Romans 14:20-21, “Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. 21 It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.”
From the very beginning of the Lord’s dealings with His people, God has given His servants the heavy responsibility of applying His teaching wisely. Though the Mosaic law is very specific on many issues, it does not include rules for every conceivable circumstance. Instead, the Mosaic law contains many principial laws, such as the Ten Commandments, and some real-life applications of them, such as the case laws for murder and manslaughter (Num. 35). Judges were expected to apply these rules and examples wisely in concrete cases. Likewise, the New Testament is full of principles for Christian conduct, but it does not tell us precisely how to behave in every possible situation. We must wisely apply these principles in everyday life, and how we do so depends to some degree on the particulars of each situation. This is not moral relativism—we may never endorse what the Lord forbids. However, we do understand that there are many different applications of the single meaning of God’s law. For instance, we must love both the obstinate and the gentle, but the way you deal with each kind of person in love is quite different.
In Romans 14, Paul applies the principles of Christian freedom, love, and mutual edification to a concrete situation wherein some of the Roman Christians believed it was right to eat meat and others thought vegetarianism was the only godly option. Given the spiritual immaturity of the vegetarian Christians and the Lord’s work to bring them to maturity in Christ, mature Christian love meant abstaining from meat in the presence of the vegetarians as the stronger believers waited for the weak to be convinced by the Spirit that one is free in Christ to eat meat of any kind. The strong were still free to eat meat; it was just better for them, at least for a time, to do so when the weaker brethren were not around. Dr. R.C. Sproul writes in his commentary Romans: “If we understand the freedom we have in Christ, we are not to flaunt our liberty before our weaker brothers who may not understand their freedom. We can eat our meat in private, before the Lord, who sees all things.”
Our approach to what is adiaphora—morally indifferent—should be the same today when there are immature but growing Christians in our presence. Yet, we must never allow the immature among us to exercise what Dr. Sproul has called “the tyranny of the weaker brother.” If the weaker brother attempts to make his scruples on indifferent matters the standard for all people, he must be rebuked for his legalism (Gal. 2:11-14).
Christian freedom carries with it the heavy responsibility of never using our freedom in a way that harms tender consciences, and the duty never to impose our personal scruples regarding indifferent matters on others. Besides studying God’s Word, one of the best ways to fulfill these duties is to seek to understand those who differ with us and why they take their view. In so doing, we build one another up and come to a better grasp of what the Lord has to say on these matters.