What does Romans chapter 14 mean?Romans 14 tackles an issue as relevant for the modern church as it was for Roman believers in Paul's era. Many decisions in the Christian life don't come with absolute, yes-or-no, one-size-fits-all answers. On major issues, God's Word is clear. But on less important subjects, Christians might find it necessary to agree to disagree. How to live out that kind of unity is the focus of Paul's comments here.
Paul has written that for those who are in Christ, some actions are clearly right. This includes setting ourselves aside in love and service to others and be in submission to human authorities. Other things are clearly wrong, including sexual immorality, jealousy, and drunkenness. That leaves open the question of practices not clearly right or wrong for all people.
For the Roman believers, this debate mostly concerned some of the rules and restrictions of the law of Moses. Those in Christ have been freed from following these rules, but doubts lingered. Is it right or wrong now to eat meat that might not be kosher according to the law? Is it right or wrong now to observe special days like Jewish festivals and the Sabbath?
Paul divides the church into two groups based on their response to these questions. There are those who are fully convinced that because of God's grace, they are now free in Christ to eat and drink anything. Nothing is unclean for them. Then there are believers comparatively "weak" in their faith, who do not feel a clear conscience acting outside of those restrictions. They may think it's still wrong for any Christians to eat non-kosher meat, for instance (Romans 14:1–2).
Though Paul calls these concerned believers "weak in faith," he instructs those who are comparatively strong and free in their faith to welcome them. These less-assured Christians ought to be fully and completely accepted into the church, and not only so they can be argued out of their convictions. The picture Paul paints is of these two groups co-existing in the church in unity and peace.
Neither group should pass judgment on the other. God has welcomed both groups into His family. How dare either group turn the other away? The Lord is the master of all of them, after all. None of them are master to the others, no matter whose faith is stronger or weaker. Each person should be fully convinced of his or her position on these issues and practice them to honor the Lord while giving thanks to God. This goes for both the abstainers and the consumers, both the observers of days and those who do not. Whatever we do, we should honor the Lord, because all of us in Christ belong to Him (Romans 14:3–9).
A key component of this teaching is the fact that we have no place to judge each other. A judgment day is coming for Christians when Christ will examine all our works. He will determine which of our deeds were worthwhile and which were worthless. Though our salvation in Christ is secure, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God for how we spent our days. We will not be judged according to the preferences of other believers (Romans 14:10–12).
Still, the group described as "stronger" faith Christians, cannot flaunt their freedom. Carelessly choosing to eat and drink risks harm to their weaker brothers and sisters. Instead, they should set aside their freedom to promote peace, unity, and building up the church instead of tearing it down. In other words, merely having the "freedom" to do something does not make that action acceptable in all times and places. It's better to not do anything that causes another Christian to stumble, rather than pass judgment on oneself by encouraging someone to violate their own conscience.
So when it comes to deciding whether we will exercise our freedom to eat and drink things that were once forbidden, a strong Christian's first priority should be to avoid tripping up someone who is weaker in her faith. If someone believes something is unclean—meaning their conscience cannot agree to partake in it—then it really is unclean for them, individually. To violate their conscience in that case is a sin, Paul writes (Romans 14:13–24).
At the same time, those who have tighter convictions—those Paul labels as "weaker" faith Christians—don't have the authority to put restrictions on other believers (1 Corinthians 10:29–30; 1 Timothy 4:4). Having an opinion that something is a sin for you, does not automatically mean that act is a sin for all other Christians. Rather than looking down on those who don't share a non-essential conviction, should know that anyone who violates their conscience in these unclear matters will be sinning.
All Christians should keep disagreements about non-essential convictions and practices between themselves and God. Instead of using their freedom, or a holier-than-thou attitude, to "rub it in the face" of those who disagree, they should humbly choose not to offend a brother or sister in Christ.