“Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things. For one believes he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats only vegetables. Let not him who eats despise him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats; for God has received him. Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand.” Rom 14:1-4
Now the letters Paul wrote, which we have preserved in the New Testament, are not actually stand- alone letters. They were written in response to letters sent to him by the new churches – or else to reports given to him by brothers coming to and from the churches. We only have his replies; we do not have the original letters, so we can only guess, from clues in his reply, what the question was that he was expounding on in his response.
Because we only have half the equation, it is even easier than usual to make a wrong assumption about the topic under discussion. I mean, we saw how easy it was to make a wrong assumption about the topic under discussion from the Gospels when we thought Jesus was discussing clean and unclean food, and in that case we had all the facts up front. So in the Epistles we need to be even more careful because we do not have all the facts up front. We need to be sure that our assumption and the conclusions drawn from our assumption harmonizes with the rest of Scripture.
In this case, we know first off, that there was a dispute in the church over how different believers were handling doubtful things. “Doubtful things” is the key phrase. It means that the church was facing an issue which was not clearly spelled out in Scripture already. We know, because what was already clearly spelled out in Scripture would not have been doubtful, right? The dispute was in a gray area.
The Scripture these believers had was the Old Testament only. The New Testament did not exist yet. The believers did not throw away the Old Testament because Jesus had risen from the dead. In fact, the Old Testament was what they used to determine their faith and practice.
Now, what was clean and unclean FOOD was already clearly defined in the Old Testament (Lev 11, Deu 14). This was not a gray area. That the issue concerned food in some way, we know. But was the question whether the food the Old Testament defined as “clean” and “unclean” in dispute? No, the dispute was not over that question. That question was not a doubtful thing. That question was not a gray area.
Another clue is given to us in verse 2: one person, on one side of the dispute, believes he can eat all things, while another person, on the other side of the dispute, the weak side of the dispute, eats only vegetables. Again in verse 21, Paul admonishes his hearers to not eat meat … if it makes a brother weak. I do not believe the issue was which meat was clean or unclean … but whether a person should eat vegetables and meat (all things), or vegetables only. Meat was on one side of the dispute, and vegetables on the other.
Now lest we jump to a conclusion, and decide that they were having a discussion about the righteousness of being a vegetarian (that would be applying our time and culture to the text, instead of reading the text from the time and culture it was written), there was a meat- eating issue the early Church grappled with in their time and culture, that is not addressed in Scripture (the Old Testament), thus it would be a true gray area.
In order to understand the problem, you have to understand what it was like to live in the Roman Empire outside of Judea and Samaria in the first century. The cities abounded with temples to pagan gods like we have churches on every street corner in America. Sacrifices flowed into the temples. When an animal was sacrificed, what was left (after the worshiper took his portion) was sold to the butcher shops. Every butcher shop in the Empire procured its meat in this way.
So a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ entered a butcher shop, bypassed the pork and rabbit automatically, looking for a good chicken or a haunch of beef. But wait … that chicken, that bull, has been sacrificed in a pagan rite by a pagan priest to a pagan god in a pagan temple. Does the believer buy it and eat it? If he did, would he be honoring the idol to which it had been sacrificed?
The question was not, was it ethical to eat animals (that is a question our own time and culture would impose). The question was not, is it okay to eat pork now (that is a question clearly addressed in Scripture and therefore not a doubtful thing). The question was, are we committing idolatry if we eat a leg of lamb purchased in a butcher shop? That was a true gray area issue.
“I know and am convinced by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself; but to him who considers anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean. Yet if your brother is grieved because of your food, you are no longer walking in love. Do not destroy with your food the one for whom Christ died. Therefore do not let your good be spoken of as evil; 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.” Rom 14:14-18
Now is this proof that the clean and unclean food division has been done away with? It would be, IF that assumption was confirmed by the rest of Scripture. If it is not, then we have not arrived at the proper understanding of the verse. But Paul himself does not confirm it, for he reiterates that Scripture has declared some things unclean in other places in his letters:
“Therefore God also gave them up to uncleanness, in the lusts of their hearts, to dishonor their bodies among themselves,” … Rom 1:24
“I speak in human terms because of the weakness of your flesh. For just as you presented your members as slaves of uncleanness, and of lawlessness leading to more lawlessness, so now present your members as slaves of righteousness for holiness.” Rom 6:19
“And what agreement has the temple of God with idols? For you are the temple of the living God. As God has said: “I will dwell in them and walk among them. I will be their God, and they shall be My people.” Therefore “Come out from among them and be separate, says the Lord. Do not touch what is unclean, and I will receive you. I will be a Father to you, and you shall be My sons and daughters, says the LORD Almighty.” Therefore, having these promises, beloved, let us cleanse ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness in the fear of God.” 2 Cor 6:16-17:1
“… lest, when I come again, my God will humble me among you, and I shall mourn for many who have sinned before and have not repented of the uncleanness, fornication, and lewdness which they have practiced.” 2 Cor 12:21
In light of the these Scriptures, obviously the interpretation of Rom 14:14 is not that all things are now clean, for he believes that those things which the Scripture has declared to be unclean, are unclean — it is from the Scripture that he is getting his definition of what constitutes uncleanness and all filthiness of the flesh. And that is the key: it is not what Scripture clearly defines as unclean that is now clean in and of itself. But all things that man might declare to be unclean, are clean in an of itself. If a thing was intrinsically unclean, Paul is saying, God would have declared it to be so.
Why didn’t Paul just say so in the first place, and not leave himself open to misunderstanding? He was answering a specific question addressed to him by the church at Rome. He could not have known that their letter would have been lost, and his preserved, and used to prove the immutable Word of God contained in the Old Testament passed away 2000 years later.