Romans 14 tells Christians to "stop passing judgment on one another" (v. 13) and speaks of the believer's liberty of conscience in certain matters. In the passage, for example, it mentions those who eat meat, versus those who eat only vegetables, and those who consider every day sacred, while others regard only certain days as sacred. Paul argues, "He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God, and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God." He points out that each of us will give an account of ourselves to God, and concludes that therefore we are not to pass judgment on one another.
Now, it's clear when we look at the rest of Scripture that this doesn't mean we aren't to judge anyone at all (for example, many other New Testament passages command believers to make judgments about people in certain situations, or command churches to cast out those engaging in certain kinds of immorality, etc.). So this passage is (I think rightly) understood to speak about what I would call disputable matters -- matters where individual Christians may have different convictions which are rightly left up to the conscience, because they are free to act in either way. Paul gives the only restriction by concluding the chapter with this statement: "Everything that does not come from faith is sin." The idea, then, is that in these cases of disputable matters, as long as people are acting in faith in accordance with their conscience, they are free to do as they see fit (and either eat meat, or not eat meat, to use Paul's example).
But where are the boundaries of these "disputable matters"? Is that, too, left to the believer's conscience? Or is it safe to say that when Scripture teaches something sufficiently clearly (for example, that murder and adultery are wrong) those are beyond dispute? That is, does the clear teaching on those issues mean that Christians can't commit such acts and then claim that they must not be judged on the basis of Romans 14? I'm interested in comments on this.
Assuming that we can agree that Scripture is sufficiently clear about certain behaviors that we can conclude that the behaviors are morally wrong, regardless of what one claims about one's conscience, we need to return to the questions of boundaries. To give a concrete example, I've recently heard a prominent evangelical theologian argue that Scripture is silent on the issue of masturbation, and so it should be left to the individual conscience, and isn't a matter the church should concern itself with. Others have even argued that it is a God-given way of avoiding sexual sin. Tim Challies disagrees rather strenuously, and argues that it is wrong. So how do we know? If Scripture does not speak explicitly to an issue, does that necessarily mean it is a disputable matter to be left to the individual conscience?
I don't intend to answer these questions in this post; rather, I wanted to raise them for discussion and will be happy to update with links to thoughtful posts which attempt to answer them from a Biblical perspective. Either send a trackback to this post or e-mail abednego.azariah - at - gmail.com.
[UPDATE 1: I want to point out, as Jeremy does in the comments, that there are really two issues here. The first is how we determine whether acts that Scripture does not *explicitly* address (this would presumably include those that didn't really exist at the time, like drug abuse) are wrong or not. The second issue is how Romans 14 then teaches we should relate to those who commit, or refrain from committing, such acts. I included the Romans 14 discussion mostly because I think some people try and argue based on Romans 14 that many moral issues ought to be left to the individual conscience, but I don't think this is what Romans 14 is saying at all.]
[UPDATE 2: Here are some links, from trackbacks and comments, which are relevant:
- Blogotional comments on how unusual a discussion of Christian ethics is, and has some thoughts on the role of the law now. I would add that I've heard people argue that the comment that Jesus has fulfilled the law means that we are no longer under any of the Old Testament laws as a rule of obedience, except (perhaps) those reiterated in the New Testament. While I will agree that they are not how we receive salvation (we receive salvation only based on the work of Jesus Christ), I am convinced that the moral laws given in the Old Testament still apply as a "rule of walking". (Note: This doesn't include all laws in the OT -- for example, Jesus fulfilled the sacrificial system, so I think it's proper to distinguish between ceremonial/sacrificial laws and moral laws).
- Off The Top has a related series -- focused on masturbation more than on the general issue of how we know what is to be left to individual conscience and what is not. See here, here, and here. Bonnie also points out this essay that argues that there's no problem with it as long as it can be separated from lustful thoughts. Joshua Harris in this book argues that the two can't be separated, and I tend to agree with him.