A lot of ink, pixels, coffee, and beer have been spilled over what the Bible says about Christian liberty. Are tattoos sinful? Is rock music demon worship? Can rap be redeemed? Is drinking a sin? Is dancing allowed at weddings? Should women wear pants? Can I eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols? Christians have debated these and a myriad of similar questions about what behavior will please or displease God. In basic terms, these are debates on subjects where Scripture is either quiet or confusing.
Interestingly, it seems that when the subject of Christian liberty surfaces, the modern modus operandi is to force conversations that aim at expanding the minds of weaker brothers. Usually a blend of education and confrontation, these “conversations” can range from peaceful talks to heated debates. The results usually never dictate a clear winner.
Yes, the popular approach to Christian liberty is a lot like cooking a frog. The key is to create a peer-pressure cooker that increases exposure until believers with opposing opinions either give up or become numb to what once offended them. But this begs the question: Is this how God wants these things to be handled? Romans 14 seems to indicate otherwise. In this passage, Paul is clear on two things: 1) In Christ, believers have lots of freedom; 2) If a freedom conflicts with a brother or sister’s conscience, avoid it for their sake.
For Paul, the stronger brother is a person who is free in their conscience. Weaker brothers are believers whose conscience does not release them from the conviction that “this thing is not right for me to do.” In particular, Paul is using dietary laws as the illustration for this principle.
Romans 14:1-3: “As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. 2 One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. 3 Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him.”
Paul continues in vs. 13-21: “13 Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. 14 I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. 15 For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died.16 So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. 17 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. 18 Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. 19 So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.
20 Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. 21 It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.[c] “
Are we catching this? Paul could not be anymore clear. Stronger believers should not force their liberties on their weaker brothers or sisters. If that approach is taken, Paul says that we are no longer walking in love. Rather, we should avoid such situations for their sake. Paul continues his reasoning in chapter 15.
Romans 15:1-7: “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. 2 Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. 3 For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.”4 For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. 5 May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, 6 that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. 7 Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.”
Here, Paul lays it out clearly for us: our obligation as strong believers is not to exercise our freedoms, but rather to bear with our weaker brothers and sisters in Christ out of love for them. Paul grounds this exhortation in the actions of Christ, who bore our weaknesses not only in life, but also in His atoning death because of His love for us and on our behalf. Paul’s point is that believers should approach Christian liberty not with a sense of entitlement, but with sacrificial caution, being willing to ditch anything for the sake of our weaker brothers and sisters.
This means we should practice situational awareness as we journey through life together. This means that we may need to be ready to apologize for offending other Christians, even when we don’t see anything wrong. It also means we may need to abstain from exercising our freedoms in their presence. This seems counter-cultural to the common approach of exercising Christian liberty. Nevertheless, this is God’s desire for us.
So here are some simple notes of wisdom from this passage:
- Consider the weaker brother. (Be aware)
- Act in love.
- Sacrifice for their sake; not for your gain.
It is through this course of action that the God of endurance and encouragement will increase the unity of His body. God’s desire is for His children to grow closer in fellowship, and this takes maturity, wisdom, and love practiced by His stronger children.