3 March 2014

Romans 14:13-23

“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.” (v. 14)


We pick up the dispute that Paul was trying to settle in last week's passages about whether or not there are limits to what can be included in the Christian's diet (Romans 14:2). The issue appears to be whether or not believers should be careful about meat that had been offered to idols, but it connects with a question that was frequently asked in the early Church: can it really be the case that Christ has abolished the Jewish law with its distinction of clean and unclean foodstuffs? Paul's answer is (almost) unequivocal - faith in Christ means that there is nothing that is unclean, except for those whose faith in Christ does not lead them to that point.

It is, at first sight, an odd statement. The Gospel of Mark is much clearer: Jesus said, "Whatever goes into a person cannot defile", and the evangelist adds, "Thus he declared all foods clean" (Mark 7:18-19). It is clear from elsewhere in the epistles and Acts that that was precisely the position Paul had received and now followed. So, is Paul here saying something different - that you need to make up your own mind on this point?

Paul's concern is that the Church should resemble the kingdom of God. He reminds the readers that the kingdom is not about eating or not eating the right things but about "righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (v. 17). Wilfully to upset another Christian who had a sincerely held position does not make for "peace and mutual upbuilding" (v. 19). In the interests of harmony in the Church and out of sensitivity to the scruples of others a Christian should sometimes tread carefully. Paul does not think that this is a minor concern.

The overarching theme of the letter to the Romans is the importance of faith through which we are made righteous. Given that faith is so important and that faith has replaced the law as the guiding principle in the believer's life, it follows that we are bound to act according to our faith and that not to do so is, in effect, to commit a sin. Some translators prefer the word 'conviction' to 'faith' in the last verse of the chapter: 'Whatever does not proceed from conviction is sin' (v. 23).

We have moved a long way in this passage. Paul began by urging the Romans not to judge each other; he ends by asking them to recognise the importance of each other's convictions as sincerely held.

To Ponder

  • What scruples do other Christians have that we need to respect? For instance, about shopping on Sundays? Or drinking wine? Or buying lottery tickets?
  • Do we simply have to accept that on some issues (eg gambling or alcohol) we hold different but equally firm convictions? Is it better to challenge or to question each other on these points or not? Why?

Bible notes author

The Revd Dr Jonathan Hustler

Having been a Methodist circuit minister and a theological college tutor, Jonathan is now Ministerial Coordinator for Oversight of Ordained Ministries in the Connexional Team..