Members of the church in Rome were united in their faith in Jesus Christ, but the apostle Paul recognized a division between the Jewish and Gentile believers among them. The two groups of Christians were arguing and passing judgment on one another, and Paul told them to stop “quarreling over disputable matters” (Romans 14:1).
The entire chapter of Romans 14 deals with the question of disputable matters. Disputable matters can be summed up as non-essential issues in the Christian life, or “gray areas” in which the Bible does not spell out clear guidelines.
While many things in the Christian life are essential, some are not. The two specific disputable matters that Paul addressed in Romans 14 were chiefly regarding which foods were acceptable to eat (verses 2–3) and the observance of certain holy days (verses 5–6). He also touched on drinking wine in verse 21.
The Roman Christians had become partisan. Love and unity were being forgotten amid their disputes. Some of the believers in the church felt freedom in Christ to eat all kinds of foods without restriction. It is unclear whether these restrictions dealt only with kosher regulations as spelled out in the Jewish law, or also included eating meat that had been offered to pagan idols. Those who were weak in faith may have felt too much temptation when eating meat and thus gave up anything that reminded them of their pre-Christian life. Likewise, some Christians who had always worshiped God on the required Jewish holy days may have felt hollow and faithless if they didn’t continue to dedicate those days to God.
The problem was that the “strong” Christians were looking down on the weaker ones, and the “weak” believers were condemning or judging the strong. The church was caught up in the sins of pride, legalism, and judgmentalism. Paul reminded them that, as servants of God, they were accountable to God alone: “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” (Romans 14:4, ESV). God is our Master, and it’s up to Him to judge us. If we are busy serving our Master, we won’t be concerned with trivial matters like investigating the eating habits of our brothers and sisters.
The overarching lesson of the chapter is that harmonious relationships in the body of Christ are critical to God. Unity in the church is more important than agreement on debatable, less significant matters in the Christian life. Disputable matters should not disrupt Christian oneness.
God calls Christians to live without judging each other and without causing others to violate their consciences: “Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister” (Romans 14:13). Mature Christians who have freedom in Christ in a certain area should be careful not to influence weaker brothers and sisters to stumble and violate their conscience. Even if we believe we are right, if our actions will cause another believer to falter spiritually, we are to stop what we are doing. And weak or less mature believers who have strong convictions in an area must avoid restricting or judging those who have discovered Christian freedom.
Mutual respect and love are the marks of true Christian disciples (John 13:34–35). Paul said, “Accept the one whose faith is weak” (Romans 14:1). He meant that the strong should consider the weak as fellow believers and equals in the body of Christ. The lesson of Romans 14 still speaks forcefully today. If Christians disagree on non-essential, disputable matters, neither side should condemn or judge the other, but both should be allowed to worship God as they are “fully convinced in their own mind” (verse 5).
Paul stressed a critical concern in God’s kingdom—that brothers and sisters act in love (Romans 14:15). Christians won’t be known for what they eat or drink, but for their love, righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit (verse 17). Paul longed to see the believers in Rome living sacrificially and agreeing to disagree despite their differences. In this way, the church could turn its focus away from insignificant matters onto the great commission of spreading the gospel of Jesus Christ to the world.