An Important Lesson From Romans 14
This article is written by Dr. Jody Bowser, Senior Pastor of King Street Church, as part of the October 2020 Messenger newsletter. To read or download the full Messenger: click HERE.
I have been familiar with Romans chapter 14 for many years. I’ve read it many times, studied it some and taught on it occasionally. But in these past several months, the 14th chapter of Romans has taken on an entirely new level of importance and meaning for me. It’s because we are now facing an issue in our world—and in the life of the church—that is very similar to the conflict that the 1st century church in Rome (and around the world) was facing.
I’ll tell you a little bit about how things were then. Then we’ll think about how things are today.
One of the biggest issues facing the 1st century church was the question of what to do with all of the Old Testament laws. Christianity had its roots and foundations in Judaism. Just like the apostles, many Jews were putting their faith in Jesus. In Matthew 5:17, Jesus said, “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them.” Without getting into too much detail, let’s just say that there was A LOT OF DISAGREEMENT in the early church as to what this actually meant. Do I keep the Old Testament laws? Do I NOT keep them? Do I pick and choose?
>Paul wrote his letter to the Romans in 57AD. Eight years earlier, in 49AD, Emperor Claudius had expelled all of the Jews from Rome. Some of these Jews were followers of Christ who were forced to scatter to various places all over the Roman Empire. But in 54AD, Claudius died and the ban on Jews living in Rome was lifted—which meant that many of these Jewish believers streamed back into Rome and began worshipping once again in the church with other believers. This resulted in a tremendous amount of conflict.
Beginning in Romans 12, Paul has one central message for the church in Rome—LOVE EACH OTHER! Yes, there’s plenty to disagree about. Yes, everyone has their own opinion and point of view. But all of that takes a back seat to the UNITY that we have in Jesus. Paul says things like: “Love must be sincere.… Be devoted to one another in love. Honor one another above yourselves.… Share with the Lord’s people who are in need. Practice hospitality. Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. Rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn. Live in harmony with one another” (Romans 12:9-16). In other words, issues that aren’t central to our salvation are secondary. The way that we love each other and remain unified is primary.
Which brings us to Romans chapter 14 and questions surrounding “disputable matters.” There were some (Paul calls them “the strong”) who saw themselves as completely free in Christ and they couldn’t stand any of the rules (e.g. what to eat, how to treat certain days, etc.). There were others (Paul calls them “the weak”) that thought it was important to maintain some of the rules (perhaps for themselves—or perhaps as a witness to others). Here’s what we need to understand: These two points of view were dividing the church. The way fellow Christians were treating each other wasn’t good. It wasn’t motivated by the kind of other-centered love (agape love) that Jesus modeled for us.
Are you seeing it? Are the lights going on for you? We are faced with a similar situation today. I’m going to be really blunt. Those who take a non-mask-wearing stance are “the strong” in the way Paul talks about it. Mask-wearers are “the weak.” When you replace the issue of dietary restrictions with the issue of mask-wearing, this is how Romans 14:2-4 & 13-15 reads:
“One person’s faith allows them to go without a mask, but another, whose faith seems weak in the eyes of the non-mask-wearer, chooses to wear a mask. The one who opposes masks must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who wears the mask must not judge the one who doesn’t, for God has accepted them. Who are you to judge another child of God?… Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister.… If your brother or sister is distressed because of your particular stance on mask-wearing, you are no longer acting in love. Do not allow your particular point of view to destroy someone for who Christ died.”
Make no mistake about it—this is not easy stuff to navigate! No matter which way we turn, we are staring potential divisions in the face. Divisions over politics. Divisions over racial tensions. Divisions over schooling. And as I discuss here, divisions over mask wearing. I’ve never seen anything like it in my lifetime.
Which is why what God has to say to us in Romans 14 and 15 is so very important for us today. Take a minute or two right now and read it. We have to depend on the power of the Holy Spirit to enable us to respond in love toward those with whom we don’t see eye to eye. We need to stop passing judgement on each other (14:13). If a fellow brother or sister in Christ is distressed because of my views on mask wearing, I need to check myself (14:15). I need to MAKE EVERY EFFORT to do what leads to peace and mutual edification (14:19). My motive needs to be building the faith of those around me—which is exactly how Jesus lived (15:2-3).
And it’s the last seven words of Romans 15:13 that we find the key to all of this: “By the power of the Holy Spirit.” There it is. The bottom line. Having this kind of love for each other isn’t just hard—it’s impossible. None of us are wired to put other people ahead of ourselves. But it’s in times like these that the Holy Spirit does what we are incapable of doing. The God of hope fills us with all peace and joy as we trust in Him, so that we might overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit living in us.