In Romans 14 Paul is trying to guide congregations to preserve the unity of the body of Christ despite having a wide variety of views on some practices. He mentions two in particular, considering some days sacred and eating some types of foods.
Esteeming one day over another may refer to when the Roman congregations chose to gather. The natural assumption is Jewish Christian congregations continued to worship on the Sabbath. Primarily Gentile congregations met whenever they could, apparently settling on Sunday, the day Jesus rose from the dead.
Eating and abstaining may refer to Jewish food taboos. Again, when a primarily Jewish congregation shared a meal, the food would have been purchased and prepared with attention to cleanliness (i.e., not meat sacrificed to idols, nothing forbidden in Leviticus), etc. Primarily Gentile congregations may not have adopted Jewish food laws, accepting all foods as clean after one gives things for the Lord for the food. However, it is likely some Gentiles did choose to avoid food sacrificed to idols.
What matters for Paul is living one’s life “for the Lord” and not for ourselves. This means the one who is in Christ (a living sacrifice, one who is living in a way that promotes unity in the body of Christ), ought to voluntarily set aside preferences in deference to others.
Voluntarily setting something aside is the key to understanding the principle Paul wants to establish here. Like Jesus, who set aside certain rights he had as a member of the Godhead in order to become human (Phil 2:5-6), so to the member of the body of Christ in the present age must set aside their privileges the may legitimately be owed in order to preserve the unity of the Body of Christ.
Paul is not discussion sinful practices, but what are often called preferences. He is not talking about Gentiles visiting a prostitute (as he is in 1 Corinthians 6), since that is a practice incompatible with being a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God. This is the nature of the strong/weak in this passage: the person with weak faith considers eating food to be a mark of spirituality and therefore breaking those convictions would be a sin.
Does this only work one direction? A person who does not eat unclean food cannot “give up” their preferences and eat unclean food to make a Gentile feel comfortable? For example, if a person today is a vegetarian, can they “give up their conviction” and share meat with someone who eats meat? If I were to share a meal with a Seventh-Day Adventist, for example, I would have no problem eating any food they served. But they may have a serious problem eating something I serve. If I have a meal in an Israeli hotel, it is far easier for me to eat kosher than to insist on my rights and have the kitchen make me a bacon-wrapped cheeseburger.
It is far easier for the meat-eater to give up their conviction and eat only vegetables. This is certainly true on a physical level. But more importantly, with respect to convictions, the meat-eater is not violating a principle of their faith, but the vegetarian would be “sinning” with respect to their own world view.
There is a clear application of this principle for the modern church. I think there are some easy examples: If a member of congregation prefers one style of music for worship, they ought to be able to set that preference aside in order to reach people for Jesus Christ.
But I can imagine other situations which would make some Christians more uncomfortable. Could a pastor drink a beer with someone in order to not make a beer drinking member of their congregation comfortable? What about a pastor trying to reach a person in the south who is offered a wad of chewing tobacco. Could they accept the offer without violating their conscience? It is critically important to observe Paul is talking about practices which are not important for salvation in the present age nor is he talking about sinful practices (even if the weaker brother thinks they might be).
Both the weak and the strong are believers, and both are welcome in Christian worship and fellowship. For Paul, these are not matters to divide churches or break fellowship over. What are some problems you have encountered trying to find the right balance between preferences in local congregations?
8 thoughts on “The Problem of Sacred Days and Clean Foods – Romans 14:5-9”
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I taught about this in a small youth group a few years ago, and the subject of drums in church music came up. It got interesting, because one of the young men was speaking about how ridiculous it was that a congregation he knew about had several believers who were against drums. There is a catch though, and things like this show exactly why there is a need to show Christian love and respect, regarding what people came out of. The believers that took issue with the drum playing said something to the effect that the drumming sounded like the music they used to play to their “gods”. That to me was the perfect example for this passage, especially regarding why not to push our preferences on others, when there might be a much more important reason why they do not want a part of it. If drums in church music brought them back to the darkness of religion that they left behind to serve the living and true God, how could a strong believer insist on drums just to satisfy their own wants?
Obviously, because of the many differences and perspective in theological understanding and interpretation and a certain practice is what cause many division in among Christianity today. According to Paul, each of them gives thanks to God in a unique way regardless of the many differences in the practice of ceremonial, traditional, and liturgy among Christian congregations. Nowadays, we have the tendency to see our denomination sacraments and values as a somewhat superior and an authentic interpretation from the scripture in contrast to others. There’s a potential danger of dreaming other sacraments and rituals which can potentially cause a greater division in the church. And it’s crucial to avoid as much as possible if we want more unity in the church. As you mention a certain practice of sacraments has nothing to do with our salvation or received salvation through a certain observance and practice. In Christ, everyone is welcome to participate in the body of Christ regardless of our differences.
I loved the reminder that Jesus set aside rights to become human. Sacrifice is the action of setting aside your needs and wants for the sake of others. That is what Paul is really asking of us when there is someone that believes that they can only eat vegetables or worship on a certain day for Sabbath. Of course, those sacrifices of preferences are definitely not to the standard to which Jesus paid, but Jesus is a strong example to go off of and reminds us of how small of a task it is to accommodate to someone else’s needs in those situations. “Our liberty in Christ, a precious blessing, should be used instead to serve brothers and sisters” (Moo, 183). Just as the gift of liberty in Christ was given to us so graciously, we should extend that gift to others because we also have to take into account how our actions can/may affect others (Romans 14:13).
I think in todays day and age we see this. a lot of differences of when we worship and what we see as cultural sins and what’s not. what we wear and when we have church or even how we speak. there is always going to be people who think one think is a sin and another is not. we need to find common grounds as Christians and really be on the same side regardless if we think wearing your hair long is a sin. we need to help each other out in witnessing and spreading the gospel.
One thing you mentioned in this post was how the Jews would pay special attention when preparing food that would be shared by the congregation, specifically in not eating food sacrificed to idols and everything else mentioned in Leviticus. This may be my ignorance, but do they (those born and raised Jewish) not abide by these practices in everyday life? Would they not be seen as a bad Jew if they broke these rules? From a Christian perspective, eating food sacrificed to idols is really not that big of a deal because the idols are mere inanimate objects. However, from a Jewish perspective, eating food sacrificed to idols is a big no-no. But which is the right belief? I think 1 Corinthians 8 does well at finding the balance between these two views: essentially, eating food sacrificed to idols is not bad, but if doing so causes another to stumble, then it should be avoided. As you mention in your post, believers should set aside their preferences to aid and defend a fellow believer. As I may have mentioned in another reply, one should never invite a recovering alcoholic to a pub or bar, even if they have really good food; this would be setting your brother (or sister) to be tempted and fall into sin. Even if they have the best food in the world, you should set aside your preferences to aid and build up your fellow believers, not leading them into a situation where (at least in this specific example) there could be alcohol.
While not really on topic, I thought of something I learned in another class that has to do with Jewish and Christian sacred days. Throughout the US, Sunday is seen as the “Sabbath,” yet Seventh-Day Adventist and specifically Jews, the sabbath takes place on Friday/Saturday. Now this may not seem like a big deal, but when Blue Laws were still heavily in effect (the restriction of certain activities and such on Sunday), it made it difficult and complicated for a Jew to work. They would not have been able to work after sunset on Friday till after sunset on Saturday because it was the Sabbath, but with the Blue Laws, they would not have been able to work on Sundays to make up for it. Just thought it was very interesting and wanted to share.
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