Monday, May 31, 2021

Anonymous Asks (147)

“What does Romans 14:5 mean?”

The verse in question comes in the middle of a passage in which the apostle Paul is seeking to discourage Christians from quarreling over opinions.

That makes it fairly important to understand what Paul means by “opinions”.

Opinion ... and Not-Opinion

The word “opinion” is one of several English translations of the Greek diakrisis, which literally means “discernings”. The NIV renders it “disputable matters”, the Berean Literal Bible refers to “reasonings”, and the KJV opts for “doubtful disputations”. By the time we get to the ASV’s antiquated “scruples”, we have probably exhausted the possibilities. But you get the idea: Paul is not talking about foundational doctrines of the faith — the deity and sinless perfection of Christ, the inspiration of scripture, the self-existence of God, the resurrection, the sinfulness of man, and so on. Nor is he talking about the well-established principles of church order which he taught “in all churches of the saints”. Such things are not open for debate. We may have “opinions” about these things, certainly, but if those ideas are not consonant with the plain teaching of the New Testament, they are simply in error, and any mature Christian should be able to tell us that.

No, by “opinions”, Paul means the practical details of daily Christian living about which the writers of the New Testament were not dogmatic; about which they did not lay down hard and fast rules that apply to all believers in every circumstance. They are questions that call for individual discernment; areas of Christian freedom which the Lord has left subject to personal preference; or things which might be wrong to do in one particular situation but perfectly fine in another.

Doubtful Disputations

In this passage, Paul uses the example of a Christian observing Old Testament dietary rules (“One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables”), the observance of traditional Jewish holidays (“One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike”) and the enjoyment of alcoholic beverages. Elsewhere, he deals with the question of eating food offered to idols. In yet another passage, Paul deals with the question of whether Christians should or should not marry. This matter too falls into the category of personal opinion. “He who marries his betrothed does well, and he who refrains from marriage will do even better,” says the apostle. Neither has sinned, unless of course his choice violates his conscience before God.

Matters such as these cannot be settled once and for all with appeals to categorical imperatives issued by Christ or the apostles. Our conclusions about them must be deduced from historical passages and from established principles of scripture, which means there is room in that process for the occasional disagreement between believers about our conclusions.

So then, in this context an “opinion” is a position with respect to appropriate Christian behavior, hopefully backed by some sort of appeal to scripture. You may go one way on the issue; I may go another. God has not laid down a law. They are things we have to work out for ourselves.

Fully Convinced?

With this background in mind, Romans 14:5 reads as follows:

“Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.”

We may well ask why. If these are matters about which God has no particular preference, what does it matter if I am “fully convinced” about them? Why do I have to bother myself to think about them at all?

The real issue here is conscience. Suppose that, not having looked into the scriptures myself for answers to these questions, and having no particular principles from God’s word in mind to guide me, I make a haphazard, random choice that falls into the category of opinion, then promptly find myself with lingering doubts about the morality of my actions. I marry, then when things do not go well, I wonder if God is telling me I made a mistake. Or perhaps I take a drink or two, then find myself in the presence of Christians who are more scrupulous about the consumption of alcohol, and begin to feel a bit guilty. Am I indulging my Christian liberty just a little too much? Is God unhappy with me? Or maybe I am reading a fantasy novel with strong occultic themes ... and then I begin to wonder if enjoying the story is really a sin against God.

How would I know? I’ve never looked into it. Since I haven’t looked into the matter at all, I may feel guilty no matter which way I go. I end up full of doubts, second-guessing myself endlessly. If I ditch the drink and the book so as not to be debauched, have I now become a legalist?

Feelings of free-floating guilt affect our fellowship with the Lord, and that’s not good. It is necessary that we act at all times in good conscience before God. As Paul puts it later in the passage, “For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” Therefore it is necessary that every Christian be fully convinced in his own mind if he is going to be at peace in the presence of God about his choices.

Convinced, But Right Out to Lunch

But what if I am “fully convinced” and completely wrong? Suppose my application of scripture to my circumstances is a bit dodgy? Suppose my well-studied “opinion” is right out to lunch?

It happens. Actually, it happens a lot. With growing maturity in Christ and knowledge of the scriptures, our opinions often change. We can only bring to bear on our decision-making the principles of scripture with which we are actually familiar, and that knowledge base will change over time. We will come across passages of scripture we never knew existed, or we will start to read old passages in new ways as we interact with our fellow believers. When that happens, we may find ourselves changing our tune about the wisdom of imbibing, or marrying, or going vegetarian, or reading fantasy novels, or whatever ... and that’s okay. What’s important is that when I come into the presence of God, there is nothing I am aware of standing between us.

Now, of course I may be quite wrong in my confidence of my own innocence in these matters, but the good thing is that provided I continue come to him in good faith, the Lord can be counted on to fine-tune my conscience for me as I grow in Christ. As Paul puts it to the Philippians, “If in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you.”

That’s a situation I’m very comfortable with.

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