by Kelly McDonald, Jr.
“14 I know and am convinced by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself; but to him who considers anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean. 15 Yet if your brother is grieved because of your food, you are no longer walking in love. Do not destroy with your food the one for whom Christ died. 16 Therefore do not let your good be spoken of as evil…19 Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. 20 Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a man to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble.” (Romans 14:14-16, 19-20, NKJV)
Common Argument: These verses have been used to say that Paul declares all things as clean and no animals are unclean anymore.
Think it Through: In a few sentences, did Paul intend to change the biology of all unclean animals on earth? Did Paul even have the ability to make that happen? We have to consider the issue he was addressing and the language involved. Paul acknowledged in Colossians 1:15-18 that all things were created through Christ – this included clean animals. He still refers to unclean animals in Romans 6:19, 2 Cor. 6:17; Rev. 18:2 also references them. This means Paul discussed something else.
Short Answer: Some believers in the Roman Church viewed clean animal meat as physically dirty and thus were vegetarian. Paul is referring to how people view meat, not how God defines meat. God already settled this at creation (see article “How Does God Define Food?” – click here).
Longer Answer: To grasp the meaning of this excerpt from Romans 14, we need to look at the broader context of the chapter, some language, and history.
“1 Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things. 2 For one believes he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats only vegetables. 3 Let not him who eats despise him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats; for God has received him. 4 Who are you to judge another’s servant? To his own master he stands or falls. Indeed, he will be made to stand, for God is able to make him stand” (NKJV).
The first thing we need to understand about this passage is that Paul is addressing a disputable situation or matter (verse 1). Some translations say ‘doubtful opinion.’ Whether some animals are clean or unclean is clearly explained several times in the Scriptures (see article “How Does God Define Food?” – click here). It is not doubtful as Paul refers to it in Romans 6:19 and 2 Corinthians 6:17. This means the situation at hand is not clearly addressed by the Old Testament.
The first four verses inform us that the issue involves one group who only wants to eat vegetables and another group that eats animal meat. Thus, the issue involves vegetarianism versus eating meat in general. The chapter is not about what kind of meat one should eat. Over the next few verses, Paul adds additional detail to clarify the situation.
“5 One person esteems one day above another; another esteems every day alike. Let each be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 He who observes the day, observes it to the Lord; and he who does not observe the day, to the Lord he does not observe it. He who eats, eats to the Lord, for he gives God thanks; and he who does not eat, to the Lord he does not eat, and gives God thanks. 7 For none of us lives to himself, and no one dies to himself. 8 For if we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. Therefore, whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.” (NKJV)
In verses 5-6, Paul lists another disputable matter among the believers in Rome: whether one day is esteemed more than another. Some have said that Paul condemned the Sabbath or Feast Days with these verses. Paul addressed days that man considers important, not days that God considers important. God said over and over again that the Sabbath is Holy and that it is HIS feast (Lev. 23:2-3). This issue has to do with days that men have set aside as important to perform common, everyday tasks. If you consider one day a good day to till the soil or perform another common activity, then honor the Lord with these activities. Do not honor some pagan deity or superstition Click here to learn more about Romans 14:4-5.
Towards the end of verse 6, Paul transitioned back to the issue of eating. He emphasized that we should eating for the Lord and for no other purpose.
Remember that this letter was written to the Romans. They were very superstitious. There was a religious cult in Rome that forbade eating any meat. They were only allowed to eat vegetables. There was a strain of thought in the Roman world which believed very strongly in vegetarianism (Ovid, Metamorphosis,bk15:76-112, 140-142, 458-462; Seneca, Epistulae, 108:17-22; Plutarch: On the Eating of Flesh, 1:41 and On Isis and Osiris, sections 2,4,7; Lucius Apuleis, Metamorphosis, 11:26-29). From these sources we can see that their vegetarian beliefs were rooted either in the worship of other gods or superstition.
Paul stated that those who abstain from meat should abstain from meat for the Lord. Those who eat meat should do so because they believe it is acceptable in God’s eyes. In other words, the Roman Christians should honor the Lord and not honor themselves or other non-Biblical beliefs. Paul addressed how the Roman believers should resolve this problem in verses 14-23.
“14 I know and am convinced by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself; but to him who considers anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean. 15 Yet if your brother is grieved because of your food, you are no longer walking in love. Do not destroy with your food the one for whom Christ died. 16 Therefore do not let your good be spoken of as evil” (NKJV).
The Greek word Paul uses for unclean in verse 14 is koinon, which refers to physical dirtiness or something common. The main Greek word used in the New Testament to refer to unclean animals is the word akathartos. It is not used in this passage (see 2 Cor. 6:17 for a verse where akathartos is used).
In verse 15, Paul uses the word broma for food, which refers to clean animal meat. Therefore, Paul defines meat in the passage. In both the New Testament and Old Testaments, food is that which God made ‘to eat.’ To learn more about this subject, read the article “How Does God Define Food?” (click here).
In verses 14-15, Paul wrote that no broma is physically unclean (koinon) of itself. Some of the new believers in Rome that were once influenced by vegetarian-based religions still believed that broma, or animal meat that God made to eat, was physically impure. These believers thought that Christ would condemn them for eating clean animal meat. This is why Paul called them weak or immature in the faith. They did not have the faith to believe that eating clean animal meat was permitted by Christ.
Paul said that broma was only physically defiled to someone who thinks that it is physically defiled. It is not physically defiled in God’s eyes because it is permissible to eat. The immature believers in Rome did not have enough faith to believe they could eat clean animal meat. At the same time, mature believers should not hinder the faith of these less mature believers by eating clean meat in front of them. He then explained to the Romans why believers should not use food as a stumbling block to each other.
“17 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, 18 because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by men.”
The Greek word Paul uses for eating in verse 17 is brosis, which also refers to clean animal meat. Abstaining from brosis or clean animal meat does not disqualify someone from the Kingdom of God. Instead, we should focus on living through the Holy Spirit. Romans 14:17-18 does not apply to the positive action of eating an unclean animal, but the negative action of not eating clean animals. Those who abstain are simply weak in the faith. Paul concludes this chapter in verses 19-23.
“19 Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. 20 Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a man to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. 21 It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother to fall. 22 So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he approves. 23 But the man who has doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.”
Paul used the word bromatos (a form of broma) in verse 20. All broma is clean. He is affirming that clean animals are permissible to eat. There’s nothing new here – only what is already True. At the same time, he cautioned the mature believers in Rome not to eat clean animal meat in front of other brothers who think that such meat is physically defiled and morally wrong to eat. He is not willing to let a matter such as eating broma, which God has clearly defined, to come between the brethren or cause someone’s downfall.
In the very next chapter, Paul wrote: “….For everything that was written in the past was written to teach us, so that through endurance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope…” (Romans 15:4). In his conclusion, Paul affirmed that everything was written in the Old Testament to teach us. This means that the dietary commandments, His seventh-day Sabbath, His Feast Days, and and other commandments are all to teach us and give us hope. This means they are always relevant and cannot be done away with or changed.
A closer look at Romans 14 reveals that the chapter has nothing to do with the dietary laws, but instead addresses how to deal with differences among believers in the body of Christ. The main concern in the chapter is that mature believers do not use their faith in a way that damages the faith of less mature believers. Additionally, he does not want us to cling to superstitions that prevent what God permits. Through the use of the words broma and brosis, Paul promoted the eating of clean animals and the abstention of unclean animals – not that we should consider them the same. This leaves no room for the interpretation that he supports eating pork or any other unclean meat.
To learn more about how Peter and Paul defending the dietary instructions, read the article: “Peter and Paul: Defenders of Clean and Unclean” (click here to read).
Kelly McDonald, Jr.
BSA President www.biblesabbath.org