A Modern Mistake on Romans 14

by Glenn Conjurske

A young lady has recently read some of my comments on painted women and long-haired men, and remarks, “The words ‘Pharisee’ and ‘legalism’ come to mind. … see Romans Chapter 14, Mr. Conjurske!” I may assure the young lady that I have seen it, but I have not seen in it what she finds there. The real theme of Romans 14 is what some modern Evangelicals have called “a love-limited liberty.” That is, our liberty to do what is right is to be limited by love—-love, that is, for those who are weak, and so likely to make some wrong of our right. “Let not your good be evil spoken of.” (Rom. 14:16). This is the essential message of the whole chapter. It goes without saying that Paul never contemplates any liberty to do anything which is wrong. Yet is it perfectly plain also, from all his epistles, that Paul certainly believed that many things—-such as men wearing long hair—-were wrong. None of those things are contemplated in this chapter at all.

But somehow this plain message has been misconstrued by modern Evangelicalism, and has practically been used to teach that nothing is either right or wrong. Paul wrote to advise us in certain cases to abstain from what is right, but this has been perverted into permission to indulge in what is wrong. We suppose that this mistake thinks to stand upon his general prohibition of judging, and also upon such statements as that which is found in the fifth verse, which says, “Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.” By means of this verse the modern church has practically rid itself of any standards of righteousness at all. Every man becomes his own standard. Whatever he thinks is right is right, and what is wrong for one may be right for another. The plain commandments of the Bible are thus made void, such as that forbidding adornment with gold and silver for women, and long hair for men. If anyone is but “fully persuaded in his own mind” that these things are right, then to him they are right, though the apostles of Christ say they are wrong.

Now the plain fact is, the Bible both commands and forbids many things. The things it commands are necessary. The things it forbids are wrong. Those things of which it says nothing, and which are not wrong in themselves, but are morally indifferent, are neither required of us, nor forbidden to us, but are allowable, at our own pleasure and our own discretion. It is to this class alone that Romans 14 applies, to things such as meats and wine, which are permitted, but not commanded. We are thus at liberty to use them, or to abstain from them, and Paul’s exhortation is to forgo the use of things which are permissible, in cases where our indulgence would cause offense, or cause another to stumble.

But observe, in the nature of the case the chapter cannot have anything to do with things which are either commanded or forbidden. If the thing is commanded, we have no right to forgo it. If it is forbidden, we have no right to indulge in it. The chapter applies only to those things which are allowable, but not necessary.

To take one simple example, it is indifferent whether a woman wears a brown dress or a blue one. She is neither commanded nor forbidden. She is at liberty. But she is not at liberty to wear a tight dress, nor a short one, for she is commanded by the Bible to dress modestly, and common morality would require this of her if the Bible did not exist. Now a woman who claims her liberty to wear short or tight dresses, because she is “fully persuaded in her own mind” that there is nothing wrong with them, is simply misusing Paul’s message. It may be due to her ignorance that she sees no wrong in them, but her ignorance cannot make wrong right.

If her mistake is mere ignorance, she may be sincere and in some measure excusable. But we fear there is generally something other than ignorance at work here. It is the common reaction of modern Evangelicals to label as “Pharisees” and “legalists” all who have higher standards than they have themselves. This is reproachful, and manifests a wrong spirit. Indeed, we suppose that in many cases it manifests an uneasy conscience—-for it seems that the reproaches of modern Evangelicalism are generally reserved for those who have higher standards than their own, and rarely administered to those who have lower standards. I do not mind the young lady’s reproaches. I am used to such things, and am more than happy to return love to her in the place of the reproaches which she directs towards myself. But I would like to teach her better. I would like to see a better spirit in her, as well as better standards of righteousness.

And is there not some inconsistency—-some hypocrisy—-in these charges of Pharisaism and legalism which modern Evangelicals direct against all who have stricter standards than their own? If they actually believe their own doctrine, that whatever we hold to be right is right for us, what right do they have to label as a “legalist” a man who has other standards than their own? Or has it come to this, that it is always right to believe everything right, and always wrong to believe anything wrong? If so, there is an end of all holiness. Supposing we have a generation of young people who are fully persuaded in their own minds that fornication is permissible, is it therefore right for them? And if I tell them that it is wrong, and they are wrong to indulge in it, am I a legalist? We hope the young lady who calls me a legalist would hold herself that fornication is sin, and that those who indulge in it are sinful to do so. Yet because in lesser matters I hold a higher standard of righteousness than she does, I must be called a legalist. Instead of casting such reproaches, we would rather see this young lady seriously inquire into the reasons for my standards. But to assume without further inquiry that her own position is the right one, and deal reproachfully with those who hold a higher position—-this is not the way of either love or truth.

We are often told that Romans 14 forbids us to judge one another. We know that, but it remains true that wrong is wrong, and it remains the business of a preacher of righteousness to say so. The judging forbidden here concerns things indifferent—-eating and drinking—-not sinful things, not the love of the world, the pride of life, or the lusts of the flesh.

But I turn to another subject, unrelated to the preceding, but in answer to the criticisms of the same young lady. Her remarks were prompted by my “Short Method of Evaluating the Modern Bible Versions,” in which I paint a dark picture of modern Evangelicalism in general, and of Dallas Theological Seminary in particular, in order to indicate the true character of the Bible versions which the modern church has produced. My critic cannot see “what lipstick, mascara, and eyeliner has to do with the trustworthiness and accuracy of the modern versions.” It may have a great deal to do with it—-more, I suppose, than the “private life” of the President has to do with his ability to rule the country. The real question is, do the worldliness, intellectualism, and liberalism which prevail in the modern church have anything to do with the curtailing of spiritual ability? If they have, then the conclusions of my article are valid, and it is a sad day when conservatives embrace the Bible versions of modern Evangelicalism. Not that I would dream of resting the whole case here. I have given solid and objective proofs from time to time of the pervading liberalism and the real incompetence of the popular modern Bible versions.

Glenn Conjurske