I thank God, whom I serve with a pure conscience, as my forefathers did, as without ceasing I remember you in my prayers night and day, (2 Timothy 1:3, NKJV)
The conscience distinguishes us from birds, beasts, and fish. They operate on instinct to survive. Humans have been created in the image of God, unlike animals, and the conscience is one such distinguishing trait (Gen. 1:27). The conscience is a moral monitor of what we accept to be right and wrong, but not necessarily of what is right in God’s sight. It is not the standard of right and wrong – God’s word is. (Jiminy Cricket was wrong when he told Pinocchio to “always let your conscience be your guide.”) We can believe and act incorrectly, and yet our conscience can commend us in the error (Acts 23:1; 26:9). The conscience is like an early warning system, monitoring our choices and conduct to help us avoid moral danger. But, we have to train it with God’s truth for it to operate accurately. Just like sensors are adjusted and cleaned so they alert us of danger, our conscience must be “set” (educated) with God’s word and kept pure to accurately warn us of moral threats (see 1 Tim. 4:1-3). God cannot be served when our conscience is defiled by sin and error (Tit. 1:15). Jesus died to cleanse our consciences from “dead works to serve the living God” (Heb. 9:14). It is up to us to educate and train our conscience with God’s word, and to keep it pure by serving God according to His truth.
31 Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. 32 Give no offense, either to the Jews or to the Greeks or to the church of God, 33 just as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved. 1 Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ. (1 Corinthians 10:31–11:1, NKJV)
With these summary remarks, Paul brings into focus his earlier statement, “All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful; all things are lawful for me, but not all things edify. Let no one seek his own, but each one the other’s well-being” (1 Cor. 10:23-24). We have the right to do many things, but given a certain set of circumstances, we are taught to forego our liberty for the sake of another’s conscience (1 Cor. 10:25-30). We cannot simply say, “I have the liberty, and therefore I will use my liberty regardless of how it affects others.” Or again, “I’m not going to be told what to do by someone else’s conscience.” These are the attitudes of a person who becomes a stumbling block to others (an “offense,” v. 32; 1 Cor. 8:9-13). Paul would seek the well-being of all men – even at the cost of foregoing his own liberty – so that he could help and not hinder their salvation (v. 31). This is what Jesus did when He sacrificed Himself, and Paul was imitating Him (v. 1; Rom. 15:2-3). Let us imitate Paul and seek the spiritual profit of others, and so imitate Christ, too.
5 Now may the God of patience and comfort grant you to be like-minded toward one another, according to Christ Jesus, 6 that you may with one mind and one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Romans 15:5–6, NKJV)
The apostle Paul is summing up an extended passage on how to be united when differences over scruples of conscience toward liberties exist (Rom. 14:1-15:7). Those things that do not inhibit one’s fellowship with God must not be allowed to inhibit the unity of the saints (Rom. 14:1-5, 13). According to today’s verse, to achieve and maintain unity without pressing one’s conscience upon others requires us to have “patience” and “comfort” (exhortation) toward each other. This means those with a weak conscience is not to condemn those of strong conscience (Rom. 14:3). This means those with a strong conscience toward the liberty are to “bear with” the doubts of those with weak consciences in the matter (Rom. 15:1). The strong in conscience will gladly set aside a liberty to avoid influencing a fellow Christian to sin against his or her conscience (Rom. 14:15, 19-21; 1 Cor. 8:9-13; 10:28-29). In this way we follow the example of Jesus as we endeavor to please our neighbor instead of merely satisfying ourselves (Rom. 15:1-3). We honor God “with one mind and one mouth” when we practice this kind of unselfish deference toward one another (v. 6; Rom. 12:10).
“Therefore receive one another, just as Christ also received us, to the glory of God.” (Romans 15:7, NKJV)
Disputes over personal liberties had strained relations between brethren in the church at Rome. The Holy Spirit guided Paul to write a lengthy explanation of the Lord’s will so they would “receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things” (Rom. 14:1). The weakness of which he speaks describes personal scruples of conscience over matters indifferent to God (Rom. 14:3, 5). Such differences are not to become wedges of disruption among the saints. Since God receives Christians who hold different consciences in matters He treats as indifferent (like dietary choices), so must we (Rom. 14:2-6, 7-13). Far from endorsing unity in moral and doctrinal diversity (as many assert by misusing this passage), the apostle advocates unity of diverse consciences over liberties approved by God. (Morality and doctrine are not issues of indifference to God; therefore, they do not fit here, Galatians 1:6-10; 2 John 9.) The critical condemnation of personal liberties must cease (Rom. 14:13)! We avoid being stumbling blocks and we exemplify Christ’s acceptance of us by receiving (welcoming) one another with our different conscientious scruples over (non-sinful) liberties. Christ’s unselfish sacrifice and God’s “patience and comfort” toward us are landmarks to imitate so we may be “like-minded toward one another, according to Christ Jesus” (Rom. 15:1-3, 5). This glorifies God.
1 We then who are strong ought to bear with the scruples of the weak, and not to please ourselves. 2 Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, leading to edification. 3 For even Christ did not please Himself; but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached You fell on Me.” (Romans 15:1–3, NKJV)
The apostle teaches us to defer to the Christian who holds a conscientious doubt toward a personal scruple (a liberty that allowed by the Lord and that is non-sinful in nature, Romans 14:1-5). We are not to “destroy” a Christian for the sake of clinging to our personal preferences (liberties which, by definition, are pure, but not compulsory, Romans 14:20). We put a stumbling block before the weak (doubtful) brother when we will not forego our liberty to help him keep from violating his conscience (Romans 14:13, 15, 20, 22-23). When it comes to personal liberties we are not to please ourselves, but willingly decline to use our liberty to protect the doubtful (weak) brother. Jesus did not please Himself, but accepted our reproaches so we could be redeemed from sin. Similarly, we must not cling to non-sinful liberties when using them leads the weak (doubtful) Christian to violate his or her conscience (Romans 14:23; 1 Corinthians 8:7-13). We must think more of others than we do ourselves. That would solve many problems, wouldn’t it?
12 But when you thus sin against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble. (1 Corinthians 8:12–13, NKJV)
Paul has just described imperiling the soul of a Christian with a weak conscience. We have sinned against Christ if, by using our liberty, we embolden a brother with a weak conscience to violate his conscience. A liberty is not our excuse to use it regardless of whether it persuades another to violate his conscience. Paul applied this principle to eating food previously offered to an idol, but the principle continues to have application today. For example, a Jew who is converted to Christ may have a conscience against working on Saturday, not because it is forbidden by Christ, but because his conscience has been trained to be guilty for doing that. If I use my liberty to work on Saturday in a way that emboldens this brother to violate his conscience, then I have sinned against Christ. The solution is for me not to work on Saturday if, by doing so, the weak brother is prompted to violate his conscience. (Remember we are discussing liberties – the right to do something. We are not discussing things Christ has obligated us to do.) Paul would forego eating meat so that his brother would not stumble. Like Paul, we must use our personal liberties in ways so that we do not become stumbling blocks to others.
9 But beware lest somehow this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to those who are weak. 10 For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will not the conscience of him who is weak be emboldened to eat those things offered to idols? 11 And because of your knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died? (1 Corinthians 8:9-11, NKJV)
A liberty granted us by the Lord does not mean we must always use it. Indeed, whether or not to use a liberty is regulated by how its use impacts the faith of others. Its use it regulated by love (v. 1). (Paul will apply this principle to himself in 1 Corinthians 8:13 and 9:14-23). Today’s passage warns us not to have a boastful approach to a liberty that diminishes another person’s conscience toward that liberty while elevating ourselves above him (because his conscience is weak toward the liberty). For example, we must not say, “I have this liberty and I am going to use it regardless of how it affects others.” We become a stumbling block (cause of offence) when using our liberty emboldens one with a weak conscience to participate in that liberty (in violation of his conscience). This is how our liberty contributes to another person’s sin. Such a display of arrogant knowledge disregards the soul of another, and is exactly what Paul warned against in verses 1-3 of this chapter. Beware, lest your knowledge (and the liberty it affords) causes a brother to perish.