Romans 14 and Christian Liberty

The root cause of this article is the reaction of a Skeptic on the TheologyWeb forum who addressed TWeb moderator Dee Dee Warren, concerning her use of a signature line that read, "That's Ms. Warren, if you're nasty." The line was designed as an allusion to a previous forum in which Dee Dee encountered several literally nasty people, and was taken from a popular song by Janet Jackson.

The Skeptic said of this:

Sorry, but even granting your statement as true, it is STILL a reference to sex, because it is a total steal from Janet Jackson's sexy song. I would like Dee Dee to explain, how she can, as a Christian, use a tag line that "gives the appearence" of sin.
And Dee Dee is supposed to be no friend of the world, but is supposed to be herself 100% given over to god and godliness.
Dee Dee, how does "Ms Warren if you're nasty..." bring glory to Jesus? Does this tag line of yours testify to the worldly people about how you've been transformed by the renewing of your mind, so that you are no longer conformed to the world, by the power of the Holy Ghost?
What would Jesus do? Would Jesus say "Jesus, Mr. Miracle if you're nasty..." ?
I know worldly music quite well, and as soon as I saw "Ms. Warran if you're nasty..." I immediately thought "how sexy". Nobody can blame me, but the thought that a Christian woman who defends the bible and who associates herself with a tag line known to come from a great promoter of ungodly music, just doesn't seem to add up.

The Skeptic by now had been invoking the specter of Romans 14, saying, "I can use the weaker brother argument in Romans 14 to steal ALL of your 'Christian liberty'..."

Is this so? Romans 14 does deserve a closer look, and we will first examine the chapter a bit more closely before returning to the debate and specific issues like that of the tagline.

14:1-3 Him that is weak in the faith receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations. For one believeth that he may eat all things: another, who is weak, eateth herbs. Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not; and let not him which eateth not judge him that eateth: for God hath received him.

Contextually, Romans 14 refers to a situation in which a real problem for the ancients -- the eating of sacrificial meat -- caused discord in the consciousness of believers. Some believed the pagan gods were demonic and that to eat of meat sacrificed to them was to actually eat demonic meat, so to speak. Jews in particular were concerned about food prepared in a non-kosher manner, and wine that may have been used as a libation.

Paul had two similar problems to deal with: one in Corinth where the "pagan problem" was prominent, the other in Rome where Jewish believers (or possibly Jews, if Nanos is correct in Mystery of Romans, though it makes no difference in this context) were concerned. Note that this is not merely a "food" issue, then, but something more serious.

Old habits and fears were hard for some to break. So what to do?

The first thing to notice is that Paul gives instructions to both the strong and the weak. To the strong, he says, "Do not turn away your brother because of his weakness." But to the weak he also says (v. 3), do not judge the strong, because God receives them as well.

Applied to the tagline situation, a "weak" brother or sister who came along judging, as did the Skeptic over the tagline, is violating Paul's instructions.

Contextually, then, Paul outlines a situation in which the two sides are to dialogue and compromise -- not condemn and judge. Paul says that is God's domain (v. 4):

Who art thou that judgest another man's servant? to his own master he standeth or falleth. Yea, he shall be holden up: for God is able to make him stand.

In the next several verses Paul lays out the points of dispute among the Roman believers. But there is a practical example of how he implemented the rules, not in Romans, but in 1 Cor. 10:25-30, which we will refer to as we proceed:

Whatsoever is sold in the shambles, that eat, asking no question for conscience sake: For the earth is the Lord's, and the fulness thereof. If any of them that believe not bid you to a feast, and ye be disposed to go; whatsoever is set before you, eat, asking no question for conscience sake. But if any man say unto you, This is offered in sacrifice unto idols, eat not for his sake that showed it, and for conscience sake: for the earth is the Lord's, and the fulness thereof: Conscience, I say, not thine own, but of the other: for why is my liberty judged of another man's conscience? For if I by grace be a partaker, why am I evil spoken of for that for which I give thanks?

Notice the following: The approach by the strong brother is essentially, "don't ask, don't tell." It is not until someone points out that the meat was offered in sacrifice that the strong believer is expected to react for the sake of the moral perception of the other person. This will come into play as we proceed.

After listing the points of dispute and reminding the Romans of God's prerogative, Paul continues (13-15):

Let us not therefore judge one another any more: but judge this rather, that no man put a stumblingblock or an occasion to fall in his brother's way. I know, and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus, that there is nothing unclean of itself: but to him that esteemeth any thing to be unclean, to him it is unclean. But if thy brother be grieved with thy meat, now walkest thou not charitably. Destroy not him with thy meat, for whom Christ died.

This tells us something else about the situation. The word Paul uses, "destroy," is a powerful one. It is the same word used of those who are eternally lost, of what King Herod wished to do to the infant Jesus. In other words, the reaction of the weak Paul is concerned with is not merely, "You know, that sort of bothers me that you do that." What we are talking about here is a real and serious problem that leads to eternal destruction.

"Grieved" is also a powerful word. It describes how Herod Antipas felt after caught in Herodias' trap; it describes how the king's servants felt when they saw the wicked servant whose large debt had been forgiven beating another with a tiny debt (Matt. 18:31); it describes Peter's reaction in John after Jesus asked him a third time whether Peter loved him; it describes those who mourn their dead (1 Th. 4:13).

Now let's close with the verse which the Skeptic used to try to, as he put it, take ALL Christian liberty away (v. 21):

It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak.

The "anything" as he saw it gave reverse carte blanche to the weak to be rid of anything that bothered them. Does it?

Not so. There are conditions set here: The action must be something that causes stumbling, offense, or weakness. The first word is used only 8 times in the NT and is also used by Satan of what Jesus would do if he fell from the Temple (Matt. 4:6) and of what floods and winds do to a house (Matt. 7:27). All other uses are moral and indicate a serious stumbling, to the point of grievous injury.

The second word is not as weak as it sounds ("offended"). It is used to refer to what your right eye does that would cause you to pluck it out; it means to trap and entice into sin.

Note in this context 1 Cor. 8:10: "For if any man see thee which hast knowledge sit at meat in the idol's temple, shall not the conscience of him which is weak be emboldened to eat those things which are offered to idols..."

The last word, "weak," literally means sick or diseased and is used of physically sick people such as the one on the verge of death (Luke 7:10). These are not mere matters of the sort of simple personal offense, but of someone whose loyalty is so weak that they are in danger of loss of eternity via apostasy. (This also relates to whether or not one can apostasize and forfeit salvation; Calvinists may simply take this as hyperbole, but either way we have a situation that is serious, not trivial.)

With that in mind, let's now go back and analyze some portions of the Skeptic's arguments.

Skeptic: "....ALL Christians are under obligation to live their lives in way that is cautious toward the weaker brother. Dee Dee cannot possibly know how many weak Christians, who have an addiction to worldly music, will see her plagurized [sic] 'Ms Warren if you're nasty' tag line. And since one of her defenders already said she would be happy to change it if any Christian voiced his offense of it, they thereby prove that it is indeed a POSSIBLE stumbling block for a weaker brother."

As noted above, this is false on two points. First, "caution" to the point of worrying about every possible offense is unwarranted. Indeed, it is quite clear from the Corinthian example that "unawares" offenses are not what we are to be concerned about.

The Skeptic goes on to suggest that even possible offense should be considered, but that is simply not the case.

Second, the "stumbling" block implies something serious -- a level of seriousness that would today imply, where something as minor as a tagline is concerned and which is being used in the way Dee Dee used it, serious psychological disorder.

A better example is one the Skeptic did come up with:

For example, suppose I am a Christian and I live with a Christian brother who has a problem overcoming alcoholism. YOU come over to counsel me, and ask me why I take my liberty in Christ to have a beer once on friday afternoons, when I MIGHT BE offending the weaker brother. Then I respond "but he hasn't expressed any problem with it, in fact he said it's ok!"
Do you think that this would justify going ahead and having alcohol in the house and drinking it while he lives there, KNOWING that he has had a problem overcoming this addiction?

As I later noted, to compare alcohol to a tagline is unreasonable. Alcoholism is a major problem in our society in which broken families, drunk driving fatalities, and birth defects are recurring problems due to the consumption of alcohol. Meanwhile, last I checked no one committed suicide over a tagline and was considered sane, and there are no "song addictions" comparable to alcoholism. The expressed problem is one recognized by society as a whole, and also does easily lead to ruination, even perhaps apostasy of the sort Paul described.

In all of this there is nothing to be said against accommodating an offended person on these minor issues. However, dialogue and understanding is a premier option in such cases, for they have not reached anywhere near the level that Paul's church members had reached.

Your only defense will be to suggest absurd scnearios involving extremely weak Christians who would be offended at absolutely everything from your drinking coffee to dating before marriage, to helping the world destroy the earth by driving a car to work instead of taking the bus or bicycle. Of course, the problem for you is, Romans 14 will sustain my criticism even in these cases. But you'll have to committ to debating me on the subject before you find out how Romans 14 is necessarily the end of all Christian enjoyment.

Clearly, this is nowhere near the truth and reflects only an overreading of Romans 14.

The entire New Testament seems to say that a Christian should not seek to exercise their liberty in Christ, but to do all things toward edification. So in the best case scenario, totally hypothetical that is, Dee Dee's "Ms Warren if you're nasty" tag line, EVEN IF IT DOESN'T GIVE THE APPEARENCE OF SIN OR CAUSE A WEAKER CHRISTIAN TO STUMBLE, still does not "edify".

I asked in reply, "Seems to say this where, please? And would you mind explaining to us how going to the bathroom may be used toward edification?" to which the Skeptic evaded by quoting, "Yea, brother, let me have joy of thee in the Lord: refresh my bowels in the Lord." (Philemon 1:20)

The half-decent joke aside, Rom. 15:2 is the closest that the NT gets to this ("Let every one of us please his neighbour for his good to edification.") and it doesn't say "all things" anywhere. Indeed one might even note a reply of a far more reasonable Skeptic in the thread who said:

Isn't this sig fixation erring on the side of fundamentalist? I am inclined to like a Christian* - actually, a person of any faith (of lack of it) now I come to think of it - who has a sense of humor. I'd rather be reminded that we have a common bond of humanity than have them crashing around like some sort of stereotypical Puritan terminator. But maybe that's just me.

One may as well note that any non-sinful act that helps us be "all things to all men" -- such as knowing and making clever use of popular culture references -- is within the bounds of building others up, especially today when showing an interest in what others find interesting is a way to make a connection.

We will close out for now with some behavioral examples the Skeptic brought out. One of these was, "What about Christians who live together without being married?" I replied:

Implied fornication and disrespect for marriage vows, within the context of a society permeated with and being slowly debilitated by sexual license, with unwanted children, sexual diseases, and emotional trauma rampant, and illicit relationships draining the public treasury, is indeed quite as serious as imaginative overreadings of intent in taglines.

Then he offered these two:

Christians who date. Could you be using that time for bible study and evangelizing others? Which is more important? What if a weaker brother that needs the example of Christians who prefer to study than to date, comes around!? You don't want to lead him into a liberty that he can't handle right? Who does Paul in Romans 14 say should make the sacrifice, the weaker brother or the strong? What's more important, to selfishly cling to your liberty in Christ and tell the weaker brother that you never said you believed everything in Romans 14, or to sacrfice dating and study the bible more to show him a good example?
What about driving cars? You said they were necessary in this modern age, so let's assume a strong Christian and weak Christian live in the same apartment that is two blocks from all the stores and their jobs. The weaker sister says "you would be safer to just walk instead of taking the car, even safe drivers can cause accidents, and besides, it is that much less pollution created for people walking down the street." Should the stronger one just pass her off as crazy, or make the sacrifice and walk? Clearly the weaker sister thinks a little off-center, but then, that's what weak faith is, right? And who does Romans 14 say should make the sacrifice; the weak or the strong?

The answers, first on dating:

Weak faith is a fine reason to give up something for someone else. Imagined or contrived offense is not. Nor is stubbornness, contrariness, or a desire to be a pedantic. True "weak faith" is actually a rarity today in my experience and seems to be limited to those going through the difficulties of adolescence. New believers also tend to have this problem, but not very often, especially if they are properly discipled and not left to fend for themselves.

Life requires balance. We each need to evaluate and set priorities. We are made to be social; some sort of courtship or social life is a necessity, for we do not have arranged marriages as was done in Paul's day.

If this allegedly "weaker" brother knows we do Bible study already, what's he on about? If he thinks you need to spend less time with dating and more with study, how does he know? If you ARE off on dates to the exclusion of such study, he may have a point. If you are not sacrificing adequate study, and he doesn't know, inform him and his weakness will be strengthened by knowing that you really are setting a good example. If he wants to argue, he isn't weak, he's "holier-than-thou".

On driving:

The "weaker" sister here is a person who is hard to imagine as mentally healthy. That is the only kind of person who would stumble over such a matter. Both should engage in healthy discussion over the issue -- I do have sympathy for the sister's viewpoint, actually, and myself would refuse to drive a car that was not fuel efficient.

In light of the above, my point has been even more greatly reiterated. Such persons as above are not victims of "weak faith" but of misplaced concern at best.

In conclusion, we would like to offer readers a chance to submit their own examples of issues and/or resolutions in light of what we have explored concerning Rom. 14 above. Practically speaking, I have run into no actual examples of weak faith of this sort in my lifetime. Perhaps others have.

A reader sent us two examples that he'd like us to consider under Romans 14. Our reader is 7th-Day Adventist, but I imagine others have run into the same issues in other denominations.

Issue 1: Costume Jewelry.

Our reader writes:

Conservative SDA's believe it is a sin to wear any jewelry, based on I Tim. 2:9, 10 and I Peter 3:3. So many disputes arise about members who wear wedding rings, as well as those who just like jewelry. When those who do wear it point out problems with using those texts to justify a total no-jewelry stance, out comes the "stumbling block/appearance of evil" argument.

It is already obvious that Rom. 14 is not useful for this issue -- I have yet to hear of any mentally healthy person who is in danger of apostasy over jewelry. And contextually, it is impossible to apply this to just ANY jewelry. The word "costly" here is the same word used to describe the ointment that cost a year's wages (Mark 14:3-5), so wedding rings of today are not going to be in view.

Mounce (Pastorals commentary, 114) adds that the word translated "modest" suggests that the problem has been one of disruption caused by excessive jewels or hairstyling (which was such an issue in Roman times that even Juvenal, the pagan satirist, made cracks: "See the tall edifice rise up on her head in serried tiers and storeys!"). This may well apply today to styles of dress or jewelry intended to distract attention, but it is unreasonable to use it for wedding rings, certainly, and for a total "no-jewelry" stance.

The use of the "evil" verse of course begs the question of whether the evil is a real evil, or whether it is just one's arbitary declaration of what is which case, we are back to Romans 14 and the weak [or whoever] not judging the strong.

Issue 2: Making Music.

The same reader writes:

SDA's don't have a CoC-type total ban on musical instruments, but some elements do consider things like drums, horns, and guitars to be evocative of worldly music and therefore sinful. Once again, all dissent is shot down with stumbling block/appearance of evil.

Our reader perceived this as like the tagline example, and it is. Is there any danger of apostasy here? Hardly -- I have yet to hear of someone who apostasized because of Stryper.

It is also a balance issue of becoming all things to all men. In such cases churches who have two services -- one traditional, the other "contemporary" -- have the better idea. But there is no matter of weak faith here, and no application for Romans 14, based on the instruments themselves. Too much imitation of what the world has to offer may be a problem, but mere associational evocation is insufficient, for that is merely a case of objectors with creative imaginations.

Issue 3: It Means WHAT?

A reader wrote in with this example:

A church in Dallas is known for its eclectically decorated coffee shop with wireless Internet access designed as a means to reach out to a more "trendy" crowd of people. An individual was describing the environment to me mentioned some of the artists whose works displayed, and my first reaction was shock, what are *those* artists doing there? Then I realized that the people who decorated the coffee shop probably weren't aware of the backgrounds and intentions of the artists, and as such didn't think twice about it. I knew the meanings and strivings of the artists, and though I was initially surprised, I decided it didn't really bother me that much.

The reader rightly concluded, "Someone else with an understanding of art could see it and take offense at it."

They're right. In this case we have a definite problem that should be discussed with church leaders. While I do not see an apostasy of Romans 14 likely (since knowledge of these artists is apparently limited) it does present a situation in which a wrong idea could be transmitted.

Issue 4: Swim Party.

The original Skeptic added:

How about a Sunday School Field trip for teens to the local swimming hole? Do you think the girls will be instructed to leave their bathing suits at home and just wear shorts with tee shirts? Of course. Why? Because normal female swim suits "MIGHT" offend someone, and they don't want to take the chance.

The offense described is once again not one leading to apostasy; here I would note that if a teen is sexually tempted, which could conceivably lead to apostasy, then parental responsibility certainly comes into play and that teen should be kept at home. However, as stated, this is not a Romans 14 problem.