A Verse by Verse Study of Romans 14:1-23
Everyone agrees that we shouldn’t judge others. You might say that it is a moral standard. But what does the Bible say about judging others? Can we judge others according to the Bible? What reasons does the Bible give us for why we should or shouldn’t judge others?
This blog post discusses the question: Can we judge others according to the Bible?
In the past few blog posts, we have been discussing how we should live out our faith once we have decided to follow Jesus.
In Romans 12:1-2 Paul laid down the foundation for Christian living, by telling us that we first need to choose to be holy, not copy the ways of the world, and then allow the Holy Spirit to change the way we think as we read the Bible. And then Paul goes on from there to discuss how we should behave and what kinds of attitudes we should have, which show the true marks of our faith and the power of the Holy Spirit at work in us.
Now in Romans 14, Paul talks about Christians judging other Christians. This is not about judging others in general, but a very specific kind of being judgmental.
When Judging Others is Not Wrong
As first mentioned, there is a general standard that judging others is wrong. But that is not completely accurate, is it? We rightfully judge others when crimes and offenses are committed against other people.
The Bible also gives us exceptions for when judging others is acceptable. God himself appointed judges to point out offenses against God and to uphold God’s standards. Jesus also gave clear instructions for handling situations when other Christians are caught up in sin (Matthew 18:15), and there are several passages in the Bible that describe how to admonish and rebuke another brother or sister in Christ (James 5:20, Galatians 6:1-2).
Judging and rebuking others, however, usually results from pride, anger, jealousy, or other selfish mindsets, and often hypocrisy is involved. We are guilty of the very same things.
Christians Judging Other Christians
But Romans 14 describes some very different circumstances and reasons why Christians should not judge other Christians.
An important note: in this passage Paul is talking all about food – beliefs about what may or may not be acceptable to eat. This was a particular problem for the early church because many Christians Jews continued to obey the laws, particularly in not eating unclean animals or blood which was forbidden. But Christian Gentiles were not held to these kinds of obligations, nor was it taught within the New Covenant.
However, Paul was not being short-sighted, nor did he think that dietary issues would be the only issue of contention between Christians. He used dietary issues as an example for the further discussion of other areas of life which may be questionable or problematic for some, but not explicitly said to be wrong according to the Bible.
As we learned in earlier chapters of Romans, Jesus came to free us from slavery to the law. The New Covenant does not come with a list of dos or don’ts, like the Old Covenant did. What Paul discusses here are the kinds of things we might say fall into a “gray area”.
Christians Are Called to Stand Against Sin
Paul is not talking about things which the Bible speaks clearly on: obvious sins, and warnings not to take away from or add anything to the gospel.
Today, saying anything that is taboo, or countercultural, is being judgmental or worse: it’s considered hate speech.
But Paul is not telling us to look the other way or ignore things that offend God.
Consider Jesus’ and the disciples’ examples in the Bible. They did not hold back from pointing out sin and what was offensive to God. It’s not being judgmental when we point out evil or false teachings. It’s redirecting people back to the truth of the Bible.
Christians Are Called to Point Others to Truth
Paul is also not talking about pointing out false teachings and beliefs in other religions in this passage. Today, truth is subjective, and people want to be left alone to believe whatever they want to believe. Talking to people about their beliefs and sharing the truth of the gospel is not being judgmental. In fact, it’s an attempt to save them from judgment.
However, remember that these actions: pointing out sin and sharing the truth of the Bible, is something that needs to be done in love and respect. We are not fighting to be right, but rather we are fighting to point them to the truth so that they can be saved. As Christians, we are all called to share the gospel and point people to the truth.
To those of you reading this who are not Christians, consider this. Christians believe that the Bible teaches the truth about Jesus and the need for salvation from sins. If these beliefs are true, then we are not judging you at all, we are trying to save you from judgment. Though some people may take the wrong approach, we are commanded to share the gospel out of compassion, rather than condemnation.
9 Principles About Judging Others
1. Welcome All Christians into Your Fellowship Circles, even if You Disagree
In verse 1, Paul says that we need to accept other believers who are weak in faith. What does Paul mean by accept? Well, what he means is that we need to welcome them into fellowship with us. And fellowship simply means companionship and company. Fellowship in the context of the church, or body of Christians, means that we worship God together, serve God together, learn and grow together.
Now what does Paul mean by those who are weak in faith, or a weak Christian? Well first, it’s important to distinguish between someone who is weak and someone who is rebellious. Paul is not referring to back-slidden Christians, those who willfully sin and live like the world. Instead, he is talking about those who lack spiritual maturity. Paul is warning spiritually mature Christians not to exclude spiritually immature Christians and not to make maturity a requirement for church fellowship or even to serve.
Why might some Christians be weak in their faith?
- Well, they might be brand new to the faith, and they haven’t had time to grow yet.
- They may be weak because they rely to heavily on the do’s and don’ts of legalism.
- They may be malnourished by the lack of good Bible teaching.
- And they may lack discipline, preventing the Holy Spirit from renewing their minds.
If you remember from the blog post on Romans 12:1-2, I mentioned that some people find themselves not being transformed by the Holy Spirit, even when they read the Bible. And that happens when people live lives based on “feelings” or based on “doing”, rather than being based on the truths of the Bible.
In verse 2, as an example of this “gray area”, Paul looks at those who refuse to eat meat for spiritual reasons. Perhaps they refused because they feared it was meat that was sacrificed to a pagan god (as in 1 Corinthians 8). Or perhaps they refused because it wasn’t kosher, and they were continuing to follow the Jewish dietary regulations and traditions.
In Paul’s example, the immature Christian is the stricter one, the one who refuses to eat meat because they fear it is wrong or because they continue following old traditions. In the New Covenant, Jesus paid the penalty for sin, and our faith in him makes us righteous before God. Therefore legalism (or trying to obtain, or maintain, our righteousness by good works) is useless, yet so many Christians live out their faith in this way.
2. Those Who Are Mature Should Not Look Down on Those Who Are Immature
In verse 3, Paul says that the mature Christian should not look down on those who are weaker and immature. They should not consider themselves better than they are. The weaker Christian is the one who does not yet have the strength of faith to be convinced that God’s grace has freed them from the requirements of the law. Looking down at them will only work to impede their faith, rather than strengthen it.
There is no place for pride in our position in Christ. God’s grace was given just as freely to us as it was to the weaker Christian.
3. Those Who Are Restricted by Their Conscience (Legalistic Christians), Should Not Judge Those Who Have Freedom
Verse 3 also says that the legalistic Christian (who doesn’t see themselves as immature or weak) should not condemn or judge those who are not living by the same legalistic ways.
Legalism has a way of making people think they are stronger in their faith than others. They believe they are more disciplined and dedicated than others. And those who don’t keep the rules are thought of as weak Christians. But this legalistic attitude makes them weaker because of their lack of love towards others.
This is not to say that these “gray areas” are unimportant. It’s ok to talk about them, debate them, and even preach about them. But this can only be done with the right attitude and with a spirit of love.
4. God is Our Master and Lord of our Conscience
In verse 4, Paul is saying that judging our brothers and sisters in Christ is inappropriate because we are not their masters, God is. And God will help each of us ultimately stand and receive his approval. Remember that it is Jesus’ work on the cross and Jesus’ righteousness that God sees when he looks at us.
5. Each Christian Must Be Fully Convinced by Their Own Conscience
In verses 5-6, Paul says that judging other Christians is also wrong because he says that these “gray areas” should be left up to the conscience of the individual. But whatever we do, we must be fully convinced about it and be able to do it for the Lord. We can’t simply use our “conscience” as an excuse for obvious sinful behavior. Would our consciences still be clear if Jesus was right in front of us?
In verses 7-9, Paul is reminding us of two important considerations:
- We don’t live for ourselves: meaning our life is connected to other lives – ‘No man is an island’. The decision and choices we make impact those around us.
- We are not our own. We belong to the Lord. As Christians, we were bought with the blood of Jesus, paid as our ransom to set us free from the slavery of sin. Therefore, whatever we do, we need to do it for the Lord.
6. We Shouldn’t Judge Because One Day We Will All Stand Before the Judgment Seat of God
Next, in verses 10-12, Paul says that judging other Christians is wrong because we will all face judgment before Jesus – the judgment seat of Christ. We will each have to give an account of our life to God. In the judgment seat of Christ, the Christian’s deeds will be tested and will be rewarded for those deeds which pass the test (1 Corinthians 3:13).
7. Don’t Hold Others to a Different Standard than Yourself
In verse 13, Paul says, let’s stop condemning each other, or in other words, judging each other. Jesus preached about this kind of judging in the Sermon on the Mount, and by this he meant not to judge others according to a standard that we would not want to have applied to ourselves. In Matthew 7:5, Jesus said not to worry about the speck in another Christian’s eye, when you have a log in your own eye.
8. Don’t Cause Other Christians to Stumble
And though we may decide not to judge others, we should also live in a way that doesn’t cause others to stumble. There are two ways we can cause others to stumble in their faith. One, is by discouraging them and beating them down with our legalism. And two, is by enticing others to sin through an unwise use of our freedom of conscience.
In verses 14-15, Paul expands on this idea of how making someone stumble is wrong. And he again uses food as an illustration. Paul knew that there was nothing intrinsically unclean about meat that was not kosher or sacrificed to idols. But when legalism or your sense of freedom in eating this kind of meat, causes another brother or sister to stumble (which essentially could mean backsliding or losing their faith), this is not justifiable and should be avoided at all costs.
Jesus speaks very strongly about this in Matthew 18:6-9. In this passage he says that it would be better for someone to be drowned in the depths of the sea, rather than cause another believer to stumble. From this you can also see, that what has eternal value far outweighs everything else!
The issue is not about our personal freedom, but about our ability to live a life of love – living with the mindset of not causing others to stumble or walk away from their faith in Jesus Christ.
If Jesus was willing to give up his life for our sake, we should certainly be able give up lifestyle choices for another brother or sister in Christ.
9. Pleasing God and Serving Others Should Take Priority Over Freedom of Conscience
In verses 16-18, Paul tells us to pursue a higher calling in the Kingdom of God. We need to prioritize righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit, over lifestyle preferences. Serving God with a heart for righteousness and love for others is the kind of service that is acceptable and pleasing to him. And Paul says, when we live this way, others will also approve too.
In verses 19-21, Paul says to use our freedom to build each other up, not tear each other down. Paul says that if our actions might cause another to stumble, then we no longer have freedom of conscience. We may have personal freedom, but we never have the freedom to cause someone else to stumble, offend or weaken another Christian.
Now an important point to make here is that this doesn’t mean that we are to cater to someone’s legalism. Paul is speaking about the stumbling of someone with a sincere heart. For example, when some Christians Jews were offended that Gentiles were not getting circumcised, Paul didn’t cater to their legalistic demands.
We Must Examine Our Own Consciences
And finally in verses 22-23, Paul reminds us that our choices are between us and God. If we have a clear conscience about choosing to do certain things, then we are truly blessed.
But if we have doubts about something, we shouldn’t go ahead and continue doing it. There may be some things that God is challenging us to give up, and when we go on approving them in our lives we are acting disobediently. It may not be directly right or wrong, but if God is speaking to us about it – when we feel our conscience nagging us – that should be enough to make us reject it. What does that look like?
Well, Paul leaves us with this test: if we are faced with a choice and we have doubts about it being right, we should just not do it.
And sometimes what we are called to give up, might not be intrinsically bad at all, but it might be a distraction that is keeping us from putting God first.
Judging Requires Clear Biblical Principles
Now just one final note to add. In this chapter, we have been talking about “gray areas”. But we should not conclude that we do not have a responsibility to admonish (Romans 15:14) which means to warn, advise, or teach, or rebuke (2 Timothy 4:2) which means to disapprove of, reprimand, or criticize another. But when we do admonish or rebuke, we need to do it over clear biblical principles, not “gray areas”. We could always offer advice over a “gray area”, but we should never judge.
The Scandal of Stumbling Blocks by James Durham – Have you ever considered the seriousness of causing someone else to stumble? Does it surprise you that the Bible describes it as evil? This book helps us to deeply consider the matter and identifies the ways people can stumble and be stumbled.