NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER FOURTEEN (Lesson IV)
Paul found himself being judged about his own diet. He once told the Corinthians: “If I can give thanks to God for my food, why should anyone say that I am wrong about eating food I can give thanks for? So if you eat or drink or whatever you do, do everything to honor God.”1 Another way of putting this would be: If you can’t in good conscious pray over what you are about to eat or drink then push them away. Especially, if it might offend a fellow believer. That’s why Paul wrote the Colossians: “Don’t let anyone pass judgment on you in connection with eating and drinking, or in regard to a Jewish festival or Rosh-Chodesh2 or Shabbat.3 These are a shadow of things that are coming, but the body is of the Messiah.”4 There are some fundamental, evangelical, and Pentecostal churches today who use grape juice instead of communion wine because they are opposed to drinking alcohol. Believe it or not, communion wine has only 6–12% alcohol while some cough syrups contain 20% alcohol. Besides, without some alcohol, it is not considered wine. This is not to promote one or the other, but to point out that such things have been the bone of contention between Christian groups because one thinks their way of doing it is more scriptural than the others.
As Origen points out, since the Law given to Moses says nothing about keeping a vegetarian diet, this must have been an issue among the Gentiles. Since there was meat sold in the marketplace that could also be offered to idols, some Gentile Christians must have decided to stick strictly to vegetables. But others saw that it was not the meat that was offensive but the one who bought it felt offended. Meat is meat, so why not buy the same meat to use for God’s honor and glory.5
Pelagius comes up with a practical solution: If you become fainthearted because you see another person who decided to eat only vegetables and it makes you hesitant to eat meat because of their faith, don’t pass judgment on their decision since it is a matter of individual discretion. If you are the one who takes offense at eating meat, then that’s where you draw the line for yourself. Go ahead and eat only vegetables. Who knows, others may see the wisdom in your choice make the same decision for themselves. The whole point is to make abstinence your personal matter rather than criticize others who do eat meat and they become annoyed and offended and, thereby, are merely strengthened in their resolve to go on eating meat just to spite you. You should not condemn someone if they are acting to protect their health, especially in their old age.6
Chrysostom picks up the same theme and comments that Paul does not say that the one who eats based on their convictions should simply ignore the one who abstains because of their convictions, nor does he suggest that the abstainer should not be asked why so that they can become better informed. All Paul is saying is that more-informed believers should not look down on those who are still learning, or be contemptuous of them because it’s taking so long for them to absorb what is being taught. Likewise, those who abstain are not to pass judgment on those who eat. Finger pointing can go both ways. If the more-informed believers confront the less-informed and mock them as being weak, claiming that they have no faith, that they are not really saved, or that they are acting like the Judaizers, then the abstainers have the right to point back at the more mature believers and call them lawbreakers and gluttons. Since these were probably mostly Gentiles, Paul reminds them that God has welcomed them all.7
Martin Luther warns that when one believer starts judging another they are showing disrespect for one of God’s children. That’s why Paul urges them to consider each other in humility and have patience with one another so that things can be worked out amicably.8 Luther believes that with these important words Paul closed the mouths of those who were engrossed in such action. To be such a critic is like an archer shooting arrows at a wounded animal that has no way of escape.
John Calvin sees it from another angle. For him, Paul is addressing the faults of both parties wisely and suitably. They who claimed to be stronger in the faith were making this error: They despised those who were still deciding as superstitious; were over conscientious about insignificant things, and then belittled them as being childish. On the other hand, there were those who were prone to make rash judgments and ended up condemning what they knew little about, or what they perceived to be contrary to their own opinion as being ungodly. That’s why Paul strongly urges liberated believers to refrain from being contemptuous, and the more fundamentalist believers to avoid excessive moodiness and backbiting. Furthermore, what Paul sees as belonging to both groups ought to be applied to these two clauses: When one believer sees another doing something that they object to, don’t immediately judge them until more is known. Also, keep in mind that whether you agree with them or not God has accepted them as His children.9
Adam Clarke gives us his thoughts on what Paul is advising here. It was obvious that certain Jews, lately converted to the Christian faith, were not yet fully informed of the Gospel and its doctrines. They still felt allegiance to the Mosaic Law as still being relevant to eating clean and unclean foods. Therefore, when a converted Jew was in Gentile territory they should decline eating meat entirely and live on vegetables to avoid being defiled. That’s why a converted Gentile should not detest their Jewish brother in the Lord who eats no such meat but only vegetables. At the same time, let the Jewish brother that has a much stricter diet not be so quick in judging Gentiles and calling them unsanctified. For God calls both of them His children – both being sincere and upright and acting in reverence to God. As such, they are heirs to eternal life without any bias on account of these religious ethics or prejudices.10
Robert Haldane follows a similar line of thinking. For him, Paul is not making a blanket accusation of misconduct to every believer in Rome, he is identifying each peculiar attitude and action to which those having the debate are responsible for. Having pride in what you know often leads to holding those less informed in contempt. At the same time, feeling weak because of what one doesn’t know can lead to condemning those who, from more enlightened views of Divine truths, are not unsure of their practices and ethics. Apparently, those in Rome who could eat anything without exception were considered strong because they had solid views on the items in question. However, they were prone to show little respect for their fellow believers because of their misunderstanding. At the same time, those who thought it unconscionable to eat certain foods were considered weak because they had indefensible positions on the subject. They, therefore, were tempted to judge the motives of their more liberal brethren with prejudice. Paul is not hesitant in forbidding them to do this to each other.
Haldane says we must observe that it is their fellow Christians they are forbidden to condemn and not the things they were doing. There was no reason why they could not express their disappointment in what they saw as being bad ethics because they considered it against the Law of Moses. But they were not permitted to condemn those who did these things as though they did so with improper motives. For instance, things involving their desire to satisfy their appetite with foods thought to be stained with their connection to idolatry. It also pointed to their unwillingness to practice self-denial, or from a wish to conform to the world to be more acceptable to their unbelieving neighbors. Christians who are not mature often cause discord by ascribing a certain conduct to their brethren with false motives. The weak, then, are as liable to judge improperly as the strong are to despise them. They ought both to take heed of the Apostle Paul’s admonitions that he outlines in these verses.11
Charles Hodge deals with the consequences of such judging and criticism among the believers over what should or should not be eaten. There must be a mutual understanding among believers as to this subject of abstaining or not abstaining from consuming certain foods or drinks. Those who have no problems with these things should not look down on those who have reservations about them, calling them superstitious or lacking in sophistication. At the same time, those who question whether or not a believer should eat or drink certain items should not criticize and condemn those who feel free to eat or drink these items.
Hodge goes on to say that such points of disagreement should not be allowed to disturb the harmony of Christian fellowship. God has recognized each as Christians and received each into His kingdom. Paul’s reasoning here is not designed to enforce one duty for tolerance over the other. Instead, that both duties must be mutually respected. As God does not make eating or not eating certain kinds of food a condition of acceptance,12 Christians ought not to allow it to interfere with their communion as brothers and sisters. The Jewish converts were perhaps quick to condemn the Gentile Christians because they felt despised as Christian Jews; Paul, therefore, frames his admonition so as to target both groups.13
In one of his sermons, Charles Spurgeon makes all of what we’ve read relevant to Christians by asking why is it that so many believers seem to think that they are masters and have a right to judge the Lord’s other children as servants? Spurgeon said he knew some Christians who not only pronounced judgments, and very severe judgments at that, on all those around them based on a few facts that may have come to their attention. But worse than that, without any facts whatsoever, they make up their minds about people they’ve never met or even know and start speaking against them with stubborn prejudice!
Spurgeon also accuses some of twisting words that people may or may not have said to mean something that these individuals never intended them to mean. Not only that but when they found out how wrong there were, they didn’t even bother to apologize for misinterpreting the words. It’s like they just sit around waiting for an opportunity to criticize other believers, especially those whose ministries are successful. They seem to find ways to feel slighted or insulted and then follow that with unwarranted disapproval. They need only imagine that they were unfairly treated and then no matter what you may do to show them there were no such intentions they will still think that everything being done is done out of spite. Not only that, but they will now suspect everyone else as being against them.14
1 1 Corinthians 10:30-31
2 In Hebrew, Rosh Chodesh means, literally, “head of the month” or “first of the month.” Rosh Chodesh is the first day of any new month.
3 Shabbat is the name of the Jewish Sabbath which falls on the last day of the week – Saturday.
4 Colossians 2:16-17
5 Origen: On Romans, op. cit., loc, cit., Bray, G. (Ed.), p. 326.
6 Pelagius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., Bray, G. (Ed), p. 326
7 Chrysostom: Homilies on Romans 25
8 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 198
9 John Calvin: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
10 Adam Clarke: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 267-268
11 Robert Haldane: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 595
12 Acts of the Apostles 10:14-15
13 Charles Hodge: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 649
14 Charles Spurgeon: Sermon – “The Judgment Seat of God,” Text: Romans 14:10-12