Matters Of Conscience


Another part of Romans which has been widely misunderstood is Romans 14. Many believers read this chapter and go away believing that through Yeshua, God has gotten rid of the dietary laws of Leviticus 11 and the Biblical Sabbath day. Many believe that these are just matters of conscience. We will take a deeper look at this and a few other similar passages to see if we can find out what Paul was actually saying.

In the chapters leading up to this one, Paul had been dealing with the issue of sincere love for our brother (Romans 12:9, 14-21; 13:8-10). Now he applies these to a specific situation that was going on in the community at Rome. Apparently there had arisen some type of dispute about certain eating habits and holy days. 

He begins by saying, “As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions” (verse 1). In confronting this issue, his main point is that all things should be done with a commitment to love our neighbor and seek his good. When he refers to weakness and strength, he is referring to the measure of faith each believer possesses. It is important to note that this is not an issue of one group being right and another wrong, but it is a question of “opinion,” or as some translations put it, “disputable matters.” 

Now we arrive at the two sides of the debate in question: “One person has faith that he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats vegetables only” (verse 2). Who are these two groups, and what are the reasons behind their diet choices? The traditional argument claims that this was an issue between those who still followed the kosher laws (the weak in faith who only ate vegetables) and those who realized that these laws were no longer important.

The two sides of the debate are not necessarily distinguished ethnically, that is, Jews on one side and Gentiles on the other. As we will see, the issue is more complex than that and is grounded in the culture and religion of both Jewish and Gentile believers in a pagan world. 

One thing that is worth reiteration as we proceed is that the topic of this debate is considered a matter of opinion. Surely a matter of following a commandment wouldn’t be considered simply a difference of opinion to Paul. One way or another, if this issue had some solid conclusion based on Scriptural fact, then Paul would have been much more firm in his language, as this is what he does throughout his epistles. In keeping with the traditional understanding of Paul, if he had indeed been adamant against believers keeping Torah, in this case kosher laws, then we would surely expect him to be much more severe in condemning anyone eating only vegetables in order to avoid breaking kosher, and while we have seen that this interpretation of Paul is incorrect, we must point out the inconsistent logic it applies to this passage. On the contrary, we have seen Paul tell us that those who follow God subject themselves to the Torah (Romans 3:31, 8:7). With this in mind, we can confidently assert that this dispute is not related to the kosher laws in the Torah. So what was the problem?

The problem, in short, was Rome itself. Idolatry filled every aspect of life to the point where even food sold in the marketplace was often offered to idols by dedicating a portion of the item to the idol, then selling the rest in the market. Judaism considered food sacrificed to idols “defiled,” as we see exemplified in Daniel 1:8-12. Daniel knew that portions of the meat and wine of the king would have been involved in pagan offerings, so he refused to partake of it, and God blessed him for it. This stance on food was passed on to the new Gentile believers in the Jerusalem council (Acts 15:20). Because of this, apparently some members of the community, whether Jew, Gentile, or a mix thereof, had become so afraid of accidentally consuming such food that they chose to refrain from meat entirely. The other group felt safe to eat “all things.” Being able to eat “all things” quite obviously does not actually mean all things, for example poisonous plants and animals. Extending this limitation, to a Jew unkosher animals would not be considered food at all, thus believing they could eat all things would not include breaking kosher, as we previously established. What this phrase actually meant was that the man strong in faith felt free to eat any food from the marketplace or at someone’s house, unless it had been explicitly made known to him that the food in question had been sacrificed to an idol. This teaching is paralleled in 1 Corinthians 10:25-28

Not only had there been disagreement on this matter, but apparently it had led to some ill will between the two disagreeing parties: 

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. 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. (Romans 14:3-4

Matthew 7:1 says, “Do not judge, or you will be judged.” When our hearts are full of love for our brother, there is no room for us to judge them. Just as Paul spoke of in leading up to this point, “Let love be without hypocrisy. Abhor what is evil; cling to what is good. Be devoted to one another in brotherly love” (Romans 12:9-10). Since neither group is acting in violation to the Torah, their judgments and contempt for one another are not rooted in truth, but in the flesh. 

Paul says that each person is to respect the other and realize that God accepts both their convictions. Earlier in our study we talked about the two masters: the sinful nature and the Spirit. Paul applies this concept to loving our brother. Because we can serve only one master, we are accountable to Him alone. When we choose to serve God, He becomes our Master. This means we do not have the right to judge another brother, for in a sense this is setting yourself as master over him. But each person is responsible only to God. We all stand as individuals before Him, and Paul emphasizes that we each have the liberty to organize our priorities according to God’s will. We see a type of this example of God honoring personal conviction in Jeremiah 35:1-10, 18-19.  

Paul now turns his attention to special days: “One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind” (verse 5). Due to our theological assumptions, the first thing we think of when we hear this is the Sabbath, although this is not mentioned anywhere in the text. There are many types of days which this could be talking about, but the most likely is some type of fast days which were esteemed as holier or more distinct than other days. This is based on verse 6: “He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God.” This would seem to be contrasting one who eats against one who esteems the day and doesn’t eat. We see an example of the practice of regular fasting in Luke 18:11-12, and this practice carried over from Judaism into the early followers of Yeshua, for He assumed that they would be fasting after His death and resurrection (Matthew 6:16-18, Mark 2:18-20). In both Jewish and pagan circles, these fast days were not arbitrarily assigned, but were chosen for a special purpose according to a certain timetable, and therefore these fast days were chosen due to their holy status. While fasting was indeed part of the believer’s life, setting aside a fixed schedule of days which were better to fast on (outside of Biblically assigned fast days) because of a belief that these days had special holiness is not something that can be proved either way, and therefore is a matter of conscience, not worth arguing over.

The phrase, “Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind” must be carefully understood within its context so it will not be twisted to mean something it is not. It goes back to Romans 14:1 which indicates that both the dispute over diet and special days are not a matter of right or wrong, but a matter where neither side can be proven objectively correct. This is not to say that this applies to every disagreement between believers, for someone can be convinced in their own mind of something that is contrary to God’s truth, and in such cases it is not beneficial for them to continue in this thinking (Ephesians 5:11, Titus 2:15, 1 Timothy 5:20). Paul himself corrects people on their behavior all throughout his epistles, showing that he did not apply this idea of absolute freedom from doctrinal limits in most situations. 

He continues in verses 7-8: “For not one of us lives for himself, and not one dies for himself; for if we live, we live for the Lord, or if we die, we die for the Lord; therefore whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.” The wording Paul uses brings to mind a passage from the Jewish work “Chapters of the Fathers,” which is a compilation of rabbinic sayings with dates from 200 BC to 200 AD. In one place, it says, “Any dispute that is for the sake of Heaven is destined to endure; one that is not for the sake of Heaven is not destined to endure.” Paul would have been familiar with the rabbinic style of thinking, and so he most likely was trying to convey a similar thought. If both sides of the debate were doing their actions to please God, then in the end each group would be rewarded by God for holding to their personal service of Him, so long as they were able to disagree without resorting to contempt or judgment. 

Another tradition he would have been familiar with is that a blessing over a meal is a way a person may honor God (verse 6). The practice of blessing after a meal is traditionally considered to be commanded in Deuteronomy 6:10-12, but tradition also commanded that a blessing be given before eating as well. Yeshua sets an example of this in the story of the loaves and fish (Matthew 14:19, Mark 6:41). When a person devotes everything in his life to be sanctified by God, he becomes a living sacrifice to prove what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:1-2).

Because this is the case, then, Paul explains that it is not our place to judge anyone who walks out their convictions differently than we do (Romans 14:10-12). Since God has created everyone and we are all equal in His sight, we must respect our fellowman, knowing that we have the right to judge no one. Paul uses Isaiah 45:23 to show that all will stand before God and give account for their actions. If we compromised on something that God put in our hearts to do, then will He reward us for such an action (verse 23)? And will He reward someone who judged their brother, who was living the way they saw as right within the framework of God’s righteousness? 

In Romans 14:13, Paul says that instead of judging, we should be careful to not put a stumbling block or obstacle in someone’s way. We see the idea of a stumbling block first in Leviticus 19:14. Literally interpreted, this seems like a strange commandment, but underneath lies an important message. The standard Jewish interpretation of this verse equated a blind person to one who lacked knowledge, and therefore placing a stumbling block in front of them meant doing something which caused them to sin. We see Yeshua use the phrase this way as well in Matthew 18:6-7. What relevance does this have to the issue in Rome? Paul is trying to make the point that in judging someone else, you may cause them to sin by harboring resentment towards you. In this particular circumstance, it may also be that if the one weak in faith compromises on his beliefs about meat from the marketplace because of your judgment, he may mistakenly believe that other more fundamental beliefs are also susceptible to compromise (see also 1 Corinthians 8:9-11). 

Now we move on to verse 14. Since all people are created by God and will give an account to God, Paul’s main objective is to love his brethren and respect their convictions. Paul puts this belief in the importance of honoring the convictions of others into practice. Although he is convinced that “nothing is unclean in itself,” he acknowledges that if anyone is convinced that something is unclean, then to him that thing is unclean, and therefore it would be sinful for that one to partake of it. 

At first glance, most believers would be quick to say that Paul is here negating the kosher and purity laws in the Torah by saying that “nothing is unclean.” What did Paul actually mean by this? We must look at the Greek language to get our answer.

The Greek word used in this verse for “unclean” is koinos. This word means “common,” in the sense of something which is not holy. When used in reference to Jewish purity, koinos refers to otherwise holy/pure things which have become as if they were unholy, for example through defilement by touching an unclean thing. 

This word is contrasted against akathartos. This word means “unclean.” It is most often used in the New Testament in reference to unclean spirits, but is also used in Acts 10 as well as in the LXX to refer to food which God has called unclean. In Acts 10:14, the two words koinos and akathartos are both used, further signifying that there is a distinction between the two: “But Peter said, ‘By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common (koinon) or unclean (akatharton).’” 

We see a similar issue of ritual purity being dealt with in the first part of Mark 7. Yeshua and the Pharisees were having a debate over unwashed hands. This hand-washing wasn’t about getting rid of germs, but was because the Pharisees believed that to eat with unwashed hands was defiling their body, or making it “common,” koinos. Their discussion was not over unclean (akathartos) food, but rather about the tradition they had about the handling of food and if eating food with unwashed hands made a person “unclean” (koinos). So what was the issue? Yeshua tells us in verse 8: “Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.”

We have to remember whenever we are reading Scripture that we always have to look at the context: what happens before and after a verse, or even a chapter or book, of Scripture. So we need to understand that the discussion in Mark is not about kosher foods, but eating practices. Then, out of the blue in Mark 7:19, we see it says, “Thus He declared all foods clean.” Did Yeshua negate the commandments about dietary restrictions, thus “neglecting the commandment of God,” as He had just condemned these Pharisees for doing? Is this an accurate translation? 

Once again, looking at the Greek text is important to understanding the meaning of the verse. A literal reading of the Greek in Mark 7:19 says, “because not it enters of him into the heart, but into the belly, and into the draught goes out, purifying all the food.” The King James, among others, therefore translates the final phrase as part of Yeshua’s quote: “[Do ye not perceive that]… it entereth not into his heart, but into the belly, and goeth out into the draught [latrine, sewer], purging all meats [foods]?” According to these translations, Yeshua is not declaring all unkosher foods now fair game, but is saying that through the process of digestion any perceived defilement of already kosher food is lost and excreted with the other waste. This makes more sense considering the context, which is Yeshua arguing that eating with unwashed hands does not defile a person, but rather the actions that arise from a person’s heart are what defiles him. Even if we operate on the assumption that the translation “He declared all foods clean” is accurate, we still do not arrive at an abrogation of the Leviticus 11 food laws. When understood this way, the phrase effectively means the same thing: food that God has declared clean is not made unclean (koinos) by eating it without ritually washing the hands. This is the same point Paul is making in regard to food dedicated to idols. 

So let’s get back to Romans 14. We need to remember that Paul’s message is all about love for our brother in Yeshua: “For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Messiah died” (verse 15). The word “grieved” corresponds to the Hebrew word for “wrongdoing.” So just as there can be wrongdoing in words, so there can also be wrongdoing in eating. The big issue is how far we can take our “freedom” in the Lord. As the old saying goes, “My right to swing my fist ends where your nose begins.” When it comes to the body of Messiah, our right to do whatever we please ends where God’s commandments begin, which includes loving our neighbor and sacrificing our will. 

Paul has the understanding that not respecting another’s commitments is like saying that God does not respect them either. He also says that treating things that are forbidden as though they are permitted does not nullify these things. His idea is that no one should be forced to compromise: the only compromise that is permissible is when it is done voluntarily, out of love. The best way to serve God is by sanctifying all our thoughts and acts by walking in the Spirit in love. Sometimes, we need to go beyond a strict observance of our own perceptions of the law, which is right and good, in order to do what is right and good. How do we serve Messiah in this way? By offering our bodies as living sacrifices in the sense of loving our fellow man, as in the golden rule (Luke 6:31). There is another principle in Jewish thought called “the paths of peace” (from Proverbs 3:17). This principle states that we should not judge our brother for his personal convictions and we should not do things that would cause him to stumble. 

Romans 14:20 goes on, “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.” The phrase “all things are clean” here is obviously not unlimited in its scope (Ephesians 5:5, 1 Thessalonians 4:7, Revelation 21:27). But keeping the rest of the chapter in mind, this verse is echoing the words of Yeshua in Mark 7, although Paul adds that if a man eats meat he feels is defiled, if it goes against his conscience, to him it is sin. 

He goes on to say we should not eat meat, drink wine, or do anything that causes our brother to stumble (verse 21). Here is more evidence for the theory that this passage is about food dedicated to idols. In Judaism, wine, being made of grapes, is not restricted through the Levitical food laws. However, wine was offered to idols ceremonially in the ancient world, and this could be considered a source of impurity for the wine that would make it appear unclean to some. Paul re-emphasizes his main point in bringing up this dispute, that we must wholeheartedly watch ourselves so as not to hurt our brethren through hypocritical attitudes. Even if the things we do are not sinful of themselves, if they cause someone else to sin, then we share partial responsibility for their guilt. We must be faithful not only to our convictions, but to our brother by loving him even if his convictions differ from ours (1 John 3:18-24).

“Blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he approves” (Romans 14:22). Paul continues the theme of blessing/giving thanks from verse 6. If we want to be blessed, we need to know that the things we bless are acceptable in God’s sight. That is the only way we will prove God’s good, acceptable, and perfect will (Romans 12:2). 

Chapter 14 draws to a close with Paul saying, “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 word “doubting” is the Greek word diakrino, which means to make a distinction, to distinguish, or to judge. If we act contrary to our convictions concerning what we eat, when we eat it, and with whom we eat it, we condemn ourselves. James 4:17 says “Anyone, then, who knows the good he ought to do and doesn’t do it, sins.” So Paul agrees that if we participate in things that are against our convictions, then it is sin, so long as our convictions are aligned with God’s will. We see that there are two sides to our convictions before the Lord: things we feel may be sanctified and things we consider unable to be sanctified. Both of these must be balanced with our ability and willingness to love our brother when the things he feels can be sanctified differ from ours. 

In summary of this chapter, we need to look back to verse 1. Remember, we always have to look at Scripture in context. Verse 1 says we should not pass judgment on “disputable matters.” I think we would all have to agree that God’s commands are not disputable. We need to acknowledge that what Paul is addressing are areas of personal conviction, not the commandments of God. This is the issue at hand here in Romans 14, in Mark 7, and in other such Scriptures. In matters of truth, let us be zealous; but in matters of preference, let us not be quick to pass judgment or criticism: “For the Kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17).  


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