offices of ministry, such as pastors & teachers, being appointed for one purpose(guess?), to build up the body of Christ.  He goes on to say that each member of Christ’s body, when he or she is playing their unique God-given role, is helping the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.  Later in the chapter, he warns to let no corrupting talk come out of our mouths, but only that which is good for building up(v. 29).

In 1 Corinthians 14 Paul speaks of the misuse of spiritual gifts simply for show.  This can apply not only to specific spiritual gifts but to almost anything we say or do in our lives.  It is so easy to subtly let our actions be guided by our needs for our egos to be massaged.  Instead, Paul simply says, “Let all things be done for building up.”(v. 26).  And so we should—everything in our lives, every aspect, centered on glorifying God and building the body of Christ.