Gray Matters (Romans 14)

November 13, 2022, Glynwood Baptist Church, Prattville, AL. James Jackson, Lead Pastor

Good morning! Please open your Bibles to Romans 14. I’m going to do something a little different this morning. I want to read all of chapter 14 at the beginning of the message. We are getting close to the end of our study of Romans together, and next week I’m not going to be here, so I want to get the whole passage in your minds, even if we don’t deal with it verse by verse.

Because the Scripture this morning deals with disagreements in the church. You know, there are some things that are crystal clear, black and white, and we have to be in agreement on those things. But there are other things that aren’t black and white. They are gray matters. And spoiler alert—the point of chapter 14 is that we don’t divide over those gray issues. Those gray matters. So let’s jump in. It’s a long passage, and I would really like you to be in your copy of God’s Word as we read. So I’m not going to ask you to stand up, but I am going to ask you to read along with me, and not just listen. Here we go.

[Chapter 14]


In Romans 14, Paul is going to address two specific issues that were dividing the church in Rome. We’re going to look briefly at what the two issues were, but then move from there to giving some guidance for how to deal with some of the gray areas that can potentially divide believers in the church today.

The first thing we have to understand is what Paul means by the one who is “weak in faith.” Well, he’s not talking about somebody who is not sure whether or not the Bible is true, or that Jesus is actually who He says He is. Paul isn’t describing a non-Christian here.

He’s also not talking about somebody who is weak in conviction. This isn’t a description of someone who is afraid to stand up or speak out for what he or she thinks is right.

One helpful clue to what he does mean comes from the original Greek. In the Greek, there’s a definite article there, so that it literally reads, accept the one who is weak in THE faith. So it’s not a lack of trust or a lack of faithfulness, but it’s a lack of understanding of Christian doctrine and the gospel message. And it’s a temporary condition. In the Greek “weak” is a present participle, which means it’s not a permanent state. So the assumption is that someone who is weak in the faith is going to do what? Right. He or she is going to get stronger in the faith.

Here’s a great definition of what it means to be weak in THE faith:

A weak Christian is one with strong convictions about superficial matters.

Now, let me be clear: Doctrine is not a superficial matter. There are doctrines that determine what it is to be a Christian.

  • Do you accept that the Bible is the inspired, authoritative word of God? Do you believe that there is one God revealed in three Persons as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit?
  • Do you understand that all human beings, including yourself, have a sin nature that inclines them toward sinful behavior, which separates them from God?
  • Do you accept that Jesus Christ is the only begotten Son of God, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, crucified as a substitutionary, atoning sacrifice for our sin, buried, and dead, rose again in bodily form, and ascended into heaven?
  • Do you believe that he will return one day and that there will be a judgment of the living and the dead?
  • Let’s just close out the Apostles Creed: Do you believe in the church, the communion of the saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting?

This is doctrine. And we have to be in agreement on those things, because they are the difference between whether you are a Christian or not. These are the essentials.

But then there are non-essentials. Superficial matters.

There were believers in the church in Rome who had strong convictions about superficial, or surface issues. Food was a big deal. It always is, whenever you have multiple cultures coming together. Some of them had come from pagan backgrounds, and they couldn’t bring themselves to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols. Because that was the common practice in Rome. An animal would first be offered in the temple, then it would be butchered and sold in the market. And that bothered their conscience so much that they would eat only vegetables. For others, they didn’t have an issue with it. They reasoned that an idol was just a hunk of wood or stone, so it didn’t matter if the meat had been offered to it first. Practically speaking, all the choicest cuts of meat had been offered to idols first, and it was sometimes hard to find meat that hadn’t been.

Then there were those who came from Jewish backgrounds, and they were still practicing all the dietary laws from Judaism. They were keeping kosher, which means they wouldn’t eat shrimp or shellfish or bacon.

Another issue was what day you considered to be the sabbath. Many of them still considered Saturday as the Sabbath and wanted to worship on Saturday. And many of them were still observing all of the Jewish feast days as well. But then others were saying, no, Sunday was the day Jesus rose from the dead. Sunday is the Lord’s day, so we should worship on Sunday. And why are you still observing all those feasts? That’s from the old covenant.

Now, I need to point out that Paul doesn’t specifically say what the issues were about food and days. We are drawing some conclusions based on what Paul did explicitly say to the church in Corinth in 1 Corinthians 8, and what he said in Colossians 2:16 about Christians continuing to observe feast days. I think he keeps it intentionally vague in because he wants to focus on the principles and not on the issues.

So what is the principle? He says to welcome them. Welcome the one who has these strong convictions, but not to quarrel with them over opinions.  

There are a lot of variations in translations for the Greek here. It comes down to the same thing: arguing or dividing over non essential differences of opinion.

Do we have any of those today? Anything that you have a strong conviction about, but you can’t really back it up from Scripture? Or it’s in Scripture, but Scripture doesn’t treat it as something that is the difference between Christian and not Christian. And let’s just talk plainly and specifically:

  • Alcohol. Is it a sin to drink alcohol?
  • How do you feel about certain TV or movies? Do you follow the ratings board, and draw the line at R rated movies?
  • Tattoos. Is it a sin to have tattoos?
  • Is it a sin to wear makeup? Or to cut your hair?
  • We have our own issues about holidays, don’t we.  Should Christians allow their kids to dress up for Halloween? Should we talk about Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny? What about Christmas itself? We know that Constantine just kind of Christianized the pagan feast of Saturnalia, and that’s why we celebrate the birth of Jesus on December 25. So maybe we shouldn’t celebrate it.
  • What about patriotic celebrations in church? Some would say even having an American flag in the sanctuary is too much of a mix of church and state.
  • What about the way you dress at church? Do you have a strong conviction that you need to present your best at church, and that means a suit and tie? What’s your definition of Sunday best?
  • What about the way someone else is dressed at church?
  • What about the way I’m dressed? Would it bother you if I wore jeans? Does it bother you that I’m not wearing a tie?

Ok, so how do we decide what is a sin and what is a matter of conscience? Because as Tim Keller pointed out, it is possible to err on either side. He writes, “We must guard against thinking that almost every area is a disputable matter of conscience and against the view that hardly any area is a disputable matter of conscience.” One is about legalism, one is about antinomianism. One is about your sanctification as a Christian, the other is about your liberty as a Christian. So in the time we have left, I want to give you some filters to help you evaluate your strong convictions.

First, does Scripture speak to it? If so, how does it speak to it? Does the Bible describe a behavior or does it prescribe a behavior? If the Bible speaks to it, what is the context? Let’s look at the verses on alcohol, for example. Verse 21 of this passage says “It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.” Paul is speaking specifically to believers here, and encouraging them to limit their own liberty in Christ out of love and compassion for someone else.

But in Proverbs 31, it says to give strong drink to the one who is perishing, and wine to those in bitter distress; let them drink and forget their poverty and remember their misery no more.” This was a word to a ruler, and the writer of Proverbs is contrasting how a ruler should behave with how those who don’t have any responsibility or decision making authority behave. When you look at Proverbs 31 in context, it begins with, “It is not for kings to drink wine or rulers to take strong drink, lest they drink and forget what has been decreed and pervert the rights of all the afflicted.” You ladies that just finished the study of Esther, you saw how much alcohol played a part in some really bad decisions, didn’t you?

Then in 1 Timothy 5:23, Paul says to Timothy, no longer drink water exclusively, but use a little wine for the sake of your stomach. Timothy was apparently dealing with some stomach issues, and they were apparently related to impurities in the water. So Paul said, don’t drink the water. Drink a little wine.

Maybe you are wondering, James, why do you have all those passages memorized? Well, it’s because those were the passages I used when I was trying to convince myself that it was okay to drink in high school and college. Me and my church friends didn’t want to cause anyone else to stumble, so we wouldn’t drink at parties. Instead, we would drink with each other. And so on it went.  

So knowing the text and the context is so important. There’s a phrase I’ve picked up from Tara-Leigh Cobble, the host of The Bible Recap podcast. Tara Leigh says, “We don’t want to shout where Scripture whispers, nor whisper where Scripture shouts.” That’s a good guide.

Second filter:

Does salvation depend on it? I’m not going to spend as much time on this, because we’ve already talked about the basic Christian doctrines—authority of Scripture, salvation by grace through faith, trusting in the atoning sacrifice of Christ on the cross, etc. And none of the issues we’ve been talking about so far are about salvation. At best, they are salvation adjacent. They could relate to someone’s sanctification as a believer. But they aren’t requirements for salvation.

I say that because there are a lot of sentences that people begin with, “I just don’t see how you can call yourself a Christian if_______” and then they fill in the blank with something that doesn’t have anything to do with someone’s salvation. Listen: you are allowed to say, “I don’t see how you can call yourself a Christian if you think that Jesus was just a great moral teacher but wasn’t God.” That’s allowed. But if you’ve ever said, or thought, “I don’t understand how a Christian could dress that way, or listen to that kind of music, or vote for a Democrat, or anything else that is not a salvation issue, then you are adding to the Gospel.   

And that’s the third filter for evaluating whether you are going to partake in a behavior or abstain from it: Does it align with the Gospel?. In your notes, you can write, “is it in step with the gospel?”

Now, you should know that not even Paul himself was above a church fight or two. In Acts 15, Paul and Barnabas had a falling out, not over any doctrinal issues, but over a guy that Paul simply didn’t like named John Mark. He had left Paul on an earlier missionary journey, and when he wanted to come on the next one, Barnabas wanted to give him another chance, Paul said absolutely not, and it pretty much broke up the band.

Then in Galatians, Paul talks about a beef he had with the Apostle Peter. He says in 2:12 that for awhile while he and Peter were ministering together in Antioch. Peter was eating with the Gentiles, but then some guys came from headquarters in Jerusalem, and all of the sudden Peter stopped going out with the Gentile guys. They’re all like, “Hey, Peter, Peter, Bacon Eater, where are you going? I though we were bros.”

Paul says, “When that happened, I opposed Peter to his face, because he was clearly in the wrong. And Paul gives a rationale in that situation that I think is important for us to keep in mind: Verse 14:

14 But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, “If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?”

Now I give you those two examples to point out something important: On one hand, there are always going to be people in church that you don’t get along with. There’s always going to be people who are part of the body of Christ that you don’t agree with on certain issues. And it’s possible to disagree without derailing the gospel. As it turned out with Paul and Barnabas, the gospel actually advanced further when they parted ways.

However, there are some issues that, as Paul said in Galatians, are not in step with the truth of the gospel. Paul saw Peter making the gospel conditional. That it was salvation by grace AND keeping Jewish dietary laws. Or living to please men instead of God.

The gospel is that salvation is by grace, through faith, and not by works. Period. Full stop. Questions, none. There isn’t anything we can do to earn it. Nothing we do can make God love us anymore, and nothing we have done could make God love us any less.

So if your choice to do something or not do something, wear makeup or not, drink or not, wash your car on Sundays or not, watch certain movies or not—does it align with the gospel?

Don’t miss verse the last part of verse 3:

 Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him.

Do you see the connection between verse 1 and verse 3. Verse 1 says welcome the person who might have different convictions than you do, or doesn’t have the same convictions you do. And then verse 3 says “for God has welcomed him.”

However, you do have to judge your own convictions and your own choices. Let’s look at four tests that you need to apply to yourself when you are thinking about what you choose to do and choose not to do. Again, we aren’t talking about sin. We are talking about those areas that Scripture doesn’t speak to, or are salvation adjacent, not salvation crucial:

First: What is your motivation? Are you seeking man’s approval or God’s approval? Verse 4 says:

Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master[a] that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.

In a nutshell, if someone is a Christian, that means God is their master, not you. They are answering to God, not you. So it is not for you to judge their convictions. This also means that whatever you decide to do or not do, it ought to be because you are genuinely desiring to please God and not man. For you, if that means not drinking, you don’t drink. If it means wearing a coat and tie to church, you wear a coat and tie to church.

Number 2, what is your attitude toward God? Are you thankful to him or are you begrudging that you have to do this or don’t do this or can’t watch this or can’t dance or whatever? Look at verses 6-7 again:

The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.

Maybe you’ve seen firsthand the destruction that alcohol has caused in your family, or maybe in your own life. And every day you don’t take a drink, you are giving thanks to God for what he has delivered you from. For how your marriage was restored when you quit drinking. And you don’t pass judgment on someone who doesn’t have that history. But you don’t say, “God, I hope you’re happy. Look at all this I’m giving up for you. I sure hope you’re noticing, because I’m missing out on a lot of fun for you. Listen: you are not getting brownie points from God just because you don’t play cards.

Third: What is your attitude toward those who think differently? Do you despise and judge them, or do you walk in love with them?

Don’t resent someone else for enjoying his Christian liberty. It’s not for you to judge them because they don’t have the same convictions as you. Verse 17 and 18 are a great word about this:

17 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. 18 Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. 

Fourth: What is the effect of your behavior on someone else? Are you weakening their faith or building them up?

[story about my brother?]

Wrap it up with the so thens.

Paul has three summary statements in this chapter:

  1. 12 So then each of us will give an account of himself to God. This means that each person is accountable to God, and no one else.
  • 19 So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. This means that even more important than winning an argument is winning a person. Isn’t it worth it to give up some freedoms in the short term if it means building up and encouraging a fellow believer?
  • For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.[d] The conscience cannot take something that is sinful and make it okay. But it can take something okay and make it sinful. If you are choosing to indulge in a behavior or abstain from a behavior for any other reason that to please God, there’s a good chance that it is sin.





Leave a Reply