As I studied Romans 14 today, one thing became startlingly clear:
Romans 14 is not about the law of God.
Why would I say that? Well, Paul says that he’s talking about opinions over and over in the chapter beginning even with the first verse: “As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions” (ESV). By this we know that some have weak faith, and that weak faith manifests itself in some personal opinions, and those personal opinions–because they are only opinions and not anything more significant than that–are not worth a quarrel, a split, a division, or, God forbid, despising a brother or causing him to stumble.
Paul first talks about the opinion that some feel like they can eat anything (and here I would qualify that unlawful things are never eaten, so this is not some strange new doctrine that some believe they can eat rats and scorpions or any other other thing God said we ought not eat in his holy, good, spiritual, and righteous law). On the other hand, others feel that they should pretty much stick to a vegetable diet, which means they ought not eat meats, which makes perfect sense if you believe the fence-around-the-Torah doctrine that because a pagan may have slaughtered that meat in an offering to a pagan deity, the meat is common, koine in the Greek, which means it is not to be eaten because of its association with pagans or with something that is actually unclean according to the law. Common does not mean “unclean.” This passage is not about the law concerning clean and unclean meats. This passage is not about the law.
Paul comes back to this idea of “commonness” a couple times in the passage, and he’s always talking about the personal opinions of men regarding what can and cannot be consumed:
I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean [koine, “common,” mistranslated as “unclean” in this entire verse] in itself, but it is unclean [common] for anyone who thinks it unclean [common]. (ibid. 14)
Here, Paul is saying that he’s totally convinced and knows that there is no such thing as “commonness.” There just is no such property in the universe. Nothing was created with some intrinsic property of “commonness.” However, just because God didn’t declare things “common,” that doesn’t mean that those who really do feel like their food is made “common” by its pagan association are doing something totally against Torah. All they’re doing is having an opinion about the matter, and if they do have that opinion, they better just abide by it so that they don’t end up violating their own conscience over the matter.
As advice to the strong, who, like Paul, are not convinced that there is any such thing as “commonness” when it comes to food, Paul says,
Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble. The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin. (ibid. 20-23)
He says that those of us who don’t abstain from things others would call “common” ought to keep our faith between ourselves and God. This personal opinion is a personal opinion. It has nothing to do with instructing the brethren about how we walk in faith with the Lord Yeshua ha Mashiach. It’s irrelevant. He’s telling us to let it go; it’s not worth fighting over: it just doesn’t matter.
However, there is something that matters, and what really matters is dwelling in unity, not putting a stumbling block in front of a brother, not doing something that will “grieve” a brother, not setting out to cause a brother to violate his own conscience. If a brother believes the meat or the wine has been tainted because it comes from a pagan source, then don’t drink the wine in front of that brother and don’t offer it to him and don’t get into a fight about it. Love the brother, keep your opinion to yourself, and build up the community of faith.
Incidentally, I happen to have had first-hand experience with this exact thing. When I lived in Canada, the Jewish family I lived with sponsored the lunch at the shul one Shabbat and thus sat at the front table with the rabbi. It took me a few years before I realized why the rabbi did not eat at that table that day. He knew I wasn’t Jewish, and in honor of the “commonness” doctrine, he came and spoke with us–and I remember vividly the words of faith he spoke to me, so I am not reporting this to his shame–but he did not eat with us. If I could rewind the tape, I’m sure the wine that was served was “Yavin Meshuval,” meaning it had been rendered drinkable even in the presence of a pagan because it had been heated to such a degree as to be unfit for use in pagan ceremonies. I think all wine in a synagogue is just because gentiles so often come to synagogues.
Commonness. Opinion. Romans 14 is not about the law.
Another opinion that pops up in Romans 14 has to do with esteeming (opining) that some days are better than others, also, some days are auspicious for fasts and some aren’t (ibid. 5-6). Paul tells us that if we want to have these opinions, we can have at ’em. Go for it. People can fast on a Tuesday if they think that’s a particularly good day for a fast. Some like Tuesdays in general because they’re double blessed in creation. Well, fabulous! They can honor it if they want. It’s an opinion. It doesn’t really matter either way.
What really matters, Paul reminds them, is not falling into a trap of judging one another for these opinions! God is plenty good enough at judging the thoughts of men’s hearts; he doesn’t need any help, and one person’s personal opinion–an opinion that has nothing to do with Torah or righteousness or salvation or anything–is none of their ever-loving business. Love, don’t fight, don’t judge, let it go. We’re talking about opinions, not the law of God. Opinions.
Romans 14 was on my mind because I once received a letter that said, basically, if I wanted to observe the Sabbath, I should go for it and not leave the Sunday-worshiping congregation over it because, as it says in Romans 14, we shouldn’t fight about if one person wants to esteem one day above another. This letter was written in love and humility and I give every honor to the writer as a blessed peacemaker. The problem is that Romans 14 is not about matters of Torah, and the Sabbath is not a personal opinion, it’s the holy law of God. And Romans 14 is not about the law.