Don’t tear apart the work of God over what you eat. Remember, all foods are acceptable, but it is wrong to eat something if it makes another person stumble. – Romans 14:20 NIV
In all things, our goal should be the building up of one another in love. There is no place in the body of Christ for petty arguments or disputes over rights and privileges. This entire section of Paul’s letter has to do with food. At first glance, it may appear that Paul is spending an inordinate amount of time dealing with what appears to be a non-issue. After all, how big a deal is what we eat in our local fellowships today? We don’t tend to fight and argue over issues of diet or culinary preferences. But in Paul’s day, this was a problem. There were those within the local church in Rome who were still adhering to the Jewish dietary restrictions found within the Mosaic law. And they were placing those same restrictions on other believers within the church, demanding their adherence to them. There were others who, having come out of pagan religious practices, were reluctant to eat meat sold in the marketplace that had been sacrificed to pagan idols. Other believers, fully aware that their new-found freedom in Christ made all foods available to them. After all, Jesus Himself had said, “It’s not what goes into your body that defiles you; you are defiled by what comes from your heart” (Mark 7:15 NLT). He had also stated, “Food doesn’t go into your heart, but only passes through the stomach and then goes into the sewer. (By saying this, he declared that every kind of food is acceptable in God’s eyes)” (Mark 7:19 NLT). So as far as they were concerned, they could eat anything they like, whether it was sacrificed to an idol or not. They could even eat food that had been off limits according to the Mosaic law. As a result, you had all kinds of conflicts going on within the church over food. To us it sounds petty and childish. But there is a principle going on here that applies to every situation and circumstance within the church – regardless of the century. Paul makes it clear in verse 19. “So then, let us aim for harmony in the church and try to build each other up” (Romans 14:19 NLT). The Greek word for “build” was a construction or architectural term that had to do with the act of building something up. Metaphorically, it meant to build up, encourage, or strengthen. Paul used it to convey the idea of promoting the spiritual growth of another. The goal was mutual edification. Paul states, “For the Kingdom of God is not a matter of what we eat or drink, but of living a life of goodness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17 NLT). How easy it is to focus on the non-essentials. Today, we make it about things like music styles or worship preferences. We debate about what constitutes acceptable or appropriate clothing styles for church. Some feel comfortable attending worship in flip flops and shorts, while others are appalled by this apparent lack of respect, and prefer more dignified apparel for Sunday worship. As a result, judgments are made, criticism is leveled, and harmony is destroyed. To paraphrase Paul’s words, he could just as easily have written, “Don’t tear apart the work of God over what you wear.”
Now don’t get me wrong, when it comes to clothing, there must be careful consideration given to what we put on. Especially when it comes to modesty. Paul’s entire point is built around not causing another believer to stumble. While we may feel completely free to dress casually when attending church, we must always consider how our choice of attire affects those around us. Women need to consider whether the outfit they select might cause a brother in Christ to lust. Is their choice of clothing putting the emphasis on the wrong part of their anatomy? Is it distracting or could it cause a brother to lust and, therefore, stumble? Just because you might feel that a suit and tie is the only acceptable attire for worship, wouldn’t it be worthwhile to consider whether your choice of clothing might not cause another brother or sister in Christ to feel unwelcome or even unworthy to attend worship because they don’t have the capacity to dress accordingly? “You may believe there’s nothing wrong with what you are doing, but keep it between yourself and God” (Romans 14:22 NLT). What a difference it would make in our local churches if our main priority was the mutual building up of one another. What a radical impact we would see in our fellowships if it became all about US, not ME.
There are so many things – petty, inconsequential things – that tend to divide and destroy the harmony of the local church. Paul’s obsession was for unity. He wanted his readers to understand the non-negotiable nature of mutual edification and corporate spiritual growth. The goal then, as now, was spiritual growth. Nothing was to stand in the way of the spiritual maturity of each and every believer. And we all share in and must take responsibility for the spiritual growth of one another. And oftentimes, we allow petty matters and personal preferences to stand in the way of that goal. Instead, we are to “aim for harmony in the church and try to build each other up” (Romans 14:19 NLT).
Father, give us the perspective of Paul. Help us to look past our petty, personal preferences and focus on the mutual edification of one another. May our goal be harmony and unity. May our desire be the spiritual growth and maturity of one another. May our rights be replace with focus on relationships and the task of building up the body of Christ. Amen.
Grow Pastor & Minister to Men