To eat meat or not eat meat. That was the question many Christians struggled with in the first century. It was such a controversy that Paul spent a whole chapter in the book of Romans addressing what may seem to us a trivial question.
Romans chapter 14 is a complex segment of scripture that frequently has been both misunderstood and abused. It confronts a variety of issues. The text arises out of a transitional era in religious history, when many converts to Christ were passing from one great divine system (the Mosaic regime) to another (the Christian age).
Because of the diverse backgrounds, religious and cultural, on the part of both Jews and Gentiles, many problems arose that threatened the unity of the body of Christ. A number of principles, therefore, are set forth in this chapter that, if pursued conscientiously, would help ameliorate this potentially explosive situation.
Let us consider some of the circumstances reviewed in this chapter and note the applications that are relevant for any age. Perhaps you might wish to read the chapter before proceeding with this article.
Weak Versus Strong
In the larger context of this address, the apostle contrasts those who are “weak” (Rom. 14:1) with those who are “strong” (Rom. 15:1). A careful consideration of the relevant data leads to the conclusion that the stronger are those who have a greater degree of Christian “faith” (Rom. 14:1-2, 22-23). The stronger faith was that characterized by a more precise understanding of Christian doctrine (cf. Rom. 10:17).
The stronger (more knowledgeable) faith, for example, perceives that certain meats, formally “unclean” under the Mosaic economy (Lev. 11), are no longer forbidden to those in Christ. These saints understand that certain “days,” formerly esteemed as “holy,” henceforth are not to be viewed as such under the law of Christ.
Compassion for the Weak
The “strong” Christian must exercise patience so as to understand that the “weak” have not reached the level of knowledge that is possessed by the more mature (Rom. 14:2-3). Therefore the strong must extend compassion and long suffering, allowing the weak time to grow, thus reaching a level of comprehension wherein he can move forward in Christ without violating his conscience (Rom. 14:5-6, 13, 15-16).
Unity among Christians
Paul strongly admonishes the brethren to be united in matters that do not affect the integrity of the Christian faith, e.g., the eating of certain foods, or the honoring of particular days.
Those who conscientiously refrain from eating “unclean” meats were not to be condemned. Even though their knowledge was incomplete, they meant well, and their efforts, though misguided, were designed towards bringing glory to God. Similarly, the man who refused to labor on the Sabbath — even though that restriction was abolished in Christ (Eph. 2:13ff; Col. 2:14-17) was doing so with the purest of motives — to honor his Creator (Rom. 14:6).
Thus these brethren with sincerely held differences, with varying levels of knowledge, and with distinct degrees of conscience sensitivity, must strive for oneness in Christ. The cause of Jesus and the worth of a soul must be paramount, and in many cases brothers in Christ must be willing to yield to one another rather than cause heartache and division.
Does this mean that fundamental doctrinal truths may be pushed to the side for the sake of accommodating heretics, or placating every “crank” in the church? It does not. Such a base view of this exalted text would force the scriptures into self-contradiction in many particulars. It would nullify all passages requiring discipline and, when necessary, the severances of fellowship with those who pursue dissolute lives or who advocate destructive, anti-Christian teachings.
Christians must follow after things that make for peace; we must strive to build up one another, not the reverse (Rom. 14:19). All of this, of course, is to be accomplished in an atmosphere of loyalty to the truth.
The Value of a Soul
The inspired apostle cautions each child of God not to be a stumbling block, nor to put one, in his brother’s way (Rom. 14:13). We do not live the isolated life (Rom. 14:7). What one does affects others.
If the Christian has a calloused disregard for the weaknesses of his brother, knowingly wounding his conscience, caring not for the person’s soul, and such results in the “destruction” of the weaker brother (Rom. 14:15), has not the very work of Christ on behalf of that precious soul been for naught? And who will share the blame for that apostasy?
Keeping the Conscience Sensitive
Paul admonishes that when a Christian proceeds with a certain action, he must “be fully assured in his own mind” (Rom. 14:5) that what he is doing does not violate his own conscience. The conscience is a sensitive instrument, and is a person’s most valuable endowment in “nudging” him in the proper direction as he grows in knowledge.
The conscience is not the final arbiter of right and wrong (Prov. 14:12). It must be educated. Yet, in its proper place, it is a prized gift from God, and the Christian must guard against it becoming hardened (cf. Eph. 4:19; 1 Tim. 4:2).
This is why, at the conclusion of the chapter, Paul cautions that doing something in violation of one’s conscience (even though the issue be religiously or ethically neutral), is sin. One must be able (in the case of eating “meat,” for example) to eat or drink “of faith,” i.e., with a clear conscience (Rom. 14:23). A clear conscience does not make a wrong act right, but a violated conscience can make a right act (in terms of its basic nature) wrong for that individual.
Ultimate Judgment Belongs to God
No Christian has the ability to look into the heart of another child of God, and judge the motives behind his actions (1 Sam. 16:7; 1 Cor. 2:11). Hence, in many matters we must leave judgment to God, who will always do what is right (Gen. 18:25). In the ultimate reckoning, we are responsible to the Lord, not to our brethren (Rom. 14:4, 8-12, 22).
Such being the case, we are not required to conform our entire lives to the personal convictions of our less-informed kinsmen in Christ. Were that the case, we would have no church buildings, or baptisteries, or Bible classes on the Lord’s day, or Bible literature, or individual communion cups, or fully supported preachers, or corporate orphan homes, or church benevolence to non-Christian, etc. Over the years, well-meaning but misguided brethren have opposed these expediencies.
Yet, as noted earlier, we do have the responsibility not to deliberately wound their spirits and engage in public, frivolous acts that could jeopardize another person’s salvation. There is a delicate balance here, and much wisdom is required in pursuing it.
Paul was a Jew in the supreme sense of that term. His loyalty to the Mosaic system was beyond reproach. As he instructed his Jewish brethren in the more advanced elements of the gospel, he acknowledged the temporary design in the Law. His letters are filled with affirmations of the Law’s abolition. The Mosaic code provided no means of ultimate justification. One has only to read the argumentation in several of his epistles, e.g., Romans, Galatians, Ephesians, 2 Corinthians, and Colossians, to see the clear picture regarding this matter.
And yet the great apostle was ever sensitive to the spiritual needs of his Jewish brothers, exerting himself to accommodate their misunderstandings until they were able to access a richer comprehension of truth.
Though Paul knew there was no salvation associated with circumcision (Gal. 5:2, 6), he nonetheless had Timothy, a preaching companion whose father was a Gentile, circumcised so as to not be offensive to potential Hebrew converts (Acts 16:3).
He knew there was no redemptive virtue in temple ceremonialism, yet he yielded to a purification ceremony in order to defuse a volatile situation in Jerusalem (Acts 21:26). That selfless act cost him four years in prison (Acts 24:27; cf. 28:30). The apostle openly affirmed his willingness to subordinate himself to those of lesser knowledge for the sake of their souls (1 Cor. 9:19-23). What a man!
In the foregoing sections of this article, I have attempted to set forth the principles enunciated by God’s great apostle in chapter 14 of the Romans letter. Sometimes, however, it is a far more difficult task to apply the divinely-prescribed principles to real-life situations in the modern world, but a spiritually-seasoned, studious effort must be exerted in the interest of truth.
In this connection, I must say this. In far too many cases, Christian people do not want to exercise the personal study and individual analytical prowess, so as to seek wise applications for the resolution of tense Christian relationships they encounter.
Much too often, it is the case that they want to present the elders or a preacher with the “facts” of their situation, and have them hand down a decision — all neatly packaged. And when one urges them to take the biblical principles, and ferret out the applications in the best interest of all parties involved, they sometimes resist, occasionally lashing out at the one who seeks to help them grow in their study habits.
In addition, there are not a few in the church who simply cannot tolerate any degree of flexibility among brethren with whom they do not share perfect agreement (and who ever does?). Rather, they are ever poised to “write up,” “mark,” or “disfellowship” any who does not measure up to their standard. The professional “bounty hunter” cannot long survive if he is not on the trail of a victim. It is a sad state of affairs when a man is the happiest when he is flaying a brother in Christ.
But let us pose a very real example that on occasion has confronted devout Christian brothers.
A lovely family is converted to Christ from a seventh-day sect, with which they were affiliated for a number of years, and in which they were more than superficially involved. They are honest, dedicated students of the Holy Scriptures, and they soon learn that the Law of Moses, with its Sabbath obligations, is not in force today. They are convinced of such and are able to argue that case admirably.
They have a couple of problems, however. They simply cannot feel comfortable about doing yard work on Saturday; out of long habit, they prefer to reserve the day for Bible study or other primarily spiritual activities. Should they be ridiculed if they so choose? If they prefer not to attend a ballgame or some other recreational pursuit on the seventh day of the week, should not they be loved and respected?
And what if it is the case that they cannot in good conscience, at a church potluck, partake of some sister’s baked ham, or of a sportsman’s platter of fried catfish? Cannot their long-time dietary habits be regarded with honor, rather than someone suggesting how “silly” such abstinence is?
The protection of the “consciences,” of the weak is of far greater value than placating the insensitive criticisms of their Pharisaical brethren who attempt to strain out gnats while camels are lodged in their own “orthodox” throats.
May God help each of us to inhale the fragrant vapors of Romans 14, to digest the principles of this magnificent narrative, and thus be willing to divest ourselves of our petty inclinations of self-interest for the ultimate goal of a larger population in heaven. The motto of the Christian should be “compassion without compromise.”