Paul’s letter to the Romans is his most systematic presentation of the gospel. He explains human sinfulness and the forgiveness that we have in Christ (chapters 1-8). Starting in chapter 12, he moves into the practical results of the gospel.
In chapter 14, he addresses at length a specific problem in the first-century Roman churches — namely, that people had disagreements about different customs and religious convictions. Even though Paul had never been to Rome, he had heard about the controversies.
“Accept the one whose faith is weak,” Paul begins, “without passing judgment in disputable matters” (14:1). Here, we learn several important things:
- Some Christians are weak in the faith and, as verse 2 explains, they are overly restrictive.
- Weak-faith Christians should be accepted, not ridiculed. People grow in faith through love and acceptance, not through ostracism.
- Christians who think they are strong are sometimes tempted to look down on others.
- Some matters are disputable. The beliefs and practices that some Christians think are important are unimportant to others.
Paul then addresses the dispute in Rome: “One person’s faith allows him to eat anything, but another person, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables” (v. 2). Why did some people avoid meat? Perhaps they were influenced by ascetic philosophies, but more likely, the concerns came from Judaism. The terms “unclean” and “clean” (vv. 14, 20) were important in Judaism, and as we have seen, the letter to the Romans repeatedly addresses Jews and Gentiles as the most significant divisions in the church.
Some (but not all) Jews avoided meat because they could not be sure that the animals had been properly killed (see Dan. 1:8). Some Gentiles may have been just as cautious.
Let’s see how Paul dealt with this situation: “The one who eats everything must not look down on the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not condemn the one who does, for God has accepted them” (v. 3). The strong-faith Christian should not belittle the weak Christian, and the weak one should not condemn the more permissive Christian.
What shocking advice! Imagine that you believe it is wrong to eat meat. Paul is not only calling you “weak,” he is also telling you not to condemn people you believe are sinning! Why? Because God accepts people on the basis of faith, not on works.
Paul did not mean that we should accept idolaters, fornicators, thieves and drunkards (1 Cor. 5:11). The New Testament clearly tells us to avoid certain behaviors. But it doesn’t address every situation and every behavior, and because of that, there will be differences of opinion within Christianity.
For example, if we are convinced that wine is bad, we should avoid wine. But we should not call all wine-drinkers sinners, nor should we separate from them. Wine is a disputable matter, and so are days and foods. These are matters for tolerance, not division and criticism.
Paul asks: “Who are you to judge someone else’s servants? To their own master servants stand or fall” (v. 4). The Lord has called us to serve, not judge. If he has been so merciful as to include us, we must let him be merciful to them, too. He will manage his own servants. “They will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.”
Be fully convinced
Paul then addresses another difference of opinion in the Roman churches: “One person considers one day more sacred than another; another considers every day alike. Each of them should be fully convinced in their own mind” (v. 5).
In a church composed of Jews and Gentiles, what days would be considered better than others? For some, it would mean weekly Sabbaths and annual festivals; for others, it might mean superstitions about other days. Paul describes it in such a way as to cover both situations. People should act from conviction, not from fear of what others might think.
Astonishing! Paul is asking fully convinced Sabbath-keepers to be tolerant of people who ignore the Sabbath. They thought that Sabbath-breakers were unbelievers, but Paul says that they should be accepted. The Sabbath-keepers thought the Sabbath was essential, but Paul is saying that it is not.
And on the other side, Paul tells those who are strong in faith to respect the weak. They do not have to adopt their restrictions or let them dictate church policy, but they should accept them.
“Whoever regards one day as special does so to the Lord. Whoever eats meat does so to the Lord, for they give thanks to God; and whoever abstains does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God” (v. 6). Sabbath-keepers are responding to God as best they know how. So are the others. Meat-eaters and vegetarians are both trying to obey God. When we are trying to please God, we must be gracious toward one another’s doctrinal errors.
Judged by Christ
Our lives belong to Christ: “For none of us lives for ourselves alone, none of us dies for ourselves alone. If we live, we live for the Lord; and if we die, we die for the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord” (vv. 7-8). On the day of judgment, after we die, we will belong to Christ — but we also belong to him now, while we live. A promise of salvation on the day of judgment does not mean that we can live selfishly in this age.
“Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living” (v. 9). He is our Master both now and in our future.
“You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat” (v. 10). God will be the judge; we are not to usurp his role. We should not say, “They are too liberal to be real Christians”; nor should we say, “They are too legalistic to be real Christians.” We should let God decide that (see Matt. 7:1). We should not even look down on another believer.
Paul then quotes Isa. 45:23 to show that God will judge every person: “‘As surely as I live,’ says the Lord, ‘every knee will bow before me; every tongue will acknowledge God’” (v. 11). And Paul concludes, “So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God” (v. 12). Since God will judge each person, Paul exhorts, “Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another” (v. 13).
Paul now speaks to the strong, to those who eat everything, and encourages them to be careful about their freedom. “Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister” (v. 13). We are to be considerate of their beliefs.
Paul makes his own position clear: “I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself” (v. 14). The Torah declared many things to be unclean, but Paul is convinced that in the Christian era, those ritual categories are obsolete. They no longer matter to God — but some people do not yet have that understanding.
“But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean.” If people think it wrong to eat pork, they should not eat pork, and others should not pressure them into doing it, because for them, it is wrong.
“If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died. Therefore do not let what you know is good to be spoken of as evil” (vv. 15-16). A Christian must balance two needs: 1) Do not let someone else’s conscience dictate what you do and 2) Do not let your behavior cause them to sin.
Christ calls us to be considerate of others, without letting their conscience dictate how we live. We cannot become so afraid of offending others that we conform to every sensitivity everyone has. Just because one person in our church thinks it is a sin to drink wine, does not mean that everyone else has to abstain.
Paul is talking about an offense so serious that the person would be spiritually destroyed — someone who might think, “If Christianity allows that, then I don’t want Christianity.”
“For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and receives human approval” (vv. 17-18). That is, be willing to abstain, because the kingdom does not require you to exercise all your liberties. Righteousness does not require eating, nor does it require abstaining, because it comes through faith in Christ.
Good behavior does not earn us a place in God’s kingdom, for we all fall short, but it is a good reflection of what God’s reign produces — and his kingdom does not have rules about what we eat and drink.
A plea for peace
“Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification” (v. 19). We are to teach one another what is true, and try to live peaceably with one another despite our differences. With peace and mutual acceptance, people will learn the truth about foods and days.
Paul then warns the strong, who have the right doctrine but the wrong attitude: “Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a person to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall” (vv. 20-21). If you are too aggressive, you will drive the weak people away from Christ, and consequently “destroy the work of God” that is being done in their lives. Paul is not dealing with minor personal preferences, but major questions of faith and apostasy.
“So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God” (v. 22). Paul did not keep his own position a secret (v. 20) — but he did not badger the weak to eat and drink what he did. He did not pressure people to violate their own consciences.
Paul is clearly on the side of liberty, but he also sounds a warning: “Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves” (v. 22). In other words, make sure that your freedom in Christ does not hurt others. Yes, you may eat pork, but if you pressure a weak person to eat pork and cause that person to fall away from Christ, you have sinned.
“But whoever has doubts is condemned if they eat…” This reveals what the problem was. It was not that vegetarians were annoyed when others ate meat — rather, vegetarians were being pressured to eat meat themselves, even when they believed it was wrong. In their minds, they thought they were disobeying Christ, and the pressure was destroying their allegiance to him.
In such a case, “their eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin” (v. 23). The problem was not in the food, but in their perception. The conscience should be obeyed — but it should also be educated.
On some matters, Christians may have different beliefs, but they should not push those beliefs onto others. People should not be tricked, shamed or coerced into behavioral change — they should be taught. It all comes back to faith. We are saved by faith, not by observing or avoiding certain days and foods.
Paul will continue this subject in the next chapter.
Things to think about
- How can we know which matters are “disputable” and which are not? (v. 1)
- Some people don’t ever seem to be “fully convinced” about what they do (v. 5). What would Paul say to them?
- Peter withdrew from the Gentiles because he did not want to offend some Jewish believers, but Paul rebuked him for it (Gal. 2:11-14). How were those circumstances different from the Roman situation?
- Christians who flaunt their freedoms can scandalize believers who are more cautious. Can cautious Christians also turn people away from Christ?
Author: Michael Morrison, 2004, 2011