Is Paul a moral relativist in Romans 14:13-23?

October 15th, 2012

I really was trying to stay out of trouble by sticking to the daily office readings as the source of my blog material for a little while. But the daily office reading for today, Romans 14:13-23, is filled with trouble, because in verse 14, Paul says something that sounds morally relativistic, and usually the more that Christians love Paul, the more they hate moral relativism. Here it is: “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.” Now I know somebody will say dismissively that Paul was just talking about sacrificial meat which has nothing to do with anything we deal with today (he doesn’t really mean “nothing” when he says “nothing is unclean” just like his “all” isn’t really “all” when he’s talking about grace). But why not confront this statement in its full radical nakedness? Because Paul seems to say pretty plainly that our perception of our actions is what makes them clean or unclean. And if that’s not relativistic, I’m not sure what is.

I recognize that Romans 14:13-23 is only one passage in a canon that contains a whole lot of contradicting witnesses. Paul also says in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10, “Do you not know that wrongdoers will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived! Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers—none of these will inherit the kingdom of God.” But I don’t think the presence of other passages like 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 allows us to qualify Paul’s “nothing” in Romans 14:14 and say that he was only talking about “trivial” things like whether you have a glass of wine with dinner and not “major” things like whether you’re attracted to people of the same gender. Moreover, there are several important distinctions made by Romans 14:13-23 that illuminate the nature of sin and offer the basis for interpreting other references to sin.

1) What’s sin to one person is not necessarily sin to another

Back at the beginning of chapter 14, Paul writes in verses 2-3: “Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgement on those who eat.” What if Paul isn’t just talking about food but other aspects of behavior as well? For example, is it completely unsinful for a Christian who lives in the Netherlands where marijuana is legal to go to an Amsterdam “coffehouse” and smoke a bowl if he does it not out of rebellion or gluttony but as a means of enjoying God’s creation? I suspect it makes some of you very uncomfortable for me to even ask that question. You see, it’s easy to read Romans 14 in reference to behaviors that we consider trivial but others find sinful. What’s harder is contemplating the possibility that behaviors which seem like clear-cut sins to us might not be sinful for other people in their circumstances.

And it’s important to recognize that eating sacrificial meat was not at all trivial to many early Christians. To eat meat that had been offered to a pagan god meant affirming the validity of that sacrifice and effectively worshiping that deity! That’s why the Jerusalem Council ruled that Christians could not eat sacrificial meat and sent a letter with four requirements to new Gentile converts: “You are to abstain from food sacrificed to idols, from blood, from the meat of strangled animals, and from sexual immorality” (Acts 15:29). In Romans 14, Paul is directly contradicting the apostolic authority of the Jerusalem Council by saying that his readers can eat food sacrificed to idols as long as their conscience doesn’t condemn them for doing so.

2) Sin is defined in relation to our trust of God

In verses 22-23, Paul says the following: “Blessed are those who have no reason to condemn themselves because of what they approve. But those who have doubts are condemned if they eat, because they do not act from faith; for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” That last clause is tremendous. It is the ultimate frustration of those who just want to know what the rules are so they can follow them and be better than those who don’t follow them. If you follow the rules because you don’t have faith that God’s grace has made you acceptable to Him independent of your actions, then following the rules is a sin because it creates a wedge between you and the trust that is your salvation.

The journey of faith is about growing into perfect trust of God. When we do anything that causes us to hide in the bushes like Adam and Eve did when they heard God walking in the garden, then our trust has been undermined and we have sinned. Sin does not merely concern behavior that obviously harms others or disobeys a list of “Thou shalts” and “Thou shalt nots.” Sin is anything that makes me trust God less, whether it’s because I am putting my trust in an idol or because I am filled with pride or shame or because it makes me not care. What’s paradoxical about the way that Paul has defined sin here is that it is simultaneously relativistic and a whole lot more stringent than defining it according to a concrete set of rules. Just because I might have a different set of things that get in the way of my trust with God than you do doesn’t make my sin any less expansive or devastating. The reason why so many people want for the Bible to be an “owner’s manual” is because being a legalistic Pharisee with a clear-cut Torah is a whole lot easier and more straightforward than being a Christian.

3) Sin is defined in relation to our community’s peace

The primary exhortation that Paul puts before us in this passage has to do with stumbling blocks for other believers: “Resolve… never to put a stumbling-block or hindrance in the way of another… If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died.” It is a sin to injure your brothers or sisters by doing anything that destroys their faith even if what you’re doing does not destroy your own faith. Now, I recognize there is a danger here for the weaker brother or sister to gain a tyranny over those who agree with Paul that “nothing is unclean in itself.” But I believe that the more people are won into Christ’s trust, the more they are able to subordinate their own personal opinions to the higher purpose of establishing “peace and mutual edification”  in the community ((Romans 14:19).

Just as sin is that which undermines my trust of God, it is also that which undermines peace and mutual edification in my community. The reason alcoholism is a sin is not because there’s a rule somewhere that says not to drink to excess, but because addiction destroys the community’s peace. Pornography is a sin for the same reason even when it’s done in secret, because it creates hidden tensions and aggressions in the person engaging in it, not to mention the way peace is destroyed in our global community the more that power is given to forces that objectify women’s bodies.

What about confronting somebody else about their sin? Doesn’t that disrupt the “peace” of a community? Is it a sin to call out other people’s sin? First of all, the absence of confrontation isn’t peace. If any of our brothers or sisters are doing anything that undermines their trust in God even if it doesn’t seem to impact anybody else, that action inherently undermines our community’s peace as well since our peace is grounded in our common trust of God. So we have a responsibility not only to avoid disrupting our peace but to root out whatever is already disrupting our peace. Obviously any kind of confrontation is a perilous task that should be handled extremely prayerfully because as soon as it becomes a power trip, Satan wins.


If Paul’s “nothing” really does mean “nothing,” then we can apply Paul’s teachings about sacrificial meat to all aspects of human behavior, recognizing of course that Romans 14:13-23 is just one voice in the complicated polyphonic text of scripture. This shouldn’t at all erode the seriousness with which we regard sin, but it does mean that our journey of sanctification demands a much more mature degree of discernment than if the boundaries of sin were perfectly clear and exactly the same for everybody. The goal is communion with God and each other — peace and mutual edification in our communities centered around a pursuit of perfect trust in God. Whatever creates an obstacle to this goal is sin. That makes a whole lot of things sin even though they differ from person to person. But don’t be overwhelmed. On the cross, Jesus has overcome every obstacle to our peace with each other and God.

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