Romans 14:20-23 “All food is clean, but it is wrong for a man to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother to fall. So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he approves. But the man who has doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.”
All Christians know that the greatest commandment is to love the Lord our God with all of the heart, soul, mind and strength, and that the commandment second in importance to it is to love our neighbours as ourselves. Our neighbours are those people who in the providence of God are brought into a certain proximity to us, emotional, geographical and relational. They may be those in our wider families, those who live on our street; they may be the people who work in our office, or who study with us at college, the mothers who wait outside the school with us, the people we sit next to on a journey, the Jehovah Witness who knocks on our door, even the parent in Kenya who can’t afford to pay for his children’s school fees who gets in touch with us through a missionary. Your neighbours are not the anonymous millions on planet earth, but the people with whom God has given you closure. Even when a person replies to something you have written on your blog then he becomes your neighbour. When the newspaper delivery boy makes contact with you and says Hello then he is no longer the mere hand that pushes the paper through the door, he is your neighbour. You are on a journey, going about your business, and unexpectedly you come across a man who has been beaten up and left half-dead. Immediately he is your neighbour and then and there you are called to love him as yourself.
When your neighbour is also one of your fellow Christians extra stringent dimensions arise, of loving them with a pure heart fervently, laying down your life for them, loving them as Jesus Christ has loved you, considering them to be better than yourself, and so on. Those are the absolute standards which have been given to us by the prophets, apostles and by the Lord Jesus. They are non-negotiable; we are under the most solemn obligation to love our neighbours as we love ourselves. By this standard God is going to judge us. We may not shun our neighbours.
There was a pastor named Max Cadenhead who was speaking to his people on this theme a few years ago. “It’s been a year since we brought into membership the Brown family, and they’ve been a blessing to us.” It was true; they were a godly hard-working family in the church, much esteemed, and there were some Amens from the congregation. The pastor continued, “On that same evening we also brought into membership a young man, but we have lost touch with him.” There was silence in the church because there were scratching their heads to think who that might be. Pastor Cadenhead went on, “Yesterday as I was preparing this message I read the paper and I saw that young man’s picture. He was under arrest because he’d shot and killed an old lady. We failed to follow up on that young man, to keep him in our orbit when he started to wander away. We didn’t love him as ourselves.” It is tough when people no longer want to be our neighbours. My point is only that we accept their drifting away too easily. It is a practical commitment we have to take that we are going to love our neighbours.
So today we are going to consider some guidelines about the dynamics of loving our neighbours as ourselves as Paul sets out four principles to help us in these verses.
1. WHEN YOU’RE ENGAGED IN PROPERLY PERMISSABLE ACTIVITIES YOU STILL HAVE TO DO SO CONSIDERING YOUR NEIGHBOUR.
Paul says, “All food is clean, but it is wrong for a man to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother to fall” (vv.20&21). These opening words seem to me to be a slogan – “All food is clean!” It is as if the strong members of the Roman congregation silenced the weak diets’n’days Christians with those four words. End of discussion! Paul is affirming that all food is indeed clean. Theologically and ethically that is his position. I watched a travel film of the Kenya Masai people and I saw one of them nicking a vein in the neck of a cow (I don’t think it was too painful to the beast) and catching the gushing blood in a jug half full of milk. They proceeded to stir the two together and drank it as part of their regular diet. I would find that impossible to imbibe, my stomach churns at the thought of swallowing such a concoction, but the New Testament defends their right to that traditional food – “All food is clean.” The Aborigine may eat his grubs, and the Japanese his raw fish, and the Tibetan his sour curdled milk, and the Chinese his bird’s nest soup, and the Korean his dog. All of that food is clean, in other words, no food whatsoever contains the essence of evil that can pass into your body and make you evil.
There were those great words of the Lord Jesus in Matthew, “Don’t you see that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean’. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what make a man ‘unclean’” (Matt. 15:17-20). Why do I stress this? For two reasons, that there are religions which influence millions of people. One of them, Islam, forbids people to eat bacon and pork pies because when that food goes into you they claim it makes you unclean. Even their cows have to be slaughtered in a certain way or the beef you eat will be unclean. The Jewish religion has the same prohibition of pork. Another religion, Hinduism, forbids the eating of beef because the cow is too sacred to eat. There are about two thousand million people in the world – a third of the population of the world – whose daily lives are affected by erroneous food laws. Of course, many Muslims and Hindus ignore their religions’ teaching on food and drink; they eat bacon sandwiches and hamburgers with the rest of us. We say to them all that we have some good news, that there is no need to eat with a guilty conscience “All food is clean.”
That is one reason I am emphasizing it, because it is a major error in our world, but the other reason is this, that focusing on diets’n’days detracts people from what is the centre of true religion and that is the state of our hearts. You can be very proud of this unblemished record of yours, that you always refuse to eat unclean food; “It has never once past my lips and entered my body and it never will”, but you are missing the heart of truth. The Son of God says that when such proud words come out of your mouth their origin is your heart. The proud heart is what makes a man ‘unclean’ – not swallowing certain foods. You may read an anti-American Muslim blog and it says, “We will not rest from our jihad until we have blown up the White House.” You may read many an anti-Muslim blog and they say, “Nuke Mecca Now.” Where do those hateful words originate? Are they spat out because pork has been eaten? No. Is it because pork has been rejected? No. Hatred comes from a sinful heart that is full of evil thoughts, murder and slander, and that’s what makes a man ‘unclean.’ We all have hearts with a bias to sin; every one of your children has a heart that cries “Me! Me! Me!” Why do kids find it so hard to say please, and thank you, and let someone else go first, and share with another child? The reason is that they have been born with a heart that has a kind of built in camber pulling it into the ditch of sin, and all their lives they have to be taught continually to resist that camber. The Christian gospel alone offers a new heart to the anti-American and to the anti-Muslim and to all of you too. We all need a new spirit, and the living God alone can give it.
So all food is clean, and yet there are Christians who have a conscience about not eating meat or pork in particular. My response to that is not to become a vegetarian myself. We are under no obligation to give up meat because another Christian thinks it is wrong, and so how do you love your vegetarian neighbour as your non-vegetarian self? By being conscious of this, that you must do nothing to make your fellow believer stumble or fall. Now what does Paul mean by that? You know what a stumble or fall is. I was coming home from the railway station a few weeks ago and the toe of my shoe caught an uneven flagstone and down I went, spreadeagled on the pavement, covered in embarrassment and soon surrounded by helpful young people looking down on me with concerned looks touched by the sight of the old man who had stumbled and fallen. They were anxious to help, how kind of them, while I wanted to get up quickly and hurry away from the scene of my distress. That is a fall. I can walk along the street and disagree with another Christian brother as we talk together. “I think all Christians should be vegetarians,” he says. “I disagree with you,” I say and give my reasons. Neither of us has stumbled or fallen. The vegetarian get quite hot under the collar as he argues his position, and sad that I don’t agree with him, and I get cross with him, but neither of us has fallen have we? You see the obvious difference between disagreeing and falling don’t you?
What you as a strong brother have to remember is never to behave in a way that trips up the weak brother so that he falls. When you invite him to your house don’t trick him by suggesting that he is eating a vegetable casserole when in fact you have laced it with meat, or if he has a deep hostility to pork, that you have suggested that the meat is turkey. Don’t trip him up like that, and don’t push him over by brow-beating him into eating meat, “Come on! Try it! Try a mouthful of it tonight! The Bible says, ‘All food is clean,’ so it will do you no harm,” and you are pushing him over. He is going to fall into sin by going against his conscience. That is not the way you love your neighbour as yourself.
What does Paul say? When your Christian vegetarian neighbour is in your house you have a mushroom topped pizza and tomato soup and lemon meringue pie. In other words you have a delicious vegetarian meal when your fellow church member becomes your neighbour for an evening. “It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother to fall.” When they are there with you, you don’t exert any pressure on them to go against their conscience, in fact you go to the other extreme, and you become a vegetarian too – just when they are there, not for the rest of your life. You can in fact debate the point if you wish, but it is better to talk of many other things you hold in common than that ‘diets’n’days’.
Do you understand that the debate in the Roman church was not over addiction to certain products, or materials that ruin your health, nor was it a division over excess? Those huge problems were not a divisive issue in Rome as they are not a particularly divisive issue here; none of us, vegetarians or non-vegetarians, could justify a Christian eating or drinking to excess, or getting involved in addictive products.
Sometimes you hear that complete and life-long abstinence is commended. “Being a total abstainer is the only Christian response.” I would affirm that that is not the case. There is sexual promiscuity all around us; the answer is not total abstinence but marriage. There is excess in many areas all around us, but the answer is not abstinence but strict moderation. There was a cook at Westminster Seminary who had the reputation of being a chocoholic. It was said that she could eat the contents of a whole box of chocolates. If I went into the kitchen one day to talk to her and she said to me, “Would you like a chocolate Geoff?” What should be my Christian response? How do I love my chocolate guzzling neighbour as I love my non-guzzling self? I know she has this weakness for chocolates. Do I say, “No, I never eat chocolates?” Well, that would be a lie to start with. Do I say, “No thank you,” but when I get home that night settle down to a book and a bar of chocolate? Then I would be a hypocrite. No, I take the chocolate she offers me, and I thank her for her kindness, but when she presses a second on me I say, “No thank you. One is quite sufficient.” My strict moderatism is the best example I can be to her, and when her birthday comes around I buy her a CD of Mozart. I don’t give her a box of chocolates or encourage her weakness in any way. In other words, think of your neighbour when you are engaged in permissible activities.
2. JUST KEEP TO YOURSELF SOME OF YOUR OWN CONVICTIONS.
This is the second guideline about loving your neighbour as yourself. Paul says, “It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother to fall. So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God.” (vv. 21&22). We are not evangelists for vegetarianism. We are not evangelists for anti-vegetarianism. There are all sorts of excess in our society. We are told that there is a tide of obesity sweeping the country. Christians don’t lead the crusade against being fat. The message concerning which we may not be silent is Jesus Christ and him crucified. We are not ashamed of the gospel of Jesus Christ. We are always to be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks us the reason for our hope. We don’t say in a rather precious way, “Well, I have my own private beliefs and I keep them to myself and God.”
Of course let’s be as wise as we can in speaking about our faith. Your non-church going parents are, I guess, generally and maybe secretly quite pleased that you are going to church. Their fear is that it becomes fanatical or extreme, and one can appreciate that can’t one? You are young and vulnerable and there are a lot of crazies. They are also thinking that probably this is a phase that you are going through, and in the parable of the sower Jesus himself tells us that some people do go through temporary religious phases. They receive the word immediately with joy; they are full of religion for a while, but when the going gets tough then they wilt and die. Their parents and friends nod their heads; it was just a phase, and they are relieved. So you are under scrutiny, and for the first years in a non-Christian home it is enough to go to church twice on a Sunday. That fact is big enough for Mum and Dad to cope with – twice a Sunday! And by the side of your bed there is a Bible which is increasingly worn, and you read other Christian books, and occasionally in your letters home you write about some Christian things that have helped you. Then, when they raise the subject of religion you answer as sweetly, meekly and non-confrontationally as you can. “This is what I believe now, and this is why I believe it, and it has been a real help to me . . .” Rehearse that, but the spirit in which you speak is more important than the actual content. A gentle answer turns wrath away. It is better to let them have the last word in arguments. Make the discussion interesting for them. You have the rest of your life to be a living witness. You remember how Peter talks to a Christian woman married to an unbeliever? This is what he says, “Wives . . . be submissive to your husbands so that, if any of them do not believe the word, they may be won over without words by the behaviour of their wives, when they see the purity and reverence of your lives” (I Peter 3:1&2). The unbelieving members of your family don’t have the preached word, but they cannot but see the word in your life, year after year, purity and kindness, honour and love for Mum and Dad, and this can be powerful enough to win them over. That is what the Bible says.
But other convictions over things about which the Bible is silent keep out of the church, and certainly out of the pulpit. We’ve all got political beliefs, and maybe some of the details – concerning which the Bible is silent – had better not dominate our conversations, “whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God.” All of us are going to have our hearts broken by Caesar whatever label is attached to him. Put not your trust in princes. There are issues in any church over which we disagree, music, hymnbooks, Bible versions, the structure of Sunday services, how prayer meetings should be run, dress, drinking alcohol, home schooling, going to the pictures, smoking a pipe. We can share our feelings about them with some other folk, but then these words of Paul start to click in, “keep between yourself and God,” because if you push those ideas in a congregation they will result in division.
In a recent conference we came to the end of a hymn and had closed our hymnbooks and were about to sit down when somebody from the congregation sang out leading a repetition of the hymn’s chorus. Once in a while we can do that, and I would never be offended if once in a while a member of the congregation or the organist struck up the last verse or last four lines again, but when it becomes a feature of every service and several hymns, then that self-appointed leadership of someone in the congregation in worship is going to divide and antagonize the people. You can protest, “What about a Christian’s liberty under God to do that?” True, but there is also a contrary exhortation which you must always bear in mind, “Keep between yourself and God.” The leaders of the diet’n’days group and the leaders of the anti-diet’n’days group must have been a real pain in the congregation in Rome. Both leaders had one string on their banjoes and this is what they plucked away at every opportunity. Keep some things between yourself and God. Some of you absolutise one particular sin as the worst of all sins. You have to remember that the beast that comes from the sea has seven heads not one. Keep your anger about this one sin between yourself and God. There are many enemies of the gospel – not just the one you are so alarmed about. Some of you have a passion about certain truths – like Israel in prophecy, or the millennium, or healing – keep them between yourself and God.
3. MAINTAIN A BIBLICALLY ENLIGHTENED CONSCIENCE.
Where do I get that? From the twenty-second verse, “Blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he does.” At the heart of the debate in the Roman congregation was the issue of blessedness. Some were saying, “If this church is going to have the blessing of God then it will come when we go over as a congregation to not eating meat and keeping special days. We’ll never be a blessed church until we do that.” That was their formula for revival and church growth. Others said, “The way of blessedness is obviously for everybody to know that all food is clean.” But Paul says, “Blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he does.” A church of people who keep a pure conscience – that is a blessed congregation. A true Christian assembly is consistent in its lifestyle every day of the week and in every activity. The people can either eat or not eat any kind of food and their consciences don’t condemn them.
What is the secret of a good conscience? Firstly, to appreciate what conscience is, God’s preacher in the bosom, God’s representative within me, God’s deputy, God’s overseer; conscience is your own personal tutor and chaplain. All these are friends sent from above to warn us, long before they punish us as a judge. They deserve something better from us than wisecracks and humour. Secondly, the secret of a good conscience is to possess true knowledge of God and his Word. If you lack that then your conscience can be manipulated to approve of anything. Even the cannibals can quote these words of Paul, “Blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he does,” and they say, “We believe what we are doing is right. We kill, and then we eat our enemies and our conscience approves us.” Their consciences are like wheelbarrows that men push in front of them in the direction they intend to go. There is the conscience of the abortionist, the conscience of the pornographer, and the conscience of the traitor. They take no account of the Fall, and no account of the Word of God, but your conscience must be flooded with the light of the prophets and apostles.
I often use the illustration of the sundial. The only accurate reading you will get is when the light from the sun strikes it. By the light of the full moon there will be a shadow cast on a sundial, but the time it records will be false. It is not a moon-dial; it is a sundial. So the flickering lights of various cultures and religions may illuminate men’s consciences so that they have approved of the Inquisition, and burning men at the stake, and Auschwitz, and suicide bombing. Some men serve their consciences like David served Uriah, getting Uriah drunk so that he would do what David wanted him to do, go home and sleep with Bathsheba so that Uriah might believe that she was pregnant with his baby and not someone else’s. Don’t drug your conscience to make it do what you want. I say to you that men’s consciences must be enlightened by the Bible. Cowardice asks, ‘Is it safe to do so and so?’ Expediency asks, “Is it polite to do it?’ Vanity asks, ‘Is it popular?’ A biblically enlightened conscience will ask, ‘Is it right in the sight of God to do these things?’ Martin Luther said, “My conscience is captive to the Word of God.” He was telling the church court at Worms that his conscience was not bound by the various church courts of men that had met over the years sometimes in error and sometimes disagreeing with other church courts. Luther’s conscience was illuminated by Scripture alone. It is the stuff of believing meditation and intercession. Isaac Watts said,
“Order my footsteps by thy Word, and make my heart sincere,
Let sin have no dominion, Lord, but keep my conscience clear.”
When your conscience has been wounded it can only be healed by the cross of Christ. When it gnaws away at you then only the blood of the Son of God can silence it. That sin is forgiven sin! So if conscience is to be directed by the Spirit of God it must be governed by the Word of God. Blessed is that man alone whose conscience is captive to the word of God and is directed by the Spirit of God. The great challenge before us is to follow our consciences when we are emotionally disinclined, when we are lying on the floor of despondency wallowing in self-pity, lacking in any desire to do anything for God. Do we have the maturity to stand right on top of our emotions, and in face of our reluctance and aversion attend to what God commands us to do? When every providence is against us, the weather is bad, and we don’t feel very well, and it’s an unpleasant task, and even our family can’t see why we should do it, yet we go ahead and do it because it is right – blessed are you under such circumstances. There is no greater peril for the Christian minister than to make our emotions the touchstone of our duties; to wait for the moment of inspiration before we pray or do what God commands us to do. There is no more common excuse we make to ourselves than saying that we couldn’t be expected to witness and pray and visit when we feel like this. There are blessings we will know only if we pick ourselves up from our depression and do what has to be done.
Or consider again the little things in life that we need to attend to. We will rarely have some costly sacrifice to make, but often we are being tested in matters of detail in the Christian life. The Lord’s highest commendation falls upon men who are faithful in little things. It is often at that point that we are missing the blessing of God. It may not seem much to you that you are in your place in church twice on a Sunday. That may seem to you so very obvious – only an incidental matter. It may seem just a small thing to keep certain promises, write certain letters, say thank you, remember certain dates and anniversaries, show genuine appreciation to those who do so much for us. It may seem a little thing to have a time of personal devotions every day, but blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he does. You refuse to eat meat and your conscience approves; you are a blessed man. Another does eat meat and her conscience also approves; she is a blessed woman, but then a diets’n’days woman comes to her house for a meal and on that day she serves a non-meat dish, and again her conscience approves of such flexibility because she is thinking about the other person.
4. SEEK TO DO EVERYTHING IN FAITHFUL OBEDIENCE TO GOD.
Paul says, “But the man who has doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin” (v.23). Paul is speaking of this one particular problem in the Roman church of a group of people who had no assurance that it was right for them to eat meat. In fact they felt it was wrong, and if they ate meat they felt wretched; they would be going against what they believed; their own consciences condemned them. If you believe something to be wrong then you are sinning if you carry on doing it, Paul says. Everything you do that isn’t accompanied by the belief, “This is OK for me!” is sin. In other words, if you are convinced as you do something, “I shouldn’t be doing this,” then you are sinning. Don’t you see how important it is to have an instructed and well taught biblical conscience? Let me use this illustration;
Here is a man who likes to look clean and smart in the office each day, and so he checks his shirt every morning before he puts it on as to whether he can wear it for another day. If he is gong to wear a clean shirt every day of his life then his poor wife is going to do a lot of ironing. So he picks up his shirt and gives it a glance and he remembers a saying of his Christian father, “If it’s doubtful it’s dirty.” So, with barely a second look, into the linen basket it goes as another shirt for his wife to wash and iron. He takes an unworn white shirt out of the drawer and puts it on. The question is whether that saying of his father’s is true or helpful? If something is doubtful is it necessarily dirty? It may not be. Let him take the worn shirt to the light; let him go to the window and examine it. It may be perfectly suitable for another day.
Some Christians allege that anything about which one has a doubt is to be regarded as sinful and abstained from, for example, a harmless soft drink with the name ‘root beer’ shouldn’t be drunk because it sounds like ordinary beer. A film and slide presentation of missionary work shouldn’t be given in church because it’s a ‘show.’ The Amish people refuse to drive cars because cars are worldly. Exclusive Brethren won’t wear neckties for the same reason. If it is doubtful it is dirty – that’s the slogan. But let’s be aware that there are people who have very quavering and scrupulous temperaments. They question all sorts of things which the normal Christian regards as quite innocent and acceptable.
Paul is saying that while your conscience is unhappy about eating certain foods and drinking certain drinks and wearing certain clothes you have no alternative but to abstain from them or you’ll be sinning, but that’s not the end of the story. You don’t leave the matter there and refuse to wear a tie, and never drink root beer, and be a vegetarian for the rest of your life. You think more deeply about such issues in the light of the word of God. You ask yourself, “Are my doubts about this matter occasioned by something inherent in the matter itself, or do they rise from my own spiritual immaturity which prevents me from discerning clearly between good and evil?” Consider that shirt you have too easily thrown into the linen basket, is it your vanity about your personal appearance that has made you do that? Don’t rest in your scruples. Investigate your beliefs in the light of the Bible.
Consider the Lord Jesus Christ and his disciples how they lived at a time when false religion was everywhere. The Pharisees thought it was sinful to eat grains of wheat you’d rubbed between your hands as you walked through a cornfield on the Sabbath. The Pharisees believed it was wrong for Jesus to heal a blind man and a cripple on the Sabbath. Their consciences told them it was wrong for Jesus’ disciples not to wash their hands in a ceremonial way before they ate each meal. Jesus encouraged his disciples to reject that false code of right and wrong which was all round them. He told his boys, “Judge righteous judgment” (Jn. 7:24).
We are not to criticize our fellow believers for doing things which appear to us to have a semblance – some superficial appearance – of being sinful. Judge not! Don’t meddle in the consciences of a fellow believer. That is a grievous wrong. But if they are engaged in real evil then please question them about their conduct. “What are you doing here Elijah?” Talk seriously with them. Most of all examine the Bible and seek to enlighten your conscience in what it teaches. There are people who condemn what God’s word allows, and these people can also be those who permit what God’s word condemns.
December 10 2006 GEOFF THOMAS