Paul instructs us in this passage how to have unity amidst diversity. We have seen in the first 13 verses of this chapter that we are to receive one another without judging. Paul’s second admonition explains further that we are to love one another without offending.
To review, doubtful things are issues where the Scriptures do not forbid or command something. They are not doctrinal matters; they are the areas that often become the disputable matters (opinions, preferences). The weak are those who cannot partake of certain liberties because of a sensitive conscience. The weak tend to judge or separate from strong brothers who don’t share their opinions. The strong are those whose consciences allow them to participate in certain liberties. The strong tend to despise weak brothers as legalists who need to grow up spiritually.
Last time I sought to emphasize the full force of the passage as it underscored acceptance and liberty in Christ. Today we see the counterbalancing side, as Paul emphasizes a brotherly love that reigns in liberty that could hurt others.
First, we see the principle of liberty in Christ (14-15). A stumbling block (13) is “Anything a believer does, even though scripture may permit it, that causes another to fall into sin” (MacArthur Study Bible pg. 1720). When the Bible uses the words ‘offend’ or ‘cause to fall’ or ‘stumbling block’ it is talking about leading one into sin, not, “I don’t like that, it offends me.” In verse 14, Paul echoes Jesus’ statement in Mark 7:14-19 that nothing we eat defiles a man spiritually. Inanimate things such as food and drink are morally neutral, but flaunting our liberty before a weaker brother is sinful arrogance. Exercising Christian liberty is very much like walking a tightrope. Your balancing pole has “Love for others” at one end and “Christian liberty” at the other. We are wonderfully free in Christ. Our only bond is to love fellow believers. Remember it is not our display of Christian freedom that commends our faith to the world, but our demonstration of agape love. Jesus said, “All men will know that you are my disciples if you love one another” (John 13.35). If your participation in some doubtful matter, which is not wrong to you, causes a brother or sister to fall, then you are not walking in love (15a).
How is a person who eats meat with a clear conscience to walk lovingly in the presence of the believer whose conscience does not permit him to eat meat? By not eating meat around that person! How far should we go in applying this? If we fully apply what Paul says, will not our conduct be controlled by the narrowest or weakest Christian in the church? Voluntarily limiting our freedoms is not meant to subject us to the demands of every aberrant sect or the prejudices of every stubborn legalist in Christendom, but to genuinely immature or weaker brethren. So discernment must be exercised by the strong. These verses could be summarized this way, “Our brothers’ faith is more important than our personal pleasures.”
Secondly, we see the priorities of liberty in Christ (16-18). Paul begins by telling us to guard against giving wrong impressions about the Christian life. “Let not your good be evil spoken of.” It is all too easy for liberty to degenerate into carnality, selfishness, and worldliness. We do not want to lose our liberty as Christians, but we do not want to abuse it either. I mentioned previously that for years Spurgeon saw nothing wrong with smoking until one day he saw a tobacco shop ad: “Smoke the brand that Spurgeon smokes!” He felt he was now giving the wrong impression about the Christian life and from that day on he gave up smoking! “The kingdom of God is not eating and drinking.” The real issues are far deeper than that and are determined by a person’s relationship with the Holy Spirit which produces righteousness, peace, and joy (17). When we are consumed with trivial externals, we give the wrong impression about the important eternals. We walk in love by using liberty carefully and setting liberties aside for the sake of the weak. We walk in love by not causing another Christian to fall. The kingdom of God is not operating in your life if your rights are so important to you that you are willing to offend brothers who do not agree with you on non-essentials. The man who feels he must live out his liberty on every possible occasion is really under tyranny and liberty has become license.
Lastly, we see the practice of liberty in Christ (19-23). Both strong and weak believers need to grow, the strong, in love and the weak, in knowledge. If a brother is weak in the faith, we lovingly deal with him in his immaturity by helping him grow, but it would be unfortunate, even dysfunctional, for a Christian to remain immature and captive to a weak conscience forever. When a child is brought into a home, his parents are careful not to leave sharp objects lying around that could injure him. But as a child matures, we deal with him more maturely. It is natural for a child to stumble when he is learning to walk, but if an adult is constantly stumbling, something is wrong. Immature and weak Christians need the kind of fellowship that will protect them while encouraging them to grow. We cannot treat them like babies all their lives! Stronger Christians must exercise love and patience, being careful not to cause weaker brothers to stumble. But weaker Christians must “grow in grace and in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ” (II Peter 3.18). Our conscience is strengthened by knowledge, balanced by love.
Christians must not force their opinions on others (22-23). So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. There are certain foundational truths that all Christians must accept, but areas of honest disagreement must not be made a test of fellowship. If you have a sincere conviction about a matter, don’t try to force everyone else to accept it. People can be taught and led, but we must develop our own convictions about issues. To conclude, Paul emphasizes, “Our liberties are governed by our commitment to edify others.”
In I Corinthians 6:12, Paul writes, “All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient; all things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any.” A habit or practice that may not be sinful can become sinful if it gains control over a person. What begins as an exercise of legitimate freedom can turn into a form of bondage and self-destruction. Our age is besieged with an endless array of things to consume our time, energy and finances. Many of those things may not be immoral or ungodly, but even inherently innocent things can undermine our devotion to the Lord and to His people and reduce our spiritual usefulness.