Epistles: Nothing Is Unclean in Itself (Romans 14:13-18)


Avoid offense

Paul now speaks to the strong, to those who eat everything, and encourages them to be careful about their freedom. Since God will judge each person, Paul exhorts, “Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another” (v. 13). “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

  • 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

Author: Michael Morrison

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