Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble. The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin (Rm. 14:20-23).
Having been raised in a traditional and oftentimes legalistic Southern Baptist setting, I have heard time and time again the verses referenced above used to prohibit the practice of almost anything under the sun. Most often, the verses of the apostle are used as an argument against the drinking of alcohol, but their uses have extended to such matters as watching R-rated movies, listening to secular music, and anything that any particular soul might view as unclean. For this reason many in the church have done precisely what the Pharisees of old had done, namely they have placed around the law a hedge that would act as a safety buffer to prevent them from doing anything that might make a brother stumble. And while such a practice can certainly be done in a godly and loving manner, more often than not those who construct such hedges around the law seek to impose those hedges on everyone in the church, thereby making themselves legalists and enforcers of a law that is not God’s law.
Those who are modern-day Pharisees in the church by and large have misinterpreted this passage and have done so for the propagation of their legalism and religion rather than for the purpose for which the apostle is writing, namely for the love of the weak brother. And for this passage to be understood rightly, our prior misconceptions about it must be tossed out and replaced with the uncorrupted purpose of the apostle, which is my aim in this post.
To understand the purpose of the apostle’s discourse, we first we must understand the context in which the apostle is giving this exhortation. For the better part of the three chapters, the apostle has been admonishing the Christians in Rome to live peaceful lives with all men. To accomplish this, the apostle exhorts the church not to seek for their own personal retribution when they are wronged (vv. 12:14-21), to submit to the governing authorities (vv. 13:1-7), to love their neighbors as themselves (vv. 13:8-14), and finally not to divide over matters of personal opinion (vv. 14:1-12). All these things are to be done so that Christians might, insofar as depends on them, live peaceably with all, both with those who are in the world and those who are in the church.
Therefore the context in which we find our present exhortation from the apostle is the context of community, of living among one another in harmony and accord. For any act that might cause a brother to stumble must be done in the presence of that brother and therefore in the context of community with that brother. The apostle reinforces this aspect of his instruction at the beginning of his present discourse by saying, “As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions” (v. 14:1). For the fellowship of the saints is to be a community of welcoming and love and not an arena for trivial debates. Therefore for a community of welcoming to exist, each brother in the fellowship must be known to such a degree that everyone in that fellowship is aware of each brother’s personal convictions. Therefore, while the fellowship of the saints is indeed a blessed gathering of God’s people for personal edification, it is also an opportunity to minister to those who are weaker in faith so that they too might grow in the knowledge and love of Christ.
What this text is not meant to be is a governor of all spheres of Christian life. For the apostle makes it clear that Christians live their lives in one of two worlds, at times in the fellowship of the saints and at others in privacy. The apostle makes this point later in his discourse: “It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble. The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God” (vv. 14:21, 22). In other words, the Christian is to live freely insofar as his conscience and company allows it, for nothing is unclean in and of itself (cf. v. 14:14). What is to be his guide as to whether or not he practices his freedom in a particular context is the persons who are in that present context and the Christian’s love for them. Therefore, if a Christian knows he is free to eat meat and does so when he is in private and with those who are like-minded and eats it with thanksgiving, he eats it to the glory of God. However, if he is in the fellowship of one whose present conviction is that the eating of meat is not honoring to God, rather than using the time of fellowship as an opportunity for debate, he should not eat meat at that time out of love and respect for his brother. The same principle can be applied to the drinking of alcohol, the watching of particular movies, the use of tobacco, etc., for over such things there is no law, and therefore God has granted to these things the freedom of conscience.
And of course one will always object, “If it is better not to practice these freedoms in the context of community, would it not be better not to practice them even in private?” This has been the conviction of many godly persons, and many have chosen never to exercise their liberties for this reason. While this can and should be lauded in those who do so out of love for their brothers, it should never be lauded in those who use this passage as propagation for their legalism. And the distinction between the two types of persons is quite apparent. The one who convicted thus out of love, foregoes his liberties privately and does not require it of others, for he recognizes that his stance is one of personal conviction. The legalist, however, trumpets his restrictions with a disposition of self-righteousness and attempts to lord his restrictions over those who do not share his convictions. The legalist would be well-advised, as the apostle advises, to keep his faith between himself and God (v. 14:22).
What then is the purpose of the apostle in this controversial discourse? His purpose is to encourage peace and harmony in the fellowship of the saints by our knowing and respecting the convictions of those in the fellowship and restricting our liberties out of love for them. What this is not is a discourse to promote legalism and Pharisaical hedge-construction, but it is one to promote love for our brothers. Therefore, as it regards personal liberties, my admonition is that of the apostle’s, namely to practice your liberty insofar as your conscience will allow it and to restrict your liberties when you know that your brother may take offense to your practicing them.
Categories: Fridy Night Bible Study