So how are we supposed to behave toward one another in these areas? Paul sets out the first thing we can do in verse 13:
Let us therefore stop turning critical eyes on one another. [That certainly summarizes what we have covered so far, don’t you think? We are not to judge one another.] If we must be critical, let us be critical of our own conduct and see that we do nothing to make a brother stumble or fall (Romans 14:13)
Ooh, that’s to the point, don’t you think? That agrees with the old adage, “When you point your finger at someone, you will have three pointing back at you.” I have always loved how the Scripture is never merely negative. It never says, “Do not do something,” without suggesting a positive action to take its place. If all the apostle had to say was, “Stop judging,” that would be like saying to someone, “Do not worry,” which is a rather futile thing to say, unless you are going to give them something they can rely on so they can stop worrying. If you try to stop worrying without any reason to stop, you are going to find yourself worrying even more; that’s the way worry operates. As the old quip goes,
The worry cow would have lived til now,
if only she’d saved her breath.
But she got so afraid she was going to worry,
that she worried half to death!
But Scripture doesn’t just say, “Stop judging!” It says, “Stop judging, but, if you want to judge, fine! Start with yourself; judge yourself.” See what I mean? Are you pushing liberty so hard, and insisting on your own rights in certain areas and your own freedom to indulge in something, that you are upsetting others and forcing them to act beyond their own conscience? Well, that is what you should judge. How are you affecting others with your attitudes about some of these things?
The apostle goes on to give us two reasons why we must not judge others, but must judge ourselves first in this area. The first reason is in Verse 14:
I am convinced, and I say this as in the presence of Christ himself, that nothing is intrinsically unholy. But none the less it is unholy to the man who thinks it is. (Romans 14:14)
Now, there is a fundamental psychological insight into life that governs our behavior in these areas, or at least it should. It is one thing to be free yourself, to partake of something that others are not free to indulge in. Like Paul, you may have arrived at that by some direct teaching of Scripture, even as Paul did in the case of the Lord Jesus himself.
Paul is really saying, “As one who has been taught by the Lord Jesus, no food is unclean in itself.” Jesus said that. He said, “No food is unclean.” That does not mean that all foods are good for you. We already know that some foods are not. In fact, some things you can eat are highly poisonous. Jesus didn’t mean that everything is all right to eat; he meant that there is no moral question about food. It is never wrong, morally, to eat what your body may enjoy. Jesus taught that himself, and Paul says, “That is enough for me. That sets me free.”
However, that is not the only problem involved. We need to train our conscience by this new insight into liberty. One person’s conscience might move a little slower than someone else’s might, so, we have to adjust to one another’s needs.
Think of crossing a swinging bridge over a mountain stream. Some people can run across a bridge like that, even though there are no handrails. That does not bother them; they just keep their balance well. If the bridge sways back and forth, they won’t care. They never worry about falling into the raging river below. That’s okey-dokey; some people can do that. However, others cannot. You watch them go out on a bridge like that, they shake and tremble; inch along the bridge. They might even get down on their hands and knees and crawl across. However, they will make it if you just give them time, if you let them set their own speed. After a few crossings, they begin to pick up courage, and eventually they are able to run right across.
Many years ago, Michigan Congressman Fulton Sheen owned a painting company that I worked for one time. He used to chuckle at me when I tried to cross the scaffolding boards we had laid down to paint the trim on some windows. Now the other painters had been with him for, in some cases, several years. Those guys could run across those boards without any effort . . . whereas I would gingerly walk across them, as I nervously got myself into position.
It is like that with these moral questions. Some people just cannot see themselves moving in a certain area that they grew up thinking was wrong. As in the case of the swinging bridge (and me on the scaffolds), it would be cruel if someone had the freedom to cross boldly to take the arm of someone who was afraid and drag them across the bridge, to force them to run across. They might even lose their balance, fall off the bridge, and injure themselves. As I said, we need to be aware of those who might be offended by our words and actions and adjust our own behaviors.
If interested, you can download the entire study of The Letter to Christians at Rome