In Romans 14 we find Paul trying to help the early church understand what it means to be free in Christ. In Galatians 5:1 it says “It was for freedom that Christ has set us free” – but what did this freedom look like and how should it be used?
Often issues arose from gentiles (non-Jews) coming to faith. This raised questions as to what the requirements were for living life as a Christian which resulted in much debate, often around what food was permitted to be consumed.
Paul states clearly in his writing his belief that in Christ there is nothing unclean (Rom 14:14). In fact, everything is permissible, but (and this is key) not everything is beneficial (1Cor 10:23).
Before we explore what this means it’s important to remind ourselves that God desires relationship with you and me and he gives us the free will to choose whether to respond to his invite. A key premise of the Christian faith is that we are able to come into relationship with God not because of anything that we’ve done but only because of the work of Christ on the cross. Because it is about relationship freely offered, it means that you and I are free from having to worry about what we do and whether or not this affects our standing with God.
But even though we have this freedom in respect of our salvation, there are still consequences to our choices both for ourselves and for the rest of the body of Christ. Our freedom, wrongly used can cause pain and there is an expectation that as we grow in maturity as a Christian we learn to use our freedom well, to build up and to strengthen the body. As Paul says in 1Cor 13, love must be the context within which we express our freedom as Christians.
So Romans 14 deals with Christians who were using their freedom in a way that was causing pain to others’ in this case their freedom to eat all meat when for some this still caused offence. In one sense it doesn’t matter what the freedom is that is being talked about. What matters is that even if you or I have the freedom to live in a certain way or to make particular choices, if this is done in a way that has no sense of love for someone for whom our actions might cause offence or even worse be a stumbling block to their faith, then the object of our freedom actually becomes as if it was unclean.
The highest expression of our freedom in Christ is not the flexing of that freedom but is actually the preferring of the weaker brother or sister in this area, even if that means we sacrifice our right to that freedom. It matters more that we do all we can to build up our fellow brother or sister and avoid any possibility of causing them to struggle or stumble in their faith.
A good illustration of this sacrificial preferring of our brother or sister even if it means losing our right to make a particular choice was the recent actions of Alistair Brownlee giving up his ‘freedom’ to win a triathlon race in order to help his ‘weaker’ brother Jonny Brownlee who was struggling.
Paul talks about running the race well when talking about living the Christian life. This passage in Romans helps us to understand that a key component of doing this involves us encouraging and helping our brothers and sisters to cross the line with us, even if we have to slow down a bit in order to help them.
The message translation of this passage I think helps to bring clarification to what Paul is saying. As you read it, allow the Holy Spirit to speak to you about how you can be someone who uses your freedom in Christ to build up, and also ask Him to challenge you about where you may have done the opposite:
14 Welcome with open arms fellow believers who don’t see things the way you do. And don’t jump all over them every time they do or say something you don’t agree with—even when it seems that they are strong on opinions but weak in the faith department. Remember, they have their own history to deal with. Treat them gently.
13-14 Forget about deciding what’s right for each other. Here’s what you need to be concerned about: that you don’t get in the way of someone else, making life more difficult than it already is. I’m convinced—Jesus convinced me!—that everything as it is in itself is holy. We, of course, by the way we treat it or talk about it, can contaminate it.
15-16 If you confuse others by making a big issue over what they eat or don’t eat [they think is ok to do or not to do as a Christian], you’re no longer a companion with them in love, are you? These, remember, are persons for whom Christ died. Would you risk sending them to hell over an item in their diet? Don’t you dare let a piece of God-blessed food become an occasion of soul-poisoning!
19-21 So let’s agree to use all our energy in getting along with each other. Help others with encouraging words; don’t drag them down by finding fault.
I said it before and I’ll say it again: All food is good, but it can turn bad if you use it badly, if you use it to trip others up and send them sprawling. When you sit down to a meal, your primary concern should not be to feed your own face [or to do the things your prefer] but to share the life of Jesus.
15 1-2 Those of us who are strong and able in the faith need to step in and lend a hand to those who falter, and not just do what is most convenient for us. Strength is for service, not status. Each one of us needs to look after the good of the people around us, asking ourselves, “How can I help?”
Written by Mike Rutter
Each blog is written by our Sunday speaker as a follow up to their talk.