Excerpt: The dispute in Romans 14 over unclean meat was not a dispute over the Law of Moses. This is confirmed by the absence of the word “Law” and by the Greek word for unclean in this chapter. The dispute was probably caused by the superstition of the weak Christians that eating meat offered to idols gave idols control over them.
Romans 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.
The word “eat” appears 6 times in these four verses. The Christian who “has faith … eat all things” (Romans 14:2), but the one that is “weak in faith” does not eat meat or drink wine (14:21). He subsisted only on vegetables (14:2). The word “judge” or related phrases appear 5 times. The Christians in Rome judged one another with respect to what they ate. This is the main issue of the entire chapter.
CONTEXT IS IMPORTANT.
Taken out of context, verse 1 may be read as saying 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. These verses inform us that the instruction in verse 1, to accept the opinions of the one that is “weak in faith”, applies to differences of opinions over matters which the Bible does not give clear guidance.
The main message of Romans 14 is that Christians should not 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 first verse, this is an instruction to the one that has faith. The responsibility to accept the opinions of the other person rests on the person that “has faith” (Romans 14:2). As we will again see later in the chapter, Paul expects the person that “has faith” to consider others before himself. Paul does not require the person that is “weak in faith” to consider the one that “has faith”.
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 over meat in Rome, therefore, did not arise because some Christians adopted the Law of Moses.
This conclusion is supported by the fact that the word “Law” does not appear even once in Romans 14, while it is very important in the other chapters; appearing 78 times in the Book of Romans.
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 differed 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)
Colossians must be important in the interpretation of Romans 14 because both Romans 14 and Colossians 2:16 are about disputes over special days and eating and drinking. One significant difference is that Romans 14 is an instruction to Christians not to judge one another, while Colossians 2:16 is an instruction to Christians not to allow people to judge them. It seems as if people outside the church were judging the Christians. A separate page discusses the nature of the Colossian deception and comes to the conclusion that an ascetic attitude in the community caused that dispute. The people criticized the Christians for their habit of feasting on particularly the special days.
Another important dispute with respect to food is found in 1 Corinthians 8 and 10. In fact, as discussed on another page, there are so many similarities between Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 and 10 that it is quite probable that the same or at least similar disputes existed in Corinth and in Rome.
The problem in Corinth was meat “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” (1 Cor. 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). 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 eating meat than to cause another’s fall (1 Cor. 8:9, 11-13).
SUMMARY – ROMANS 14:1-4
For an unmentioned reason, some of the Christians in Rome did not eat meat. The church originated as a sect of Judaism, consisting only of Jews (See Theological Implications of the Early Church). Consequently, a major problem in many churches in Paul’s day was that some Christians believed that all Christians must become Jews through circumcision and comply with the Law of Moses.
However, this was not the problem in the pagan city of Rome. The issue with meat in Rome does not seem to relate 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.
ARTICLES IN THIS SERIES
ROMANS 9 AND 11
- 1-4 – The dispute in Rome was not over the Law of Moses.
- The meaning of the word “unclean” (koinos)
- Why new Christians feared eating meat sacrificed to idols.
- 5-6 – Is the Sabbath is optional?
- 7-13 – God will judge all people by their deeds.
- 13-23 – Rather abstain from meat than causing a brother to stumble.
For a more complete description of these articles, see the List of available articles on Romans. For general discussions of theology, I recommend Graham Maxwell, who you will find on the Pineknoll website.