Romans chapter fourteen is one of the best and hardest sections of Romans, and of all of Scripture. Paul is so clear, so articulate, and so controversial in this chapter that we can’t help but be amazed and perplexed at the same time.
You see, Paul deals with a fundamental human, and Christian, issue: how do I treat those with whom I disagree? And these are no small disagreements that Paul addresses. These are not preferences for sweet or unsweet iced tea, or what color the carpet in the foyer should be. The ESV and NASB don’t make matters better when they describe the disagreements as “opinions.” Paul is not dealing with “opinions” for which there is little or no scriptural support. He is dealing with moral differences, with sincere believers who come from their understandings of God and His will with opposite conclusions about appropriate Christian conduct.
One group believes it is unadviseable, and, probably, sinful, to eat certain kinds of meat, while an opposing group finds nothing wrong in eating any meat, no matter what kind or what the source. This is a moral problem about which the scriptures speak volumes–the Law of Moses has an abundance of guidelines regarding clean (holy; God-approved) and unclean food, and even Paul, himself, will offer his judgment in this very chapter (see v. 14).
However, Paul still tells both groups that they have a responsibility toward one another: they must not despise or judge one another (vv. 3-4), they must not intentionally or unintentionally cause one another to be tempted or sin (vv 13, 15), they must seek the good of one another over self (15:2) and they must accept one another the way Christ has accepted each one of them (v. 15:7).
All the while, the individual is charged with the responsibility of following his or her own conscience. In fact, Paul says that if a Christian practices something they believe is wrong then they sin, whether the practice itself is wrong or not (v. 23).
The reason, of course, 1) that violations of conscience can be sin, 2) that Christians must not despise or judge brothers and sisters they disagree with, and 3) that conscientious Christians will do whatever they can to keep others from stumbling is because of the Gospel. The Gospel has been Paul’s primary concern from the beginning of the Roman letter (see 1:16-17), and all that he says in chapter fourteen is founded on what he has already said about justification, salvation, and redemption.
If we are saved by the grace of God through faith (3:23-25), that means, first of all, that God can forgive every sin we or others commit; that means, second of all, that forgiveness comes by faith, our sincere desire to serve and please God, and not by how much, how long, or how correctly we serve.
Hence Paul’s instructions in Romans fourteen: if I believe my brother is wrong about how he interprets and practices the principles of scripture (other than Gospel principles), but what he does proceeds from a sincere desire to serve God (faith), then I must not judge or despise him because God accepts him based on his faith; if I believe something is wrong, I must not do it, even if everyone else does, because to do so would violate a sincere desire to serve God (faith), and would be sin. This also explains why Paul refers to each individual’s views on the particular doctrines and moral problems in question as his or her “faith” (v. 22).
The most important thing, Paul is telling us, is that whatever we do must be motivated by faith, a desire to serve God, and love, a desire to seek the good of others. Unity and fellowship depend on it, and anything else violates the Gospel.