The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. (Romans 14.3)
Today’s post runs twice the usual length to cover essentials we’ll need as the next post commences our study of “clobber texts” used to alienate LGBT and other Christians. I trust you’ll overlook the wordiness and hang with me. Upcoming posts will return to the typical length.
My medical ethics professor was a soft-spoken woman who gently guided our debates on hot topics like reproductive rights, life support, and assisted suicide, seeing each opinion received equal weight and respect. Near term’s end, the syllabus noted a session on “dietary ethics” with no assigned reading. “In-class film” was all it said. The half-hour film graphically documented grossly inhumane methods of industrial husbandry and slaughter. When the film ended, it was clear our professor had drastically departed from her trademark style. We heard a 15-minute tirade on the evils of meat consumption, followed by a stilted exchange in which she shut down any objection before it was fully tendered. The class dried up. Finally, a brave young woman asked, “Is this a test?” The instructor asked what she meant. “You don’t seem to want us to discuss this objectively,” she observed. “It’s more about your personal ethics, which you’re obviously passionate about. But, unless this is an exercise in approaching someone with set opinions, I don’t get the point. Isn’t this issue like the rest? It also has many aspects: medical, cultural, moral, pragmatic—“
The professor stopped her. “My point is some issues leave no room for debate because no morally legitimate exceptions exist.” The class exploded. What about vitamin deficiency? That’s what supplements are for. What about leather? She pointed to her rubber shoes and fake leather belt. Then someone asked if she had pets. “Three cats,” she said. Were we to assume she never fed them meat? After an uncomfortable pause, she replied, “Almost never.” Why would she ever give her cats meat? She explained, “If they go too long without it, they start to shed, and get listless and grumpy.” (As was the case then; vegetarian friends tell me nutritional quality of meatless pet food has greatly improved.) “So,” the student asked, “is it safe to say, for the sake of their health and happiness, no moral alternative to meat consumption exists?” She smiled with relief. “You could say that.” Another pause. “I should give this more thought,” she said.
Meat and Vegetables
Although time has stolen the professor’s name and much of what she taught, my memory of the “dietary ethics” session remains vivid, thanks to regularly revisiting Paul’s treatise on faith ethics in Romans 14. In part, it’s because he discusses the same issue: morality of an omnivorous diet versus vegetarianism. But, more than that, it’s because his conclusion verifies what ultimately came of the class discussion: absolutes are only helpful in firmly defined contexts. Under different circumstances, they may not hold up as soundly—or we may have to admit the complete opposite is the correct position. Many times, our disagreements escalate so quickly—we come out swinging—we don’t consider the possibility we’re confusing absolutes with personal ethics and/or personal ethics with what philosophers call situational ethics, flexible application of absolutes that set aside personal misgiving to serve higher principle. (Basically, it’s trying to do the right thing in any given situation.) As one might expect, many refute situational ethics out-of-hand as unscriptural and inconsistent with God’s immutable nature. They’re convinced right is right, wrong is wrong, and no gray area exists between. Yet how can this be, when Scripture teaches we’re incorrect to assess others’ faith by rigid standards, since no two believers’ circumstances are alike? That’s the crux of Paul’s instruction. He deliberately cites the meat-and-vegetables issue, as it’s one of the most inflammatory problems the Romans grapple with.
A little background helps us grasp the topic’s gravity. (Examining the text without it is close to useless, since the matter looks trivial in our eyes.) The question isn’t as simple as whether Christians eat meat or confine their diet to vegetables. Meat is a rare commodity in Rome, the known world’s largest metropolis. It’s too costly for average households and very difficult to procure. The best sources for fresh meat are pagan temples, where leftovers from animal sacrifices are served in affordable portions or distributed for sale in public bazaars.
Therefore, meat consumption is theologically questionable for Gentile converts, as many presume it’s tainted with paganism. (Contrary to popular myth, animal sacrifice is nothing like a Texas barbecue, with the entire beast sprawled atop a sacred slab. Priests slaughter and eviscerate the animal and bring its vital organs to the altar, where they’re burned. The carcass is butchered and eaten.) For Jewish converts, the issue is twice complicated. Beyond pagan contamination, Judaic law forbids anyone other than the presiding priest and his sons from consuming sacrificial meat; and they’re to eat it inside the Temple, as it isn’t to be publically consumed.
Trusting Each Other
What happens in the Roman congregation is what always happens when faith communities attempt to mandate inflexible standards based on religious ideology and outmoded edicts. One group dismisses the issue as irrelevant. They believe if eaten with thanksgiving, meat is harmless. The other group isn’t so sure. To be on the safe side, they endorse restricting diet to vegetables—since one can never say with certainty where marketed meat originates. “Live and let live” is just too hard a concept to abide. It puts the onus for assessing and complying with Scripture on the individual. For many, that’s a surefire road to ruin. Someone’s got to be in charge, lest the whole thing falls apart. One group must be declared “right” at the expense of the other being declared “wrong.” Naturally, both believe they’re right and since neither can definitively prove it’s correct, each tries to prove the other is not.
Thus begins the Roman diet drama, with meat-eaters looking down on vegetarians, accusing them of being too spineless to bear responsibility for freedom in Christ. Vegetarians condemn omnivores for trampling sacred principle in pursuit of self-indulgence. Before we cluck at both for rushing to judgment, we should note two things. Their stubborn fervor is born of earnest desire to please God. And much is at stake in how they resolve this, as it will decide to what degree (if any) the Roman church and Roman society overlap. How much of the “outside world” is too much? How little isn’t enough? These are defining questions with no definitive answers. Which is why Paul tells them to quit pretending they know what God thinks, says, and expects and prove their trust in God by trusting each other.
God Can and Does
Paul calls off the meat-and-vegetables debate in four quick verses (Romans 14.1-4). How he characterizes the drama is a revelation all by itself: “Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters. One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. The one who eats everything must not treat with contempt the one who does not, and the one who does not eat everything must not judge the one who does, for God has accepted them. Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.”
Let’s walk through this. Step One: Our obligation is to embrace weaker believers. “Quarreling over disputable matters”—i.e., beefs over valid faith and practices—harms those who lack strength and experience to accept how we practice our faith. It’s a fruitless endeavor that sullies our witness. Step Two: The more seasoned and sure our faith, the more we can digest. Freedom isn’t free; it requires great courage and confidence. Those not strong enough to exercise freedom in Christ seek stability in restrictions. Strong believers must not criticize weaker ones for relying on hard boundaries and fast rules. Yet withholding criticism does not amount to concession that restrictive lifestyles are exclusively “right.” Weak believers who find definition and assurance in restrictions must not overstep and vilify believers who live more freely.
Step Three: God’s acceptance of those who defy limits and stereotypes is a fact. Step Four: Strong or weak, we have no right to judge, because all our service—in its many shapes and expressions—belongs to God. We may not agree with, understand, or be like one another. But condemning or expressing doubt in each other assumes status we don’t possess. When I say you’re wrong, I kick God off the throne so I can have a seat. It’s a foolish, perilous assumption we can’t afford. Step Five: Like it or not, we all serve the same God. Honor God receives from our faith rests entirely in God’s power to raise us in righteousness. How this happens confounds human understanding. It makes no earthly sense that God ensures we stand equally as worthy vessels and reflections, when all we see are contradictions. Yet God can and does.
Causes for Concern
Shouldn’t we be marginally concerned our need to prove we’re right only arises when we’re compelled to prove another wrong? Doesn’t the phrase—“need to prove we’re right”—reveal causes for concern about the strength of our faith? If we’re truly confident our beliefs are founded on Scriptural truth and please God, why the need to prove it at all? Shouldn’t it trouble us just a little that judging or challenging another’s faith gives lie to our confidence in God? Attacking anyone whose faith ethics and practices don’t align with ours locks us in the perilous and (dare I say it?) pathetic position of misappropriating God’s role as Master. We ignore the principle of inherent equality for all believers by supposing we’re more righteous or knowledgeable than our peers. We forget faith is logic’s opposite. Trust creates certainty. Submission grants authority. Humility brings respect. When stronger Christians contemptuously regard weaker ones as ignorant and arrogant, and weaker ones accuse stronger ones of sin and arrogance, both groups err by imposing logic on faith—and both reveal they have no idea what they’re doing. If they did, they wouldn’t do it.
Finally, if we’re aware we’ve overreached, yet continue on, lack of concern about our hubris and damage our beefs inflict is a grave concern. In John 13.16, Jesus draws a clear, indelible line between God and us: “Very truly I tell you, no servant is greater than his master, nor is a messenger greater than the one who sent him.” We must be very wary about eagerness to speak for God; it takes all of a second to cross the line and start talking like we are God. That’s the falsehood cleverly disguised in the credo “Love the sinner; hate the sin.” Both “sinner” and “sin” are baldly prejudicial terms based on insight and authority we don’t have. Who are we to judge? Worse still, who are we to justify scriptural abuse with a patently unscriptural premise? Jesus commands us to love our neighbors as ourselves—attaching no right to qualify our love based on their attitudes or behavior. He answers the “sin” question by teaching us how to pray: Forgive our sins, as we forgive those who sin against us. We need to hear “against us” loud and clear. We respond to personal offenses with mercy. Nowhere does Scripture authorize us to mount a preemptive strike against “sin.” Again, challenging those whose beliefs and practices don’t align with ours—or answering their challenges in kind—only shows we don’t know what we’re doing.
Close examination of exclusionary “clobber texts” starting in the next post by no means intends to arm us with materiel to settle beefs with fellow believers. We must be very clear about that. Value from our studies will emerge when informed understanding of clobber passages shields us from scriptural abuse and unprovoked attacks. Accurate knowledge of what God’s Word says enables faithful obedience to Christ: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.” (Matthew 5.44-45)
Paul calls off Rome’s meat-and-vegetables debate, telling both sides judgment and condescension exceed their authority. There is one God, one Master, and God ensures we all will stand as equally worthy servants.