Feature Articles

Romans 14: It's The Context

J.S. Smith


The unmistakable rumblings of division are currently being heard around the application of Romans the fourteenth chapter. An interpretation of God's intentions in this passage has arisen, which, while sweetly compatible with the human yearning for acceptance and mutual harmony, cannot be reconciled with the overall message of the New Testament of Jesus Christ.

This interpretation, championed prominently on the pages of Christianity Magazine, holds that the tolerance of diversity commanded in Romans 14 must be extended beyond authorized liberties to matters of serious moral and doctrinal import.

This interpretation places a premium upon the tolerance of error while vilifying any attempt at public correction or opposition. Thus, an esteemed evangelist who teaches acknowledged error concerning divorce and remarriage is likely more welcome than one who would boldly speak in opposition to his error and actually deliver the truth himself.

It was the wrong King who uttered the immortal words, "Can't we all just get along?" — Rodney rather than Jesus. And yet it is exactly that philosophy which has infected the kingdom of the latter. Such a philosophy values pragmatism over protest and compromise over confrontation.

Bible Precedent for the Tolerance of False Doctrine

The Bible student cannot find a single approved instance of false doctrine on matters of the faith being tolerated in the New Testament. When Aquila and Priscilla discovered Apollos did not have the whole truth on baptism, they took him aside and set him straight (Acts 18:24-28). Rather than running off in tears of humiliation, he took their correction well and applied his eloquence more perfectly (cf. 1 Cor. 1:12). Unfortunately today, some of our most eloquent evangelists have been led to believe that their gifted speech is dependent upon clever witticisms and emotional tales, and that an infusion of scripture would serve only to disrupt the flow of their oratory. God give us more men like Apollos who can combine eloquence with accuracy and the whole counsel of God (1 Cor. 2:1-2 and Acts 20:27).

In the first century, a false doctrine concerning the resurrection arose and threatened the souls of many believers. The apostle Paul's oft noted desire for peace (Rom. 14:19) could have led him to overlook it in the name of preacher fraternity and yet he chose to identify the false teachers and persuade a younger evangelist to shun such error (2 Tim. 2:14-18). He was both concerned over the possible corruption of Timothy and the eternal destruction of precious souls, led astray by the profane and idle babblings of Hymenaeus and Philetus.

At one point in his career, the apostle Peter was preaching truth (Acts 10:35), but practicing error (Gal. 2:11). Rather than slap him on the back or defend his brother as one of great estimation, Paul "withstood him to the face" and rebuked him "before them all" (verse 14).

Internal Limitations of Romans 14 and Tolerance

With such examples, how can anyone suppose that the context of Romans 14 advocates the exact opposite? In fact, the context of this passage is internally limited to matters of authorized liberty, such as vegetarianism and day observances. An authorized liberty is an issue in which God is indifferent to whether a person participates or abstains from action. God receives men of opposite opinions in such matters equally (Rom. 14:3). Whether you eat meat or only vegetables is of no consequence to God, only refrain from being a stumbling block or exercising arrogance toward those of the opposite opinion (verses 13 and 10).

These two practical matters (meats and days) exhaust the context of Romans 14 and both concern matters of authorized liberty. How can the advocated tolerance of such differences be logically extended to matters of unauthorized liberty?

Is immodest attire an authorized liberty which will fit into Romans 14? No, for 1 Timothy 2:9-11 plainly condemns abbreviated dress as unfitting for those "professing godliness." Wearing a bikini in public is not pure then (Rom. 14:20) and the opposite opinion is not received by God and should not be received by men.

Is modern dancing an authorized liberty which will fit into Romans 14? No, for Galatians 5:19 condemns lewdness, "indecent bodily movements" and "the unchaste handling of males and females," according to lexicographer Thayer. Such a thing is not clean then (Rom. 14:14) and is not received by God and should not be received by men. Moreover, dancing has the abundant power to incite lust in spectators and participants alike (Matt. 5:28) and thus destroy the one for whom Christ died (Rom. 14:15).

Some are teaching that put-away fornicators can remarry scripturally, although no such authority exists in the Bible and the doctrine of Christ is quite to the contrary (Matt. 5:32, 19:9). Does the proclamation of such a doctrine fit into the context of Romans 14? No, for it is a failure to abide in the doctrine of Christ (2 John 9-11) and is by no means equally right with what Jesus did teach.

A Line in the Sand

The Holy Spirit drew a line in the sand around Romans 14 by confining its application of tolerance to matters of authorized liberty. The call today is to push that line out into the realm of matters of the faith. The proponents of this interpretation are claiming to be very reasonable and restrained, promising that this tolerance of doctrinal diversity will never go so far as to cover matters like denominationalism, baptism and instrumental music. Surely they cannot envision such a thing, but should their children and grandchildren ever insert consistency into their arguments, all such matters will have to be placed into the reconstructed Romans 14. If this doctrine fits, why doesn t this one, Daddy? If your issue fits, why doesn t mine, Grandpa?

Conclusion

Today such men are standing at the door of error, trying to open it subtly and just a bit. Tomorrow, they will find the next generation pushing harder to get it open just a bit more. The next day, the door will be forced wide open and they will be mere footnotes — or perhaps doormats — in the history of apostasy.


e-mail this author at SmithJeffS@aol.com

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