“Who are you to pass judgement on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be unpaid, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” Romans 14:4 esv
The concept of tolerance in society and the church has risen out of two major factors: #1 Traditional fundamentalist Christians have blurred the lines of authority with doubtful things, #2 postmodernism has postulated that truth is relative and there is no universal standard.
It is clear from the Word of God that the postmodernist fallacy is in error because the Bible is authoritative for the life of a believer. The response of many emergent (postmodern) christians has been a natural reaction to the first problem, namely that fundamental Christians took the liberty to go beyond the authority of Scripture to establish universal convictions on a society. While both positions are wrong, we can see out of what circumstances the second developed.
In the midst of this confusion we are in a difficult position when it comes to explaining Romans 14:4. Paul was very clear throughout the letter to the Romans that judgement was not to be an attribute of the character of God’s people. Romand 2:1 offers the warning that when we are judging anyone else we or inconsistent because we are actually guilty of the same unrighteousness. In the midst of the most grotesque sins of the first chapter, Paul also points out the sin of lying. No one can say that they are righteous. So when it comes to judging who is guilty or more guilty, we are all in the same boat.
This is all a part of Paul’s excellent defense of grace. He is teaching that grace is free, perfect, complete, and an act apart from any work or service. Grace is freely given without any partiality. Paul doesn’t want anything to hinder the doctrine of grace so he goes to the extreme of pointing out how rich and free it is. But Paul understands the direction our sinful hearts will wander with this freeing declaration; we want freedom without accountability. So Paul points out that grace should not lead to the acceptance of sin.
The doctrine of grace should never be used to diminish the weight of sin or lower the standard for holiness. The Bible does establish standards that should be scrutinized. Jesus talks about how to deal with a sinning brother. Paul teaches about the standards for pastors and deacons. There are specific things that require scrutiny and critical thinking, but the Bible is the standard. We, as depraved individuals, are not the standard for holiness. If the Bible does not address a specific area, we do not have any authority to judge.
In Romans 14 Paul is discussing ‘doubtful things.’ These are not sins. They are the standards that developed out of prejudices and traditions which were not biblically definitive. Paul particularly addresses worship days and foods sacrificed to idols because those were the contemporary problems of their day. The issues we are facing today are usually different, but they are just as foolish. “Should a pastor wear a suit and tie?” “What forms of music are acceptable to God?” “Can a believer consume alcohol without sinning?” “Are women allowed to wear pants?” The list can go on for ages, but you should get the picture.
Here, then, is the principle: Where the Bible is clear in Scripture on what is right and wrong, believers should be discerning, set apart, steadfast, and outspoken. For the most part, the Christian community is not very discerning. They wait to be told what to think and how to respond, but the Bible is very clear that we are supposed to be able to think critically. One of the best testaments we can make against what is wrong in the world is our own efforts toward sanctification. If we are not striving for holiness, we will come across as hypocritical when we try to call out where someone else is wrong. We ought to be consistent. Too many Christians are strong on one point only to be really weak on another – not so mutually exclusive – standard. If we are going to be setting an example of holiness, every outward frustration we see in society should first motivate us to examine ourselves. Once a standard of holiness is clear in Scripture, we ought to speak up. Pastors should preach on sin, but not to the point that they are speaking to the choir. Believers should speak openly about the standards from Scripture of right and wrong. While judgementalism should not be characteristic of Christianity, we should always speak out in love, we should not be characterized by the secular idea of tolerance.
We should all remember that we are not God. We tend to show partiality. This is something that we must keep in mind and strive to see diminished in our Christian walk. We must also remember that we are still sinners. Paul constantly reminds the early church to remember where they came from. This gives us the unique insight to speak the truth lovingly to those who are sinning, because we were once where they were. If we start with the thought of, “How would I respond to these words if I were in their shoes sinning as they are?” we might become better communicators of the gospel.
“People tell me judge not lest ye be judged. I always tell them, twist not scripture lest ye be like satan.” – Paul Washer