Paul devotes a total of thirty verses in his foundational epistle to the relationship between fellowship and individual conscience (see Rom. 14: 1-15: 7). The exact example dealt with by the apostle may not seem particularly prevalent today, but there are certainly analogous situations in the modern world that this passage of Scripture has something to say to. Indeed, a great many practical problems among Christians could be resolved by simple consideration of these verses.
Two individuals are brought to our attention: one is “weak in the faith” (Rom. 14: 1) and eats only “herbs”, while the other “is assured that he may eat all things” (v2). Now the latter is living in the good of apostolic teaching on this point, “for every creature of God [is] good, and nothing [is] to be rejected, being received with thanksgiving” (1 Tim. 4: 4). Notwithstanding this, the one weak in the faith and not in the good of apostolic teaching is to be accorded all the norms of practical Christian fellowship. His over-sensitive conscience is not to be made an issue.
Paul then lays down two important ground rules. First, the one who is free to eat all things is not to despise the brother who eats only herbs: “Let not him that eats make little of him that eats not” (v3). Therefore, the one who is at liberty to do certain things, and has no conscience about it, is not to look down on another who does not have that liberty of conscience.
Second, the one who eats only herbs was not to sit in judgment on the one who is free to eat all things: “let not him that eats not judge him that eats: for God has received him” (v3). Hence, the one who does not have liberty of conscience is not to judge the one who has. Furthermore, the weak brother is not excused from the responsibility placed on the one strong in the faith in verse 1, for the weak brother also has to accord all the norms of practical Christian fellowship to his brother. Why? Because God has received that brother.
It is not my business to lord it over what another is doing as if I were his master, for “who art thou that judgest the servant of another? to his own master he stands or falls” (v4). The Christian’s master is the Lord Jesus—“For none of us lives to himself, and none dies to himself. For both if we should live, [it is] to the Lord we live; and if we should die, [it is] to the Lord we die” (vs. 7-9). Thus: “why judgest thou thy brother? or again, thou, why dost thou make little of thy brother? for we shall all be placed before the judgment-seat of God. For it is written, I live, saith [the] Lord, that to me shall bow every knee, and every tongue shall confess to God. So then each of us shall give an account concerning himself to God” (vs. 10-12).
Instead of sitting in condemnation on a weak brother, we are to see that we do not “put a stumbling-block or a fall-trap” (v13) before him. In relation to eating only herbs, Paul then brings in his own position and makes very clear that he was not in agreement for he believed that there are no unclean foods (see v14). However, he also said that “[it is] right not to eat meat, nor drink wine, nor [do anything] in which thy brother stumbles, or is offended, or is weak” (v21). Thus if my brother does not have liberty of conscience it is right not do what will upset him, even though I may have complete liberty myself. Note, however, the Scriptures do not say (though many seem to assume that they do), that the brother without liberty of conscience can demand that the stronger brother conform to his idiosyncrasies. He has no such right.
If there is coercion of a weaker brother (perhaps through rational arguments without the heart being persuaded), then very likely he will be made to stand on the faith of another. Thus: “hast thou faith? have [it] to thyself before God. Blessed [is] he who does not judge himself in what he allows. But he that doubts, if he eat, is condemned: because [it is] not of faith; but whatever [is] not of faith is sin” (vs. 22-23). We may congratulate ourselves that we have got everybody to ‘conform’ to our principles but in so doing we have made a fellow-brother a sinner! We are not walking in love (see Eph. 5: 1-2).
The matter does not end there for the apostle’s argument passes over into the next chapter (indeed, this is a striking example of how the chapter breaks owe nothing to the Spirit of God). In verses 1 and 2 of chapter 15, he sums up the general principle, and then uses Christ as the great exemplar in verse 3: “But we ought, we that are strong, to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each one of us please his neighbour with a view to what is good, to edification. For the Christ also did not please himself; but according as it is written, The reproaches of them that reproach thee have fallen upon me”. We are to be “like-minded one toward another, according to Christ Jesus” (v5). In so doing we shall be able to “receive” each other “as the Christ also has received you” (v7)—although not ‘into fellowship’ in a formal sense (as often thought), for the Romans were not in separate assemblies. The true sense is practical acceptance of each other. We may have nominal fellowship but what the apostle is after here is receiving each other “to [the] glory of God” (v7). That is a stiff test, but it is what expected. The grand objective of course is “that ye may with one accord, with one mouth, glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (v6, my emphasis). May we all take the time to ponder these matters—we desperately need them in a day of increasing fragmentation.