[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!