John Child, GWC lecturer, Christian Doctrine; Ethics; Pastoral Studies
BA (Rhodes), Dip Th (BISA), BD Hons (London), MTh (UNISA).
One of the main reasons Paul wrote Romans was to address the Jew-Gentile issue, particularly in Romans 9-11 and 14-15, though we see this throughout the early chapters as he expounds his gospel to elicit their support for his mission to Spain (Romans 15:24, 28).
Here Paul doesn’t speak of Jew and Gentile but of the strong and the weak. It is most likely that the weak were mainly Jews who were real Christians but still attached to the dietary laws and the Jewish calendar, though not as a means to salvation, like the Judaizers of Galatians. The strong were mainly Gentiles. Paul sees himself as part of the strong (Romans 15:1).
That Paul doesn’t speak explicitly of Jews and Gentiles signifies that this is more than a Jewish-Gentile problem. It is universal. It applies to us! What we learn here is how to handle strong and lasting differences between Christians that are not a matter of heresy or unethical conduct.
Notice what Paul does not do. He doesn’t try to convince the weak that under the New Covenant there is no need to keep a kosher diet or celebrate certain days that were a shadow of the reality that had now come. Nor does he use his apostolic authority to force behavioural conformity. These are not gospel issues. Difference is acceptable.
Paul’s advice is simple: the strong person who eats everything must not look down on the one who in faith only eats vegetables. And the one who doesn’t eat everything must not condemn the one that does. Why? Because God has accepted him. Who are we to judge another servant of Christ? (Romans 14:1-4)
Paul gives a second example of ‘disputable matters’: one considers one day of the week more sacred than another; another considers every day the same. Each should be fully convinced in his own mind. The implication is, don’t just follow tradition: examine your distinctive beliefs and behaviour. Are they really biblical?
Paul’s answer to the dispute about days and diet is magnanimous: the one who keeps one day as special, does so to the Lord. The one who eats meat, eats to the Lord, giving thanks to God. The one who abstains from meat, abstains to the Lord. For we do not live for ourselves alone but for the Lord. (Romans 14:5-8)
Remember that Christ died for both the strong and the weak and so is their Lord. If so, who are we to judge our brother or look down on our sister? We will all stand before God’s judgment seat and give an account of ourselves to God. Therefore we must stop judging other Christians. Christ is their judge (Romans 14:9-14, cf. Acts 17:3).
Paul now deals with the issue of clean and unclean food, a Jewish Christian concern. He’s fully convinced that no food is unclean (cf. Mark 7:19: ‘Jesus declared all foods clean’). But if a Christian thinks some food is unclean, then to him it is unclean (Romans 14:23). Paul issues a strong warning: 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 (Romans 14:15). That is key: we must always act in love, always consider the effect of our behaviour on other Christians (cf. 1 Corinthians 8). We restrict our freedom and forsake our rights for the sake of other Christians for whom Christ died.
Finally, we must remember that ‘the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit’. Therefore let us ‘make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. 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 (Romans 14:17, 19-21).