Romans 14 compels the Christian who is strong in his liberty to surrender his rights for the spiritual well-being of his fellow believer that has convictions. But when does that become excessive? What if this is abused? Should Christians with convictions desire this loss of liberty? Here we find some exhortations for the weaker brother, and some help for maintaining our precious liberty.
First of all, this is an incredibly delicate issue, and it is quickly complicated by the weight of the convictions that we carry. Let both parties – the one with a conviction on the issue, and the one with liberty – appreciate that a true conviction is arrived at through careful study of Scripture, with the goal and motivation of honoring and serving the Lord.
These convictions become a lens for us. Living according to that conviction is right, and living contrary to the conviction is wrong. However, Romans 14:5-6 makes room for disagreement on issues without explicit biblical instruction. We must be careful therefore not to project our convictions onto others. To hold a conviction and live accordingly is not legalism, but to hold others to the same standard and judge them by it quickly falls into legalist territory.
How do we seek truth with discernment, in order to carefully guard our convictions while appreciating the liberty that others enjoy? I would like to offer the following questions as guidelines, which are primarily the inverse of the questions the strong brother has been compelled to ask:
- Is this a preference, opinion, or conviction for me?
It’s also important to exercise careful discernment as the weaker brother. My tastes and preferences need not shape society or the church.
- Have I examined truth to form this conviction? Am I fully convinced in my own mind?
Other Christians have concluded that they have liberty in this particular area. What biblical basis do I have for my convictions?
- Why did God give me this conviction?
Is this an area that has potential to dominate me (1 Corinthians 6:12)? Is this an area that affects my faith (1 Corinthians 10:23)? Does this harm my conscience? If so, this conviction may be uniquely personal to me. If not, this may be a matter of taste or preference.
- How am I viewing my brother?
Am I disobeying God by judging another believer for their liberty (Romans 14:3)? Am I losing sight that Christ died for him (Romans 14:15), and that we are brothers in Christ?
- Have I considered that my brother’s act of liberty is an expression of his faith?
A believer who exercises liberty ought to do so from faith (Romans 14:22), with careful discernment (Romans 14:5), and to honor the Lord (Romans 14:6). Do I want to hinder that?
- Is this truly a stumbling block for me?
Even if a liberty directly opposes a personal conviction, it may not be a stumbling block. Am I tempted to join in the liberty despite my convictions? If not, this is not a stumbling block for me.
- Why am I bothered about others’ exercise of liberty?
Is my objection proceeding from pride or judgment, or from honest concern for my brother’s spiritual well-being? If my brother is using a liberty as a cover for practicing sin (1 Peter 2:16), then I ought to lovingly confront. Otherwise, let us join in a healthy dialogue to understand one another’s differences.
- Have I made this about me?
My brother is not exercising liberty against me. His motivation should be to honor the Lord (Romans 14:6). If I’m tempted to stumble, I need to do my part to struggle well, rather than just play victim unnecessarily.
- Am I loving my brother by putting a yoke on his liberty?
My purpose is NOT to ask those around me to conform to my convictions. Yes, Paul urges the stronger brother to sacrifices his personal rights to liberty (Romans 14:21). However, he also writes in Galatians 5:1, “For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery.” Do I really want to hinder my brother from an action that he intends to honor the Lord as an expression of faith?
The need for both sides to build one another up is vitally important! Stronger brother: don’t flaunt your liberty, and be sensitive to your weaker brothers. But, weaker brother: don’t wield your convictions as a trump card against Christian liberty! To use your conviction and Romans 14 to brandish power is as corrupt as the husband who belittles his wife with forced submission as he champions Ephesians 5:22. The choice to surrender a liberty is a voluntary action for the stronger brother to discern, not a coercive weapon to suppress your fellow believer.