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Spirituality and Scruples

Romans 14:1-3 - Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. One man's faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The man who eats everything must not look down on the one who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him.

Read all of Romans 14.

A "scruple" is defined as "an ethical consideration or principle that inhibits action." Scruples usually restrain lifestyle or behavior choices on issues that are morally neutral in themselves, yet affect a person's conscience. Christians have different opinions--some may feel free to participate and some may have scruples about the same lifestyle or behavior issue. In Romans 14 we see that the early Christians had varying opinions about whether or not to eat meat. That may not seem like a big deal to us today, but it was a very big deal to Christians in the 1st century! (Read 1 Corinthians 8 and 10:18-33 in this connection.)

Although eating meat was in itself a "morally neutral" behavior, some early Christians believed it was wrong to eat meat--they had "scruples" about eating meat. After all, some of the meat sold in the market place had been dedicated to pagan gods. Was it right for Christians to eat such meat--or was it not a problem, since the one true God gave the meat for man's benefit? Another area of contention in the early church involved keeping the Sabbath and the other special days of the Mosaic Law. The early Christians differed in their opinions and consciences about this matter. After all, God Himself had ordained these special days. Did their freedom in Christ mean that they were free of these divine regulations--or were Christians obliged to continue Jewish observances?

A Christian's sensitivity to ethical principles should be particularly acute because the believer's moral conscience has been awakened by the Holy Spirit. What may have been a hardened conscience before conversion has now been made sensitive to moral issues. Because of this heightened sensitivity, a Christian may have strong personal scruples regarding something which is really of secondary importance and essentially of moral indifference. Furthermore, not all Christians "see it the same way" because of their backgrounds and many other factors. Thus there is a tendency for Christians to judge one another on the one hand, or despise one another on the other hand, depending on their own personal views pertaining to the issue. Romans 14 was written to address problems which can arise from scruples--problems which were as much an issue in the early church as they are today.

Although most Christians today don't have scruples about the same issues as the early Christians, 1st century Christians do have scruples of their own. For example, many believers have strong scruples about the use of alcoholic beverages. This, by the way, was not a problem area in the early church--only the consumption of too much wine was improper (as Ephesians 6:18, 1 Timothy 3:8 and Titus 2:3 indicate).

The proper use of Sunday, "dress codes" for church, acceptable music and musical instruments in "God's House" would be obvious examples of areas where Christians differ today. Smoking, attending the theater, heavy use of makeup, playing the lottery and eating a meal without praying would be other examples. Is it OK to have my devotions in the evening, or must I have them first thing in the morning? Is it OK to hunt for sport or carry a firearm for self-protection? Is it OK to screen my telephone calls and not answer, even though I'm really home? Is it OK for a Christian man to wear earrings? These and many other questions are further examples of present-day areas in which Christians have scruples.

If you had a "conscience reaction" to any of the above items, or questions as you read the last few sentences, you understand what scruples are all about and why they're an issue. All Christians don't necessarily have the same "conscience reaction" as you did to these practices. In fact, read the list again, and think of a Christian brother or sister you know whose opinion differs from yours on one or more of these lifestyle decisions. Did you feel a tendency to condemn (judge) or look down on (despise) that brother or sister as you read through the list? You may even be convinced that some of these items are not in the "morally neutral" category and are therefore, for you, unbiblical practices. On the other hand, you may be convinced that since the Bible doesn't condemn these practices, they are of moral indifference. Examples of scruples could be multiplied many times as we think of Christians around the world and their

many varied cultural backgrounds and settings. In any case, we can see that Romans 14 was not just written for 1st century believers and their particular scruples--it was written for Christians of all times and cultures. The principles of Romans 14 certainly apply today as much as they did for the early church.

Dealing with Scruples

Now what specifically does Romans 14 teach us about Christian scruples and how to deal with them? First of all, this chapter teaches us that we should not confuse spirituality with scruples. Christians have always confused scruples with spirituality, and used their own personal scruples to measure the spirituality of a brother or sister in Christ. Romans 14 clearly teaches that scruples are not to be used as a measure of spirituality or a test of fellowship. Notice verses 5 and 6, which indicate that 1st century believers could be on either side of a "scruple issue" and both could be right and spiritual! The early Christians could thank the Lord and live for the Lord--on both sides of the issue! So let's not confuse spirituality and scruples.

Furthermore, Romans 14 teaches us that we should not confuse spirituality and maturity. Spirituality has to do with being committed to the Lord and walking in step with His Spirit in every area of our lives. Christian maturity has to do with growing and developing in knowledge and understanding of the Lord and His Word. Spirituality and maturity are related, but they're certainly not synonymous. Brand new Christians can be spiritual--sometimes they can be more spiritual than many knowledgeable believers who have been in the faith for years. In fact, some mature believers may be proud or self-centered or worldly and not very spiritual at all!

Ideally, a mature believer will also be spiritual, and that, of course, is the biblical norm. But let's not make the mistake of equating spirituality and maturity. According to Romans 14, it is the Christian "whose faith is weak" or immature that has doubts and concerns and has scruples about a particular lifestyle issue. The more mature Christian has no misgivings in the same area. But remember, don't confuse this with spirituality! The "weak faith" Christian with the sensitive conscience may be more spiritual than the "strong faith" Christian with a clear or neutral conscience concerning an issue. In actuality, most Christians are uncertain and doubtful ("weak faith") about some morally neutral lifestyle issues, and at the same time have no misgivings or qualms ("strong faith") about other morally neutral lifestyle issues.

Romans 14 teaches that the Christian with a tender conscience, who has scruples about a certain lifestyle or behavior issue, tends to judge or condemn the Christian who differs on that lifestyle issue or practice. And the Christian who has no misgivings, but has a clear conscience in that same area, tends to despise or look down on the Christian who has doubts about that lifestyle or behavior. Both are wrong! Verse 3 clearly commands the believer who has no misgivings not to regard with contempt the believer who has scruples on an issue. And the believer with scruples is commanded not to judge or condemn the believer who differs from him or her regarding a certain lifestyle or behavior issue. We should accept one another in the Lord because God accepts us both (v3)!

Not only does God accept all believers regardless of their scruples on morally neutral issues, but He gives us strength and accepts our service for Him, regardless of our scruples (v4). Our scruples don't determine the acceptability of our service for the Lord! At the Judgment Seat of Christ our rewards are not determined by our scruples, but by a life of personal commitment to Him and service for Him (v10-12). So why don't we recognize this in our treatment of fellow-believers now? That's exactly the question verse 10 asks. Let's neither condemn nor look down on fellowbelievers regarding either their spirituality or their service just because they differ from us in their scruples! All believers are the Lord's. We're all answerable to the Lord for our lifestyle decisions. We should all be busy living for the Lord--and not looking around critically at other believers. The Lord is the Judge!

Stumbling and Scruples

Now that we realize that spirituality and acceptable service are not determined by scruples, let's notice that Romans 14 doesnot teach that we can do whatever we like on the morally neutral issues, as long as our consciences are clear! Verses 13-23 clearly teach that some of the lifestyle practices of mature believers may cause other believers to trip up in their Christian walk, or be hindered in their Christian growth. These "weaker" Christians may feel certain activities are not appropriate for believers, and their tender consciences are really upset when they see mature Christians participating in these activities.

Notice that it is not the weaker believer with the tender conscience who stumbles the stronger, more mature believer. No--it's the stronger Christian who hinders the growth of the weaker, less mature believer. So the burden of responsibility to "build one another up" falls on the shoulders of the more mature believer (v19). "It is better not to...do anything that will cause your brother to fall" (v20). The more mature believer should consider curtailing a behavior if it's causing someone to stumble--even though he or she has a clear conscience and no misgivings about that particular morally neutral practice. How far should the "stronger" believer go in restraining his or her Christian liberty for the sake of not stumbling "weaker" believers? The rule of thumb is to act in love. "If your brother is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love" (v15). What does "acting in love" really mean? That's not always easy to determine, and will vary depending on different situations. For example, a new believer who has previously been involved with drugs but has been marvelously delivered may feel it's wrong to even drink coffee, because caffeine is a "drug."

But "acting in love" doesn't mean that the entire congregation must ban coffee at all church functions just because one believer in the fellowship has a tender conscience and scruples about caffeine. For the whole church to live under the tyranny of one weak brother's conscience is certainly not the teaching of Romans 14. Acting in love, the church leaders could patiently explain why the congregation has a clear conscience regarding caffeine. However, if you were to invite this weaker believer to your home, acting in love and kindness might mean you would decide not to serve coffee that evening--but it doesn't mean you must hide all traces of coffee in your kitchen!

Legalists and Scruples

"Walking in love" with less mature, weak Christians is a lot different than "walking in love" with mature Christians who are strong but also legalistic. The scruples of a legalistic Christian are not the same as a the scruples of an immature Christian. "Scruples for Spirituality" is the legalist's self-made unbiblical list of "do's and don't's" by which he or she measures and judges the spirituality of every other believer. The scruples of legalists do not come from a tender conscience, but rather from spiritual pride and a desire to impose their rules on other Christians. So if you're confronted by a legalist who has decided that Christians should not drink coffee, you may purposely drink a cup of coffee in his or her presence in order to challenge this unbiblical measure of spirituality. Remember that Jesus purposely healed on the Sabbath--on more than one occasion--in order to expose the legalistic Pharisees' unbiblical position on Sabbath activities. Walking in love sometimes involves "tough love."

Struggling with Scruples

Another directive on scruples from Romans 14 is that every believer should be "fully convinced in his own mind" (v5). So a good rule of practice is: "When in doubt, don't!" In fact, verse 23 teaches that it is sin to participate in an activity about which you have misgivings, or if you're not fully convinced in your own mind that this is a proper activity for a Christian. Verse 22 indicates that when we are fully convinced and don't have any doubts, we can be participate happily before the Lord in an activity about which others may have scruples. But notice that we are not to flaunt our liberty before other believers, nor should we try to convince or force them to "see it our way" by belittling or disregarding their consciences or scruples on the subject. Regarding scruples, verse 22 teaches that "your personal convictions are a matter of faith between yourself and God."

One final reminder--there are bound to be some "borderline" issues. For example, "smuggling Bibles" into a country where Bibles are forbidden is seen as morally wrong by some believers, based on the clear Scriptures that deal with deception and lying. Other Christians see Bible-smuggling as morally right, fulfilling the Great Commission, and obeying the clear teaching of Scripture that "we must obey God rather than men" (Acts 5:29). Still other Christians struggle with Bible smuggling and therefore have scruples about it. Many more examples of borderline issues could be given to show that all believers are not convinced about what should characterize a Christian lifestyle. In fact, we probably all struggle with our scruples in some areas.

Remember, our brief study has been about scruples--personal principles about practices that are essentially neutral in themselves, and are not shown to be morally wrong in black-and-white Scripture. However, a morally neutral practice canbecome morally wrong for us if we disregard the teachings of Romans 14 and fail to "act in love" towards others! So let's show love and patience with each other as we seek to sort out lifestyle and behavior matters in the light of Scripture. Let's make sure we apply the principles of Romans 14 when it comes to scruples!

"May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus, so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God" (Romans 15:5-7).

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