Do Not Cause Your Brother to Stumble! (Exposition of Romans 14:13-23)

Martin Luther wrote in his foundational work The Freedom of a Christian that, “A Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none, a Christian man is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to every one.” This quote is a great summation of the relationship between the first and second halves of Romans 14. In verses 1-12, Paul declares that “A Christian man is the most free lord of all, and subject to none.” But in verses 13-23, Paul asserts the equally, yet paradoxically true statement that “A Christian is the most dutiful servant of all, and subject to every one.” The first half of Romans 14 is concerned with Christian liberty, the second half of Romans 14 is concerned with Christian charity.

Paul’s point is that we must not misuse the freedom that we have in Christ by failing to love our brothers and sisters. In this passage Paul asserts that there are some clear prohibitions that must be obeyed, but first there are some equally clear principles that must be observed.

Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way. (14) I know and am convinced by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself; but to him who considers anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean. (15) Yet if your brother is grieved because of your food, you are no longer walking in love. Do not destroy with your food the one for whom Christ died. (16) Therefore do not let your good be spoken of as evil; (17) for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. (18) For he who serves Christ in these things is acceptable to God and approved by men. (19) Therefore let us pursue the things which make for peace and the things by which one may edify another. (20) Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All things indeed are pure, but it is evil for the man who eats with offense. (21) It is good neither to eat meat nor drink wine nor do anything by which your brother stumbles or is offended or is made weak. (22) Do you have faith? Have it to yourself before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves. (23) But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because he does not eat from faith; for whatever is not from faith is sin. Romans 14:13-23

First, There are Some Clear Principles That Must Be Observed.

Principle #1: A Distinction Between the Weaker Brother and the Pharisee

This is very important for us to know in order that we might know to whom Paul is directing us to submit our liberty in order to not be a stumbling block. Paul is dealing in this passage with our attitude toward a weaker brother, not toward a Pharisee. He is not telling us to be bound by the legalistic scruples of the Pharisee about practices which are in themselves morally neutral. Instead, he is calling upon the “strong” to sacrifice our liberty in order to prevent a “weak” believer from harming his soul through the violation of his conscience. How do you tell the difference between a weaker brother and a Pharisee? Here is a good test:

  • The weaker brother is one who thinks that since he is saved he cannot possibly do what you are doing.
  • The Pharisee is the one who thinks that because of what you are doing you cannot possibly be saved.

Don’t forget that Paul is dealing here with things which are indifferent, not clear and open sin. In cases involving clear and open sin we have the responsibility to lovingly rebuke, but in the case of things indifferent we have the responsibility to not be an occassion for our brother to stumble.

The spoof Christian news site LarkNews recently had a story of a “weaker brother” who was asked to leave a men’s accountability group. This story, though fictional, illustrates the difference between the Pharisee and the weaker brother.

Tired of accommodating their legalistic friend, members of a men’s group have asked Harold Beihn to loosen up or move on.

“His standard of personal holiness fits us a little too tight,” says one member.

But Beihn says he just “wanted my guys to be holy as the Lord is holy. I think God put me in their lives to remind them of the rules.”

By all accounts, Beihn’s lifestyle was out of synch with the others’. He vetoed most activities the other guys wanted to do because they “didn’t accord with righteous living.” This ruled out movies, sporting events, even bowling because the atmosphere at the lanes is “too loose,” says Beihn.

Beihn also took accountability so seriously that he often called the other men at 7:30 a.m. and asked, “Did you kiss your wife yet?” If the answer was no, he’d report them to the men’s ministry pastor. http://larknews.com/february_2006/print.php?page=3

This man was not a weaker brother, but a Pharisee!

Principle #2: The Truth of our Liberty in Christ, vv. 14 & 20

Paul says in both verse 14 and 20 of Romans 14 that “there is nothing unclean of itself” and “All things indeed are pure.” This is a sure and certain knowledge expressed in Paul’s own words, “I know and am convinced by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself” (v. 14). This is no doubt a sure knowledge based on Paul’s understanding of Jesus’ teaching in Mark 7 and Matthew 15. In Mark’s account (7:14-19), Jesus says,

When He had called all the multitude to Himself, He said to them, Me, everyone, and understand: (15) There is nothing that enters a man from outside which can defile him; but the things which come out of him, those are the things that defile a man. (16) If anyone has ears to hear, let him hear!” (17) When He had entered a house away from the crowd, His disciples asked Him concerning the parable. (18) So He said to them, you thus without understanding also? Do you not perceive that whatever enters a man from outside cannot defile him, (19) because it does not enter his heart but his stomach, and is eliminated, thus purifying all foods?” Mark 7:14-19

Here Jesus makes the point that food that enters one’s mouth enters the digestive system and exits the body through the excretory system. Nothing that has such an existence can defile a man. Much more serious are the matters of the heart, for out of the heart comess all kinds of evil.

Likewise, Peter heard from the resurrected and ascended Christ abou this issue while on the rooftop of Simon the tanner’s house in Joppa. There he had a vision of a sheet descending from heaven with all kinds of animals thereon. This vision happened three times and each time Peter heard the voice of the Lord say to him, “Rise, kill and eat!” But each time Peter responded negatively and he was rebuked by the Lord who said, “Do not call common or unclean what I have declared to be clean” (Acts 10:9-16). The point was that Peter was to preach the gospel to the Gentiles, but the truth used to make this point is that the distinction between clean and unclean animals has been done away. A believing Jews conscience need no longer be bound in this area.

Principle #3: The Role of Conscience, vv. 14 & 20

First, we see that man’s conscience was given by God for our good. The conscience functions for the soul much like pain functions for our physical bodies. Just as we would experience great physical harm if we ignore the signals of pain, we can also experience great spiritual harm if we fail to heed the signals of our conscience.

Second, man’s conscience must be properly informed. Our conscience is like a clock, it has to be set with the correct information. If the right information has not been imput, then the conscience will not function properly.

This leads to a third observation about man’s conscience, it can be misinformed. Just as one’s nervous system may fail to function properly, many people have defective consciences. For example, if you are told that a certain activity is okay your entire life, your conscience will not bother you even if the thing is morally wrong. On the other hand, if you are told a certain activity is wrong your entire life, your conscience will bother you, even if the thing is morally good or neutral.

Finally, man’s conscience must not be violated. Regardless of whether a conscience is properly or improperly informed, it is still best to never violate one’s conscience. As Martin Luther famously said, “To go against conscience is neither right nor safe!” Everytime that a person violates his or her conscience it becomes easier to do so the next time. If one violates one’s own conscience in even a morally neutral matter, it is still a violation of conscience and will result in a weakening of your conscience in other areas which require moral judgment. Let me use a personal example to illustrate:

I go to movies sometimes because I realize that the size of the screen does not determine the degree of sinfulness of a particular movie. If something is okay to watch six months later after the movie is out on TV or on DVD, then it is okay to watch in a theater six months earlier on a giant screen (By the way, not all movies are okay to watch at home or in the theater! In fact, most are not because of clear issues of immorality.). My conscience did not bother me when I went to see The Chronicles of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe recently.

However, I have known people who have gone to movies (which in itself is morally neutral) while believing it to be wrong (in violation of their conscience). This has only weakened their resistance to sin in other areas of their life. It is a dangerous thing for a person to violate their conscience!

We should never try to get someone to violate their conscience, even on a morally neutral matter. Instead, we should patiently teach them of their liberty in Christ and allow their conscience to be properly informed in order that they might live as the strong and not as the weak.

Second, There are Some Clear Prohibitions That Must Be Obeyed.

Having established our freedom in Christ, Paul now urges us to not misuse that liberty. This is what Paul exhorted the Christians at Galatia to in Galatians 5:13,

For you, brethren, have been called to liberty; only do not use liberty as an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another.

Not only does Paul exhort to this end, but his own example complements his teaching. He wrote in 1 Corinthians 9:19-23 these words,

For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win the more; (20) and to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the law, as under the law,[3] that I might win those who are under the law; (21) to those who are without law, as without law (not being without law toward God,[4] but under law toward Christ[5]), that I might win those who are without law; (22) to the weak I became as[6] weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some. (23) Now this I do for the gospel’s sake, that I may be partaker of it with you.

Paul had resolved not to do anything that would be a hindrance to the gospel in his evangelism efforts. In a similar way, Paul here urges “the strong” to sacrifice their liberty for the sake of “the weak” in the church at Rome. In this passage there are four basic prohibitions which Paul gives.

First, Do Not Put A Stumbling Block Before Your Brother (vv. 13 & 21). Even though we have been given great freedom in Christ, we should never abuse that freedom by allowing our actions to be a stumbling block to a weaker brother.

Second, Do Not Destroy Your Brother (vv. 15 & 20). Paul here draws a contrast between being one who destroys and one who edifies. As believers who have strong faith, we are to be on God’s construction crew (edification – “build up”) instead of the demolition crew (destruction – “destroy”). The importance of having this proper attitude is highlighted by the terms used to describe the weaker brother in these verses. He is called both “the one for whom Christ died” and “the work of God.” How could we destroy such a one with our lack of consideration?

Third, Do Not Allow Your Freedom to Be Viewed as Evil (vv. 16-20). If we misuse our freedom to the end that some who are weak are destroyed then that which is “good” (our freedom) will be viewed as evil. We have turned a positive into a negative. This should not be!

Finally, Do Not Flaunt Your Liberty (vv. 21-23). Paul here basically says, “If you have freedom, good for you! Have it before God, but don’t flaunt it in front of weaker believers who might be led to violate their conscience because of your example.”

Conclusion:
We must take people where they are, but we don’t leave them there. We want to provide loving instruction so that believers become “strong.” But in the meantime, we must be sensitive to their sensitivities out of love for them!

Our goal should be to see all of our fellow believers strong in the faith in order that they might not violate their conscience in matters that are indifferent and might experience the fullness of their liberty in Christ. But in the meantime, we have a responsibility to not do anything which could cause one of our weaker brothers to stumble.

4 comments

  1. This is really good, Steve. I especially like the distinction between weaker brethren and Pharisees. I (and I’m sure you have too) have known many Pharisees who hid behind the “weaker brother” clause to legalistically manipulate others.

    It always bugged me, though. Why would someone willingly choose the description of “weaker brother” just to get their way? Don’t they realize what they are saying about themselves?

  2. I see nothing shameful about “weak.” I see it entirely in terms of ability. (duantos=able; asthenos=unable) The question is “able” to do what? I read it as “able do to ____ in confidence.”

    The command in v. 22 to keep our faith to ourselves suggests that the faith of this passage is different from the faith we are to share.

    Paul doesn’t make any apology for calling these people “weak.”

    Mark Reasoner, in The Weak and the Strong, p. 54, gives an example of the Latin word “infirmior” in Roman literature. One of the characters in Horace’s Satire 1.9 calls himself a “somewhat weaker brother.” The context is that he is refusing to speak of a matter on the Sabbath out of respect for the Jews. Our modern understanding of ‘weak’ is clearly different than that of the 1st century.

    Paul applies the term astheneo to both the OT Law (Rom 8:3) and to Christ (2 Cor 13:2-4).

    I believe that the pejorative interpretation of astheneo began with John Chrysostom’s anti-semetism.

    I think that Paul is encouraging “weakness” with this passage. At least he is encouraging us to form convictions knowing that some will conclude “I can’t” and some will conclude “I can.”
    (Thus, I am opposed to part of Pastor Steve’s conclusion: “We must take people where they are, but we don’t leave them there. We want to provide loving instruction so that believers become “strong.”)
    —————————-

    In my experience (BJU grad), the weak of our day do not take the title, “weak.” They have found a way to turn the passage so that the more restrictive one is the “strong” brother.

  3. Very nice exposition pastor. You explain with examples which is the need for today’s church. I am happy for this article.

  4. I really appreciate the work you put into this post! It is obvious that you put a lot of thought in the scriptures. Like one of the other comments above, I was blessed regarding the distinction between weaker and pharisee. I believe that the christian (speaking for myself at least) often finds himself on a pendulum swinging between weaker, mature and pharisee. Often when I was weak (in understanding) in an area and then I learned about it, my pendulum would swing and I’d become a pharisee about it, and become a judge of others. Then, when Love convicted me, I would apply what I learned and grow thereby. My hope is that my pendulum continues to slow until it is in the middle (mature) with very little swinging.

    thanks again! May the Lord bless you greatly,

    kyle.

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