A Commentary by John Stott
Romans 14:17-21. (ii) Welcome him because the kingdom of God is more important than food (continued).
Secondly, *do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food* (20a). ‘The work of God’ could mean the individual weaker brother, but in the context it seems to refer to the Christian community. ‘Destroy’ translates a different verb from the one which Paul has used in verse 15. *Katalyo* means to ‘tear down’ or ‘throw down’, particularly in relation to buildings. It appears to be deliberately contrasted with the previous verse. Our responsibility is to seek to build up the fellowship (19), not to tear it down (20). And in particular we must not tear it down *for the sake of food*. In the Greek sentence this clause comes first. Surely ‘for the sake of a plate of meat’ (JBP) we are not going to wreck God’s work! Already three times Paul has used a little irony to expose the incongruity of valuing food above peace, the health of our stomach above the health of the community; this is the fourth. Are you strong really prepared, he asks, to distress a brother *because of what you eat* (15a), to damage him spiritually *by your eating* (15b), to prize your *eating and drinking* above God’s kingdom (17), and now to demolish God’s work *for the sake of food* (20)? (cf. 1 Cor.8:8). There must have been some red faces among the strong as they listened to Paul’s letter being read out in the assembly. His gentle sarcasm showed up their skewed perspective. They would have to re-value their values, give up insisting on their liberties at the expense of the welfare of others, and put the cross and the kingdom first.
Paul’s third exhortation expresses a contrast between two kinds of behaviour, which he declares to be respectively ‘wrong’ and ‘right’ *kakos* (20b) and *kalos* (21), *All food is clean*, he affirms, a truth repeated from verse 14 except that the adjective is now *katharos* (‘pure’) not *koinos* (‘common’), *but it is wrong (kakos) for a man to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble* (20b). This being so *it is better (kalos)* not to eat meat or drink wine (which is here mentioned for the first time) *or to do anything else that will cause your brother to fall* (21). The statement that ‘all food is clean’ sounds like the slogan of the strong. And Paul agrees with it. Here is the theological truth which gave them their liberty to eat anything they liked. But there were other factors to consider, which would require them to limit the exercise of their liberty. In particular, there was the weaker brother or sister with the oversensitive, over-scrupulous conscience, who was convinced that not all food was clean. So it would be *evil* for the strong to use their liberty to harm the weak. Alternatively, it would be *good* for the strong (Paul drives the argument to its logical conclusion) to eat no meat and drink no wine, that is, to become vegetarians and total abstainers, and to go to any other extreme of renunciation, if that were necessary to serve the welfare of the weak.
Paul concludes (22-23) by drawing a distinction between belief and action, that is, between private conviction and public behaviour. *So*, he writes, as regards the private sphere, *whatever you believe about these things*, whether you are strong and believe you can eat anything, or weak and believe you cannot, *keep between yourself and God* (22a), keep it a secret. There is no need either to parade your views or to impose them on other people. As for public behaviour, there are two options, represented by two ‘men’ whom we quickly recognize as a strong and a weak Christian respectively. The strong Christian is blessed because his
conscience approves of his eating everything, so that he can follow his conscience without any guilt feelings. *Blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he approves (22b). But the man who has doubts*, that is, the weak Christian who is plagued with misgivings because his conscience gives him vacillating signals, *is condemned if he eats* (probably by his conscience, not by God), *because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith* (REB ‘which does not arise from conviction’) *is sin* (23). This final epigram exalts the significance of our conscience. Although, as we have seen, it is not infallible, it is nevertheless sacrosanct, so that to go against it (to act *not from faith*) is to sin. At the same time, alongside this explicit instruction not to violate our conscience, there is an implicit requirement to educate it.
Paul comes next to his third negative deduction from the positive principle to ‘accept’ the weaker brother. Having urged the strong neither to despise and judge him (14:2-13a), nor to distress and damage him (14:13b-23), he now exhorts them not to please themselves (15:1-13).