Romans 14: Using Freedom Responsibly

Romans 14

Having spoken of how those who enjoy the freedom of the Gospel are to live with respect to their neighbor and the society as a whole, Paul moves on in chapter 14 to how we are to serve God in public and private devotion.

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Having spoken of how those who enjoy the freedom of the Gospel are to live with respect to their neighbor and the society as a whole, Paul moves on in chapter 14 to how we are to serve God in public and private devotion.

Public devotion includes the way we worship together as the people of God. Things like orders of service, calendars, vestments, music and works of art are part of our pubic devotion. I include in private devotion things like our daily prayers, what we eat and drink, what we wear, how we use our money and possessions, and how we spend our time.

As Christians we have a great deal of freedom in all these matters. Christ and the apostles set aside the ceremonial and civil laws of the Old Testament. 

  • The sacrifices are no longer needed. They served to point to Christ who has come and whose sacrifice on the cross has supplanted them. 
  • The dietary regulations do not need to concern us, for Christ himself declared all foods clean. 
  • We are free to celebrate the festivals of the Old Testament or not as we see fit. For those who grew up with them and who understand them, they are useful for remembering God’s great acts of deliverance, but the rest of us may safely ignore them. 
  • Even the sabbath is no longer binding, though days of rest and worship remain gifts of God given for our good, omitting them is no sin.

And if we are free from the Laws of Moses, we may be certain that we are also free with regard to traditions established by men. Christ utterly rejected the oral tradition of the Pharisees because those traditions were established with the idea that those who kept them would be keeping God’s law whole and undefiled. Yet for the sake of their traditions they sacrificed the weightier matters of justice, mercy, and repentance. Things promised to God could not be used to care for aging parents. The homes of widows could be taken when they could not pay the debts of their deceased husbands. Worse, because they considered themselves as examples of righteousness, they would not repent at the preaching of John or Jesus and receive the gift of baptism. Worst of all they found themselves opposing the Son of God and demanding his crucifixion.

Just as Judaism became corrupted by traditions, at various times and in various places the Church has been corrupted. Rather than be satisfied with God’s declaration that they are righteous because of the work of Jesus Christ, those who are weak in their faith often turn to visible works and ceremonies that seem good and holy to them. They comfort themselves with these works rather than with the works of Christ. Many of these same works when done by people of faith are good and pleasing to God, but when they are done for the purpose of justifying oneself, they can prevent true repentance and detract from the glory of Christ and God who judges the motives of the heart considers them evil. 

In chapter 14 of Romans, Paul applies these principles I’ve noted to food and drink. He asks them to imagine two men. One, trust in Christ and eats anything that is put before him. The other, has scruples about eating meat and so, because of his faith, eats only vegetables. Both men serve God. The first honors God by giving thanks for whatever he receives. The second honors God by foregoing foods that other people eat. The assumption is that he does so because of his love for God.

Paul says that neither should judge the other. 

There are several ways such a situation could develop in a congregation of the early church. Many of the believers were Jews and had grown up with the dietary restrictions commanded by Moses. They would only eat meat from certain animals-cattle, sheep, goats, or deer, fish with scales, and birds. The animal also had to have been slaughtered and bled out.

In many cities it would have been difficult or impossible to obtain such meat. When Daniel was confronted with the difficulty of obtaining kosher meat during his training in Babylon, he simplified matters by eating only vegetables. Many Jews would have followed his example if they couldn’t guarantee the meat in the local market was kosher. After a lifetime of eating this way it would be difficult for them to abandon this aspect of their personal piety. Even Peter had difficulty with this. The book of Acts describes the difficulty Peter had in accepting Gentiles and eating their food. Paul says here, in essence, become preoccupied with food, eat as you always have and give thanks to God. Don’t bother to change because someone else thinks you should.

Gentiles might also choose to avoid meat because of much of it came from animals that had been sacrificed to various pagan gods. Because of the strong association with their former beliefs some of them preferred to avoid meat altogether. Their vegetarianism became a confession of their new faith. Paul says, essentially, more power to them.

But there would be some Jews and some Gentiles who would have been quite comfortable eating whatever was set before them. They knew that Christ had set aside the Old Testament dietary regulations and they had noticed that the apostles didn’t ask questions about what they ate. they did not want food to come between them and the people they were trying to reach with the Gospel. They understood that since Christ had reconciled them to God, their peace with God depended on upon the cross rather than upon the food they chose to eat, and they didn’t want food to come between them and the people they were trying to reach, .so they ate whatever was available.

All three positions were acceptable to God as long as the people were acting as they did because of their faith in Christ. As Christians redeemed by Christ, they were free to honor God in all they did, even if what they did seemed unnecessarily restrictive or overly loose to others.

These differences shouldn’t have been a problem, but they could become one, if folks began arguing about which practice was best and tried to convince or, worse yet, force others to do things their way.

So, Paul asks them to accept one another without disputes over things that God has left free.  Paul points out that anyone who went against his principles would be guilty of sin and God would also call to account the one who encouraged him to go against his conscience. Consequently, he asks that those who were comfortable eating anything, to be careful not to tempt others to abandon their principles, for in doing so they could both fall into sin. Paul placed the responsibility for adapting on the one with stronger faith. Since such a person was free to either eat or not eat, he should refrain from eating meat it might cause problems for others. When someone was present who did not eat meat he should limit himself to vegetables. The tenderloin could wait until later.

Similarly, if you have a friend who doesn’t drink alcohol, don’t cajole him or her into having a beer with you. Whether your friend is an alcoholic or simply a Christian who has been taught that it is wrong to drink, trouble will follow. Adapt your behavior to your friend, you are–after all–free. So, use your freedom responsibly. Let your friends see that you care more about them and their spiritual well-being than about something as trivial as a can of beer. 

Paul also forbids those who refrain from eating meat or drinking wine from demanding that others give up their freedom. He writes, “the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does” and “don’t allow what you consider good to be spoken of as evil.” Later, in a letter to Timothy he wrote that people who ordered others to abstain from certain foods were hypocritical liars who had abandoned the faith and exchanged it for the doctrines of demons.

The reason for this, is that when people begin to codify and then enforce such rules that limit the Christian freedom of others, they set themselves over God, who has left these things free. Further, they hide the Gospel. Christianity becomes about following human opinions instead of about repentance and faith in Christ. 

What Paul says about meat and drink applies also to other aspects of public worship and private devotion and to all manner of things for which there is no command from God. We are free to use them or not in accord with our faith. The only thing we are bound to is Christ and the salvation he has procured for us. Amen.

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