The ending context of Romans 13 had us ruminating on what it means to cast off darkness and put on light. An importance is put on living for, and as, Christ. We are encouraged not to spend energy on fulfilling the lusts of our flesh, but rather to dwell in the blessings and teachings of Jesus Christ. In doing so, our priorities and the hierarchy of importance will make itself known. Chief within this hierarchy is spiritual things over the physical. Simply because people ascribe spiritual meaning to physical things does not make them spiritual things. Eating food, for example. Just like modern times, people in the first century placed spiritual importance on the things they put into their bodies.
This concept would have been familiar to both Jews and Gentiles, but especially so to Jews. There were many restrictions against the types of food and food preparation methodology in the Old Testament. Looking at these provisions from a modern perspective, it is easy to conclude that they were in place for health and safety. This includes the regulations against imbibing things such as blood and meat from hoofed animals. This was God’s way of protecting the health of his people.
Compounding these provisions for the Jews would also have been the food offered to foreign idols. Living in Rome, there were innumerable temples receiving animal sacrifices throughout the day. Some of this food would ultimately make it to the markets, where it would be sold indiscriminate of the religion of the buyer. Some Jews and early Christians would call it sin to eat the food offered to foreign idols. Others would see no issue with eating this food as the idols were nonexistent anyway, so what would it matter? Still others might realize that the idols were false but perhaps they had been converted from some pagan practices and now it was just too close for comfort to eat food offered to idols that they once worshipped.
Paul is instructing the Christians in Rome to be tolerant of the views of others and to let them live and eat in a manner that they are comfortable with. If a person violates their conscience by engaging in an activity, it does no good to force them to change just to prove that the activity is not actually sinful. To them, the knowledge that there is no sin in eating food offered to idols is enough. Their faith, just like yours, needs room to grow and understand the true context of how the spiritual interacts with the physical. We know Paul’s opinion on the matter, he feels (and I think this is right), that all things are allowable. In a companion passage to Romans 14, Paul goes into greater detail on this topic in I Corinthians 10. Within that passage, he quotes from Deuteronomy 10:14 and Psalm 24:1 alike to remind us that “the earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness.” I Corinthians 10:23-33 here for a more detailed discussion of eating/not eating to avoid violating conscience:
“All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful; all things are lawful for me, but not all things edify. Let no one seek his own, but each one the other’s well-being. Eat whatever is sold in the meat market, asking no questions for conscience’ sake; for “the earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness.” If any of those who do not believe invites you to dinner, and you desire to go, eat whatever is set before you, asking no question for conscience’ sake. But if anyone says to you, “This was offered to idols,” do not eat it for the sake of the one who told you, and for conscience’ sake; for “the earth is the Lord’s, and all its fullness.” “Conscience,” I say, not your own, but that of the other. For why is my liberty judged by another man’s conscience? But if I partake with thanks, why am I evil spoken of for the food over which I give thanks? Therefore, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Give no offense, either to the Jews or to the Greeks or to the church of God, just as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved.”
This passage makes it apparent that the issue of eating food is far less in importance than the well-being of our brethren. Everything we do should be to glory God, and if that means submitting to another’s provisions, provided they are not sinful, then may it be so. Paul reminds us that the entire goal of life is to bring others closer to Christ.
It is safe to assume that in the time of the New Testament, food safety and hygiene has improved to the point where the archaic provisions from the old law are unnecessary. And by no mistake, the theme of all things’ allowance to be eaten coincides with the idea that God’s salvation is now for all people. Recall the vision that Peter had in Acts 10:9-16. Through this vision, Peter understood that all edible things were allowable by God and that the gospel of Jesus Christ is meant for all men, everywhere. His teaching to and baptism of the Roman Centurion Cornelius’ household supports the theme.
Given all of the history around eating and food in the context of the time, we might wonder, does this bear any meaning today? Yes, it does. In modern times, there are Christians that abstain from certain foods. Primarily these are for reasons of health, but we could also confront our brothers and sisters in the faith that abstain from eating meat for more of a spiritual reason, believing that a diet of red meat is harmful to health, or that it is disingenuous to use living creatures for food. Now is where the point of this chapter should truly come alive for us. Because here Paul does not focus on what is right or wrong in the area of eating. Paul proclaims that the more important thing is to consider spiritual health; the conscience of our brothers and sisters in the faith.
It may be that one stance has deeper Biblical roots than the other. But in the big picture, there is a hierarchy of ideas in terms of our closeness to God and our faith. It is more important to God that we show tolerance to our brothers and sisters in the faith than we split hairs on a topic for which the consequences are not dire.
I must interject here that there remain many sinful ideas and topics for which tolerance should not be exercised, even among brethren. However, in God’s kingdom, in His church, as the brethren grow their faith in the Holy Word of God, these instances recede and abate as faith and knowledge grow. There is another discussion that could be had in this context, which would be to answer the question, besides eating certain foods, what other practices or principles are there whose rightness or wrongness are not as important as recognizing the conscience of our brethren? This might make for a good discussion topic for study with your own family or Bible class.
The main message of Romans 14 is to withhold judgment and “advice” in such inconsequential matters to our fellow brethren and instead to concentrate on building up one another in the faith, creating deep and lasting relationships with them; some things are more important than others. We need to see things in the proper context of the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. In some matters, considering the feelings of your brothers and sisters is more important than the “rightness” of the matter at hand.
Paul explicitly states such in verses 17-19: “for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. For he who serves Christ in these things is acceptable to God and approved by men. Therefore let us pursue the things which make for peace and the things by which one may edify another.”
In the final words of this chapter, Paul urges us to look inside. If we are looking at a brother or sister and judging them, have we also allowed the same thing for ourselves? Or do we play favorites? The most condemning aspect is the exercise of inspecting the source of our condemnation or judgment. Is the judgment of another based on our faith, or is it based on another motive? What are we truly after? Paul’s suggestion is that if we truly think and act in faith, we will not create strife for those of like faith. If our judgment or condemnation is based on a spiritual principle found in the Word of God and we are righting a wrong, we remove sin and we should be happy and give God the glory for such change. But when we openly condemn others for small matters, or, even worse, speak ill of them when they are not present, we are sowing division and hurting ourselves in the process.