Unity Graphic

Unity of the Spirit VS Unity in Diversity

Romans 14 and Fellowship With Sin
Outline of Lesson, December 5, 1998
Forest Hills church of Christ


The grace of God, through revelation, has supplied Divine wisdom by which the people of God are brought to maturity (2 Tim. 3:16-17; Eph. 4:13-16). We are not to be as children, continually tossed as in stormy seas, by every "wind of doctrine." We are to "grow up" in Christ, reaching a "measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ" (vv. 13, 15). This grace of God teaches us how we ought to behave in the house of God (Tit. 2:11-12; 1 Tim. 3:15).

Consequently, we learn from the scriptures about things commanded and things forbidden; of things right and things wrong; of the "doctrine of Christ" in which we are to abide (2 John 9-11). In those areas of things required or forbidden, we learn obedience and submission (Heb. 5:8-9). To find unity, we strive to "speak the same things, have no division among us...but be joined perfectly in the same mind and in the same judgment" (1 Cor. 1:10). It is a joy when peace, harmony, and spiritual fellowship is realized from our efforts. "Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!" (Psa. 133:1).

To accomplish this unity, we study, debate and at times, draw lines of fellowship against those who "go beyond and abide not in the doctrine of Christ." No apologies are offered for limiting our fellowship to those whom we understand to be in fellowship with God (1 John 1:5-10). Since our God is "light," we willingly pay the price of our convictions in a separation from those who "walk in darkness" (2 Cor. 6:14-18).

Yet there is sorrow in division, loss in separation, and pain in parting from our brethren with whom we differ. No one of sanity and reason will prematurely divide the body of Christ (1 Cor. 3:16-17). However true it is that our convictions lead us to sever brotherly ties when truth seems to demand it, nothing less than necessity should motivate us to rend the fabric of fellowship. Certainly, we should never do so over personal judgments, opinions or speculative theories, however much we may hold such matters in our esteem.

Yet, some brethren are willing to do exactly that: draw lines of fellowship more narrow than God, excluding those whom Christ would admit to his fellowship. Sectarian zeal, however noble in their own minds, is exercised against fellow Christians who do not have the same judgments, do not share the same opinions. As the Judaizing teachers of apostolic times, they make laws where God has not, making their view the test of fellowship (Acts 15:1). Their sin is that of binding where God has not bound (Matt. 16:19). In their haste to obey God, they destroy the right of "liberty" for their brethren in the area of things neither commanded nor forbidden, but allowed.

Liberty Permits Different Judgments

The scriptures clearly teach that there is a realm of liberty in which brethren may differ and yet be acceptable to God and to their brethren. Often misunderstood, liberty is restricted by some through overzealous creed-making, while liberty becomes license to others who see in liberty occasions to sin (Gal. 2:4, 13). If we avoid either extreme, liberty permits each of us to act or not act (depending on expediences) in areas that are lawful but not required. It should be clear that liberty is permitted only within areas that are authorized, never in that which is unlawful or forbidden. Many are aware of the frightful danger of creed-making so as to violate the freedom which God permits. We have ample evidence of this from the days of Judaizing teachers who attempted to destroy the liberty of the Gentile brethren regarding the law of Moses.

However, we may not be as aware of the reverse danger of using liberty as a license to sin, loosing where God has not loosed. This is accomplished as principles which allow authorized liberties are applied to sinful doctrine and practices, sin treated as an option. When an unlawful practice takes the form of a liberty, sinful action becomes attractive and permissible. The Christian Church was guilty of that as they applied "expediency" to the use of instruments, claiming liberty for an unauthorized practice. Liberals did that when they advocated the sponsoring church arrangement as a "judgment" or "method," not recognizing the sinfulness of centralized control. In current times, fellowship regarding adulterous marriages is advocated, citing principles of liberty (Romans 14) though adulterous marriages are sinful, loosing where God has not loosed. The end result of all these perversions of liberty is that of accepting sinful doctrines and practices into fellowship under the guise of liberty. But sin can never be practiced with impunity, escaping the wrath of God (Rom. 6:23).

Liberty Emanates From Authority

Before liberty may be claimed for a doctrine or practice, it must first be shown to be authorized (1 Cor. 6:12). Some confusion arose in the first century because some actions, previously required or forbidden under the law of Moses, were "loosed," thus permitting choice in things earlier commanded (Matt. 16:19). One example is that of circumcision, required under Moses, but loosed under the New Covenant (Lev. 12:13; Rom. 2:29; 1 Cor. 7:18-19; Gal. 5:6). Circumcision was allowed (neither commanded nor forbidden), therefore a matter of liberty to men and a matter of indifference to God. One was neither better nor worse before God whether he practiced circumcision or did not. The creed-makers sought to bind where God had not bound, thus turning liberty into obligation. Those seeking license for sin would compare a sinful doctrine or practice to the liberty regarding circumcision, claiming authority for sin.

This area of liberty extended to many Jewish practices which, under the law, had been forbidden or required, but under the law of Christ, became expedients, options, liberties. With this understanding, Paul could travel among Jews and Gentiles without offense or hypocrisy, preaching the gospel (1 Cor. 9:20-23). With practices peculiar to Jews (observing the Sabbath, eating unclean meats, etc.), Paul acted as a Jew. With practices peculiar to Gentiles (not observing the Sabbath, eating unclean meats), Paul acted as a Gentile. God's indifference to these matters allowed liberty of action. At no time did Paul confuse matters of liberty with sinful practices. He was never guilty of extending the principles of liberty to cover sin.

It is a violation of truth to bind where God has not bound, to require obedience in matters about which God is indifferent, to forbid options where choice is permitted. Consequently, Paul did not allow over-zealous Judaizing teachers to take away his privileges in Christ (Gal. 2:4-5; 5:1, 13). As with any liberty, one may choose to practice or not practice, so long as the liberty does not become a stumblingblock to others (1 Cor. 8:9; 10:29).

It is likewise a violation of truth to loose where God has not loosed, to cover sinful doctrines and practices with the canopy of liberty, to suggest equality before God for sinful matters as though they are authorized.

Both extremes are deadly enemies of fellowship and have a history of destruction among the people of God. But liberty itself, based upon authorized expediences, is necessary to fellowship and must be understood and applied to avoid either splintering because of creeds, on one hand, and allowing sin to invade the purity of the church, on the other.

Romans 14-15: The Basis of Liberty

Our text to be analyzed, Romans 14:1-15:7, beautifully sets forth the parameters of our liberties in Christ. Counter-balancing between the tendency to bind where God has not bound and giving license to sin, this passage advocates fellowship through the respect of each brother's liberties. Without the truth of these verses, Christians will be hopelessly splintered in as many pieces as there are opinions or else be invaded by sinful doctrine and practices.

The sufficiency of God's revelation clearly defines what is required and forbidden (2 John 9-11; Jude 3). In these areas we have no choice but to obey. But the sufficient revelation also establishes the category of things allowed, also known as authorized liberties, options and expediencies, matters of indifference to God. Here, we may allow differences among brethren without compromising any principle of truth.

The early preachers in America recognized this as they sought to restore pure religion in their generation. Their cry was, "In matters of faith, unity; in matters of opinion, liberty; in all things, charity." I can find no fault with this sentiment. It seems eminently scriptural.

Let us determine to study our text so as to be edified in the faith, ready to allow our brethren the privilege of expediences without violating the doctrine of Christ.

Romans 14:1-15:7 - Text and Context

I. Contextual Considerations

II. Textual Considerations

III. If it is advocated that "we cannot know for sure," or "we can never be sure of the difference between sinful matters and matters of liberty," then we charge God with being less than clear about this subject. I affirm that "the faith" is identifiable, knowable, teachable, and duplicatable (Jude 3; Eph. 3:4; 2 Tim. 2:2; Matt. 28:18-20). Someone's lack of understanding about a liberty does not change the clarity of God's revelation (1 Cor. 8:7). The fact that one might bind as sinful something that is not sinful does not make it so, nor obligate those who know the truth to defer (unless it becomes a stumblingblock.)

Conclusion: Does it not seem a strange thing among children of God to be discussing how much or how many sins we can fellowship and remain in fellowship with God, who is "light, and in Him is no darkness at all" (1 John 1:5)? How much difference is this, if any, from the Gnostics who claimed to be able to "walk in darkness" yet remain in fellowship with God (1 John 1:6-7).

Does it not seem strange to be proposing fellowship with sin as on the same basis as "liberties in Christ" (Gal. 2:4).

Can we be so naive as to think that a rationale for fellowship with some sins can be developed without it opening the door for fellowship with all sin?

Who among us can find the stopping place short of fellowshipping all sin once we agree to fellowshipping some sins. "....Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump" (1 Cor. 5:6)?

Rather than working in vain to find a Biblical basis for fellowship with sin, let us have the attitude of Paul who declared the mind of God:

Liberty is precious to the church which is composed of people from "every tribe, tongue and nation." Coming into the body of Christ from different educational levels, different backgrounds and diverse lifestyles, we must not allow these dissimilar circumstances to splinter or fragment our fellowship in local churches. The things in the first century that nearly destroyed the church were addressed by Romans 14:1-15:7 in such a manner as to leave us a divine guide to handle potentially divisive judgments. By tolerating differences that are important to us but indifferent to God, we learn when not to bind and when to loose. The end result is liberty that avoids creed-making, on the one hand, and license to sin, on the other. This is a battle that is never finished, continuing as long as we worship with brethren who differ in matters of judgment. But, fellowship and peace is worth the cost to maintain them. Let us heed the advice of the aged apostle: "I therefore, the prisoner of the Lord, beseech you that ye walk worthy of the vocation wherewith ye are called, with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace" (Eph. 4:1-3).

e-mail this author at tmr1@flash.net

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