Clean and Unclean
“Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.”- Romans 14:13–14
The gospel brings together people from different cultures, socioeconomic backgrounds, and races, uniting them as one body in Christ (Eph. 2:13-14). Yet whenever a diverse group comes together, there are differences that threaten to divide the community. People are tempted to make matters that are adiaphora—morally indifferent—into tests of authentic Christianity. We see this today, as many believers separate from other Christians over whether we may drink alcohol, go to movies, smoke cigars, play cards, and so forth.
First-century Christians did not deal with those particular issues, but the presence of Jews and Gentiles in the church meant food and drink often divided believers. In the church that met in Rome, some believers thought it was wrong to eat meat altogether, probably because they could never be sure that it was free from any association with pagan sacrifices. These believers looked down on Christians who ate meat freely. Those who ate meat, on the other hand, judged the vegetarians for their scruples, viewing them as lesser Christians. They likely ate meat openly before those who had scruples against it or touted their freedom to eat meat and, therefore, their “superior” understanding of Christ (Rom. 14:1-3). This would explain why Paul calls the Roman Christians not to put a “stumbling block” or “hindrance” before a brother in the Lord. Obviously, those who were prone to stumbling were the weak Christians, and the strong Christians were those who ate meat freely because they understood that meat in itself is not unclean (vv. 13-14).
In Romans 14:13-23, Paul focuses on the stronger brother’s responsibility to the weaker brother, but he is careful to ground his instruction properly, affirming the correctness of the stronger brothers’ views but cautioning them against using that strength to harm others. The Apostle states that “nothing is unclean in itself” (v. 14). He does not mean that we find nothing in creation that is objectively evil, for sins such as murder and adultery are always wicked. Instead, Paul is dealing with ritual purity in light of Christ. Jesus’ work revealed that no creature is unclean in itself; thus, kosher laws were but temporary measures instituted to point Israel to the Messiah (Mark 7:14-22). Nevertheless, that which is inherently clean can become unclean to those who lack understanding (Rom. 14:14). Those strong in the faith must understand this principle if they are to act in love toward the weaker brothers. We will explore this idea further over the next few days.
That something which is not unclean in itself may become unclean to certain people is a concept we will develop more in the days ahead. For now, let us note that it is a lack of understanding that leads a person to view as unclean something that is not inherently unclean. In making disciples of all nations, the church is responsible to help immature believers learn this truth so that they may enjoy their freedom in Christ.
Passages for Further Study
1 Timothy 4:1–5