Disputations about Doubtful Disputations
The two words translated “doubtful disputations” in the King James are found together only in Romans 14:1. They seem to be talking about actions that have no clear scriptural basis. The message of the whole verse is that stronger believers in a church should receive weaker brothers without disputing over doubtful things. Doubtful things are essentially liberties, that is, non-biblical issues. We shouldn’t reject other believers in the church if they differ than us in things that are non-scriptural.
I think a lot of folks would agree with my first paragraph. But there is a dispute, it seems, about doubtful disputations. That is, what are these doubtful disputations? On one side, almost everything is a doubtful disputation. On the other, way too much isn’t doubtful.
Romans 14:1 is very helpful in a church. I’ve found that people become experts on things that are not in the Bible. Often these are “beam in the eye” types of situations too. Someone is disobedient to numbers of non-doubtful teachings, but they get regularly offended when someone else violates one of their preferences. They expect to be received despite their disobedience to Scripture, but they want to be offended about things about which the Bible is silent. God gave us Romans 14, I believe, in a large part to help us keep unity in the church. Members need to calm down about their preferences, actions that the church hasn’t even said are wrong.
I know what I’ve described in the previous paragraph is a big problem in churches all over. I don’t want to downplay it at all. I can’t say that it isn’t the smaller issue with regards to the practice of Romans 14. This has been a steady problem all through the centuries since Paul wrote this chapter of Romans.
A more recent development with Romans 14, that goes along with the toleration movement, is expanding greatly what is doubtful. More is questionable than ever, less is sure. Now there are too many doubtful disputations—doubtful where there is no doubt. “Doubtful disputations” have become a convenient way to do what you want without being challenged.
Drinking alcohol, modesty, dancing, mixed swimming, pants on women, preservation of Scripture, corrupt language, tattoos, rock music, male headship, have moved over into the doubtful column, into the liberty category. They weren’t before. Now they are. Most evangelicals and many fundamentalists would say that these issues shouldn’t divide believers or churches because of Romans 14.
The new dispute over what’s disputable relates a lot to the new doubts about man’s ability to know the truth. Modern society would insist that we can’t be so sure about a lot of what we’ve been sure about in the past. One thing that many think we can be sure about is that we shouldn’t be so dogmatic about what the truth is. We can be sure that we shouldn’t be sure. That’s part of the attack on truth in general in our culture.
Within the realm of this demotion of truth comes a wilting ability to apply Scripture. The Bible doesn’t prohibit certain practices. It doesn’t say “no” to bikinis. It never mentions hip-hop. It’s silent on the prom. This is where Romans 14 comes in. Since God’s Word doesn’t prohibit any of these things then we can’t reject people who participate in them. Of course, it doesn’t deny crack cocaine either. But this may be the biggest change I see in churches today. Especially in the name of church growth, many practices called unscriptural before have been slid over to the questionable or liberty column. Young people don’t want to be judged on these things. Church leaders don’t want to hear anything about their allowing them.
One fundamentalist leader recently said at a fundamentalist conference that men who have made scriptural application on these cultural issues all these years have simply been lying. He received multiple kudos at the conference and then lots of adulation all around fundamentalism, let alone evangelicalism. That’s where we’re at on this. Long time positions are being chucked and those who taught them were liars. But they were positions believed and practiced for even centuries. That means something. These men weren’t wrong. The changes to their positions are.
I’ve noticed something else. If you want to do something, just say its a Romans 14 issue. If you don’t like getting criticized, just call it a Romans 14 situation. If it’s something that bugs you, just say that the Bible teaches that. It’s not Romans 14 in that case. In other words, just use Romans 14 whenever it’s convenient to use it. That’s not what it’s for, but that’s often what it has become.
It’s harder to live the Christian life. People in the world are less interested in hearing the gospel. You can keep being faithful or you can alter your belief and practice to something more acceptable to the world. If you do change, you can use Romans 14 to keep people off your case. It’s coming in more handy than ever to justify unscriptural behavior. And that’s the dispute about doubtful disputations.