Some people like specifics. They want concrete examples of what they can and can’t do. They want rules to live by, perhaps because if there is a rule, decision-making is easier. Sometimes they create the rules to make future decisions easier. Jesus didn’t have too many rules, but the religious leaders of His time sure did. The religious leaders were still enforcing laws that had been given to the people through Moses, what we now refer to as Old Testament laws, and many others that they had added to the list themselves. I’m sure many of them believed they were doing the right thing, but when Jesus came He created a new covenant. Yes, Jesus would still support following the principles of the ten commandments, but He clearly stated that nothing that goes into your body makes a person unclean, (Mark 7:18) thus nullifying previous food laws. Nevertheless, rules about food remained a big issue.
The Apostle Paul continued trying to enlighten people on the subject. In I Timothy 4:4 he declared that all of God’s creation was good; any food could be eaten, but Paul did stipulate that we should be thankful for it. In Romans 14:13-21, Paul again said that no food was unclean, but he was dealing with a larger issue here. Keep in mind that as followers of Jesus, former Jews and Gentiles were coming together in the same belief for the first time. But each group had their own baggage—all the rules that they were used to living by. Although Paul knew that he and his fellow believers had the freedom to eat whatever they wished, he encouraged them to give up that freedom, at least in certain circumstances, so that no one would create a stumbling block for a fellow believer. He wanted the more important issues of righteousness, peace and joy to be attended to. No meal is worth the cost of lost community. Think of it this way: If you were invited for dinner to the home of a vegetarian friend, would you offend that friend by taking your own meat to their home just because you usually ate meat with your meals? If you had friends that you knew to be recovering alcoholics, would you serve wine with your meal when you invited them as guests? I hope that you would be willing to give up what you would normally do for the good of your friends. That’s what Paul was asking people to do in Romans, but there was even more at stake, because these people were just learning about the ways of Jesus, and he didn’t want their beliefs to be harmed or confused over the issue of food.
In this passage, Paul is speaking to Christians about their relationship with Christians. But I think this principle could also be applied to our relationship with non-believers. I get irritated when I see examples of Christians criticizing non-believers or telling them what to do, expecting the non-believers to do what the Christian believes is right. Obviously, the one being criticized does not have the same belief system, and only sees the Christian as hateful and judgemental and sometimes, sadly, violent. What a poor testimony. We are called to love. Jesus said that there were no more important commandments than to love God and to love others. (Matthew 22:36-40) If non-believers see the love of Christ shining through us, they will be so much more interested in what we have to say than if we try to cram it down their throats. I think Paul would agree.