Thy meat and thy brother
Romans 14:1 – 15:7
This section forms form one block of teaching and deals with a subject which, at first sight, seems to have little relevance for 21st century Christians, namely the attitudes of early Christians in Rome in relation to eating, or not eating, certain types of food. Upon closer inspection, however, the opposite turns out to be the case: there are underlying principles which are acutely relevant today. Many problems between believers could be resolved, or even avoided, if we were to act (more) on these principles.
The situation in Rome
The opening statement of this passage is an exhortation to receive those who are ‘weak in the faith’ (14:1). This raises the question: Who are these weak believers? The next verse explains: ‘the weak eats herbs’.
In all likelihood, this difference of attitude arose, at least in part, from the fact that in the assembly in Rome there were believers from Jewish as well as Gentile backgrounds. Those from a Jewish background would have been used to abstaining from unclean food (Lev. 11 and Deut. 14) and would have experienced difficulties in realising their Christian liberty. Their mindset was that the Jewish dietary laws were one of the things that defined who they were: the people of God as opposed to the ‘dogs’ (similar to Peter in Acts 10:9–16). In addition, some may have had additional concerns which led them to abstain from things that, in themselves, were not unclean (such as wine or meat in general, v. 21). Such scruples might have been based on other considerations, such as the question of whether certain foods might have been sacrificed to idols before being sold.
At first sight, what could be less important than differences in eating habits? Why would the Apostle Paul take an interest in this topic and why would the Spirit lead him to devote such a significant section to it in this letter? The point is that it was not merely a question of eating habits but there was a danger that this matter might affect brotherly relations between believers – and even their ability to fully enjoy their relationship with God in praise and worship. Verse 2 says: ‘Let not him that eats make little of him that eats not; and let not him that eats not judge him that eats: for God has received him’. There were two groups, each inclined to act in a way that was not brotherly: those who felt free to eat (the ‘strong’) were in danger of despising those who didn’t (the ‘weak’). The weak, in turn, were in danger of judging the strong.
The relevance for today
What is so instructive for us in this chapter is the way in which Paul encourages each group, particularly the strong, to change their attitude, feelings and behaviour towards their brethren. The human mind would have advocated a much different approach:
- Establish which of the groups is right and which one is wrong
- Those who are right need to instruct those who are wrong
- Those who are wrong need to change their behaviour.
But no such method is followed. This is so much more surprising as Paul makes it quite clear which view is the right one. He says: ‘I know, and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean of itself’ (v. 14). And: ‘But we … that are strong …’ (15:1). Paul identified with those who understood Christian liberty in matters of eating and drinking. The weak were not in the full enjoyment of the truth and, no doubt, this is why they were not to be asked to decide difficult questions (14:1). But it wasn’t simply a matter of explaining to the weak that Christian liberty includes the liberty to eat all types of food (with the exception of blood and things strangled, Acts 15:29). Paul’s primary question is not ‘Who is right?’ or even ‘What is right?’, but: ‘How can we deal with our brethren in a Christian and Christ-honouring way?’ For the strong brother this will go to the question of whether, and how, he will make use of his Christian liberty and under what circumstances it would be better to forego it. For the weak brother this will go to the question of whether he should judge others based on his own conscience.
How to deal with believers who do not yet see things our way...
Paul gives a number of important pointers which lift the whole issue on a much higher plane than matters of eating and drinking, or differences of opinion. They go to the core and centre of the Christian faith. They address not the symptoms only but the underlying causes and attitudes. And they are designed to touch our hearts and consciences:
- Verse 3: ‘for God has received him’ – what a touching reason to reconsider our behaviour towards our brother: God has received him. God’s love and grace were revealed in Christ – and this should govern even the smallest things in our lives (cf. 15:7).
- Verse 4: ‘Who art thou that judgest the servant of another?’ This point is addressed to the weak brother who, in pondering the rights and wrongs of his brother’s doings, had forgotten an important point: his brother is responsible not to him but to the Lord!
- Verse 5: ‘One man esteems day more than day; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully persuaded in his own mind’. Further, room is to be left for individual exercise. It is good to have convictions, but then we should not force them on others or even resort to fighting over issues we may feel strongly about. How many times great damage has been done by trying to get everyone to agree with one’s own views (sometimes even ‘pet views’ or ‘hobby horses’)! Much rather we should be in prayerful exercise before the Lord.
- Verses 6–9: This passage emphasises the Lordship of Christ (as verse 4 had emphasised that we are His servants). The Lordship of Christ is here based on His death and resurrection – these two events that are so central to the Christian faith. Therefore, how careful we should be not to interfere with the Lordship of Christ, but rather to be exercised before Him and to live with a view to pleasing Him!
- Verse 10: ‘for we shall all be placed before the judgment-seat of God’ – here the Apostle brings in another far-reaching thought: one day we will stand before the judgment-seat of God. There we will have to ‘give an account’ (v. 12), the weak brother of how he dealt with the strong brother, and vice versa. The question will not merely be ‘Who was right?’ but: ‘Was my attitude towards my brother to Christ’s honour?’ This challenging thought applies to both groups, those who ‘judge’ and those who tend to ‘make little’.
- Verse 13: ‘judge ye this rather, not to put a stumbling-block or a fall-trap before his brother’. Here is another vital consideration. My actions have the potential to stumble another. Take the strong one. He is convinced – and rightly so – of his Christian liberty to eat. However, his own liberty is not the only consideration. What about the impact on his brother? If the weak brother sees the strong one eat he might follow suit and eat as well, but without being free in his conscience, which would be sin (v. 23).
- Verse 15a: ‘For if on account of meat thy brother is grieved, thou walkest no longer according to love.’ Here is another vital Christian principle: love! We can be so taken up with our reasonings and convictions that we completely forget about love which, after all, is the hallmark of Christianity! Love seeks the best for its object. My love to my brother should enable me to forego my rights and liberty.
- Verse 15b: ‘Destroy not him with thy meat for whom Christ has died’ – this is a powerful comparison indeed. On one side of the scale there is ‘thy meat’ – perhaps a plate full of food, something that will be gone tomorrow. On the other side of the scale you have your brother, designated beautifully as ‘him for whom Christ has died’. The value of an asset is determined by the price a buyer is willing to pay for it. Christ paid with His life – not just for you but also for your brother whom you were just about to despise or to make little of! This sobering thought beautifully puts things into perspective. Can our food be so important that, for the sake of it, we take the risk to harm (or even ‘destroy’) the ‘brother for whom Christ died’, ‘the work of God’ (v. 20)? Next time we are aggravated about this thing or the other that our brother or sister may be doing, let’s check whether it hasn’t been blown up out of proportion!
- Verse 19: ‘let us pursue the things which tend to peace, and things whereby one shall build up another’. Here are two further considerations: Are we focused on the right issues? Our most cherished and perhaps most strongly held views should not be allowed to put at risk the things that really matter: peace and edification. How easy it is to get worked up with one conviction or another and to forget to ask whether anyone at all will be edified by this dispute, or whether it will contribute to peaceful harmony. Nothing in this article is to discourage us from standing for the truth. We are under an obligation to ‘contend earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints’, to ‘stand firm’ and to be ‘immovable’ (Jude 3; 1. Cor. 15:58; 16:13; Gal. 5:1; 2. Thess. 2:15). But we need to be careful: we may honestly believe we are contending for the faith and yet be wrong. But in particular, when it comes to matters of conscience or to matters of using our rights and liberty then it is time for us to show flexibility.
(Not) the mind of Christ
In the first seven verses of chapter 15 the issue is summarised and brought to a conclusion: ‘But we ought, we that are strong, to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves’ (verse 1). The attitude that says: ‘I know what is right and I act on it and I do not care about how it affects anyone else’ is not becoming of a Christian. It would be to self-pleasing as opposed to Christ likeness. It would not be the mind of Christ. ‘For’, it goes on to say, ‘even Christ did not please Himself’ (v. 3 NKJV). He was willing to suffer, to bear reproach. And where is He now? Glorified at the right hand of God. So that these things ‘have been written for our instruction, that through endurance and through encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope’ (v. 4).
We need to have Christ before us, the one who ‘did not please Himself’ and this will result in like-mindedness toward one another – not a like-mindedness of a human sort, based on compromise or tolerance, but ‘according to Christ Jesus’. If this is the case there will be a result in praise for God: ‘that ye may with one accord, with one mouth, glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (v. 6).
Perhaps this is why the enemy so often tries to make us succumb to our inclination to judge or, as the case may be, to despise: it puts a spanner in the works of praise and worship. It hinders us in acting in unison, as a ‘holy priesthood’ (not just individual priests). Here is another powerful motive to help us get these differences resolved so that Christ and the Father are not robbed of their due worship ‘with one accord, with one mouth’.
It is interesting to compare the closing statement (15:7) with the opening statement (14:1). At the close of the passage we are told to ‘receive one another’, not only ‘the weak’, and to do so ‘as Christ ... received [us]’, whereas in the earlier verse it said ‘for God has received him’ (14:3). ‘For’ adduces the fact of God receiving the brother, but ‘as’ goes a step further and points to the manner in which it was done, and its effect: ‘to the glory of God’ (15:7).
In summary, then, we have seen that the Apostle Paul brings no less than 12 important and weighty principles to bear on the question of dealing with one another in situations of conflict between the understanding of the strong and the conscience of the weak brother:
- God has received the brother (14:3; cf. 15:7)
- The brother is the servant of another, Christ (14:4)
- Room should be left for prayerful exercise (14:5)
- Christ has died and risen to be Lord over us. Hence, we should live with a view to pleasing Him! (14:6–9)
- We will have to give an account before the judgment seat (14:10)
- We should take care not to do anything that could stumble our brother (14:13)
- Love: my love to my brother should enable me to forego my rights and liberty (14:15a)
- It is the brother ‘for whom Christ has died’, ‘the work of God’ (14:9, 20)
- We should pursue the things which tend to peace and edification (v. 19)
- The example of Christ: He did not please Himself (15:3)
- Only in this way can we be like-minded ‘according to Christ Jesus’ (15:5)
- This will enable us to glorify God in a united way, ‘with one accord, with one mouth’ (15:6).