Paul, Part 6: Matters of Conscience
Some passages in the writings of Paul, such as Romans 14, have been largely used by some who say that these passages permit believers to violate the Biblical dietary laws and Sabbath. Many believe that these are now only matters of conscience and that we are free to either accept or reject them for our own lives, with the preference being toward rejection. We will take a deeper look at this chapter and a few other similar passages throughout Scripture to see if we can find out what Paul was actually saying.
In the chapters leading up to Romans 14, Paul had been dealing with the issue of sincere love for our brother (Romans 12:9, 14-21, 13:8-10). Now he applies this teaching 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). The first thing we must take note of is 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.” The argument doesn’t hinge upon a commandment, or else Paul would be more fixed on one side being correct. He does, however, reveal which side he personally agrees with in the next verse: “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 of people, and what are the reasons behind their diet choices? The traditional response 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. This interpretation doesn’t work for several reasons. Surely a matter of following a commandment wouldn’t be considered simply a difference of opinion to Paul, for he tells us that those who follow God subject themselves to the Torah (Romans 3:31, 8:7). If he had been adamant in teaching that the Torah was no longer binding, as most are quick to suggest, then surely he would have condemned anyone eating vegetables to avoid breaking kosher laws. Since he did not do so, and since he previously affirmed the role of the Torah, we can safely assume that this dispute is not related to the kosher laws in the Torah.
If the issue was not kosher, then what was it? The problem was Rome itself. Idolatry filled every aspect of life to the point where even food sold in the marketplace was often offered to idols. 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 be involved in pagan offerings, so he refused to partake of any of this food, determining that he would eat only vegetables, and God blessed him for it. This belief about defiled food was passed on to the new Gentile believers at 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 food dedicated to idols 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 literally mean all things, for example poisonous things. Extending this limitation, to a Jew, unkosher food would never be considered food at all, and thus Paul’s initial audience would never assume he was instructing them to violate the Torah. This is also true in 1 Timothy 4:1-5. Paul is also not encouraging the believers to violate the rule established at the Jerusalem Council that declared food offered to idols as forbidden. What he is saying here is that the man strong in faith feels free to eat any food from the marketplace unless it had been explicitly made known to him that the food in question was sacrificed to an idol. This is made clear by comparing this passage with
1 Corinthians 10:25-28 where Paul gives his readers similar instructions regarding food sacrificed to idols.
Not only had there been disagreement between those who ate and those who didn’t, but apparently it had led to some ill will and judgment among the community (Romans 14:3-4). Matthew 7:1 says, “Do not judge, or you will be judged.” The practice of loving one’s neighbor excludes the possibility of condemnation and allows us to not pass judgment on our brother. 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 now turns his attention to the subject of special days, which were apparently also dividing the community: “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. Due to the same reasons we asserted about this being a “disputable matter,” this can not be speaking of the Sabbath (Exodus 31:16). There are many types of days which Paul 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. The reason this makes sense is 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 practice of 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). While fasting would have been common, 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. The phrase “Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind” in verse 5 must be carefully understood within its context so it will not be twisted. It goes back to verse 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.
Paul goes on to say, “I know… that nothing is unclean in itself” (verses 14, 20). We must look at the Greek language to find out what this is really saying. The Greek word used here 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, which means “unclean” as in something which God has called unclean, such as with the food laws in Leviticus 11.
We see a similar statement as the one in Romans 14:14, 20 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 the food, or making it “common,” koinos. Their discussion was not over types of food, but about the tradition the Pharisees had about the handling of food and if eating such food made a person “unclean.” Yeshua explains in verse 8: “Neglecting the commandment of God, you hold to the tradition of men.” The discussion in Mark 7 is not about whether kosher is valid, but about if kosher food can become defiled by eating it with unwashed hands. Then, in verse 19, it says, “Thus He [Yeshua] declared all foods clean.” Is this an accurate translation? The King James, among others, translates this final phrase as part of Yeshua’s quote instead of a parenthetical statement: “[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 saying that every animal is now clean, but that through the process of digestion, any perceived defilement of kosher food (for example because of unwashed hands) is lost and excreted with the other waste. Even if the translation “He declared all foods clean” was accurate, however, it would mean the same thing: outside of any purity laws in the Torah, any perceived uncleanness is invalidated through digestion. This is the same argument Paul is making in Romans 14:14, but instead of hand-washing, the subject is possible dedication to idols.
In summary, we need to remember to look at Scripture in context. Romans 14:1 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. Paul is not saying that either the food laws in the Torah or the ruling of the Jerusalem Council are not important to follow. His main point in writing the community about this issue is addressing the attitude which the two groups have toward each other because of their difference of opinion. Ultimately, the big problem is not debatable opinions on whether food should be assumed to be defiled or undefiled just because it is sold in the pagan marketplace. The underlying issue Paul is addressing is that the two disputing parties were harboring resentment toward each other because of their disagreement. Since neither side of the conflict is breaking the Torah, it comes down to how one has been called to walk by God, and therefore the important thing is to respect each others’ convictions before God. If one group had been walking contrary to Torah, then Paul would surely have corrected them, as he does so often in his epistles.
In matters of truth, let us be zealous; but in matters of personal conviction, let us not be quick to pass judgment or criticism on others: “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).