Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. 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. – Romans 14:13-23 ESV
Paul bookends this section with virtually the same words. He opens with “let us not pass judgment on one another” (Romans 14:13 ESV) and ends with “blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself” (Romans 14:22 ESV). The only difference is the one on whom the judgment is assessed. We are not to judge each other and our actions toward one another should give us no cause to judge ourselves. And in both cases, it all seems to revolve around the issue of rights. Paul used himself as an example. He declared that had the right to eat whatever he wanted, because nothing was unclean for him. Paul would have been very familiar with the teaching of Jesus. “It’s not what goes into your body that defiles you; you are defiled by what comes from your heart” (Mark 7:15 NLT). When Jesus had spoken those words, His disciples were confused, so He provided clarification. “Can’t you see that the food you put into your body cannot defile you? Food doesn’t go into your heart, but only passes through the stomach and then goes into the sewer. (By saying this, he declared that every kind of food is acceptable in God’s eyes)” (Mark 7:18-19 NLT).
So Paul, even though he was a Jew, lived his life with a new-found freedom when it came to his eating habits. He no longer lived under the dietary restrictions associated with his Jewish heritage. But he was willing to give up his rights for the sake of a brother or sister in Christ. It all goes back to the “weaker” brother narrative in the opening verses of this chapter. There will always be those in the church whose understanding of the life of faith is less developed. They will bring to their faith a certain degree of legalistic expectations, believing that what they do or don’t do is what earns them favor with God. In Paul’s day, both Jewish and Gentile believers brought their own list of restrictions to the table. There were converted Jews who still felt it necessary to maintain the dietary laws of their Jewish faith. There were also Gentile believers who felt convicted about eating meat that had been sacrificed to pagan idols. Paul had to deal with this issue in the church in Corinth. He told them, “we all know that an idol is not really a god and that there is only one God” (1 Corinthians 8:4 NLT). But he went on to say, “However, not all believers know this. Some are accustomed to thinking of idols as being real, so when they eat food that has been offered to idols, they think of it as the worship of real gods, and their weak consciences are violated” (1 Corinthians 8:7 NLT). Then Paul dealt with the real issue. “It’s true that we can’t win God’s approval by what we eat. We don’t lose anything if we don’t eat it, and we don’t gain anything if we do” (1 Corinthians 4:8 NLT). But for Paul, it all boiled down to the spiritual well-being of his brother or sister in Christ.
But you must be careful so that your freedom does not cause others with a weaker conscience to stumble. For if others see you—with your “superior knowledge”—eating in the temple of an idol, won’t they be encouraged to violate their conscience by eating food that has been offered to an idol? So because of your superior knowledge, a weak believer for whom Christ died will be destroyed. And when you sin against other believers by encouraging them to do something they believe is wrong, you are sinning against Christ. So if what I eat causes another believer to sin, I will never eat meat again as long as I live—for I don’t want to cause another believer to stumble. – Romans 4:9-13 NLT
While a certain food may be perfectly fine for him to eat, Paul was not willing to demand his rights if it was going to cause a brother in Christ to stumble by sinning against his conscience. That is why he wrote, “It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes a brother to stumble” (Romans 14:21 ESV). It is a wonderful thing to enjoy the freedom that comes with the life of faith. Our right standing with God is not based on adhering to a long list of prohibitions and restrictions. But there will always be those who don’t understand this truth. They will have strong convictions regarding what they eat or don’t eat, what they can wear or not wear, and even what activities they can participate in or abstain from.
For Paul, the final word on all of this had to do with faith. “For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23 ESV). For the immature or weaker believer, conscience ends up playing a far greater role than necessary. Rather than enjoying the freedom that comes with knowing that his standing before God is fully taken care of by the finished work of Christ, he ends up operating off of his own inner sense of right or wrong. So if his conscience tells him not to eat something and he believes it is of God, to violate that belief becomes sin for him. He becomes burdened down with guilt for having done what he believed was against the will of God. Paul says, “whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith” (Romans 14:23 ESV). So the stronger believer, rather than wearing his or her rights like a badge of honor, should love their weaker brother or sister in Christ, willingly setting aside their rights so that they might not cause a fellow believer to sin against their conscience. We are always to build up, not tear down. We are to lovingly teach and instruct one another, not boastfully and arrogantly display our rights and flaunt our freedoms in Christ. Peter summed it up well when he wrote, “Most important of all, continue to show deep love for each other, for love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:8 NLT).