What Freedom Do We Have as Christians? What freedom do we have with "neutral" things?
Read: Romans 14
As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.
One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God. For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord's. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.
Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.” So then each of us will give an account of himself to God. Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.
Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble. The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.
What is going on in this passage?
In the arena of biblical theology, there is a matter of discussion and sometimes debate surrounding what freedoms believers in Jesus Christ have. Often times the dialog revolves around things that appear to be “neutral” or “morally indifferent.” This too was a common debate in the ancient Greek and Roman world, especially with the Stoics (an old philosophical movement). In the Greek, the term used for this concept was adiaphora (ἀδιάφορα), which literally meant "indifferent things." For the Stoics such things were outside of morality; things that were supposedly neither morally required or morally forbidden. In other words, they are “morally neutral.” For Christians, it came to also mean things that were permissible.
However, as Dr. John Frame of Reformed Theological Seminary (whose material I lean on the most for this study) points out, to discuss “things” as being indifferent or neutral can lead us to forget the biblical teaching that everything in creation is good (Gen. 1:31; I Tim. 4:4). In Scripture, there is no such distinction between good and bad things or things that are indifferent.
More commonly, adiaphora (as a biblical concept) refers specifically to human acts. In the Word, all human acts are considered either pleasing to God or displeasing to God (I Cor. 10:31; Rom. 14:23; Col. 3:17; etc.) Therefore, all human acts are under God’s evaluation as good or bad.
Sometimes it is claimed that there are “acts about which Scripture is silent.” While not every act or every kind of act is addressed in the Bible, the Word of God does teach in principle that God evaluates all human thoughts, words, and actions. This is because all thoughts, words and actions occur within contexts that God sees and judges. Everything a believer does is to be done for God’s glory (1 Corinthians 10:31) and through faith (Romans 14:23). God declares that everything in creation is good (Gen. 1:31; 1 Tim. 4:4) but sinful people can “make” them bad or evil. That is because things affiliated with human acts are either right in some situations or wrong in others.
While Scripture rejects this idea of “neutrality,” the primary point from many of the passages used to demonstrate how things are supposedly neutral is that believers in Jesus Christ are free from the religious and ethical rules imposed by people. Ultimately what God says is the basis for moral or religious rules. God’s Word is sufficient and necessary for all of life and godliness (2 Peter 1). While men and women are subject to ordinances of man, such ordinances can never be the ultimate authority. In fact, they are to be rejected when they conflict with the clear teachings of God’s divine revelation.
How does Romans 14 help us regarding Christian freedom or liberty?
In Romans 14:1 to 15:13, Paul addresses a conflict that had arisen within the new church in Rome. One group of people has a conviction, indeed a religious conviction, about a matter, while another group does not share the same conviction. Both parties are convinced they are right and convinced the others are wrong (14:6)
Both groups are Christians. Both believe they are right. Paul does not condemn them for wanting to be right. However, he condemns both sides for their sinful attitude toward each other. The one side judged the other, while the other group despised their fellow believers.
Paul then wisely assesses each side. The one faction is declared weak in the faith, and the other is pronounced strong in the faith. The “weak” group relies on God’s Law and their own interpretations and applications of God’s Law. The Law is not wrong or evil; it is good (Rom. 7:12, 16; 1 Tim. 1:8)! However, those who live by the Law are weak because they rely upon the external things of life to govern and rule their hearts. They are much like children in need of a schoolteacher (1 Cor. 13:9-12; Gal. 3:24ff). The weak view the strong as living with too much license and are therefore immoral.
The strong are Christians who have taken God’s Word (and Law) to heart but live under the power of the Holy Spirit. They no longer need the elementary things. Instead, they apply the principles and spirit of God’s Word with liberty of conscience and life. Paul sides with the strong (Rom. 14:14, 20; 15:1), as he himself is free from other people’s convictions. Yet Paul also rebukes the strong because in their liberty they have become a stumbling block for those who are weak. How? The strong believers see the weak as legalistic, bound by rules and regulations. The strong’s behavior causes the weak Christian to grieve. The strong were condemning the convictions of the weak and were influencing the weak to sin by violating his or her own conscience (what s/he believed was right by faith). The sin of the weak could be his or her conscience (14:20-23) because s/he is violating what s/he believes is wrong, even though it may indeed be right by God.
What is the solution to this conflict?
First, no one should condemn others
Neither side has the right to despise or pronounce condemnation of the other when it comes to such things. Believers are to accept one another because God accepts us in Christ (14:3; 15:7). Both sides are to honor the Lord and therefore each other (14:6-7); for all who are in Christ are servants of God, equal to one another before the Lord. In the end, only God has the right to judge in the way they wanted to do (14:3, 9-12, 17-18).
Second, be convinced of your own position
Both groups should be fully convinced of their positions in the Lord by faith (1 Cor. 4:21; 14:5, 24). Wavering in the faith is sin (Rom. 14:23; James 1:6-8).
Third, the strong are to treat the weak charitably
The proper way for the strong to treat the weak is with charity (14:2): (a) the weak are to be won over to the position of the strong by loving admonishment from the Word; and (b) the strong are not to pressure the weak to sin against his or her conscience.
Fourth, Christians have liberty in Christ
Paul tells us that according to Scripture, adiaphora (“things indifferent”) is the freedom to have all our actions done “unto the Lord” and in faith (14:23 cp. 1 Cor. 8-10; 1 Tim. 4:1-5; Col. 2:16ff). God has saved us in Christ and set us free from sin (Rom. 6:18-22) and death (Rom. 8:2). We have been granted wisdom and strength for life by God’s Spirit and his Word and therefore given liberty not to be ruled or judged by other people’s personal opinions or preferences (1 Cor. 10:29). As believers in Christ, it was to freedom that Jesus Christ set us free (Gal. 5:1).
(This study is an adaptation of study notes provided by Professor Frame while he taught at Westminster Seminary in California.)