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Disputable Matters

December 6, 2007

Rom 14:1 Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters.

The instruction in Romans 14:1 seems clear enough. Just accept your brother despite your disagreements. But apparently some people fear that this could be used as a license to violate all kinds of clear biblical teachings. Therefore they seek to narrow the scope of “disputable matters,” so that they would be permitted to pass judgment on matters where they are fully convinced the other party is in the wrong. Almost 100 years ago, in his commentary on Romans 14, J. W. McGarvey followed Moses Lard’s analysis, saying:

This section is, as Lard remarks, “pre-eminently a chapter as to duties in regard to things indifferent in themselves.” For things not indifferent there is another rule (Gal 1:6-10, 2)

In their comments on Romans 14:1, Lard and McGarvey introduced the notion of “things indifferent in themselves.” In other words, they held that you were only prohibited from passing judgment on your weaker brother when you are convinced that the issue really doesn’t matter. Think about that for a minute. If you are convinced that the issue does not matter, why would you pass judgment on your brother over the issue? You would only want to pass judgment over issus that you think are significant. So Lard and McGarvey essentially rendered Romans 14:1 meaningless. By their rule, if your brother is doing something that you disapprove, you are free to pass judgment on him. The widespread adoption of this interpretation of Romans 14:1 by churches of Christ is evidence of the vast influence these two men had on how events unfolded in churches of Christ in subsequent years.

Lard completed his position by applying Gal 1:6-10 to all matters that are not indifferent. That passage condemns adding anything to the gospel. So Lard was equating all non-indifferent matters to the gospel. But Paul had a much narrower definition of the gospel (1 Cor 15:1-11). The gospel itself consists of what was taught to a new convert, so that they could respond to the gospel. Lard and McGarvey vastly expanded the scope of “gospel” so that practically any disagreement became a basis for division.

It seems that Paul anticipated this curious approach when he said:

Rom 14:5 One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.

Paul’s instructions in Romans 14 apply to situations where both parties are convinced of their position. Neither party sees it as an indifferent matter. So, if I were fully convinced that it is wrong for Christians to observe special religious days (ie. if I believed it is not an indifferent matter), I would still not be permitted to pass judgment over a brother who does observe them. And if I were fully convinced that Christians should observe the Sabbath, I would nevertheless be prohibited from passing judgment on a brother who did not observe it. The mandate to accept one another applies both ways.

Paul’s instructions in Romans 14 are not limited to the realm of “matters of indifference.” My degree of certainty about my position does not determine whether the matter is disputable. The context specifically addresses matters on which I am “fully convinced in my own mind.”

So, what is a disputable matter? I believe what is disputable is pretty obvious. We are expected to be able to recognize what is obvious. The works of the flesh are not disputable matters — they are obvious Gal 5:19-21. Things that are plainly stated in scripture are obvious. Things we infer from scriptures are not obvious. And things on which the scriptures are silent are not obvious. We should not pass judgment on one another over such subjects.

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4 comments

  1. KEEP WRITING, BROTHER!


  2. Excellent article. I concur. The movement would be in a much better place had this type of teaching and attitude been the norm. Instead, such thinking was totally foreign. You give me hope.


  3. Obviously — what is “disputable” is a matter of dispute. And clearly, you demonstrate that even what is “the gospel” is up for dispute.I think the solution is found in humility and love. Humility not only in relation between man and other men, but especially in relation between man and God?Are we so sure we can speak for God — judge God’s own servants? Yes, we are called in some respects to do just that — but all the more reason for a great deal of humility.And as always, love covers over a multitude of sin.Lee


  4. Hi Lee,Christians have demonstrated the ability to dispute a dizzying array of topics. It seems to be our collective greatest strength. I don’t think Paul was saying that anything goes. Instead he was saying we should accept one another and leave judgment to God. We should accept some folks who are flat out wrong on some things. God is able to make them stand. In he end, God will judge, and he will get it right. We would not.



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