The Bible makes clear that many decisions in our lives are choices between righteousness and sin. God grants us free moral agency to determine whether we will obey or disobey Him (Deuteronomy 30:19–20). But does this mean that every choice we face is a matter of absolutes? Obviously not! Sometimes we must exercise discernment to determine the best choice for our particular circumstances—and it is important to recognize that other sincere and converted Christians may very well come to different conclusions, based on their own circumstances.
Romans 14 makes clear that there are “doubtful things.” In this chapter, the Apostle Paul focuses on some of the doubtful things of his day, such as eating food offered to idols and observing special days of fasting. Those might not be the top issues of our modern society, but they were the “hot button” issues of his day, and Romans 14 gives excellent principles for how we should handle such topics.
What Are “Doubtful Things”?
Before examining these principles, we should address what things are doubtful and what things are not. Whenever the Bible is clear about an issue, it is not doubtful. The Ten Commandments are perhaps the most famous example of absolutes in the Bible. There is no reasoning around these commandments. While the Church’s biblical teaching and administration helps to clarify questions and guide us in details concerning the keeping of the Commandments (just as Jesus did concerning the now-proverbial “ox in a ditch” in Luke 14:1–6), there is no debate that the Commandments are to be kept. The same could be said of God’s commands concerning, say, the Holy Days, not eating unclean animals, not getting tattoos, and many others. If the law and the testimony are plain to understand on an issue throughout Scripture, then the issue is not doubtful and is not being discussed in Romans 14.
However, not all decisions are choices between righteousness and sin, as defined in God’s law. Some are simply personal choices. One such decision is what young people should do after high school. Should a young person go straight into the workforce, attend a trade school, or enroll in a local community college or four-year university? This is a very important decision, but there is not one absolute answer that is right for all young men and women and their families! Given the preferences, aptitudes, and aspirations of each individual, the option that might be better for one young man or woman is not guaranteed to be the correct choice for another person who has different talents and plans. This is a matter of individual choice that could be wise or foolish based on any number of factors. (Advice on this particular topic is available in Mr. Gerald Weston’s article “University or Skilled Trade?” in the May-June 2019 Living Church News.)
One question you can consider in order to determine if something is doubtful or not is whether a person must repent of that behavior to be baptized. Does someone need to repent of breaking the Ten Commandments to be baptized? Yes. Does someone have to change his or her career path? That’s doubtful—some may need to do so, and others will not.
A variety of issues fall into the “doubtful things” category. The ones with which I am most familiar involve families with young children: Should you use a midwife or go to a hospital? Should you have your children vaccinated or not? Should you homeschool or send your children to public or private school? These are all very important questions for parents to answer, often involving a great deal of research, thought, and prayer.
As important as these questions are, none are necessarily matters of sin or righteousness, and Church leadership has not made a ruling on any of them. Members of God’s Church can attend in good standing whether they vaccinate or not, homeschool or not, or go to college or not. At this time in our society, individuals of good will and sincere intention can disagree over the answers—which represent, ultimately, “doubtful things.” With this in mind, let’s return to Romans 14 to see what principles God inspired Paul to record that can guide us in the decisions we each must make for ourselves while also respecting that other sincere Christians can come to different conclusions.
1. Do not generate dispute and contention.
The first instruction Paul gives us in the matter of doubtful things is “Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things” (Romans 14:1). Issues such as those mentioned above can be deeply personal and often cause major disputes in the world! Vaccines are passionately debated online and in other media, and the discussions too frequently are not conducted in a loving, friendly way.
Needless to say, God’s people should not be contentious with each other over such personal decisions or other “doubtful things”—online or otherwise! That is not to say we cannot discuss them and share our opinions, even when we disagree. Some years ago, during the table topics session of a Spokesman Club meeting in Tulsa, the subject of vaccines was raised and two men expressed completely opposite opinions. Both stated their views respectfully and discussed the issue rather than making personal attacks. While I doubt anyone’s mind was changed by the discussion, no friendships were lost either! Neither questioned the other’s conversion based on his views on this personal matter. That memory has always stood out to me, because of the stark contrast to what we frequently see in the world—and sometimes among members of God’s Church, too—when these issues are debated.
2. Do not judge your brothers and sisters.
Sometimes opinions about doubtful things are taken too far and become, to us, the proverbial “eleventh commandment.” When looking into issues, we can sometimes cross the line and assume that the best decision for our family is the best decision for every family. In Romans 14:4, Paul asks bluntly, “Who are you to judge another’s servant?” That is, Paul was inspired to remind us that our brothers and sisters in Christ answer to God—not to us—about these issues.
Homeschooling or public schooling can sometimes be framed as a choice between righteousness and worldliness. Some parents who public school their children may look down on those who homeschool for “failing to prepare their children for real life.” Some parents who homeschool can look down on parents who public school for “immersing their children in godless values all day.” Not every parent is this judgmental, but neither are judgments such as these unusual.
God tells us to consider the fruits (Matthew 7:16–20; 1 Thessalonians 5:21). What has God’s Church seen regarding the outcomes of homeschooling and public schooling? The answer is probably obvious to anyone who has been in the Church for any period of time: Some homeschooled children stay in God’s Church and some leave when they grow up. As for public-schooled children, some stay in God’s Church and some leave when they grow up. Parents have a responsibility before God to consider how best to prepare their children to live righteous lives—knowing, of course, that eventually those children will have to make their own decisions. Many families, examining their personal situations, conclude that it may be a better choice to homeschool; other families, reviewing their own specific circumstances and details about their local schools, decide that their public school provides a good option. The factors involved for one family might not apply to another family in God’s Church. We must be careful not to judge those who have made a different decision than we have about a “doubtful thing.” Again, they are responsible to God, not to us.
I fell into this trap when my wife and I were expecting our first child. We had the options of using a midwife or going to a hospital. After doing a fair amount of research, we decided that a midwife was the best choice for our family. Regrettably, I took the decision too far and became generally judgmental of those who chose to use a hospital instead. I had become convinced that the “righteous” choice was to use a midwife. When labor began, I discovered that all my “righteousness” in this matter was pure vanity, as everything went wrong. We ended up in a hospital for an emergency C-section delivery. Thankfully, my wife and firstborn both recovered, but it was a humbling experience to realize how self-righteous I had become. I was brought to my knees at the terror of potentially losing my wife and child. God eventually blessed us with a successful home delivery by a midwife later in our life. However, by that point I recognized that the choice of using a midwife or a hospital is just that: a personal choice that couples must make for themselves. If another family decides they prefer to go to the hospital for labor and delivery, who am I to judge God’s servant in that regard?
3. Take care when sharing your opinion.
With many doubtful things, we must make a choice one way or the other. We either get a particular vaccine or we do not—there is no way to get “half” a vaccine in some futile attempt to find middle ground. We must educate our children in some manner, whether public school, private school, homeschool, or some other option (though this decision can be revisited later if our situation or conclusion changes).
In matters that are not clear-cut commands from the Bible or determinations delegated to the Church, another guiding principle applies to each of us individually: Romans 14:23 tells us that “whatever is not from faith is sin.” This verse resolves the issue for those who feel strongly that they would compromise their faith by allowing their children to be vaccinated or by putting them in public school—or, perhaps, the reverse of those conclusions. We must be able to make our decisions about doubtful things with our faith intact. If we cannot hold a conclusion in faith, we should reconsider. As Paul says, “Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves” (v. 22). So, after doing our research and sincerely seeking God’s mind on a matter, we make our decision.
What else was Paul inspired to say? In the same verse, he says, “Do you have faith? Have it to yourself before God.” Put another way, we should make our decision and refrain from pushing it on others (Proverbs 17:27–28). The scripture that says “in a multitude of counselors there is safety” (Proverbs 24:6) does not mean we should push our unsolicited “counsel” on others!
In this era of social media, we may be tempted to put our opinions and personal positions on these matters out there for everyone to see. This often delights those who already agree with us, but it may unnecessarily erect barriers for those who don’t, even when we aren’t making negative comments about the positions with which we disagree.
These days, we stumble across articles that seem “ready-made” for sharing on social media (because they are), such as “The Top Five Reasons You Should Homeschool” or “The Ten Mistakes Most Anti-Vaxxers Make.” Our motivations in sharing such posts—or writing our own—might truly be good, with no harm or offense intended. Nevertheless, people frequently hear only implied judgment: “If you choose not to vaccinate your children you obviously must want them to get polio and die! You are a bad parent!”—or, conversely, “If you choose to vaccinate your children you obviously must want them to get autism and die! You are a bad parent!”
When specifically and personally sought out for advice, we should feel comfortable sharing our reasoning with another. But we should take great care in broadcasting these personal decisions, rooted in our personal circumstances, to everyone on the planet via social media. Instead, Paul tells us to “resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way” (Romans 14:13). Let’s strive not to be among those who sow stumbling blocks on social media.
And, on the other hand, we all need to be careful not to allow ourselves to be hurt or offended when others make different decisions than we do and happen to mention them online. Personal decisions will vary from one person or family to another. Differences do not necessarily signify disrespect or disparagement, and agreements or “likes,” though they give us a sense of validation, are not the ultimate stamp of approval. It is God’s involvement and approval that we need and want, and that comes through our relationship with Him.
4. Focus on edification and peace.
Romans 14 also contains the following exhortation: “Therefore let us pursue the things which make for peace and the things by which one may edify another” (v. 19). Sometimes we simply have to know which hills are worth dying on, figuratively speaking, and which ones are not. When things are not doubtful, we might have to die on those hills. Those of us who did not grow up in God’s Church may have lost friends or close relationships when we came into the Church because we refused to compromise on God’s commandments. I was surprised that some people I knew took exception when I began following the Bible’s dietary laws! I was not trying to force my decisions on them, but at the same time I was not about to eat some pork in order to have “peace.” Some have lost jobs due to their commitment to keeping the Sabbath holy. The Ten Commandments and other issues that are not doubtful set us apart from the world.
But, within God’s Church, we should focus on what we have in common rather than our differences involving doubtful things. Paul continues his exhortation for peace by commanding Christians, “Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food” (Romans 14:20). He was referring to purchasing the meat of clean animals that had been sacrificed to idols. For our purposes, we could just as easily say, “Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of homeschooling. Or public schooling. Or midwifery. Or hospitals. Or vaccinations. Or college. Or trade school”—the list would go on and on. The things we have in common should be our focus, rather than doubtful things.
We should have unity about undoubtful things, like the Ten Commandments, but they are not all we have in common with other believers. Paul points out, “There is one body and one Spirit, just as you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism; one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in you all” (Ephesians 4:4–6). Notice his focus on the number one. This is not the only time that number is used in Scripture as a call to unity. Towards the conclusion of His final Passover evening with His disciples, Jesus prayed, “I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me” (John 17:20–21). The things Christians have in common far outweigh our differences of opinion about doubtful things (see also 1 Corinthians 12).
Romans 14 helps us understand that if God has not made something clear and the Church has rendered no determination, then we should “not judge one another anymore” (v. 13). Judging one another in such matters just creates stumbling blocks for our brethren—and for ourselves. Instead, we all should aim for the Kingdom of God, which is based on “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (v. 17).