Luther on Romans 14 and how we should treat one another in the local church when it comes to “disputable matters”.
I’m growing to love the 14th chapter of Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians. Not because it’s a fun chapter. I would argue it’s one of the most faith-stretching difficult and YET most instructive passages to us in the local church today. When I pick up a commentary, I typically turn to Romans 14 to see what the author has to say about such thorny issues.
I’m always fascinated to see what teachers and preachers over the history of the church have said about the principles and commands Paul lays out in this section of Scripture. I was shocked recently to read some of Luther’s comments in his treatise entitled Concerning Christian Liberty. Check it out –
“Or else we may meet with simple-minded and ignorant persons, weak in the faith, as the Apostle calls them, who are as yet unable to apprehend that liberty of faith, even if willing to do so. These we must spare, lest they should be offended. We must bear with their infirmity, till they shall be more fully instructed. For since these men do not act thus from hardened malice, but only from weakness of faith, therefore, in order to avoid giving them offence, we must keep fasts and do other things which they consider necessary. This is required of us by charity, which injures no one, but serves all men.”
So Luther would actually argue (at least here) that the strong brother who knows he is free from traditions not commanded in Scripture should actually do the things the weaker brother, bound by a troubled conscience, feels he must do. In my printed version of his Concerning Christian Liberty, this is where I wrote, “WOW!” in the margin. 🙂
So lets put this into our modern day context. Say a dear Christian brother was raised in KJV-onlyism. He truly is a believer, trusting in Christ alone for salvation. However, he can’t fathom reading another translation other than the authorized 1611. His conscience would be torn up. He’s not trusting in this tradition for salvation, he’s just always known this tradition and prefers to keep it. You come along with your NIV, ESV or whatever version (except The Message!) and sit down next to him in a pew. He looks over and sees your “tainted” version of the English scriptures and cringes. What do you do? According to Luther, should you tuck your Bible away and look at your brother’s KJV during the sermon?
How about another one. You’re invited over to a precious christian friend’s house to watch the superbowl(or golf, or antiques road show, it doesn’t matter). You bring some beer to enjoy. Your friend was raised in a non-Christian alcoholic home and can’t even picture the thought of ever having a drop of alcohol in his house, associating it only with abuse and family dysfunction. According to Luther you would not bring the beer. According to Luther, you may not even tell your weaker-conscienced friend that you even consume alcohol at all.
We could name countless other scenarios that illustrate the disputable matters that arise in the church today. The Sabbath, eating meat, smoking, music, movies, clothing styles and on and on and on. Most commentators on Romans 14, at least that I’ve read, would not actually argue that the stronger brother must do the very thing the weaker brother is doing or abstain from what the weaker brother is abstaining from. Perhaps Luther stands alone on this view, I don’t know yet.
I’ll put Calvin’s thoughts on the passage up here soon, so we can have a lively discussion over them as well.