When I was confronted with the idea that “Christians must keep God’s Food Laws” for the first time, my immediate knee-jerk reaction was to quote Paul. Why… didn’t Paul say that we could eat anything as long as we don’t make anyone else stumble?
A few years later, I read the same verses from the Apostle Paul’s letters, and think to myself – how did I misunderstand his words? and why did I misuse them so carelessly? It was for this very reason Peter was quick to warn the congregations about Paul’s writings.
“And account that the longsuffering of our Lord is salvation; even as our beloved brother Paul also according to the wisdom given unto him hath written unto you; As also in all his epistles, speaking in them of these things; in which are some things hard to be understood, which they that are unlearned and unstable wrest, as they do also the other scriptures, unto their own destruction.”2Pet 3:15,16
I was an unlearned person, as Peter says, perverting Paul’s words to suit my needs, doctrines and agendas. The “Misunderstood Apostle”, as I call him – Paul kept and obeyed the Law (Acts 21:24). To argue or teach that Paul taught against God’s Law in his epistles, is to corrupt his teachings and even the memory of all he did for the faith.
Putting Romans 14 under the microscope
Even though mainline Christianity uses Romans 14 as a means to argue that Paul taught against the food laws and showed a more tolerant way, closer study will reveal that Romans 14 has nothing to do with the clean/unclean food laws established by God. So let us start from the beginning of the Chapter where he starts to advise on a particular topic, and walk down to see what his words really speak of.
Rom 14:1 Him that is weak in the faith receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations.
It is clear that there has been some sort of dispute happening in the congregation of Rome, to which Paul is trying to provide his advise. Paul’s writing in Romans Chapter 14 revolve completely around a “dispute which is doubtful” – this is the context! We must remember that there is no doubt or dispute when it comes to God’s Word. We know that not even one jot or tittle will in anyway pass from the Law till heaven and earth last. God’s eternal Word cannot be called a “doubtful disputation”. If God’s Food Laws was the main subject matter, this would make God’s Law and Word (which was kept by Paul) a “doubtful disputation”. In Paul’s own words “God Forbid”!
Rom 14:2-6 For one believeth that he may eat all things: another, who is weak, eateth herbs. Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not; and let not him which eateth not judge him that eateth: for God hath received him. Who art thou that judgest another man’s servant? to his own master he standeth or falleth. Yea, he shall be holden up: for God is able to make him stand. One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind. He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord; and he that regardeth not the day, to the Lord he doth not regard it. He that eateth, eateth to the Lord, for he giveth God thanks; and he that eateth not, to the Lord he eateth not, and giveth God thanks.
Now to deconstruct this debatable “dispute”. Paul Speaks of 2 categories of people. One eats all things, while the other only eats vegetables. One regards a certain day, while the other does not. One eats, while the other doesn’t. The dispute is hence, regarding eating or not on specific days. “Fasting” in other words! As we know, eating vegetables or a basic diet that did not include any meat, wine or anything pleasant was constituted by Daniel when he fasted (Dan 10:2,3 & Dan 1:12,16). It is a known fact that fasting was practiced heavily in the 1st century (Mat 6:16; 9:14,15, Mar 2:18-20, Luk 5:33-35). And historical documents reveal that Monday and Thursday were considered fast days in the second temple period (Ta’an. 2:4) The pharisee who prayed in Luke 18:12 about fasting twice a week, would have been keeping these fast days.
It is important to note that these fast days were traditions, and did not have root in Scripture. The “dispute” of Romans 14 is surely whether or not to fast on these days. Some believers were fasting on these days, and some were not. Paul’s advise was, not to judge one another and be thankful whether you eat or fast – or keep the traditional fast days or not – as these were doubtful disputes as they did not have Scriptural backing. It was not wrong to fast. It was not wrong to eat either. It was not wrong to fast on specific days. It was not wrong to fast on other days either. Be fully persuaded in your own mind, of what you do – was Paul’s advise to the congregation.
Rom 14:7-13 For none of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself. For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord: whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ both died, and rose, and revived, that he might be Lord both of the dead and living. But why dost thou judge thy brother? or why dost thou set at nought thy brother? for we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ. For it is written, As I live, saith the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God. So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God. Let us not therefore judge one another any more: but judge this rather, that no man put a stumblingblock or an occasion to fall in his brother’s way.
Paul reiterates that no one should judge or become a stumbling block to his brother on this issue.
Rom 14:14 I know, and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus, that there is nothing unclean of itself: but to him that esteemeth any thing to be unclean, to him it is unclean.
This verse is sometimes used to point out that this issue is none other than “clean”/”unclean” foods, as Paul seems to be saying that he is persuaded that there is nothing unclean.
It is worth mentioning the word “unclean” in Rom14:14 in our English versions of the Bible comes from the Greek word “koinos” (G2839 – κοινός – koinos) meaning “common”. The word “unclean” is actually a different Greek word “Akathartos” (G169 – ἀκάθαρτος – akathartos). Both these words can be read in Act 10:14 “But Peter said, Not so, Lord; for I have never eaten any thing that is common(koinos) or unclean(akathartos)”. In fact this is the only place where “koinos” is translated as “unclean” in the whole of the New Testament.
While unclean(akathartos) was used to denote something unclean like “unclean foods”, common(koinos) was used to indicate something “ritually impure”, such as in the case of eating with unwashed hands. “Ritual impurity” was not part of God’s Law, but was connected to Tradition. (Read this study for a in depth look at the difference of God’s Law & Tradition). Basically, unclean(akathartos) was part of God’s Law, while common(koinos) was part of tradition.
So with the above information, let’s try to understand the point Paul is trying to make. In the context of the issue of fasting, he must be reiterating the fact that there is no “common”/”ritually impure”/”wrong way” of fasting. That he believes there is no wrong way of practicing fasting – but if a person concludes he/she should not fast in a particular way, for him/her, the act of fasting in that particular way becomes “common”/wrong way”. In other words, if we fast, we must do it in the way we are led to do it, rather than adhering something that you do not fully agree with.
Rom 14:15 But if thy brother be grieved with thy meat, now walkest thou not charitably. Destroy not him with thy meat, for whom Christ died.
One of the reasons that people believe the earlier verse speaks of “unclean food” is the fact that this verse contains the word “meat”. Yet again, we must dig into the original words of the Greek Manuscripts, to find the truth for ourselves.
The word translated as “meat” in many of our English translations of the Bible, originates from the Greek word “Bromah”(G1033 – βρῶμα – brōma) which means “food”. The Greek word “Kreas”(G2907 – κρέας – kreas) is the word which means “meat” and is used in verse 21, further down in the chapter. “Bromah” is extensively used in the Septuagint for general food, while “kreas” is the word used for meat. It is a grave error in translations that lead to this erroneous teaching of “don’t eat unclean meats if you become a stumbling block to your fellow brother” – leading all to believe that Paul is giving leeway for believers to eat unclean meats as long as others don’t take issue with it.
Paul’s whole discussion which revolves around fasting is yet again what he is addressing in this verse. Basically what he is saying is “you are not walking in love, if your brother takes issue in the fact you eat, while they fast. Don’t allow food to be a factor which can destroy their faith.
Rom 14:16-19 Let not then your good be evil spoken of: For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost. For he that in these things serveth Christ is acceptable to God, and approved of men. Let us therefore follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another.
Paul continues his advise, asking them to not allow anyone to defame them because of this issue – whether you fast or not, whether you fast on a particular day, or not. He explains that the kingdom of God stands on “righteousness”, “peace” and “joy” in the Holy Spirit, and not on disputed issues of “food and drink”. He asks to serve Christ in whatever personal decisions they take on the issue at hand, as this is the only criterion to be acceptable to God. He advises that we must all strive to edify each other, and take a path of peace rather than engage in disputes/arguments on the matter of fasting.
Rom 14:20 For meat destroy not the work of God. All things indeed are pure; but it is evil for that man who eateth with offence.
Paul goes onto finish his advise on the matter of fasting by explaining that “food”(Bromah) should not cause the destruction of the work of God – meaning it should not hinder the work of salvation. All manners of Fasting, whether on a specific day or not, is pure. But it is evil if someone eats and becomes a stumbling block to others through doubtful disputes.
Rom 14:21 It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak.
The fact that he is speaking of fasting, is cemented by this verse as he speaks of refraining from meats(kreas), wine and any other thing that makes others stumble, brings them displeasure or make them weak in the faith. The parallels between Paul’s words here and Dan 10:2,3 where Daniel refrains from meat, wine and delightful bread should be noted.
Rom 14:22,23 Hast thou faith? have it to thyself before God. Happy is he that condemneth not himself in that thing which he alloweth. And he that doubteth is damned if he eat, because he eateth not of faith: for whatsoever is not of faith is sin.
Paul’s final words on the matter, is to instruct them to not cause disputes because of personal faith. Whatever a person believes, must be kept to himself in front of God, in such a situation according to Paul. He exhorts not to fall into condemnation by what each person sees fit to do. And to not doubt yourself if you decide on eating rather than fasting, as your decision must be made in faith without doubts.
Romans chapter 14 is commonly used as an argument to say that Paul endorsed the eating of unclean foods – as long as we don’t make anyone else stumble. Reading the chapter from the beginning provides much needed context and clarity to this misunderstanding. It is clear that Paul is addressing a dispute in Rome. While God’s Word and Law cannot be called a “doubtful disputation”, we know that Paul himself walked orderly and according to God’s Law(Act 21:24).
Rom 14:6 is clear – “He that regards the day, regards it unto the Lord; and he that does not regard the day, he regards it not to the Lord. He that eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he that eats not, does not eat to the Lord, and gives God thanks”. Some are eating, some are not eating. And some are regarding a particular day above the other. It appears to be a dispute about fasting. some eat. some fast. some fast on a particular day. some eat vegetables only(a kind of fasting like done by Daniel). So what is Paul’s advice? avoid doubtful disputes as there are no laws on fasting. Let people eat or fast so that they do not make other brothers stumble. Be sure of your decision, but do not create disputes on the matter. Making the issue addressed by Paul here, into one about God’s Food Laws does not align with the entirety of Scripture, nor does it support the context of the chapter. We must be careful in jumping to conclusions when reading Paul’s words, and try our best to deconstruct them without giving way to our preconceived notions.