In the first twelve verses of chapter 14 Paul has taught Christians in that church to stop passing judgments on each other and despising each other. Jewish Christians were condemning Gentiles Christians about eating unclean foods and not keeping the festivals of Moses. Gentile Christians were despising Jewish Christians for not eating with them, eating all foods, and for keeping the Sabbath and other feasts of Moses. They were to recognize that God had received them both and that God was the judge. Therefore, they were to welcome and accept one another, but not for the purpose of disputing over these things. Paul is going to pursue this thinking further as he directs these Christians concerning how to act over these divisive issues.
Never Put A Stumbling Block In The Way of Another Christian (14:13)
This is the key thought for this paragraph. Stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, resolve to never put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. The same Greek word is used for what is translated "pass judgment" and "decide" in the ESV in verse 13. Literally, this would read: "Therefore, let us not judge one another any longer, but rather judge to never put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother." In a sense Paul is saying that if you are going to judge, judge to never put a hindrance in your brother’s way. Stop judging one another. Determine to not be a stumbling block or a hindrance.
This is a very important principle that we also must determine to do in our lives. We need to make the Christian decision to never put a stumbling block in the way of our Christian brethren. This is one point that we find in parallel to 1 Corinthians 8-10. At the end of 1 Corinthians 8 Paul teaches that he would never eat meat again to keep his brother or sister from stumbling. In chapter 9 Paul taught that he forfeits his rights for the sake of the gospel. These points are similarly made here in Romans 14. We need to determine that we will choose not to do things when we know that such an activity is going to be a hindrance to other Christians. The question is not simply is this okay for me to do. The question is also is this something that could cause my brother or sister in Christ to engage in sin or be weak in conscience.
Do Not Grieve Your Brother (14:14-15)
Paul continues in verse 14 about his knowledge in the Lord that there is nothing clean or unclean any longer in Christ. But can you imagine how difficult this knowledge was for those who grew up in Judaism? All their lives they were rightly taught that certain foods defiled and only other foods were clean for eating. For years the conscience had been trained that these foods were unclean. Even Peter did not readily accept this when three times in a vision God said, "Rise, kill and eat." Now these Jews had become Christians. How difficult it was for them to change their eating habits from being Jews to liberated Christians. Paul knows that all foods are clean. However, for those who think the food is unclean, it is unclean. The other parallel to 1 Corinthians 8-10 is found at this point also. What another person believes is just as important as what you believe. If a person sees the food as unclean, they should not engage in eating that food. One can easily imagine the Jewish Christian knowing that the food is okay to eat, but the conscience is so strong that it will not allow that Jewish Christian to eat that meat. Rather than instructing the strong to teach the weak the truth so that they are no longer weak, Paul is calling upon the strong understand where the weak are coming from. The strong need to understand that the conscience is involved. It is not simple for them to change regarding foods.
Verse 15 capitalizes on this thought. If your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. You know you have a liberty, but you must have concern for your brother above all else. We must have the determination to not put a stumbling block in the way of any person. If you do not care that you are doing is causing a problem for another Christian, then you have a bigger problem. The bigger problem is that you are not acting with the love that Jesus commands. There may be things that I think we should do in our worship or in our gatherings. But I know that this would cause problems for other members. Should I bully them into going along with me because I have the proper understanding of the scriptures? Absolutely not. I may have beliefs concerning the scriptures that are different than the beliefs of others. Should I push them into seeing things my way? No. We are commanded to work with one another. We are commanded to be understanding about where the other person is coming from. We need to consider that the other person may have serious convictions or a trained conscience that we do not want to violate. We need to recognize that there are occasions when we need to hold back from our freedom for the sake of those whose Christian faith would be irreparably damaged by such behavior. Paul gives us a very important thought that we must continue to keep in mind: "By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died." How can we ruin the faith of another? How could we possibly live with ourselves if we ruin the faith of another? We cannot and must not use our liberties to be a hindrance to another Christian.
Seeking Unity (14:16-19)
Verse 16 lays another principle upon us. "So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil." What we do should not be something that can be criticized as evil. I think that this is spoken in terms of how other Christians perceive what we are doing. While this is a true principle for all people in that we do not want anyone to speak of the things we think as good as evil. Contextually, however, Paul is speaking about Christian relationships. We want to act in such a way so as to not cause Christians to stumble or see our good works as evil. Verse 17 continues the thought. The reason this is particularly important is because the kingdom of God is not about what we eat and drink. Righteousness, peace, and joy are far more important in God’s kingdom. The kingdom of God is not about exercising our liberties. Righteousness has been the central theme of Romans. We are pronounced justified by God through Jesus. This is what the kingdom of God is about. Further, our unity in Christ has been the other important theme in this letter. We are to be seeking peace and joy together, not destroying one another.
Ironically, Romans 14 has been a text used for division and for destroying our brethren. But we do not need to believe the same thing to have unity. I hope that this is a lesson we learn from Romans 14. Some believed in eating anything and some believed in only eating vegetables. Some observed certain days and some did not. However, these Christians can, should, and must remain in fellowship. They were not to separate from one another. They were not to destroy one another. Go back to verse 1 of the chapter. They were to welcome and accept one another in fellowship in the congregation in Rome. Notice the rest of verse 18. If you are serving Christ, then you are accepted by God and approved by men. So we must pursue peace with one another. We must pursue mutual upbuilding. In application, this means that we study the Bible together to learn from one another and come to a common faith. We discuss our differences without fear of being "blown up" or have derogatory remarks made. We need to correct things that are false or error. But we are pursuing mutual upbuilding, not the ruin of one another. We can agree to disagree with the hope of thinking about and studying each other’s position. We can welcome one another even when we do not understand all the scriptures the same.
In Summary (14:20-23)
In these final verses of this chapter (though Paul is not done with this topic as it continues into chapter 15) Paul summarizes his teachings to the Roman Christians.
- Don’t destroy the work of God for the sake of food (14:20). We do not have to wage combat over every issue or every verse. Not everything demands division. Not everything demands that we understand God’s will the same to have fellowship.
- Everything is clean, but the bigger picture is how we treat our Christian brother and sister (14:20). Paul is not saying that everything in the world is clean. Adultery is not clean. Murder is not clean. Stealing is not clean. All things are clean in terms of what Paul has been teaching about. All foods are clean. The observance of days is a matter of choice. Not only is it good not to eat or drink in an effort to keep another brother from stumbling, but we do not want to do anything that would cause another to stumble (14:21). Paul gives the answer that everything is clean, but this is not relevant. What is relevant is the faith and consciences of others.
- There are things that you can keep and practice to yourself (14:22). I think the application of Paul’s point to the Romans was that they could eat but they could do so to themselves. They did not have to try to overthrow the faith of others. They could eat in the privacy of their own homes. We can have positions on issues and verses that we can keep to ourselves. There is wisdom in keeping these things to ourselves until we can be sure of our understanding of our position. Maybe we will change our mind. Maybe we are not at a point of understanding to clearly express to others what we believe. I keep many positions to myself as I work on various issues and texts. I do not want to be the cause of another shipwrecking their faith. We have to be careful about what we teach. We have to be careful about the positions we express because we can be misunderstood so as to cause others to stumble. We can keep our positions, opinions, and persuasions to ourselves.
- Be aware of your conscience (14:22-23). What we do must come from faith, not from the compulsion of others. We need to know the word of God for ourselves. Know the scriptures and act on what you know. Do not let your faith and conscience become stagnant. Keep training your conscience. Keep teaching yourself. Keep acting on your faith.
Do not merely ask, "Is it good for me?" Ask, "Is it good for my brethren?"