The matter of Christian liberty is often used to give the impression that a believer can do what he or she likes, no matter what others think about their behaviour. Yet that is not an expression of brotherly love, so it cannot be what is meant by Christian liberty. As with other matters in this section of the Book of Romans, Paul here is describing an expression of what it means to be a living sacrifice, pleasing to God, a life of true discipleship.
Paul states here that there are two kinds of Christians whenever some issues arise. In each of those issues, there will be weak and strong Christians. He does not mean that a Christian will be always strong on these matters or that he will always be weak. So what does he say about those issues?
His response is that we should understand three important principles that will keep us safe in our decision making. Those three truths should be our guidelines when such issues are raised. The first is, remember the day of judgement (14:1-12); the second is, remember the importance of Christian growth (14:13-23); and the third is, remember the example of Christ (15:1ff.). We will look at aspect of the first reason in this reading.
We know that most organisations will not welcome into membership individuals who are liable to prove problematic. In contrast to such an attitude, Paul states that the church is to welcome people who have convictions that are different from ours.
Paul gives two examples that were probably relevant to his readers in Rome. It is difficult to work out who the vegetarians were because both Jews and Gentiles ate meat. Perhaps some people had resorted to vegetarianism in order to avoid eating meat that had been offered to idols in a pagan sacrifice before it was sold to the public. If that is who they were, then we can see that they devised a practice that did not have biblical authorisation. Yet we could say that their motives were an expression of genuine concern.
In contrast to the individuals with that concern there would be Christians who knew that the idols to which the animals had been offered did not exist. They knew that it was ludicrous to say that those sacrificed animals now belonged to a pagan god because they knew that the pagan gods did not exist. This group of strong Christians had the truth on their side.
What is the answer to this difference of opinion about pagan gods and the animals offered to them? Paul mentions what we should not do and that is we should not assess the other person by our own convictions. If we do, then we will develop two wrong attitudes – we will despise the other or we will judge the other, and neither of them expresses brotherly love, and neither is a feature that should mark a living sacrifice, a true disciple.
Instead, we must remember what God did when we embraced the Saviour through the gospel. The Father welcomed us into his family. He has the authority to specify who should be in it, and he welcomed the individual with his issues about meat and he welcomed the one with no issues about meat. Family membership is the basic question here. Whenever I come across a Christian who differs from me on issues that don't matter, I should welcome him or her as a fellow Christian.
We will think more about this in tomorrow’s reading.