In Romans chapter 14, Paul warns us of the danger of criticism and uses the example food throughout the chapter. Now, it is important to remember that he is talking to the Roman church who is made up of Jews and Gentiles alike and is hitting on issues that many of the Jews had because of their deep-rooted traditions and way of living before Jesus came along and changed everything. They no longer have to live under the Jewish laws such as not eating meat that would have been offered to idols. The ancient system of sacrifice was at the center of the religious, social, and domestic life of the Roman world. After a sacrifice had been presented to a god in a pagan temple, only part of it was burned. The remainder was often sent to the market to be sold. So, a Christian could easily, and even unknowingly buy such meat in the marketplace or eat it at the home of a friend.
Paul opens the chapter with these verses, “Accept other believers who are weak in faith, and don’t argue with them about what they think is right or wrong. For instance, one person believes it’s all right to eat anything, but another believer with a sensitive conscience will eat only vegetables. Those who feel free to eat anything must not look down on those who don’t. And those who don’t eat certain foods, must not condemn those who do, for God has accepted them.”
What is weak faith? Here, Paul is talking about immature faith that has not yet developed the muscles it needs to resist external pressures. In these verses, both people are acting according to their consciences, but neither one of them is wrong. And these preferences that they each have do not need to be made into rules for the church. Now, there are certainly some issues that are central to our faith. Tim and I often refer to these as “salvation issues,” and these issues are worth fighting for. There are other issues however, that are based on preferences, these we call “non-salvation issues.” I know. That second one is creative, right? Our goal as Christians should be unity in the salvation issues!
So, who is weak in faith and who is strong? Well, I think if we are being honest, we all have our weaknesses in some areas and strengths in others. It’s essential to be self-aware of what our weakness are in order to protect ourselves from sin or from bringing spiritual harm. Whenever in doubt there are two questions we can ask ourselves: 1) Can I do this without sinning? and 2) Can I influence others for good without being influenced BY them?
Paul then moves into the condemnation side of his argument in verse 10 and 12-13, he writes “So why do you condemn another believer? Why do you look down on another believer? Remember we all stand before the judgment seat of God…yes, each of us will give a personal account to God. So let’s stop condemning each other. Decide instead to live in such a way that you will not cause another believer to stumble and fall.” Ultimately each person is accountable to Christ, not each other. When we stand before God, He will not ask about your sister, your neighbor, or the person who sits next to you at church. He will ask about YOU. And while the church should be uncompromising on its stand against things expressly forbidden by Scripture, we must not create additional rules and regulations and bring them to the same level as the Word of God. In verses 15 it says, “And if another believer is distressed by what you eat, you are not acting in love if you eat it. Don’t let your eating ruin someone for whom Christ died.” and verses 17-19 say, “For the Kingdom of God is not a matter of what we eat or drink, but of living a life of goodness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. If you serve Christ with this attitude, you will please God, and others will approve of you too. So then, let us aim for harmony in the church and try to build each other up.” Paul wants his readers to be both strong in the faith and sensitive to others’ needs.
A great example of this goes back to Acts chapter 15 when at the Jerusalem council, the Jewish church in Jerusalem asked the Gentile church in Antioch not to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols. Paul was at this council, and he accepted this request, not because he felt that eating this meat was wrong, but because this practice would deeply offend many Jewish believers. Paul did not think it was worth dividing the church over and his desire was to promote unity. His practice was to honor, as much as possible, the convictions of others.
This example leads perfectly back into verses 20 and 21, “Don’t tear apart the work of God over what you eat. Remember all foods are acceptable, but it is wrong to eat it if it makes another person stumble. It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything else if it might cause another believer to stumble. You may believe there’s nothing wrong with what you are doing but keep it between yourself and God.” As Christians we are all part of a living, interconnected community. As we seek Kingdom priorities we should build good relationships with others, seek unity in the faith, and find the joy given by the Holy Spirit. Because we are called to be interdependent and not independent, everything we do affects others, including our sin.
We end with verse 23, “But if you have doubts about whether or not you should eat something, you are sinning if you go ahead and do it. For you are not following your convictions. If you do anything you believe is not right, you are sinning.” We definitely try to steer clear of actions forbidden by Scripture, but on some issues, Scripture is just silent. At those times, we should follow our convictions. When Paul says, “If you do anything that you believe is not right, you are sinning,” he means that to go against a conviction you have would lead you to have a guilty or uneasy conscience. When God shows us that something is wrong for us, we should avoid it. But we should not judge or criticize other Christians for their freedom in those areas.
As believers, we are called to accept one another without judging our differences of opinion. But when a situation has to be faced, how should we deal with those who disagree with us? Paul’s response to that was in verse 19. No matter the issue, we must act in love to one another in order to keep peace in the church. Let me challenge you to think of the last time you had a disagreement with another believer on a matter of conviction. Was your response loving or judgmental? Should you have handled it differently? I know for me, I want to recommit to thinking before I respond when it comes to these issues and to make sure that I am speaking out of love with unity and peace in mind.