Romans 14:13-23 – Rather abstain

14:13 … but rather determine this–not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way. 14:14 I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but to him who thinks anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean. 14:15 For if because of food your brother is hurt, you are no longer walking according to love. Do not destroy with your food him for whom Christ died. 14:16 Therefore do not let what is for you a good thing be spoken of as evil; 14:17 for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. 14:18 For he who in this way serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. 14:19 So then we pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another. 14:20 Do not tear down the work of God for the sake of food. All things indeed are clean, but they are evil for the man who eats and gives offense.  14:21 It is good not to eat meat or to drink wine, or to do anything by which your brother stumbles.  14:22 The faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves.  14:23 But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and whatever is not from faith is sin.


The purpose of the colours is to make it easy to recognise the main issues in the text.  The words in pink relate to eating and drinking.  It is easy to see that the main topic is eating and drinking.

The word in orange refer to clean and unclean.  In the context it refers to clean and unclean food.   Earlier in the chapter it was stated that “he who is weak eats vegetables only“.  The current verses are more specific and indicate that the problem relates to meat and wine (14:21).  Some people in that church believed that one should not eat meat because all meat is “unclean”.  But Paul indicates that “nothing is unclean in itself” (14:14) and that “all things indeed are clean” (14:20).   As discussed above, this does not refer to the unclean animals of the Old Testament, but possibly to food offered to idols.  As explained in 1 Corinthians, some Christians believed that offering food to idols contaminate the food, and that people are contaminated by eating such food.  As is also explained in 1 Corinthians, offering food to idols does not make the food unfit for Christian consumption because idols do not really exist.

Words in blue indicate the strong Christian can cause harm to weaker church members by eating such food.  But how can eating food that is thought to be “unclean” (unholy, contaminated) by some “hurt” and “destroy” a brother (14:15)?  Paul wrote “to him who thinks anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean” (14:14) and “He who doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and whatever is not from faith is sin” (14:23).  Notice the words “thinks” and “doubts”.  Obviously, Paul is not saying that a person is physically harmed by eating meat.  Rather, a person would harm himself spiritually by eating something which he thinks is unclean (contaminated).  “Sin” (14:23) should be understood as anything that harms God’s creation.  It would then be possible to argue that the “weak” brother might be tempted to follow the example of a “strong” Christian and eat food that has been offered to idols. But if he eats such food with doubt in his heart (14:23) because he believes that such food has been contaminated by idols, he might feel guilty and consequently lose faith.

In the earlier part of the chapter Paul asked the believers not to judge and despise one another because of food.  In the current verses Paul goes one step further and asks Christians not to allow food to become “a stumbling block in a brother’s way” (14:13, cf. v21).  The main principle in these verses is that the “strong” (15:1) Christian, that “has faith that he may eat all things” (14:2), must not eat if eating may harm a brother:

Rather determine this–not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way” (14:13).

if because of food your brother is hurt, you are no longer walking according to love” (14:15).

Do not destroy with your food him for whom Christ died” (14:15).

Do not tear down the work of God for the sake of food” (14:20).

It is good not to eat meat or to drink wine, or to do anything by which your brother stumbles” (14:21).

In other words, the “strong” Christians must abstain from meat, rather than to cause a brother to stumble (14:21).  Paul advises the strong Christian to have the faith, that one may eat all things, “as your own conviction before God” (14:22).  In other words, the “strong” Christian must rather keep this conviction to himself, and not mention it nor display it before the weaker brother.

It is important to notice that Paul does not require the “weak” brother” to stand back for the “strong” Christian.  He rather requires the “strong” to accommodate the opinions of the weaker brother (14:21-22).  This principle is made particularly clear by the first verses of the next chapter;

We who are strong ought to bear the weaknesses of those without strength and not just please ourselves” (15:1)

Lastly, notice that the “kingdom of God is … righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit”.

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Food offered to Idols

1 Corinthians 8 and 10 might explain why the “weak” Christians in Rome (Romans 14) did not eat meat.  The problem in Corinth was similar to the one in Rome (Romans 14):

  1. In both the problem is both meat and what people drink (Rom 14:1, 21; 1Co 8:13; 10:31).
  2. In both, “everything” is allowed (Rom 14:14, 20; 1 Cor. 10:23).
  3. In both, the person that eats meat gives thanks to God and eats without guilt (Rom 14:6; 1 Cor. 10:26, 30).
  4. Both refer to the “weak” brother (1Cor 8:7, 9-12; Rom. 14:1) in contrast to the more mature Christian.
  5. In both, Paul warns the person that “has faith” that eating meat can “become a stumbling block to the weak” (1Cor 8:9, 13; Rom. 14:13, 20-21).
  6. In both, Christ’s disciples are urged to consider others before themselves (Rom 15:1, 2; 1 Cor. 10:24, 33). This is, in fact, the main message of Romans 14. Paul summarizes the whole thrust of the passage by these words, “Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to edify him” (Rom. 15:2).
  7. In both, the appeal is to abstain rather than to cause another’s fall (Rom 14:1, 21; 1 Cor. 8:9, 11-13). Paul’s plea is for the more mature Christian to consider his weak brethren before himself.

Corinthians may therefore explain why meat was regarded by some in the church in Rome as “unclean” (koinos) and thus to be avoided.  The problem in Corinth was not meat per se, but the association of meat with idol worship.  Most of the available meat in the city has been “sacrificed to idols” (8:1; 10:19).  The strong “know that there is no such thing as an idol” (8:4), and were able to dine in an idol’s temple (8:10) without misgivings.  But some of the Gentiles who had been converted from idolatry were still “weak” (8:9) and bound by superstitious beliefs that idols obtained power over them through the meat. They ate meat “as a thing offered to an idol” (8:7).

This made eating meat “a stumbling block to the weak” (1Cor 8:9, 13).  The “weak” brother that sees another Christian eating in an idol’s temple might be tempted to do the same (8:10) and he might be ruined thereby (8:11), because for him eating meat is idol worship (8:7).  For that reason Paul urged the more mature Christian to consider others before himself (1 Cor. 10:24, 33) and to rather abstain from meat than to cause another’s fall (1 Cor. 8:9, 11-13).

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Next: Romans 14:5-6

Romans 14:1-4

Rom. 14:1 Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions. 14:2 One person has faith that he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats vegetables only. 14:3 The one who eats is not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat, and the one who does not eat is not to judge the one who eats, for God has accepted him. 14:4 Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.


These verses contrast the Christian that “has faith” (14:2) with the one that is “weak in faith” (14:1).  The Christian who “has faitheat all things” (14:2), but the one that is “weak in faith” does not eat meat or drink wine (14:21), and subsisted only on vegetables (14:2).  This is the main topic of the entire chapter.

Verse 1, taken out of context, may be misleading.  Taken out of context, verse 1 means that the Christian that is “weak in faith” must be accepted, with all of his “opinions”; whatever they may be.  It may even be construed to mean that a person’s destructive habits (those things that we call sin) must be merely accepted.  This would not be consistent with the Bible message in general.  Therefore the context of verse 1 is important.  Verse 1 takes on meaning when explained by verses 2 to 4, informing us that the instruction in verse 1, to accept the opinions of the one that is “weak in faith”, applies to opinions about eating meat.  The principle in verse 1 must be limited to eating meat and similar opinions.

The main message of Romans 14 is that Christians should not to judge one another in these matters.  Note the words “accept” (14:1), “passing judgment” (14:1), “regard with contempt” (14:3) and “judge” (14:3, 4).  The one that “is weak in faith” (14:1) and therefore “eats vegetables only” (14:2) should not judge the one that “has faith” (14:2) and therefore “eat all things” (14:2).  But as indicated by the opening verse, the responsibility to accept the opinions of the person that is “is weak in faith” (14:1) rests even more heavily on the person that “has faith” (14:2).  As we will again see later in the chapter, Paul expects the person that “has faith” to consider others before himself; not the other way round.

It is not clear why some Christians in Rome believed that they should not eat meat.  The Law of Moses does not declare meat in general as unclean and does not prohibit eating meat in general.  This dispute around meat in Rome therefore did not arise because some Christians adopted the Law of Moses.  This is supported by the fact that the word “Law” does not appear even once in chapter 14, while it is very important in the other chapters; appearing 78 times in 50 verses.

The word ‘koinós’ (unclean) used in verse 14 further confirms that the problem in Rome did not relate to the Law of Moses.  This word is discussed on a separate page, where it is shown that it is different from the word used in the Old Testament for unclean animals.  It is also shown that this word is used several times in the New Testament for many things that do not relate to the Old Testament laws.  ‘Koinós’ is sometimes translated “common” and “unholy”.  In other words, it refers to something that God’s people, being set apart for God, should not come in contact with, because it will defile them.  Many movies can, for instance, be described as “common” or “unholy”.

This dispute in Rome therefore had some other origin; some human made rules either from the Jewish traditions or from some heathen practices:

The Gentiles which Paul won to Christianity came with their baggage and beliefs.  They believed what Paul taught them, but were also still partly bound by their previous beliefs.

Similarly the Jewish Christians also clung to some of their previous belief systems, and certain Jewish sects promoted vegetarianism.  It is interesting that, according to Eusebius (HE 2, 23, 5, NPNF 2nd, I, p. 125), James, the Lord’s brother, “was holy from his mother’s womb; and he drank no wine nor strong drink, nor did he eat flesh”.

Issues with respect to food were not limited to the church in Rome.  A similar issue existed at Ephesus, since Paul warns Timothy against those:

who forbid marriage and enjoin the abstinence from foods” I Tim. 4:3).

And to the Colossians Paul wrote:

… no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day” (Col. 2:16)

If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why … do you submit yourself to decrees, such as, “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” (Col. 2:20-21)?

Another important dispute with respect to food is found in 1 Corinthians 8 and 10.  In fact, as discussed on another page, there are such a large number of similarities between Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 and 10 that it is quite probable that the same or at least a similar dispute existed in Corinth and in Rome.

The problem in Corinth was meat that was “sacrificed to idols” (8:1; 10:19).  For the “strong” (15:1) believers this was no big deal because they “know that there is no such thing as an idol” (8:4).  They were able to eat meat (8:10) without misgivings.  But for some of the Gentiles that had been converted from idolatry—still being weak in faith—this was a problem (8:9). They were still bound by superstitious beliefs that idols obtained power over them through the meat (8:7).  This made eating meat “a stumbling block to the weak” (1Cor 8:9, 13).  The “weak” brother that sees another Christian eating in an idol’s temple might be tempted to do the same (8:10), and he might be ruined thereby (8:11), because for him eating meat is idol worship (8:7).  For that reason Paul urged the more mature Christian to consider others before himself (1 Cor. 10:24, 33) and to rather abstain from meat than to cause another’s fall (1 Cor. 8:9, 11-13).

In summary, for an unknown reason some of the Christians in Rome did not eat meat.  The church originated as a sect of Judaism.  Consequently a major problem in many churches in Paul’s time was that some of Christians believed that all Christians must become Jews through circumcision.  That means Christians must comply with the Law of Moses.  However, this was not the problem in Rome.  The issue with meat in Rome does not seem to be related to the Law of Moses.  As indicated by the many similarities with the meat-problem in Corinth (1 Corinthians 8 and 10), the issue in Rome possibly was that Gentile Christians, being converted from idolatry, and not yet strong in the faith, still believed that meat offered to the idols gave idols control over them.  Therefore they did not eat meat.  This caused division in the church between those that ate meat and those that did not.  Paul’s message is that they should not criticize one another.  He also asked the more mature Christian to consider others before himself and to abstain from eating meat, rather than to cause spiritual injury to their weaker brothers.

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Next: Koinós