We all have a basic human tendency to judge or look down on those who act differently from us or who hold to a different conviction. The gathering of followers of Christ in Rome, (which was made up of both Jews and Gentile background disciples) was also experiencing a similar situation. Jewish background disciples, who still followed the Jewish religious customs judged the Gentile background disciples who did not follow such Jewish customs.
Though it appears that the Jewish background disciples did not trust the ‘law’ as a basis for their salvation, they still believed that following the basic commands of the ‘law’ was pleasing to God and therefore they continued to follow some of them such as dietary restrictions and observing special days.
But, the Gentile background disciples, who were never exposed to such religious traditions did not follow them or considered them important to please God. They held that God has delivered those who trust in Christ from all the obligations of the law, so that they might no longer live in order to fulfill the requirements of the ‘law’ but under the Spirit in order to fulfil what the Spirit of God requires.
As a result, the church at Rome was experiencing conflict and groupism. The Jewish disciples thought that since the Gentile disciples were not following the religious traditions prescribed in the law, they were not fully committed to God and therefore cannot please Him.
The Gentile disciples on the other hand, looked down upon Jewish background disciples and considered them immature (Paul refers to them as ‘weak’) because they follow the Jewish customs and insist everyone else to also follow them – and those who don’t, they judge them as ungodly.
I am sure you might have also encountered similar situations in your life. Today, we are going to look at some of the important principles for Biblically handling such situations.
Let us understand that there are two broad dimensions of the Biblical faith: The Core and peripheral dimensions. They are also referred to as the essential and the non-essential dimensions.
What represents the essential dimension of the Gospel? It represents a belief that a person is saved when he turns to follow Christ in trusting upon Him (and on His sacrificial and substitutionary death on his behalf) and to follow Him and His teachings along with other disciples.
What represents the non-essential dimension of the Gospel? It represents those teachings on which one’s eternal destiny does not depend! They are contextual (followed by a community of disciples in a particular context, but necessarily by other disciples in some other context) or based on personal convictions. So, they are not an issue of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’.
Just because they are non-essential aspects of Biblical faith does not mean that they do not have an equal if not a greater potential of creating conflicts and divisions.
Based on these definitions, where would you put the two matters (i.e., the issue of following dietary restriction and issue of following special days) discussed in Romans chapter 14? – Do they represent the essential ‘core’ or do they belong to the ‘non-essential’ dimension of the Biblical faith?
As we can see in Romans 14, they do not represent the ‘core’ of the Biblical faith (Paul himself calls them ‘debatable matter’ in verse 1). Therefore, they belong to the non-essential dimension of the Biblical faith.
Quest: What are some other non-essential aspects of the Gospel?
- When should you follow Sabbath – Saturday or on Sunday? (Because, in the Bible, Sabbath is not Sunday but Saturday!)
- Should you follow Sabbath in principle by not cooking or by not washing on Sundays?
- Should a Gentile disciple become a Jew first in order to become a genuine disciple of Christ?
- Should disciples wear jewelry? If yes, then what kind of jewelry a disciple is allowed to wear?
- Should genuine disciples follow Christmas? (because, it is not sure if Christ was born on exactly 25 December)
- Should disciples undergo baptism through immersion or sprinkling?
- What elements ‘rightly’ represent the body and blood of Christ? Should disciples participate in the Lord’s table by one common cup or different cups?
- Should disciples watch television or not?
- Should you wear white clothes on Sundays or are any color clothes okay?
- Should the pastor wear a tie and suit or can he also preach while wearing a T-shirt or Indian kurta?
- Should disciples watch movies? Or is it okay for them to go to a theatre to watch a movie or not?
Quest: What about this question?
- Should a disciple engage in sexual immorality?
- Should a disciple engage in earning money through selling drugs?
Because these issues are not a matter of personal preferences;
Because they belong to such Biblical teachings that are directly connected to the essential ‘core’ of the Gospel, so that if you violate them, you will also violate the Gospel.
For now, let us go back to Rom. 14, where Apostle is trying to address a conflict that is related to non-essential dimension of the Biblical faith.
Now, as I said before, though these issues represent the non-essential dimension of Biblical faith, but we must remember that they represent set of issues that are very sensitive for daily living as followers of Christ. They are so powerful that on such matters families and churches have experienced conflict. In many cases, they have even been divided.
So, it is very important to learn from the Bible how to handle these issues.
In Romans Chapter 14, we find three reasons, why a disciple of Christ must not judge/condemn or look down upon another disciple when it comes to non-essential aspects of the Biblical faith.
1. Do not judge or look down upon your fellow disciples because God has accepted him (Rom. 14:4):
While he commands that disciples should not judge/look down upon each other, but at the same time, he does not stop to call the Jewish background disciples as ‘weak’. Why?
Ans: Because they had not completely experienced the freedom and confidence that comes from being justified before God by faith alone.
In some manner, they were behaving like the disciples in the Church at Galatia, whom Paul communicates with strong words. In Gal. 3:1-4
You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you? Before your very eyes Jesus Christ was clearly portrayed as crucified.
I would like to learn just one thing from you: Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by believing what you heard?
Are you so foolish? After beginning by means of the Spirit, are you now trying to finish by means of the flesh?[
Have you experienced so much in vain—if it really was in vain?
As it is clear, the disciples wanted to continue following the Jewish ‘law’ after they began to follow Christ. Apostle Paul is saying that if you are doing so, then it only means that you are still not spiritually mature and he compares it with living according to the flesh.
- We must learn it very well – We were all sinful people and we received forgiveness of sins not because we started doing good works, but because we surrendered our lives to Christ and trusted on him as our Savior and Lord. And, just as by faith, we have started our life with Christ, by faith ‘alone’ must we continue to live in it (Col. 2:6).
The disciples of Christ are not obligated to follow the law in order to please God for two reasons:
- One, because we as disciples of Christ cannot please God by following the ‘law’ but by walking in faith. (Heb. 11:6).
- Two, because all the righteous requirements of the ‘law’ have been already fulfilled by Lord Jesus Christ (Rom. 8:4).
So, right in verse 1, Paul establishes the fact that ‘Jewish background disciples’ are weak because of their insistence to follow the ‘law’.
After this recognition right at the beginning, Paul goes on to say that if we have been judging/looking down on others because they are not following Christ exactly like us, then we are hurting someone, whom Christ has already accepted. Paul says that it is not wise to judge someone else’s (Lord Jesus’) servant (Rom. 14:4).
2. Do not judge/look down upon your fellow disciple, because each one has his/her own way of expressing their love and gratitude to God (Rom. 14:6):
Since the two groups of disciples in the Church at Rome are NOT living against the core of the Gospel, therefore, do not let their unique ways of expressing their love and gratitude towards God cause others to judge/look down upon them or lead to conflicts and divisions in the body of Christ.
Apostle Paul while addressing a similar issue in the Church at Corinth, he urged them in 1 Cor. 10:31-33 and said,
So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God. Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God— even as I try to please everyone in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.
Here we find two basic principles at work:
- One, do all things for God’s glory (verse 31). This means that you live carefully so that your life of freedom in Christ does not become a stumbling block for others [verse 32 Cf. Rom. 14:13(b), 17(a)].
- Two, be not focused on yourself or your interests, but act in love for others and see how you could bless others in their discipleship (verse 33), which leads to peace and mutual edification (Rom. 14:19).
Note: I believe often we think that we are trying to assist a ‘weaker’ disciple because I love him/her. But we don’t find Apostle Paul asking us to do it. Why? Because it does not belong to the category of ‘core’ of the Biblical faith.
Here is a good reason, why you must take initiative to help a ‘weaker’ disciple:
- if the ‘weaker’ disciple is insisting all others to follow Christ based on their spiritual convictions.
- If a ‘weaker’ disciple begins to say that if people are not following Christ just like they are, then people are not saved. Then, it does not remain a matter of personal choice.
3. Do not judge/look down upon your fellow disciple, because each one will give an account of himself to God (Rom. 14:10-12):
Apostle Paul is saying that because these issues are not part of the essential core of the Biblical faith, therefore let it not be a point of conflict right now. And since each one will have to give an account of their lives before God, therefore, it is not needed to judge/look down upon others based on debatable matters.
The Lord Jesus, himself spoke in Mt. 7:1-2 that we are not called to judge others.
One of the Lord’s servants in modern times, Oswald Chambers has said in this regard, “There is always one fact more in every life of which we know nothing, therefore Jesus says, ‘Judge not.’”
In the light of God’s judgment in the future, the Scripture calls us in 1 Cor. 3:12-14 to ask how we are building our lives:
Are we using hay, straw or are we using silver and gold and precious jewels to build our lives?
THEN WHAT ARE WE SUPPOSED TO DO?
Based on Rom. 14:17-18, let us keep living in (serving) Christ through pursuing following three things:
a. Righteousness – It represent ‘right’ standing before God. May we constantly examine our lives if we are in right standing before God.
b. Peace – Because we have God’s peace in our hearts, let us also share that ‘peace’ in the lives of people around us by not judging/looking down on others and by pointing them to pursue Christ more effectively.
c. Joy – the joy that God gives is not based on our circumstance. Let us live in God’s joy and share that joy with others. What is that ‘joy’? I believe that it is realizing that we have been forgiven and accepted by God in Christ Jesus, the Savior of the world. Let us assist others as well to experience this joy and when they will begin to experience this joy, it is unlikely that they will judge others, whose devotional life is not exactly similar to theirs.
Dr Vikas Ram is a Researcher based in Bangalore.
Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash