“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.