Paul was no stranger to squabbles among Christians. His first letter to the Corinthians focused on the problem of cliques and division within the church (1 Cor 1:10ff). He regularly exhorted believers to get along (Phil 1:28-2:4), even admonishing two Christians by name to “agree in the Lord” (Phil 4:2). Christians are called to live in harmony with one another and thereby demonstrate the glory of their triune God to a watching world (John 17:22-23; Rom 12:16). But how do believers live in harmony with each other when they disagree on non-essential issues? It is one of the most important and practical questions Christians can ask.
Matters of Conscience
Due to our different educational backgrounds, family traditions, religious upbringing, past sins, and a multitude of other factors, we all come into the church with different convictions on what Scripture would call “matters of conscience.” These matters of conscience are not doctrinal convictions; to be a Christian means that we will agree on the most important aspects of the faith: the existence and nature of God, the nature and work of Christ, the objective and subjective means of salvation, the return of Christ, the realities of heaven and hell, and so on. An issue of conscience is something that is not essential to the Christian faith but does have bearing on how believers live.
For example, there were some in Paul’s day (probably Gentiles) who, after their conversion, had no problem with eating meat, drinking wine, and omitting Jewish holy days from their worship calendar. Some Jews, however, were bound by their conscience (formed as it was by their Jewish upbringing and their knowledge of God’s law) to avoid eating certain meats, drinking wine, and to make sure they observed some Jewish holy days, like the Sabbath. What Christians ate or how they celebrated certain days of the week, however, were not issues that were essential to the Christian faith; they were matters of conscience on which genuine Christians could disagree. But more on Paul’s concern over these matters in a moment. We need to first define the conscience.
What is the Conscience?
The conscience is our God-given capacity to judge right and wrong. When we act in accordance with a particular standard we deem to be right, our conscience affirms us (Rom 9:1). When we violate this standard, our conscience condemns us (1 Sam 24:5; Rom 2:15). But the conscience isn’t infallible: it only affirms that we’ve kept a particular standard or condemns when we’ve broken it. The standard, however, may be wrong, or our consciences may be uninformed as to what is truly right and truly wrong. Nevertheless, the conscience is a gift from God that is meant to enable us to walk in what is good and right.
Conversion to Christ cleanses the conscience because all our violations of God’s perfect standard have been dealt with at the cross (Heb 9:14). It then becomes our responsibility to keep our consciences clean through regular confession, repentance, and renewal of faith in the gospel (1 John 1:9; Heb 10:22). Scripture makes the maintenance of a good conscience a matter of highest priority for the Christian (see 1 Tim 1:5; 1:19; 3:9; Heb 13:18).
Because our consciences tell us whether or not we’ve acted according to what we believe is right, Scripture exhorts us to never violate our conscience. “Whatever is not from faith,” Paul explains, “is sin” (Rom 14:23). If we are not able to partake in a certain activity with confidence that we can glorify God and thank him for our participation in that activity, it is best to refrain because to participate would be acting against our conscience. And, by knowingly acting against what we believe is right, we sin against God.
Eating and Not Eating…To the Glory of God?
Can you see why issues of conscience would cause problems within the church? When the Gentiles ate meat or drank wine or didn’t feel compelled to observe Jewish holy days, they did so with the confidence that they were glorifying God in those activities and with their freedom from the Old Covenant law. Wonderful! The problem, however, was that those who refrained from eating meat and drinking wine and continued to observe Jewish holy days also did so for the glory of God (see Rom 14:5-9).
Well, what happened? The group that had the freedom to eat and drink and ignore Jewish holy days looked down on the group that was still tied to the Old Covenant and despised them for their theological immaturity. “Surely you would glorify God more if you were free from the Old Covenant restrictions” they may have said. The group that refrained from eating and drinking and kept the Jewish holy days, however, thought the eaters and drinkers were not as spiritual as they were, so they passed judgment on them and their walk with God. “If you were really concerned with holiness, you wouldn’t be so cavalier with the Old Covenant,” they may have said (see Rom 14:2-3).
How can these two groups of Christians, each with opposing convictions on what they believe glorifies God, live together in harmony? How can we live in harmony with each other when we hold opposing convictions on matters of conscience?
So far we have defined the conscience and examined the vital role it plays in our Christian life. As he founded, established, and received reports from local churches, Paul soon recognized that differences of opinion abounded among genuine Christians. Some were free in Christ to eat meat, others believed it honored the Lord to abstain from meat for certain reasons. Some still celebrated Jewish holy days, other Christians didn’t think twice about bypassing such regulations in their walk with Christ.
But these differences of opinion didn’t remain in the realm of private reflection. No, the underlying disagreements eventually bubbled up to the surface of public disdain. One group looked down upon the “legalists” who were still bound to the Old Covenant. The other group despised the “libertarians” for their flagrant disregard for God’s Word and their cavalier approach to holiness. Romans 14-15 and 1 Corinthians 8 and 10 are Paul’s answer to our disagreements over matters of conscience. From these two sections of Scripture we can glean a wealth of instruction for our life together.
(1) Welcome one another (Rom 14:1-3)
When it comes to our relationship with other Christians, Paul would have us approach these relationships with a heart of love and acceptance. When a person makes a credible profession of faith, our job is not to discern their scruples, but to, as Paul exhorts, “welcome him” (v. 1). This welcoming demeanor is to be sincere and not serve as a veiled attempt to draw this believer into a debate over issues of conscience, for Paul immediately adds, “but not to quarrel over opinions.”
The basis of a brother or sister’s acceptance with us is the same as their acceptance with God: faith in Christ alone. God does not accept a person based on whether they eat meat or abstain from eating meat. He accepts them on the basis of Christ’s work alone. Our standard, therefore, can be no different (v. 3). Paul is not suggesting that we cannot discuss our differences with each other; such discussions will naturally arise in the course of discipleship and relationship. His point is that our acceptance of other Christians as Christians cannot be based upon or used as an opportunity to start a debate over issues of conscience. Nor can differences of opinion lead either group to look down upon the other. Such an attitude is antithetical to the gospel of God’s acceptance of sinners on the basis of Christ and his work alone.
(2) Revere the power of God in your brother’s life (Rom 14:4)
Paul asks rhetorically, “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another” (v. 4a)? The implied answer is that you have no grounds on which to pass judgment on the servant of another, for “it is before his own master that he stands or falls” (v. 4b). This statement seems to suggest that “passing judgment” meant that both groups were questioning the stability and durability of the other’s faith based on what they perceived to be spiritually questionable practices. “If you hold to the Old Covenant regulations, your legalism will eventually cause you to fall away from Christ,” one group may have thought. “If you keep engaging in indiscriminate eating and drinking, you will eventually fall away from Christ,” another group may have thought. Both groups had forgotten that it was God who keeps Christians persevering in the faith: “And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand” (v. 4c).
It was probably very difficult for the Jewish Christians to believe that their Gentile brothers would be able to maintain their walk with Christ if they ignored Jewish holy days. And it was probably equally difficult for the Gentiles to believe that those who kept some of the Old Covenant regulations would not eventually succumb to wholesale legalism. Nevertheless, Paul reminds both sets of believers that the God who saved their brother based on faith in Christ alone (not on scruples of conscience) is the God who keeps their brother on the basis of Christ alone (not on scruples of conscience). To pass judgment on the lasting nature of another’s faith due to differences of opinion is to undermine the power of God in your brother or sister’s life.
(3) Be convinced of your own position (Rom 14:5)
You might expect Paul to suggest that we “just get over it” when it came to the little things like disagreements about eating and drinking or celebrating holidays. Yet, he does just the opposite. Indeed, he instructs us to do something that seems to only add to the problem! Noting the differences of opinion over celebrating certain days, Paul writes, “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind” (v. 5). Rather than encouraging Christians to take the edge off of their opinions, he tells them to sharpen them and to make sure that in matters of conscience they have clear and solid reasons why they participate or refrain in certain activities. Why would he say such a thing? Wouldn’t this approach just enflame the problem?
When Christ saved us, he delivered us from the bondage of sin so that we would free to serve and worship our Creator in every area of our lives. “Whatever you do, whether you eat or drink, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor 10:31). In order to do all to the glory of God, we have to take time to reflect upon Scripture, think through the implications of biblical teaching, and apply the truth to every aspect of our lives.
This call to glorify God often requires that we develop convictions about issues that are not directly addressed in Scripture. What kind of car should I buy? Where should I work? What time should I go to bed and get up? What kind of food should I eat? Where should I live? How much should I spend on a house? On my clothing? On entertainment? Wherever we land on these issues (and Christians will often land in different places on such questions), it is important that we do the work of developing our convictions and not become spiritually indifferent to these kinds of topics.
Paul, for example, had the freedom to eat and enjoy meat. This wasn’t because he threw caution to the wind and ignored his conscience for the sake of carnal indulgence. No, he was convinced from Scripture that meat was a good gift from a good Creator: “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus hat nothing is unclean in itself…” (Rom 14:14; see also 1 Tim 4:4-5; 1 Cor 8:4; 10:26). In his eating of meat, he was convinced that he was glorifying God. In your refraining from meat, you must also be convinced that you are glorifying God. Given the nature of the Christian life, the centrality of truth, and the call to develop a holistic approach to spiritual growth (doing all to the glory of God), Paul couldn’t encourage fellow Christians to become nonchalant about non-essential issues. Conviction is vital to spiritual health.
This call to develop convictions, however, never negates the call to warmly welcome our brothers and sisters in Christ with whom we disagree on non-essential issues and to entrust their perseverance to our faithful Creator. Our convictions about these matters should be held primarily between God and ourselves for the sake of keeping a good conscience: “The faith that you have,” Paul tells us, “keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves” (Rom 14:22).
Nor should our convictions in these non-essential areas be entirely immovable. Remember, these are convictions on non-essentials. While it is wise to develop sharp and clear convictions, it is also wise to be open to continually learning from the word of God and being taught by other believers when it comes to non-essentials. James reminds us that those who are walking in divine wisdom are “open to reason” (James 3:17). If a particular issue is not directly addressed in Scripture, we should be open to changing our belief and practice if it makes sense to do so. At the very least, we won’t become dogmatic and overbearing over matters of opinion.
Getting along with other believers who disagree with us on non-essential issues is more challenging than one might initially think. Because we’re Christians and share the same faith in the same Lord Jesus and each read the same Scriptures and are guided by the same Spirit, you would think that relational harmony would come rather easily. If you’ve been a Christian for any length of time, you know that such sentiments are just that: sentiments. The reality is that our different educational, family, religious, and cultural backgrounds often influence our conscience in opposing ways. What you think is a perfectly legitimate activity I may consider unspiritual and unhealthy, and vice-versa.
(4) Recognize your Brother’s God-Glorifying Motives (Rom 14:6)
Rather than look down on your brother or sister when they exercise their Christian freedom or when they refrain from a particular activity, Paul counsels us to assume that our fellow believer is partaking or abstaining for the glory of God (Rom 14:6). The twin attitudes of disdain and judgment-passing both grow out of a soul that is deficient in love. Love, Paul says elsewhere, “believes all things” (1 Cor 13:7). In other words, a heart of love assumes the best about another Christian unless such assumptions are, based on clear evidence, determined to be unwarranted.
In the case of our brother’s freedom or their scruples over a specific activity, love compels us to believe that their decisions are flowing from a desire to please God. Paul’s instruction here is really quite amazing. He knows that those who have the freedom to eat meat are, theologically speaking, correct in their judgment (see Rom 14:14), while those who are unable to eat meat are, theologically speaking, wrong. The latter group does not fully grasp some very important truths about God, creation, and the new covenant. But don’t miss this: the implication is that those who are wrong in their particular view can still glorify God, even when they are acting from deficient theological principles! Our duty as a fellow believer is to assume that, in all that they are doing or not doing, our brothers and sisters are seeking to honor God and that God is pleased with them.
(5) Consider the Future Judgment (Rom 14:8-12)
Paul’s admonition above leads naturally to the principle of Romans 14:8-12. In assuming that our brothers and sisters are seeking the glory of God in all of their lives, we are also assuming that they are setting their sights on the final judgment. Infinitely more important than our judgment of our brother or sister about their conscience issues is God’s judgment of them. They are seeking to please God, not acquiesce to our opinions over non-essential matters.
Furthermore, we should be far more concerned about our walk with the Lord in light of the future judgment than about whether or not a fellow believer’s various opinions align with ours. We are to be fully convinced in our own mind about non-essential matters and make it our aim to never violate our conscience (Rom 14:23). Why? Paul tells us: “…each of us will give an account of himself to God” (Rom 14:12). A sharp and clear sight of the final judgment will keep us walking in holiness and less likely to cast a judgmental eye on our brother.
(6) Walk in Love (Rom 14:13-23; 1 Cor 8:1-12; 10:23-31)
Finally, Paul counsels us to walk in love toward one another. While it is applicable to both groups, this bit of instruction is aimed primarily at those who possess correct theological judgments and are, therefore, able to walk in greater freedom than other believers when it comes to certain activities. It must be noted, however, that when Paul speaks of the strong (those who have right knowledge) and the weak (those who have deficient knowledge), he is not speaking of a universal classification to two kinds of believers. There are some who may possess right knowledge in one area (they are strong in this specific area) while not possessing right knowledge in another area (they are weak some other area). You may be able to eat meat and drink wine just fine, but still have a few scruples over certain holidays. In that case, you are strong when it comes to eating and drinking but weak when it comes to celebrating certain holidays.
When we encounter those who are weak in a given area, Paul says to let love be your guiding principle. Listen to how he talks about the brother who cannot eat meat. “I know and am persuaded that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it is unclean. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love” (Rom 14:15). Your knowledge of Scripture teaches you that meat is a good, God-given gift that can be eaten with thanksgiving. This is the truth. Your brother, however, is not convinced of this truth and meat still remains unclean to him (although it isn’t really unclean).
Nevertheless, because it is unclean to our brother (for whatever reason), love teaches us to abstain from eating meat in a specific instance if it means that in abstaining we are protecting our brother from acting against his conscience. To push our freedoms on our brother or to ignore our brother’s scruples is to no longer be walking in love. While Paul was free to eat meat, he was willing to give us this freedom for the sake of his brother’s conscience. “Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble” (1 Cor 8:13). We often think of our freedom in Christ as a freedom to do things. Understood rightly, this is a good way to think about our freedom in Christ: we are no longer in bondage to the world’s religion and all its rules (see Col 2:1-23).
Paul’s point here, however, is that our freedom in Christ is the freedom to give up certain privileges for the sake of love. Our brother’s conscience doesn’t dictate our conscience: Paul was always free to eat meat, even if his brother wasn’t (1 Cor 10:29). But just as importantly, we are no longer in bondage to our appetites; we can give up meat (and other freedoms) if it means protecting our brother’s conscience. That’s because “the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 14:17). Let us, therefore, “pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding” (Rom 14:19) and “welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Rom 15:7). We must take care that we do not “destroy” our brother or sister—i.e., deeply harm their faith—due to the mere exercise of some freedom (Rom 14:15).
Despite our common salvation, it is sometimes challenging to live in unity with our brothers and sisters in Christ. Scripture, however, provides us with all the resources we need to make progress in this important area. By God’s grace, let us diligently apply these principles so that we might “live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 15:5-6).