Should You Keep Your Convictions Secret? (Romans 14:22)

[Editorial comments added Nov. 5, 2014.]

While reading through Romans in the NIV this morning I came across chapter 14, verse 22:

So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves. (NIV)

(This verse is part of an extended passage where Paul instructs the believers at Rome on how to handle their disagreements about whether they should observe Jewish holy days and dietary laws.)

What does it mean to keep something between yourself and God? It would be fun to stop and poll you on this question. When I hear that sentence, I hear Paul encouraging us to keep our own convictions secret between us and God, without telling others what we believe.  Several other translations make this idea explicit:

 You should keep your beliefs about these things a secret between yourself and God. (ERV)

Your beliefs about these things should be kept secret between you and God. (EXB)

Your beliefs about these things should be kept secret between you and God. (NCV)

Several other translations soften the “secret” language but still lean in the same direction:

Keep the belief that you have to yourself—it’s between you and God. (CEB)

You may know that there is nothing wrong with what you do, even from God’s point of view, but keep it to yourself; don’t flaunt your faith in front of others who might be hurt by it. (TLB)

You may believe there’s nothing wrong with what you are doing, but keep it between yourself and God. (NLT)

What does it mean to “keep” something? As I read the NIV this morning, I realized the word “keep” has a range of meanings. To give only two examples: Keep can mean “to refrain from divulging.” But it can also mean “to be faithful to; fulfill.” To keep a promise and to keep a secret involve two different kinds of keeping.

So is Paul saying we should “refrain from divulging” our personal convictions? Or is he saying we should “be faithful to and fulfill” our personal convictions? The two will look very different at times. (Or is he saying something else?) [Edit: I’m committing an interpretive error here, importing ideas into Greek from an English word, without demonstrating from other examples that the Greek word itself sometimes carries the idea. See the comments below where I refine my conclusions in this post a little and consider other interpretive possibilities.]

When we examine the Greek, we discover that the word translated “keep” in the NIV actually occurs two times in this sentence. You’d never guess it from the NIV:

So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. (NIV)

You might guess it from the ESV, but it’s still unclear:

 The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. (ESV)

The KJV, though it turns the first phrase into a question, shows the repeated word clearly:

Hast thou faith? have it to thyself before God. (KJV)

In the Greek we find two different forms of the same verb: ἔχω (echō), translated in the KJV both times as “have.”  This verb is extremely common, occurring 708 times in the New Testament. The basic gloss or core definition (according to Mounce) is “to have, hold, keep.”

Words like ἔχω have a range of meanings in various contexts. But when the same word appears within the same context–indeed, within the same sentence–it normally carries the same meaning. I can’t see any good reason to translate ἔχω two different ways here. Can you? [Edit: I’m on the verge of another interpretive error here, for the immediate phrase in which the second ἔχω is found does indeed open the door to some variation in meaning. I should at least consider this possibility. See below.]

I think the NASB communicates Paul’s probable intent quite clearly here:

The faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God. (NASB)

The NRSV also does well here–better than it’s younger, conservative ESV sister:

The faith that you have, have as your own conviction before God. (NRSV)

Several other translations also express this idea well:

As for the faith you do have, have it as your own conviction before God. (ISV)

The faith that you have, have with respect to yourself before God. (LEB)

Phillip’s translation strangely turns a command into a statement of fact without telling us what to do about it. Otherwise, it’s pretty good:

Your personal convictions are a matter of faith between yourself and God. (Phillips)

Eugene Peterson’s paraphrase isn’t very literal but, given the context of the entire passage, it expresses Paul’s desire well:

Cultivate your own relationship with God, but don’t impose it on others. (The Message)

Here’s what I think Paul is saying in this verse: I think he is returning to an idea he emphasized earlier in the chapter, when he said that each of us lives to the Lord (Rom. 14:8). Whatever conviction we hold on disputable matters, we should be faithful to that conviction and live it in honor of the Lord (Rom. 8:6). We should not judge or despise each other as we do this, for “we will all stand before the judgment seat of God” (Rom. 14:10). Paul is urging us to turn our critical eye inward, away from others, focusing instead on our own accountability before God. Here’s how Paul continues the thought that he began in our key sentence: “Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves. But whoever had doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” (Rom. 14:22). Rather than destroying the work of God in your brother’s life (Rom. 14:20), Paul says, be sure you are honoring God in your own life. [Edit: Despite my oversights above, I still think this is a likely understanding of Paul’s intent. See Kruze in my comments below.]

Here’s what I don’t think Paul is saying in this verse: I don’t think he is saying that we should never voice our convictions on disputable matters. First, this seems to be stretching the meaning of the word ἔχω in this passage, which, I believe, probably means “have” or “observe” rather than “keep hidden.” [Edit: Again, see comments below for more nuance.] Second, Paul himself expresses his belief about disputable matters very clearly in this passage: “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself” (Rom. 14:14). In case we missed it, he repeats his conviction later: “Everything is indeed clean” (14:15). Paul is less concerned that everyone agree with his conviction on this point than that they learn to live together in love. But he does think it is helpful to state what he believes. Why would he turn about and command us not to do what he has just done?

No, we should not try to force others to live according to our own beliefs. Nor should we speak or live in any way that will “offend” our brother–that is, cause him to violate his own beliefs. Nor should we be known for harshly announcing our opinions every time a disputable matter arises. But there is a time to lovingly explain our convictions when we disagree with each other, to teach the things that we are fully convinced of in our own minds. [Edit: I still fully agree with my conclusions here!]

What do you think? Tell us what you believe in the comments below!

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11 thoughts on “Should You Keep Your Convictions Secret? (Romans 14:22)”

    1. Yes the HCSB is interesting: “Do you have a conviction? Keep it to yourself before God.” That pushes the idea of secrecy even stronger than the NIV and ESV do. It’s translating the Greek word “kata” as “to” rather than as “between” (as in NIV and ESV), if I understand correctly. It’s a word that can mean a lot of different things.

      By the way, here is where I was comparing translations:

      And here is any easy place to start looking at the Greek:

      And that page links to here for closer word study:

  1. From David Guzik’s Bible Commentary (public domain) on Romans 14:22 — Do you have faith? If you have [strong] faith and feel liberty to partake of certain things, praise God! But have your strong faith before God, not before a brother who will stumble.
    Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves; not every Christian knows this happiness. There are things God may challenge us to give up, but we go on approving them in our life – thus we condemn our selves. It may not be that the thing itself is clearly good or bad, but it is enough that God has spoken to us about this matter.

    1. It’s interesting to read different commentators on this verse. Here’s what Douglas Moo has to say about it in his NICNT commentary: “‘You’ is emphatic: ‘as for you, the faith that you have, keep to yourself before God!'” Then he has a footnote citing the BAGD Greek lexicon for support for this translation. That lexicon cites Rom. 14:22 and provides this translation: “keep something to oneself.” So Moo and BAGD disagree with my post here!

      Moo goes on to say this: “This is the first time since the beginning of the chapter that Paul has used the language of faith to characterize the parties in the dispute. As in v. 1, ‘faith’ does not refer to general Christian faith but to convictions about the issues in dispute in Rome that arise out of one’s faith in Christ. Paul is not, then, telling the ‘strong’ Christian to be quiet about his or her faith in Christ–a plea that would be quite out of place in the NT! Nor is he necessarily requiring ‘strong’ believers never to mention their views on these matters or to speak of their freedom before others. [Now he’s coming to similar conclusions as I did, despite different interpretations of the word “have/keep.”] As the context suggests, the silence that Paul requires is related to the need to avoid putting a stumbling block in the way of the ‘weak.’ This will mean that the ‘strong’ are not to brag about their convictions before the ‘weak’ and, especially, that they are not to propagandize the ‘weak.'”

      1. I would definitely agree with Moo that ‘faith’ in v.1 does not refer to general Christian faith but to the convictions about issues that were under dispute at that time & place. This is the first time I’ve deliberately recognized that context. I think I’ve heard v.1 being used out of context as a prooftext for some entirely reasons. Never too old to learn or to understand something new, I guess.

        1. “Never to old to learn.” That’s exactly how I’m feeling at this moment. I think I committed one or two interpretive errors in this post. I correctly recognized that the verb ἔχω is used twice, and that its most common basic sense is simply “have”–I like when translations make this clear. But I (1) underestimated the importance of the phrase in which the second ἔχω occurs, where it comes directly after the words κατὰ σεαυτὸν, which can mean something like “by/to/towards yourself.” That is where the idea of secrecy might be found–not in the word ἔχω itself. I also (2) imported the idea of “observing/fulfilling” from the English word “keep.” Perhaps in the right context the Greek word ἔχω may carry that idea, but I don’t know. So the KJV does well with “have it to thyself”–quite literal, but vague.

          I still think translating it as “should be kept secret between you and God” is stating it too strongly, because the context makes it clear Paul isn’t commanding complete secrecy. And I still think the Message might get the idea about right: “don’t impose it on others.” But the NASB’s “have as your own conviction before God” might be just a bit weak. (Perhaps; but see Kruze below!)

          Checking other commentators:
          * John Stott (BST) thinks it means “keep it a secret.”
          * Grant Osborne (IVPNTC) writes, “To trumpet these [the understandings of the ‘strong’] in such a way that the weak Christians might be damaged spiritually is wrong, so the strong must keep their beliefs between [themselves] and God. This probably means two things: do not exercise your freedom in these matters when in the company of weak Christians, and do not put pressure on the weak to assent to your views.” That’s reasonable.
          * Colin Kruze (PNTC) is very interesting: “This rather difficult text is generally interpreted as an instruction to the ‘strong’ not to brag about their freedom, for that would cause distress in the ‘weak.’ Instead they should be content to hold the knowledge of their freedom as a secret between themselves and God if to do otherwise would cause distress. [He cites Moo here.] However, there is another way of interpreting this text so that it applies to both the ‘weak’ and the ‘strong.’
          “The text underlying the NIV’s ‘So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God,’ when rendered literally, reads: ‘Have the faith that you have in accordance with yourself in the presence of God. Jewett argues: ‘The issue is integrity, not privacy or discreet silence, as in the ordinary translation, “keep your faith to yourself.”‘ The apostle’s exhortation may then be understood to mean that both the ‘weak’ and the ‘strong’ should act with integrity before God in accordance with their faith, that is, in accordance with their understanding of the faith and its implications for behavior. In the case of the ‘strong’ this would mean that they do not need to be secretive about their faith, but act with integrity in the way they express it, whether that means enjoying their Christian freedom or limiting it for the sake of the ‘weak.’ In the case of the ‘weak’ it would mean that they too should act with integrity and abstain from doing things they believe are wrong and, we might add, to do so without adopting a judgmental attitude towards those who think differently.” If Kruze is right here, then my original idea (that Paul is saying we should each faithfully live out our convictions before God) is about right!

          Lots to ponder! This isn’t an easy verse to translate. Thanks for pushing me to look closer, Wayne.

  2. This is one of those things I have been grappling with lately. I tend to be quick to just not say anything, because of some well meaning people who have been quick to express themselves boldly with their so called freedoms.
    It seems to me that there is a balancing act that needs to happen with how and when we express our opinions/beliefs.

    1. “A balancing act that needs to happen with how and when we express our opinions/beliefs.” I agree, Mike. Too much talk and too little talk are both unhelpful. See my last comment to Wayne that quotes from several commentators, each of whom are expressing some of the balancing that needs to happen. Thanks for the comment!

  3. Understanding when a conviction needs to be expressed and when it needs to remain silent is not an easy road to walk as a spiritual leader. Hebrews 13:17 instructs Christians to obey those who have the rule over you “for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account.” So if I, as a spiritual leader, am to “watch for their souls” and eventually “give account” then I need to be actively involved in truth-telling. I do not have an easy answer to this question: When does a conviction need to be expressed to a “strong” or a “weak” brother, or brothers, because I “watch for their souls?”

    1. As usual, Rich, you ask the important pastoral questions. Perhaps one general answer would be to try to follow the example of Paul? I think he saw the importance of (a) ensuring people were pinning their hopes for salvation on the gospel, nothing more or less, and (b) ensuring believers were living together in love. When he saw either of these threatened by untruth, he spoke clearly, even forcefully. (In Galatians it was the former; in Corinthians and Romans it was the later. Cf. Romans 15:15-16: “On some points I have written to you very boldly by way of reminder, because of the grace given me by God to be a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit.”) But if both of those (the gospel and mutual love) were intact, I don’t think he always felt an urgency to be constantly stressing truths that others had not yet come to see. And, of course, Paul was evidently guided by the Holy Spirit.

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