Nothing Unclean of Itself

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Abstract

Romans 14 is commonly understood to teach the concept that God has abolished the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament, including the feast days and dietary laws, and that this part of the Law is no longer required of believers. However, this view ignores the historical context, key elements of the immediate context, contradicts the vast weight of scripture … and even implies that Christ failed to teach The Twelve, His chosen apostles, this critically important concept, such that these earliest disciples themselves were our “weaker brothers,” men who remained immature in their understanding of the Gospel and its spiritual implications, and who persisted passionately in this ignorance and weakness their entire lives. To avoid such absurdity we must note that Paul did not merely say “nothing is unclean,” but he said that no food becomes unclean … “of itself,” on its own, apart from how Torah defines uncleanness. Rather, Paul is showing us how a correct understanding of Scripture frees us from inappropriate asceticism and the cumbersome burdens of rabbinic tradition, and yet is encouraging us to give up some of our liberty in order to live in peace with weaker brothers who may not be mature enough to rest fully in God’s ways due to powerful cultural sentiments and religious traditions.

Introduction

In the Bible it is written, “I know, and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus, that there is nothing unclean of itself: but to him that esteemeth any thing to be unclean, to him it is unclean.” (Ro 14:14) This text, along with its immediate context, is commonly misunderstood to show that Jesus Christ personally taught the apostle Paul that the dietary laws of the Old Testament (the Tanakh) are no longer in effect. This is the understanding of most evangelical theologians today, who would have us believe (from wresting this text and others) that God is no longer interested in us following certain parts of the Torah, the Law of Moses; they believe He has annulled and abolished Torah. Is this the correct understanding of the text?

Historical Context

Let us begin by understanding the relevant history and context. We find from passages such as Acts 21:24 that The Twelve, the original apostles of Christ who led the early Church, were all keeping Torah diligently at this time, which included the dietary laws. (Ac 10:14) While there was intense debate as to whether Gentiles should be required to convert to Judaism and keep all of the burdensome customs and traditions which the Pharisees had added to Torah (Eph 2, Gal 2, Acts 10-11, Acts 15, see What God Hath CleansedOne New Man, and No Greater Burden), there is no historical witness of any debate in the early Church over the abolition of any part of the Torah itself.

However, there was an intense diet-related debate in the early Church over whether it was sinful for believers to eat food or drink which had been dedicated to idols. (1Co 8:1-2) This was of such a concern to The Twelve that they encouraged Gentiles to abstain from this practice (Ac 15:29); even though they recognized it was not actually a sin, they understood how severe a stumbling block this could be for those who did not yet have a mature grasp of spiritual things. (1Co 10:28-29)

Our challenge in this passage is to understand Paul in light of this historical context and to integrate it with our understanding of the rest of Scripture. This is quite easily done, especially given the undisputed, clear witness of the historical context, when we take the time to think it through.

Weak In the Faith?

Romans 14 is a chapter about how to live our Christian lives in community with people who are less mature in their understanding of spiritual things without harassing them, harming them or causing them to stumble and sin. It is important then that we begin where Paul begins, by defining what it means to be a weaker brother in this context.

Paul helps us here from the outset of the passage: “Him that is weak in the faith receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations. For one believeth that he may eat all things: another, who is weak, eateth herbs.” (Rom 14:1-2)

Paul says, by way of example, that in our given context strong believers perceive a certain kind of freedom in what they are permitted by God to eat, but in this same context weaker brothers, being limited in their faith and understanding of relevant spiritual principles, refuse to eat any meat (flesh) at all and restrict their diet to herbs and vegetables due to an inappropriate fear that consuming meat in this particular context is sinful. What context and conflict is Paul describing here?

At first, when Paul says of the strong brother that he believes he may eat all things, we might be tempted to think Paul is saying that the mature in the faith realize that the old Mosaic dietary laws are now obsolete so they need not respect these laws any longer; these believers feel free to eat anything at all. In this same context the weaker brothers are then the ones still clinging to the Mosaic Law; these brothers do not yet realize that the dietary laws have been abolished. However, this understanding is problematic given our historical context since it implies the Twelve Apostles themselves, who personally heard the teachings of Christ and walked with Him intimately for the duration of His earthly ministry, those brave men who were chosen and entrusted by Christ to first carry the torch of the Gospel to the nations, are to be included in this class of weaker brothers.

According to the biblical record, none of the immediate disciples of Christ ever understood that the dietary laws were abolished, nor did they ever teach this to anyone. All twelve of these men, from the detail God has given us in the history of the early Church in Acts, and also from the uninspired historical records of the early Church, went to martyr’s deaths believing in and faithfully obeying the Levitical dietary laws. They never had any idea that any part of the Torah had been abolished. This is an undisputed, extremely relevant and pivotal fact which we must consider very carefully.

Is it reasonable to conclude that all those who personally experienced the teaching and ministry of Christ first hand … never actually got it right? That they never properly understood the Gospel and the basics of its implications … not even later from the apostle Paul? On this extremely major point – the abolishing of the Law of Moses — they all remained completely ignorant.

Why did the early disciples of Jesus Christ act like this? as if the entire Torah was still valid, including the dietary laws? The answer here is simple: Christ never mentioned this major point, that His work would abolish any part of the Mosaic Law, in any of His teaching … ever. He actually taught just the opposite: Christ clearly taught that the entire Torah would be in effect for at least as long as Heaven and Earth stand, and He warned us not to think any other way about it. (Mat 5:17-19, see Keep My Commandments) Something appears to be amiss in current evangelical interpretation here.

All Things?

So then, what does Paul mean when he says, “one believeth that he may eat all things?” If we think about it even for a moment, we quickly realize we must qualify this phrase in some way in order for it to make sense: without qualification, all things includes … well … everything — the sun, moon and stars … rocks and dirt … other people … the heavenly angels … all things even includes God Himself.

Evidently, when Paul says all things he must mean anything that may reasonably be considered food, or, in other words, anything which God has provided for us to eat. Paul is saying that those instructed in spiritual matters realize we may freely eat anything and everything which God has provided for us as food without doubting and worrying whether it is sinful or not. However, under certain circumstances weaker people, those who are not fully comprehending God’s mind about food, are afraid to eat things which God has provided for us to eat due to a lack of understanding about what is pleasing to God.

What is Food?

So, what does the Torah teach regarding food? Anyone instructed in Torah, as Paul’s audience evidently is … for the Tanakh (what we call the Old Testament) is the only Scripture they know, and they are constantly looking to it for guidance in all things pertaining to life and godliness (2Ti 3:16-17) … knows that God has blessed the eating of certain kinds of animals which He defines as clean – and they know this because God clearly says so in His Word. (Lev 11:2-3) God does not consider unclean animals to be food … they are not even in scope for discussion for these early believers … any more than dirt and rocks.

If we fail in our reasoning here, and persist in claiming that this isolated text implies God has abolished the dietary laws, we must necessarily also conclude one of the following: [1] God has encouraged us to passionately love laws of His which were not intrinsically good for us, but which were at best whimsical and arbitrary, unnecessarily inconvenient, or even bad for us – which contradicts (i) Torah itself (De 4:6, Ps 19:7-11), (ii) the basic nature of the Godhead (Ps 103:13), and (iii) also the consistent witness of the apostle Paul (Rom 7:12, 16, 1Ti 1:8), or [2] that God, even though His dietary laws were originally intrinsically wonderful for us, decided at some point to secretly change the physical nature of all unclean animals such that these creatures which He commanded us to abstain from with abhorrence (Lev 11:11) are now quite good for us to eat. However, after miraculously transforming all of these detestable creatures into nutritious wholesome food, God decided to not actually tell anyone about this drastic change (except perhaps just the apostle Paul), expecting The Twelve, along with all the rest of us, to just sort of figure it out on our own and start ignoring His dietary laws — which is, of course, insanity, absurdity, and foolishness. We have no other options in this context.

The Conflict

The conflict Paul is describing here is therefore not over the legitimacy of the dietary laws (or over the continuing legitimacy, integrity or applicability of Torah in general), but rather involves a specific context wherein weaker brothers, being instructed in and aware of God’s provision in Torah for us to eat clean animals, evidently also believe that something bad has happened to these clean animals which makes eating them sinful, or at least deeply displeasing to God, and this view is of necessity not strictly according to Torah (for if Torah says the food is unclean the stronger brothers will also refuse to eat it and there is no conflict).

In this context the weaker brothers feel compelled to avoid eating any meat of any kind for fear of displeasing God, and they become vegetarians in spite of what is written in Torah. The stronger brothers however, in this same context, realize based on what God says in Torah that whatever it is that has happened to the clean animal that offends the weaker brothers hasn’t actually altered the state of this food before God, or made it unclean, and so they are still free to eat it. There is a fundamental difference in their maturity and understanding in this context, in their faith and comprehension of the way spiritual dynamics work, which causes them to differ on what is acceptable here.

From our historical context we know that the early Church dealt with a very common situation that perfectly fits this context: eating meat which had (very likely) been offered to idols for a demonic blessing. In Roman culture at that time it was common for meat sold in the market to have undergone a ritual dedication to the local gods. While worshipping idols was clearly a sin (1 Cor 10:20-22), purchasing meat at the market long after it has been through such a ceremony and eating this meat at home was a different matter entirely. Further, even sitting down to enjoy a meal with idol worshippers in an idol’s temple was not technically sinful, so long as one did not personally reverence the false god in any way; enjoying a meal with unbelievers is not a sin, regardless where it is located or what others are thinking and feeling as they eat. (1 Cor 8:10) It was on such matters that many early believers struggled fiercely: Had the food itself become unclean merely because of a temple ritual?

The Admonition

In this context Paul has an admonition for each party in the conflict: “Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not; and let not him which eateth not judge him that eateth: for God hath received him.” (Rom 14:3) Paul says that those who are stronger and feel free to eat the controversial food are not to think less of their weaker brothers who lack the faith to believe the food is appropriate to eat. At the same time, the weaker brothers are not to be so bold as to accuse and condemn those who partake of this controversial food. Each must live in good conscience before God and let their brothers do the same.

In the context of this admonition, when we consider carefully the implications of the concept of stronger believers — who confidently eat that which is controversial due to a more mature faith and understanding, and who then might be tempted to look down on or despise those who lack their degree of faith, and weaker believers — who deny themselves things they might otherwise enjoy because they lack faith and understanding that permits them to do so in good conscience, these concepts imply one of two things: either [1] there is relatively strong evidence available to support the view of the stronger, evidence commonly available to the weak which they are unable to internalize or apprehend due to ignorance or insufficient faith, or [2] the stronger brothers are arrogantly presuming a freedom to indulge themselves without any valid evidence that God has actually given them this freedom, and so they are taking holiness rather lightly, and the weaker brothers are the ones who are faithfully denying themselves by walking according to the revealed will of God as best they can, rather than risking their fellowship with God through something that is evidently sinful. Ultimately, these are our only two choices here; there are no other options.

Now, in God’s economy there is no strength in arrogant presumption; there is spiritual strength only in holiness, wisdom and humility. To have a position of humble strength and faith in a matter one must be grounded in the objective revelation of God, not in presumption; one must have a reason, some evidence for what one believes by faith.

Now, if we understand that the conflict Paul is addressing relates primarily to eating food offered to idols (or any similarly applicable scenario where God’s Word speaks clearly on a topic but some are unable to overcome cultural bias and enjoy God’s provision in spite of God’s revealed will), our evidence in option [1] above is the plain wording of Torah, available to all, and we then have a full context which makes sense and can be understood consistently in light of the rest of Scripture. The stronger brothers are walking by faith in God’s Word, rejecting common heathen sentiment (that eating meat purchased in the market is aligning with false gods), yet through fear and a weak conscience the weaker brothers are unable to resist this cultural sentiment and to fully believe and rest in Torah.

However, if we persist in common evangelical carelessness here by thinking that the controversial foods in question are animals which the Bible condemns as unclean, what evidence is there to suggest to the stronger brothers that such food is now acceptable? There is none … so we must discard option [1] above and go with option [2], which is untenable.

In thinking this way, that this context concerns the irrelevance of dietary laws, we must now reverse the positions of the stronger and weaker brothers and try to understand an entirely different sense in God’s admonition to each. We must firmly ground the weaker brothers in Scripture (at this time only the Tanakh) along with the Twelve Apostles, and yet try to explain why they refuse to eat any meat at all … when clean meat is clearly permitted in Torah.

We must also conclude, as in option [2] above, that the brothers who are violating dietary laws are being called the stronger by God merely due to their own personal arrogant presumption … for there is no evidence in Scripture (Torah) that the dietary laws have been abolished, Christ warned against thinking this way, Paul never clearly explained this in any of his epistles, and there is no historical witness of this general belief pattern anywhere in the churches at the time.

What real evidence does one give for the belief that there are now no unclean foods? That the dietary laws are obsolete? Apart from taking texts such as this one out of context, there is none. This shows us that the context cannot be referring to a debate over the relevance of dietary laws; rather, Paul is providing guidance on how to address controversies arising from lack of faith in God’s Word which do not involve violating Torah (the definition of sin, 1 John 3:4), such as eating food which has been offered to idols, a common problem facing most all believers outside of Israel in that day.

Regarding the Day

As Paul continues to instruct believers in how to handle these general types of controversies he brings in a similar example: “One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.” (Rom 14:5) Here Paul encourages believers to seek out the will of God for themselves in how to view the significance and value of certain holy days.

Again, many are quick to suggest that Paul is giving us yet another example of how the Law has been abolished, saying God no longer cares if we observe the Sabbath day or any of the biblical feast days. However, if we read the text carefully, Paul is not making any direct statement here about the duty to observe these feasts. Rather, he is describing how worshippers in these feasts might view the relative importance of one of these feast days in comparison with another, a concept which is not addressed in the Torah itself but which becomes very important in the context of the oral traditions of Judaism.

For example, it is commonly understood among practicing Jews today that the holiest day of the year is Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, one of the seven biblical feasts defined by God. However, there is no statement in Torah to this effect, that Yom Kippur is holier than any other day; this is merely an opinion one may have based on the particular nature of this feast … it is a subjective feeling and not an objective fact. It is not a sin to view this day as more important or special than any other in the calendar year, and neither is it a sin to regard all of the feast days as having equivalent importance and significance, or for that matter to consider every single day of our existence as being equally important and valuable. It is a matter of opinion and not a matter of sin.

So, in this second example Paul continues the common theme of his instruction here: in differences of preference and opinion where the Word of God does not speak directly, we are to allow each other freedom rather than seeking to impose our own prejudices and biases upon each other, regardless of how strongly we feel about them. If believers wish to follow certain customs and traditions which the Jewish people have created to try and help us follow Torah in community, then they should feel free to do so. But this should not be required of or imposed on believers in general, especially when these practices become inconvenient or burdensome in a way that would tend to discourage people or move them to an unhealthy self-righteousness, or when they contradict the Torah itself, which many of these traditions appear to do.

How to Live

Paul continues in verses 7 through 9 by emphasizing the overriding principle at work in this context: we have one Master and we are each primarily accountable to Him; when we are discussing ways to please God that are over and above Torah, beyond the scope and spirit of His Law, we are to acknowledge that everyone’s walk and disposition is unique and precious to God – and that ultimately everyone answers directly to Him. “For none of us liveth to himself, and no man dieth to himself. For whether we live, we live unto the Lord; and whether we die, we die unto the Lord: whether we live therefore, or die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ both died, and rose, and revived, that he might be Lord both of the dead and living.”

In light of this fact, that “we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ,” Paul asks both parties in such controversies why they are inappropriately meddling in each other’s business; the weaker brother is judging another in cases where there is no Torah violation (“But why dost thou judge thy brother?“) and the stronger is holding his weaker and less mature brother in contempt (“… or why dost thou set at nought thy brother?“) Since each of us ultimately answers to God, we should give each other space to pursue Him as we each think best. “For it is written, As I live, saith the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God. So then every one of us shall give account of himself to God.” (Rom 14:11-12) When we keep this perspective in mind it is easier to allow each other freedom to be different in matters of opinion and to focus on keeping our own lives in order, staying as close to God as possible.

Paul continues: “Let us not therefore judge one another any more: but judge this rather, that no man put a stumblingblock or an occasion to fall in his brother’s way.” (Rom 14:13) Rather than condemning each other in things which are not clearly spelled out in Torah, our primary concern should be that we do not cause others to stumble and fall – to either [1] sin against God by deliberately violating Torah as a manner of life or [2] to sin against their own conscience by taking liberty which they are not convinced God permits.

Nothing Unclean of Itself

It is in this second case where Paul is trying to help the stronger brothers walk in love with their weaker brothers. He agrees with their formal position in the matter: “I know, and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus, that there is nothing unclean of itself: but to him that esteemeth any thing to be unclean, to him it is unclean.”(Rom 14:14) As Paul explains more explicitly in 1st Corinthians 8, he is certain in Christ that the mere act of ceremonially dedicating a piece of food to an idol does not make the food unclean; the demons have no power in themselves to make an object their own or to associate themselves with it in a spiritual manner. Note carefully that Paul does not merely say here that “there is nothing unclean,” but he says “there is nothing unclean … of itself.” An object does not become unclean of itself, on its own, in an isolated fashion, independently of how Torah defines the transference of uncleanness. God has been very clear about how uncleanness is transferred; being “blessed” by a demon does nothing to food, but not everyone has this kind of faith. Yet the real issue here is not about who is technically correct about the nature of the food, but about how to follow the spirit of Torah in loving our neighbors as ourselves: “But if thy brother be grieved with thy meat, now walkest thou not charitably. Destroy not him with thy meat, for whom Christ died. Let not then your good be evil spoken of: For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost.” (Rom 14:15-17)

Righteousness

At the core of a life pleasing God is not obedience to mechanical rules in a disposition of strife and condemnation, but one of joy, peace and righteousness – which by definition excludes sin and lawlessness … it precludes all willful persistent violation of Torah (1Jn 3:4). When brothers in our midst are promoting willful violation of Torah our response must be much different than what Paul enjoins here. It is not a response of silent toleration but one of humble open concern and persistent, loving tearful confrontation (Php 3:17-19, 1Ti 2:24-26Heb 3:13) – a fact which proves beyond all question that this context cannot be understood as a denial of Torah.

Peace and joy in the Holy Spirit is thus perfectly consistent with righteousness: obeying Torah in both the letter and in the spirit; these three things go together. “For he that in these things serveth Christ is acceptable to God, and approved of men. Let us therefore follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another.” (Rom 14:18-19) We cannot edify each other by ignoring sin or by forcing our opinions in matters external to God’s Law; we can only edify each other by following Torah ourselves and patiently encouraging and challenging our brothers to do the same.

Paul summarizes the entire context for us nicely at the end: “For meat destroy not the work of God. All things indeed are pure; but it is evil for that man who eateth with offence.” (Rom 14:20) We must forego our liberty when it spoils our brother’s spiritual health in any way, and again, to be sane in the context, we must qualify the phrase all things as we did in verse 2: everything which God has provided for food may be enjoyed without fear of offending Him so long as we are not encouraging our weaker brothers to stumble in the process; yet those who are not yet strong enough to walk with confidence and faith here should abstain.

It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak.” (Rom 14:21) In matters of personal opinion and preference beyond the scope of the Torah we must defer to the weakness of others for the sake of their spiritual health rather than selfishly abusing our freedom to their detriment. We must pursue God’s mind and strength, His enabling grace, until we are confident that our understanding, motives and sentiments are fully aligned with the spirit of faith and love we find expressed in Torah, even in the midst of our self-restraint for other’s sake: “Hast thou faith? have it to thyself before God. Happy is he that condemneth not himself in that thing which he alloweth. And he that doubteth is damned if he eat, because he eateth not of faith: for whatsoever is not of faith is sin.” (Rom 14:22-23) Any lack of faith regarding a conventional practice is grounds for avoiding it, for when we participate in doubt we are in sin … if not formally against God then at least against our own conscience. We must seek to know and follow Torah deeply so that we are not unduly inconvenienced or intimidated by cultural norms, traditions, and expectations, and we must constantly encourage our brothers and sisters to do the same. Yet when any of us presume a freedom which violates the plain teaching of Torah there are no grounds for such faith, and our response must be one of prayerful concern and loving exhortation.

In Good Conscience

When we are interpreting any text of Scripture we must be careful to integrate it with the rest of Scripture in order to ensure that we are “rightly dividing the word of truth;” (2Ti 2:15) interpreting texts in isolation without regard to the whole of scripture is irresponsible and deceitful. Such dishonesty may cloud and corrupt our conscience when we are already disposed to believe a certain way, but if we are wrong this only deepens our spiritual bondage and seals the door of our imprisonment. If we want to be free we must wrestle honestly with texts until we fully integrate them with all of Scripture. Since God’s Word is true it will never contradict itself, so whenever a potential meaning in a text contradicts the sense or spirit of any other in the Word of God we must discard that meaning in favor of a more reasonable interpretation that remains perfectly consistent with the text and yet harmonizes all of Scripture.

In this particular context, assuming Paul is discounting the dietary laws and the feast days disregards the vast weight of Scripture and does significant injustice to the immediate context. It implies that the Twelve Apostles themselves did not understand the implications of the Gospel, it contradicts the very teaching of our Lord Jesus Christ, and openly contradicts the fundamental nature of God Himself. In order to handle the Word of God sincerely here we must acknowledge that Paul is referring to concerns of immature believers regarding food offered to idols, just as he has so clearly explained in his other epistles, and to similar sentiments and opinions which are not contrary to Torah in themselves but which require us to bear patiently with each other’s differences in order to more fully obey Torah by loving our neighbors as ourselves in deed and in truth.

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