Some believe Romans 14 teaches that Christians do not need to obey the law about clean and unclean animals. The context points to other conclusions.
Some claim that Romans 14 abolishes the law about clean and unclean animals found in Leviticus 11:1-47 and Deuteronomy 14:3-21. Is this true?
First, let us notice the context. Romans 14 begins by telling us that some in the Church wanted to be vegetarians: “Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things. For one believes he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats only vegetables” (verses 1 and 2).
We see from this that the points of dispute that were causing division were matters of little importance. Among them was vegetarianism (a subject not dealt with in the Old Testament). It’s worth asking ourselves whether the apostle Paul would ever have referred to Old Testament injunctions as “doubtful things.”
More importantly, we must ask why any believer in the first century would choose to be vegetarian. Meat was expensive and highly desired as a part of one’s diet back then, unlike today when meat is a staple in Western diets.
The key lies in a chapter that deals with similar matters and gives remarkably similar instructions. In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul also wrote of Christians who chose to avoid eating meat. But here the reason was explicitly given: In the first century it was common for the meats that had been offered to idols to be sold in the marketplace after the offering.
Paul explained to the Church that an idol is nothing (verse 4), but that if a brother’s conscience was troubled by the fact that the meat on the table had been offered to an idol, a brother of stronger conscience should not offend the weaker Christian by insisting on eating it (verses 7, 9-13).
Meats offered to idols and avoiding offense
It is against this backdrop that we should read Romans 14. The Seventh-day Adventist Bible Commentary explains it this way:
“In 1 Cor. 8 the problem of the strong versus the weak brother, as regards diet, is also dealt with. The letter to the Corinthians was written less than a year before that to the Romans. It seems reasonable to conclude that in 1 Cor. 8 and Rom. 14 Paul is dealing with essentially the same problem. In Corinthians the problem is identified as the propriety of eating foods sacrificed to idols. According to the ancient practice pagan priests carried on an extensive merchandise of the animal sacrifices offered to idols. Paul told the Corinthian believers … that inasmuch as an idol was nothing there was no wrong, per se, in eating foods dedicated to it. … Probably for fear of offending in this matter some Christians abstained from flesh foods entirely, which means that their food was restricted to ‘herbs,’ that is vegetables (see Rom. 14:2)” (vol. 6, pp. 634-635).
Paul summarizes: “Let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way” (Romans 14:13).
A different word translated “unclean”
Paul then goes on to explain that “there is nothing unclean of itself; but to him who considers anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean” (verse 14). Note that the word translated “unclean” here is not akathartos, the usual word for unclean meats, but rather koinos, a word normally translated “common,” sometimes referring to that which had died of itself and had not been ritually slaughtered and bled.
The context here is not of foods defined as common in the Bible, but of those foods judged to be common by the conscience of the individual Christian. “To him who considers anything to be unclean [koinos], to him it is unclean. Yet if your brother is grieved because of your food, you are no longer walking in love. Do not destroy with your food [broma, the general word for food, not the word for meat] the one for whom Christ died” (verses 14-15).
Paul later states: “Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All things indeed are pure, but it is evil for the man who eats with offense” (verse 20). Obviously he doesn’t mean that all things are pure in the universal sense, since some things (certain mushrooms, for example) are poisonous, and others (snakes and lizards, for example) are clearly unappetizing to most people as well as not being sanctioned in the Bible as good for food. These words are to be read in the context of secondary matters that are of no consequence in and of themselves, except in the matter of offense.
He then makes a summary statement: “It is good neither to eat meat [kreas, animal flesh] nor drink wine nor do anything by which your brother stumbles or is offended or is made weak” (verse 21). In other words, if you need to go vegetarian or to avoid alcohol or to do whatever is needed to avoid offending a brother, do it!
So we see that Romans 14 deals with practical matters of diet in the Greco-Roman pagan world and has nothing to do with the abolition of the law of clean and unclean meats.
For more about clean and unclean animals, see the article “Clean and Unclean Animals: Does God Care What Meats We Eat?” and the chart “Clean and Unclean Meats.”