Twenty-first Sunday after Pentecost,

Series on Romans:

Protecting the Weaker


Scripture reading: Romans 14:1-9.

Sermon text: Romans 14:10-23.

On 15 April 1912, the RMS Titanic struck an iceberg and sank in the North Atlantic. In the chaos that followed, one of America’s richest men, John Jacob Astor, demonstrated the chivalry expected of men in the early 20th  century. As the sailors filled the lifeboats, Astor insisted that his pregnant wife, Madeleine, her maid, and her nurse take seats in the first lifeboats lowered while he and his valet, Victor Robbins, waited to insure all women and children found seats. As we know the Titanic lacked adequate lifeboats for all passengers to board. Both Astor and Robbins died when the Titanic sank later that night.

Mahatma Ghandi is rumored to have said, “A nation's greatness is measured by how it treats its weakest members.” This saying holds especially true in the Church. The Roman society of St. Paul’s time definitely needed someone to care for the weak, because the imperial government offered no social safety net. As it spread throughout the Empire, the Church assumed the role of protector of society’s weakest. For most of the history of Western Civilization, the Church maintained hospitals and orphanages to help care for the weakest members of society.

In today’s sermon passage in Romans 14, St. Paul discussed another type of weak among the congregation. Many believers in the Church came from Judaism, bringing with them the Mosaic Law with its dietary restrictions and special feast days. The Council of Jerusalem had earlier decreed that Gentile believers had no reason to obey these restrictions.

Another group also brought dietary restrictions to the Church. Many Gentile believers came into the Church directly from paganism. Much of the meat in the markets throughout the Empire consisted of leftover meat from the pagan sacrifices in the cities’ temples. Some of these new believers could not understand how Christians could eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols in the temples. Couldn’t the Christians understand this meat had been devoted to a pagan god?

St. Paul saw the quandaries regarding diets and special days as an opportunity to continue his thoughts regarding Christian living in the secular world. According to St. Paul, these debates gave Christians the opportunity to demonstrate Christian love to weaker members of the Church.

These debates continue to rage in the Church today. People insist that certain celebrations offend them. Others insist that certain food and drink have no place in the Christian life. Our passage today gives us an excellent teaching on how to deal with these situations as they arise.

St. Paul began the chapter by directly addressing the issue: “As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions.” Every believer begins the salvation lifestyle as a newborn Christian. I’ve never seen a newborn baby ready to face life on its own. Babies need feeding, nurturing, and teaching as they grow into responsible adults. Unfortunately, we’ve all seen the results of babies who didn’t receive this care; our prison system holds the results.

St. Paul instructed the Roman congregations to accept newborn believers so these believers could receive the instruction they desperately needed. However, St. Paul addressed another situation in this verse: “not to quarrel over opinions.” While many new believers eagerly accepted the teachings of more mature Christians, others insisted on arguing their point and on holding all believers to their own beliefs. These believers could not overcome their initial hesitations regarding food or special days. Even worse, these believers refused to accept the teachings of more mature believers on these matters.

St. Paul clearly believed this situation could not stand. Any new believer who joined a congregation only to cause trouble would find little patience from St. Paul: “One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. 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. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” Christian love required each person to accept that God alone could dictate a person’s feelings about these matters. No one person could dictate the dietary rules for another believer.

What about special days? Many early Christians believed they should continue celebrating the Jewish festivals, even if they didn’t travel to Jerusalem. According to St. Paul, “The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.” As long as a believer praises God in what he does, St. Paul taught, the believer could freely follow his conscience in these matters.

St. Paul gave a wise precept to know how to act in these matters: “For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.” Christians, we belong to each other! We cannot expect to live the salvation lifestyle successfully without involvement in the congregation. Jesus died to give life to the Church, His bride. We do not belong to ourselves; we belong to Jesus, and He has commanded us to live for one another, to encourage one another, to help one another.

What about those who insisted on stirring others on these issues and on doggedly refused to accept the teachings of more mature members? “Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written, ‘As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.’ So then each of us will give an account of himself to God. 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.” Here St. Paul gave his definitive teaching: Each of us will give account to God. When we remember this, we’ll do nothing to risk the judgment of Almighty God, the Father of Our Lord. Our Lord will lead each of us to make the decisions, guided by the teachings of the Church.

Could St. Paul give a good example? Of course he could. St. Paul, the former Jewish Pharisee of the strict Shammai School, could offer an excellent example: His own thoughts. “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself.” If you read St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians, you’ll find he freely ate with the Gentiles — anything with the Gentiles. St. Paul ate whatever anyone offered him, regardless of the origin of the meal. Meat sacrificed to idols? Sure! Food forbidden by the Mosaic Law! Of course! St. Paul knew that God had created all things, and all food came from God. Therefore, St. Paul could give thanks for the food and eat with no problems with his conscience.

However, St. Paul also understood that some Christians genuinely could not see beyond the teachings of their youth. “...but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. 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.” If someone remains genuinely unable to accept freedom in Christ, others must not attempt to change the person’s mind to the detriment of his conscience.

What, then, remains the key rules? “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.” Did you catch that last sentence? “Pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.” The word for “pursue” implies an intense effort. We must work diligently for peace in the congregation. “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. It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.” 

What about those who can freely eat or drink things that would condemn others? “The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” If you can eat or drink with no problem in your conscience, praise God. If you can’t, praise God for your salvation — and don’t judge your brother in Christ.

Of all the lessons we find in the chapters from Romans 12 through 15, I see 2 from this chapter as some of the most important lessons needed by the Church today.

First, mature believers must accept that new believers will bring baggage into their new lives. Many new believers will find they must change their lifestyles in some way they had not expected. Other new believers will find some of our teachings and habits rather odd. We must patiently teach them how to live in their newfound freedom in Christ. We must also accept them if or when they fail to live up to the expectations of Scripture. None of us has lived a perfect picture of Scriptural teachings.

We find another lesson here as well. When people first confess Jesus as Lord, believing in His resurrection, they will bring expectations of Christian living into the churches into which they enter the salvation lifestyle. These expectations may or may not meet reality. Weaker Christians must humbly accept the teachings of more mature believers. I earlier used the example of infants who grow in life. Thus far, I’ve never seen a human remain an infant for a normal lifetime. Every infant grows and matures. New believers must also grow and mature in the salvation lifestyle.

I think we need to find one more lesson here. Many of us in the Southern Baptist Convention and other Evangelical traditions have held other members of the catholic Church to our own standards, believing our version of Christian living should become the standard for the entire Church. This belief demonstrates a level of hubris unbecoming to any mature believer, much less to an entire denomination. While we hold to our conscience in our own beliefs about non-essential doctrines, we must also accept that we have no right to expect the Church as a whole to live by those beliefs.

I believe St. Paul would agree with a commonly used phrase in these matters: “In essentials, unity; in doubtful matters, liberty; in all things, charity.” Christian love will help us humbly accept the weaknesses of others while we together grow in Christian maturity.