Up to this point in Romans 14, we’ve seen Paul arguing that Christians who don’t have qualms about eating certain foods should be careful no to cause Christians with different sensibilities to stumble in their faith. Here, in verse 20, he equates causing Christians to stumble with destroying the work of God. That’s strong language! But, you might ask, just how might eating perfectly good food cause another Christian to stumble? Paul spells out the answer to that question in verse 23 of today’s reading. It goes like this:
But whoever has doubts is condemned if they eat, because their eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.
In these words, the question of conscience comes front and center. Rather than focusing on what is theoretically right or wrong – and we’ve seen that Paul does have definite opinions on these matters – Paul focuses our attention on a person’s inner life and relationship to God. To relate to God correctly, we must act in accordance with our conscience. For people who have doubts about the cleanness of food, that means abstaining. To do anything else would be to cross a line in our hearts that would put us on the wrong side of sin. Why? Because we believe that crossing that line is displeasing to God. Whether or not we are theoretically correct in our evaluation of the matter, to cross the line would mean to purposefully displease God, at least in our own understanding. That’s just not something a Christian should do!
Of course, Paul doesn’t make everything a matter of conscience. When it comes to the acts of the flesh – or sinful nature – he boldly calls Christians to forsake them. For these matters of piety, though, we’re talking about how people go about pleasing God rather than how they can please the flesh. That’s a completely different conversation!
When it comes to personal piety, we are each on a journey, and our consciences must be respected. That’s what it means to live from faith. As we approach God, we act faithfully according to our convictions. May God give us grace to do just that.