Partaking and Abstaining

One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him” (vv. 2-3).

- Romans 14:2-4

John Calvin has wise words in his commentary on Romans 14:1 that will serve us well as we consider what Paul has to say about how we are to deal with disagreements in the church that pertain to issues about which the Lord has not spoken. He writes, “They who have made the most progress in Christian doctrine should accommodate themselves to the more ignorant, and employ their own strength to sustain their weakness; for among the people of God there are some weaker than others, and who, except they are treated with great tenderness and kindness, will be discouraged, and become at length alienated from religion.” Christ has set His people free, and the more mature we are in the Lord, the more we realize how free we are in those areas where God has not bound the consciences of His people. We understand that the Lord has freed us to make our own decisions in relation to those things He does not address in Scripture, to partake of or to abstain from certain activities that are in themselves morally neutral. But this maturity also carries with it the weighty responsibility of fellowshiping with others in a way that respects their scruples, as well as the duty of being patient with them as they grow to a fuller understanding of Christian freedom even as we do not allow them to control our consciences.

Paul uses the real-life experience of the Roman Christians to flesh out these principles. Specifically, the believers in Rome disagreed as to whether believers could eat meat or if they had to be vegetarians (Rom. 14:2-3). It seems likely that those who refused to eat meat did so because they could not be sure that it did not come from an animal used in pagan sacrifices and believed that to eat such meat involved the diner in pagan worship. Paul deals with that specific issue in 1 Corinthians 8-10. It could also be that the vegetarians in the church of Rome thought that eating meat of any kind was wrong, as we know that Paul dealt in other contexts with individuals who refused, without any exception, certain foods (1 Tim. 4:1-4). In any case, arguments between the vegetarians and meat-eaters in the Roman church threatened to tear the community apart. Each group was despising and judging the other group, believing that God accepted only those who shared their understanding.

The Apostle condemns both groups for their judgmentalism, for God in fact had accepted both of them (Rom. 14:4, 18). As we will see, the Lord does not really care about the eating of meat in itself, but only about the heart attitudes of both vegetarians and meat-eaters.

Coram Deo

As fallen people, we are tempted to pass judgment all too quickly on others without first seeking to understand why they do what they do. As we will see, this is part of what was plaguing the Roman church, as the meat-eaters did not understand why the vegetarians were vegetarians and the vegetarians did not understand why the meat-eaters were meat-eaters. Taking time to understand one another can go a long way in helping us not to judge them inappropriately.

Passages for Further Study

Leviticus 19:15
Proverbs 31:9
Luke 6:37-38
John 7:24

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