Romans 14:13-23

Love your Brother, Not your Belly

 

Tom J. Nettles

 

This text gives a concrete example of how a thing indifferent in itself may become a positive evil. If the indifferent thing is put in a position of priority, if someone prefers it, over something that is demonstratively good and excellent in itself, that which is indifferent in itself, becomes evil in the use of it in such a circumstance. Specifically, eating food of different sorts is a matter of indifference, but when this freedom is chosen at the expense of the tender conscience of a fellow member of Godís kingdom and has the result of harming his spiritual growth, then the one doing the eating, a thing indifferent in itself, is committing a real evil by the result that it entails. How does the eating of meat compare to the commandment to love our brotheróhow does a temporal freedom compare to the infinite excellence of kingdom values? Love your brother, not your belly.

13 [esv] Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.

Paul deals both with the relationship between the supposed weaker brother and the supposed stronger brother.Perhaps the weaker brother is disposed to judge the liberty claimed by the stronger brother. He should be careful of this, especially in light of any clear Scripture that that could be conclusive as to the moral nature of his action. Do not assume that you have either the clarity or the prerogative of judgment reserved for God alone. Instead of judging, each ( perhaps he has in mind particularly the stronger brother here) should act in love, rather than judgment, and be careful not to set up any hindrance to a personís maturity in Christ. That, more than any supposed rights, should be our concern.

14 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.

Notice how strong Paulís language is about his understanding of the moral nature of eating and drinking. His vision concerning the ceremonial nature of food and drink in relation to the Old Testament declaration of clean and unclean has been utterly transformed by the gospel. He has seen clearly the temporal nature of many aspects of the Old Covenant and has learned to differentiate between those things that were symbolic and were observed for a time to protect and give ďpeculiarityĒ to Israel as a nation and what is lasting and of an unchanging moral nature. Paul understood, because of his clarity in Christ Jesus, the distinction between ceremonial law and moral law. All things that God made in and of themselves are clean and may be profitably used. His conscience would undergo no trauma or moral crisis if he ate pork or even if had had to eat a beetle. The conscience, however, is so inextricably connected with oneís spirit and the consciousness that one has of the divine glory and of oneís desire to please God and live under his lordship, that one can never, with some very rare exceptions, be told to go against conscience. The conscience can be trained with greater and more consistent truth, but it is never safe to tell a person to go against conscience. If a person is convinced that something is unclean, he should not be tempted to violate his conscience. The eating would not be wrong, but the violation of conscience would be.

15 For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died.

If a person therefore, that has the insight of Paul as to the nature of creation, moral law in relations to ceremonial law, is in the presence of those that still have moral scruples about certain types of food, or are fearful of participating in evil practices through eating food offered to idols [as in the case of the Corinthians], he is to conduct himself in accord with the conscientious concern of his brother rather than act in accord with his superior knowledge. He might be right in the action itself, but would be wrong in violating the conscience of his brother. The principle that undergirds all moral absolutes is the principle of love. Love is the fulfillment of the Law. If we do a thing that is not wrong, but violate the principle of love in doing it, then taken as a whole we have done wrong. Christ has acted in absolute grace toward that person in dying for him. He surrendered himself to divine wrath though he himself had done no wrong in order that his enemies, evil-doers, might be forgiven. If the one infinitely above us has so regarded that brother, how could we refuse to act toward him, or her, in love. If Christ left heaven and the glorious manifestation of his intrinsic deity, could we not leave a viewpoint about the amoral status of meat behind in order to encourage our brethren in spiritual growth.

 

16 So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil.

If your conviction about the acceptability of using all of Godís created things in a way for the joy and benefit of mankind becomes an occasion of doing evil to your brother and corrupting his conscience, then a thing good in itself may be spoken of as evil in its effect. For the sake of the brother, but for the sake of preserving an opportunity to teach him the ways of God more perfectly, we must take care not to let freedoms be injurious to the overall spiritual tone of the church.

 

17 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. 18 Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. 19 So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.

The true moral absolute in this matter is the upbuilding of Godís people in those things that constitute the glory of living in Godís presence and under his immediate rule.We might glory in our ability to enjoy all the creation as our servant, but those things will perish. Righteousness will never perish and will never lose its luster. It is the perfect reflection of the divine character. All that we can do to enhance our grasp of righteousness and move others toward it far transcends the petty spirit of claiming our rights. Peace is that condition of a restored relationship with God. He, in this matter of redemption, is the God of Peace [1 Thessalonians 5:23; Hebrews 13 20; Philippians 4:9] Joy consists of the unbroken experience of delight, the exuberance of praise and wonder and adoration that one finds in the presence of God [1 Peter 1:8]. It comes to us partially in this life through the presence of the Holy Spirit and his operations upon our affections [1 Corinthians 2:14-16]. It is brought to us fully at the coming of Christ [Phil 1:11; 1 Peter 1:7]. The Spirit is an earnest of our inheritance and is thus a present experience of eternal life, and eternal joy [Ephesians 1:13; 4:30; 2 Corinthians; Romans 8:10] We should be about the task of fostering these things in the minds and hearts of ourselves and our brothers, rather than entering into a contest about who is right on these non-essential matters. On an essential matter of revelatory status, such as the doctrine of justification by faith, Paul was willing to confront even that pillar of the apostles, Peter, and make sure that the crowd around knew that Peter had erred grievously [Galatians 2] on the matter and that the issue should be set right. It really doesnítmake any difference as to where one lands on the issue of what kind of food you will allow yourself to eat. What matters is what one does to his brethren as he lives out his conviction, or his freedom, in public. A mark of true faith, and thus acceptance before God, is service to Christ in seeking the conscientious well-being and spiritual growth of all that are in Christ, even those that have been received into fellowship though in some aspects weak.

20 Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats.

Paul sets the contrast in proper perspective when he puts eating food on one side of the scale and the work of god on the other side. Which one weighs the most. Eating food is absolutely nothing compared to the importance of the work of God in one of his redeemed ones, a person for whom Christ died. In the next sentence he draws an inference from this comparison. It is true that everything is clean. Paulís doctrine of creation combined with his knowledge that all ceremonial law has been fulfilled has settled that issue. But to make a brother stumble, even in doing something that is not wrong, is wrong. The word wrong is one that normally means an intrinsic moral evil. Oneís good become evil in such a context.

 

21 It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.

So do not do that which evil, Instead, do that which is intrinsically a moral good; that is refrain from your freedom to eat or drink certain things for the sake of your brotherís tender conscience. Abstaining in a neutral area normally would not be considered ďgoodĒ in this sense. The purpose for which one would abstain, however, makes such non-action a good thing.

22 The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God.

The fact that your understanding of truth in light of a more mature grasp of divine revelation makes your freedom a matter of faith, does not necessitate the public manifestation of that faith. Holding such a position is not one of those things that must be proclaimed. A conviction about the safety of eating certain things or doing other things, does not make it necessary that you either eat or do. If one may eat without violating either his conscience or a moral principle, he may just as easily abstain without violating a moral principle or his conscience. That conviction may be kept as a matter of oneís own enjoyment of his knowledge of God without ever having to be made an issue of public demonstration. Charles Spurgeon was perfectly satisfied that drinking wine with biblical moderation was acceptable and a legitimate freedom for a Christian; he also was perfectly satisfied to forego his personal freedom and join with the temperance movement for the benefit of the many that could not enjoy his personal freedom without great damage to their souls, and even perhaps to their physical well-being.

Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves. 23 But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.

The man who possesses that kind of mature understanding will never have reason to put himself under condemnation for giving approval to embracing his freedom in this non-essential issue. He is happy and has no burden of conscience with which to deal. A person whose faith, however, does not approve that freedom, but is led to do it any way, brings condemnationto his conscience, but also, in reality, sins against God, for he has violated, what he believed to be in the sight of God, a divine command. Again we are led to see how vital the issue of conscience is.For the person with freedom and an informed conscience to provoke a situation where the man of tender conscience violates his understanding of Godís requirement for him is a tragedy in both Christian fellowship and personal sanctification.