Romans chapter 14
Now let's turn to Romans 14. This passage of scripture is commonly used to show that we now have the freedom in Christ to eat anything and worship as we see fit. It is a “proof-text” for our freedom from certain commandments found in the Mosaic Law concerning food, as well as ceremonial laws such as keeping the Sabbath and festivals. As we have done previously, we will examine the context and see what Paul is talking about to determine if this was his teaching.
Verse one establishes the context. The passage reads, “As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions.”
A key to understanding this passage is found in the last word of this first verse: opinions. An opinion is a personal view or judgment about something, not necessarily based on fact, and not accepted by all. That is why opinions are often subject to much quarreling. There are opinions, debated and argued over, and then there are facts. With a well-established fact, there is no quarreling. It is accepted to be true. In the early church (as in the church today), there were both opinions and facts. Facts would include the existence of the one true God, the sending of his Son, and his corresponding death, burial, and resurrection. What Paul says in chapter 14 is regarding opinions in the church, not facts. As we study this further, we will get a clearer idea of what these opinions entailed.
Beginning in verse two, Paul begins to outline the problem. Some were content to eat anything, while others would only eat vegetables. Does eating “anything” mean eating “anything?” The Greek word translated “anything” is πᾶς (pas) which literally means anything. But, of course, we know that they were not literally eating anything, such as poisonous plants or human corpses. No, there is a larger context under which we need to operate. People have taken this pas to mean that God's food laws were done away with, that we can now eat anything, but the context says nothing about God's food laws anymore than it indicates that the Romans were permitted to be cannibals.
So what exactly was Paul saying? What was the situation that he was addressing? To start, we need to honestly say, along with many Roman scholars such as Moo and Dunn, that we simply don't know for sure what was going on as Paul does not detail the situation. What we do know is this: Paul is clearly addressing some type of man-imposed laws governing eating, and specifically these laws concern whether or not one should eat meat or only vegetables. Consider what Dunn says:
Which food laws were in mind is not made clear. The Jewish law of clean and unclean foods did not, of course require vegetarianism. There were also the kosher laws to be considered . . . and probably more important in a diaspora environment was the fear of eating food tainted by idolatry (801, emphasis ours).
We know that Paul addresses this issue in his first letter to the Corinthians, in chapters eight through ten. First Corinthians eight reads as follows:
Now concerning food offered to idols: we know that “all of us possess knowledge.” This “knowledge” puffs up, but love builds up. If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not yet know as he ought to know. But if anyone loves God, he is known by God. Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that “an idol has no real existence,” and that “there is no God but one.” For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many “gods” and many “lords”— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled. Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.
1 Corinthians 8
v. 1: Those who imagine they possess knowledge
v. 1: Don't quarrel over opinions
v.7: The “weak” person's conscience is defiled when they eat food sacrificed to idols
v. 2: Refers to the weak person who can only eat vegetables
v. 8: Food does not commend us to God
v. 17-18: The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking; rather, whoever serves Christ is acceptable to God
v. 9: You who do eat meat sacrificed to idols (knowing that an idol is nothing), be careful that you are not a stumbling block to the weak
v. 13: Do not put a stumbling block in the way of your brother by eating what he considers unclean.
v. 11-12: By eating meat sacrificed to idols, you may destroy the brother for whom Christ died. You may sin against and ruin the conscience of your weaker brother.
v. 15: Do not grieve your brother by what you eat; do not destroy the one for whom Christ died
The connections here are quite significant, giving good grounds to say that Paul is addressing in Rome a similar issue to what he was addressing in Corinth: whether or not it was okay to eat meat that may have been sacrificed to idols, especially concerning the weak versus the strong.
This, then, is most-likely the context in which some believers decided only to eat vegetables (to avoid eating meat that may have been sacrificed to idols), whereas other believers felt the freedom to eat meat. Paul is careful to tell those who differ in opinion on the matter, not to pass judgment on each other (3-4, 13), but rather to be careful not to be a stumbling block and cause their brother to fall.
As a side note, if the issue were regarding whether or not it is acceptable to eat unclean foods such as pork, then strict vegetarianism would not have been the solution. The reason vegetarianism was encouraged by some was because one could not tell if the meat had been sacrificed to an idol or not, so some thought it was best to avoid meat all together. If the issue instead were God's food laws found in the Mosaic Law, it would not be necessary to eat only vegetables. One would simply need to avoid pork. The difference between pork and “clean” meats such as beef are noticeable by sight and taste. You wouldn't accidentally eat pork as you might accidentally eat meat that had been used in idol worship.
So, when in verse 14 Paul says that “there is nothing unclean in itself,” is he overruling the Creator who specifically outlined what was and was not intended for food? No, in the context, Paul is saying that meat which may have been sacrificed to idols is not unclean in itself. Thus, meat (so long as it conforms to the Torah's guidelines of what is meat) is acceptable to eat, and we don't need to worry about whether or not it has been used in a pagan worship service. We don't need to inquire as to its source, because inquiring means that we give it significance. However, First Corinthians 10:14-22 indicates that if we know the meat has been used in idolatry, then we should abstain. Partaking in the food of the altar makes us in communion, or in unity, with the god of that altar, and specifically, with the demon(s) associated with that god.
What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons. Shall we provoke the Lord to jealousy? Are we stronger than he? (1 Corinthians 10:19-22)
If people use the phrase “there is nothing unclean in itself,” to mean we have freedom to override God's food laws, what might they do with the phrase found in First Corinthians ten which states “All things are lawful” (23)? Are all things lawful? Is murder lawful? Is adultery lawful? By no means! Context is key! And interestingly, the context of First Corinthians ten is the same as that of First Corinthians eight discussed above and, arguably, Romans 14:
“All things are lawful,” but not all things are helpful. “All things are lawful,” but not all things build up. Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor. Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. For “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.” If one of the unbelievers invites you to dinner and you are disposed to go, eat whatever is set before you without raising any question on the ground of conscience. But if someone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for the sake of conscience (1 Corinthians 10:23-28).
Further, we know that the Roman believers would have been searching the scriptures (which at that time was what we know as the Old Testament) to test and confirm what Paul taught. Dunn reminds us that:
Paul, in writing to the Christian groups in Rome can evidently assume that knowledge of the OT in its Greek version would be well enough known. But knowledge of the OT within the ancient world was confined almost wholly to Jewish and Jewish-derived communities: the LXX is not known in Greco-Roman literary circles (cf Collins, Athens, 4). Consequently to be able to assume such a knowledge of the scriptures as Paul does in Romans he would have to assume that his readership by and large had enjoyed a substantial link with the synagogues in Rome (L).
Now these Jews were more noble than those in Thessalonica; they received the word with all eagerness, examining the Scriptures daily to see if these things were so (Acts 17:11).
For behold, the LORD will come in fire, and his chariots like the whirlwind, to render his anger in fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire. For by fire will the LORD enter into judgment, and by his sword, with all flesh; and those slain by the LORD shall be many. Those who sanctify and purify themselves to go into the gardens, following one in the midst, eating pig’s flesh and the abomination and mice, shall come to an end together, declares the LORD. For I know their works and their thoughts, and the time is coming to gather all nations and tongues. And they shall come and shall see my glory (Isaiah 66:15-18, emphasis ours).
What About Esteeming One Day Over Another?
Paul spends the majority of chapter 14 addressing this issue of meat versus vegetables. However, he does spend a couple verses discussing honoring certain days over others. Connected to the food issue, Paul addresses the idea of esteeming one day better than another or esteeming all days alike. Again, many people believe this passage refers to freedom from keeping God's Sabbath and festivals. But is that what the text says?
First, notice that neither the Sabbath, nor any festivals are mentioned. What is mentioned is humans esteeming one day over another. How did people esteem one day over another? In whatever manner they did so, we know it was a manner which could be classified as opinion. And as we argued above, it is a far-stretch to call God's commandments “opinions.” So what in that context could be classified as opinion? Consider this: it is well known that Pharisees fasted twice per week, usually Monday and Thursday. This is confirmed both by the New Testament writings (remember the prayer of the Pharisee in Luke 18:12: “I fast twice a week.”) as well as the Didache (an early church document dated by most scholars to be from the late first century AD) which states, “Your fasts should not be with the hypocrites, for they fast on Mondays and Thursdays. You should fast on Wednesdays and Fridays” (Didache 8:1). Interestingly, from the Didache, we see not only that Pharisees fasted on certain days of the week, but that fasting among the early Christians was also a common practice, and that certain days (Wednesday and Friday) were set aside by some for the purpose of fasting. Thus, these days were “esteemed.” But, is fasting on these particular days mandated by God in the scriptures? No, and thus it falls under the realm of opinion.
Fasting on a certain day is a means by which one esteems one day over another. Is it wrong to fast twice a week? No. Is it necessary to fast twice a week? No. It is a matter of opinion, just as Paul states in verse one. If those in Rome wanted to esteem a day for fasting, does that mean that they were better? Some apparently might think so, but Paul puts an end to that argument. Paul clearly says that those who esteem the day, esteem it to the Lord, and those who do not esteem the day, to the Lord they do not esteem it.
There is absolutely no evidence that this applies to God's festivals. There is no mention of the Sabbath, nor the festivals in this passage. Furthermore, as stated above, we can assume that the Roman church would have tested Paul's teaching against the firm foundation of scripture and would have seen passage upon passage speaking of the importance and blessing of keeping God's Sabbath and festivals. These passages are found not only in the Torah, but in the prophets as well. Moreover, there are passages that speak of their future significance. Consider Isaiah 56:6-8 where Isaiah speaks to the foreigners who attach themselves to the covenant of God and keep his Sabbaths. They will be brought into God's house of prayer (cited by Jesus in Matthew 21:13) at the time when the regathering of Israel occurs (8). Consider again Isaiah 66:22-23, which speaks of the end of days when the Messiah is reigning:
For as the new heavens and the new earth that I make shall remain before me, says the LORD, so shall your offspring and your name remain. From new moon to new moon, and from Sabbath to Sabbath, all flesh shall come to worship before me, declares the LORD (emphasis ours).