Romans 14:5-6, “One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. 6 The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.”
Not only was a disagreement about whether it was permissible to eat meat threatening to divide the first-century Roman church, but also an argument as to whether it was right to set apart certain days as special unto the Lord. That is what we learn in today’s passage, as Paul continues his discussion regarding what Christians are to do about matters that God does not specifically endorse or condemn in His Word (Rom. 14:5-6). This passage is particularly important to understanding the Apostle’s teaching, for it is the first place where Paul brings discussion of the individual’s conscience into play. As we will see, what we eat and whether we observe special feast days is morally indifferent. There is nothing inherently right or wrong about eating meat or setting aside December 25 to celebrate the birth of Christ. The problem comes when we try to impose our views about indifferent matters on others in a legalistic manner, or when we engage in an activity that is not inherently sinful but that we believe is a sin for us (vv. 20-23).
Because the first-century Roman church was made up of Jews and Gentiles, it seems likely that Paul refers to Jewish Christians who set apart certain days as better than others. The Apostle dealt with this issue in other contexts (Col. 2:16), so in the Roman church there were likely believers from a Jewish background who thought they were still obligated to keep the holy days prescribed in the Mosaic law. These Jewish Christians, like those who refused to eat meat, were those whom Paul considered weak in the faith, for we know the Apostle taught that no foods are inherently unclean and that no day is inherently better than another (Rom. 14:1-6; see v. 14). Evidently, these Jewish believers looked down on other Jewish Christians who did not observe such days, and they likely looked down on the Gentile Christians who did not keep special days either. On the flip side, those who knew days and foods were morally indifferent looked down on those with the opposite scruples.
Notice that in addressing the problem, Paul does not jump in and immediately tell those who were weak in faith that their scruples reflect a lack of understanding, and he does not praise the strong in faith for their superior comprehension of God’s Word. He points out that the motivation of each group was the same, namely, to please the Lord (v. 6). Looking down on one another, therefore, was not the answer to their differences. Instead, each side was to recognize the positive motivation the opposite side had for its view.
John Calvin says the weak in the Roman church “would have thought otherwise, had they possessed a certain and a clear knowledge of Christian liberty. But in abstaining from what they thought to be unlawful, they evidenced piety, as it would have been a proof of presumption and contempt, had they done anything contrary to the dictates of conscience.” Mature Christians should keep this in mind, and strive to come alongside the less mature to help them learn God’s Word.