Understanding Disputable Matters: Why Romans 14 Is Not Addressing Issues that "Don't Really Matter"


Abstract: In the early 2020s, politics, pandemics, and public health policies have produced countless arguments and divisions between professing Christians in Canada. Desiring to see arguments quelled, pastors may quote the Apostle Paul in Romans 14, telling our congregations to stop fighting over merely “disputable matters.” While this passage may initially seem to be applicable to our contemporary situations, it is actually addressing an urgent ecclesiological issue in the life of the Roman church; namely, how Jewishly do people need to behave now that they are Christians? This essay demonstrates that Romans 14 is not a text designed to help our people navigate issues that “don’t really matter,” nor does it assert that contentious dialogues are inappropriate, nor does it support a “your truth is your truth” epistemology for controversies. Consequently, this essay intends to lead readers to embrace the idea that “disputable matters” are worth dialoguing about, with patience and respect, for the health and strength of our local churches.

Keywords: disputable matters, adiaphora, Jew, Gentile, strong, weak, judge

INTRODUCTION

Recent years have provided no shortage of controversial issues for Canadian Christians to discuss. In our digitally driven and mediated world, the potential landmines for disunity in local churches are legion. Pastors have had to find ways to keep the main things the main things, while also recognizing that their congregations are either experiencing (or are at least under the threat of experiencing) division around any number of supposedly “disputable matters.” There are little fires everywhere for Canadian pastors, and in this tribalistic and divisive landscape we are desperate to get our hands on an effective extinguisher.
For many of us, we find our “argument extinguishers” in the words of Romans 14:1, which says, “Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarrelling over disputable matters.”1 We read this passage and, in times like ours, it seems like the perfect fit. We see our people despising each other because of their differences when we desire for them to accept one another in spite of their differences. Furthermore, many of these divisive debates in the early 2020s are regarding issues not explicitly mentioned in Scripture. The temptation for pastors is to say that since the contemporary issues in question are not addressed directly in Scripture they are therefore tertiary to the gospel itself; so we quickly adopt the language from Romans 14:1 and call all such conversations “disputable matters.” Therefore, when Canadian Christians begin arguing and despising one another over issues such as government mandates, public health orders, and vaccinations, we think to ourselves, and sometimes say to others, “If that’s not a quarrel over a disputable matter I don’t know what is! Let’s just move on!”
We may want to use Romans 14 to justify glossing over the “disputable matters” (by which we mean issues that aren’t core to the gospel) brewing in our churches. However, to read and utilise Romans 14 in this way is to fundamentally misunderstand and misinterpret what Paul is doing in Romans 14:1–15:16.2 To turn Paul’s treatment of “disputable matters” in Romans 14:1 into a grid for thinking through peripheral or insignificant issues would be both unwise and inappropriate.

Footnote

1 Unless otherwise stated, all biblical quotes are taken from the NIV translation.

2 I encourage you at this time to read this text unit in its entirety. The phrase “disputable matters,” frequently used in this paper, is how the NIV decided to interpret the Greek διαλογισμός (dialogismos).

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