The below is a letter to a friend written in response to a query regarding my understanding of Romans 14, and verse 14 in particular. I have removed situation specific particulars, but this is otherwise a faithful representation of the letter.
Thank you for honoring me with the opportunity to clarify. Reading what follows will be a significant investment on your part, so I don’t take lightly your willingness to engage in this conversation. As I’m confident you can imagine, being willing to stand apart from the overwhelming majority of our Christian brethren on the matter of what we eat is a result of something not lightly considered, and a result of being convicted through years of study that it is not a light issue, but a major contributor to the inefficacy of our witness and inability to be salt and light to our culture. I venture to explain at this length because I am convinced that you also are equally desirous to serve God faithfully.
Having been convinced of this previously from Scripture, I have been fascinated to see in our lifetime the parallels between increasing sexual perversion and increasing obsession with what God calls unclean. Never before in history have shirts and hats proclaimed their dedication to bacon. Only in the extraordinarily decadent empires of history (and never to the degree we have taken it) has there been such a fascination with eating what has never previously been considered food, and we have likewise now surpassed even Rome in the depths of our sexual depravity. I have recognized over time that these things are not incidentally related.
Because it pains me to think “I’m right” in the face of so many legitimately godly people who disagree with me (my father and both grandfathers included, for whom I have enormous respect), and because it would otherwise unnecessarily differentiate my children from their friends (with both present and future consequences), I have on three occasions now gone back to reconsider from the ground up, whether the typical Christian perspective on this issue is correct. No one is entirely objective, but I have been diligent to presume the typical interpretation accurate, so as to read that perspective fairly. Of course, I also originally set out to disprove the conviction I now hold. On each occasion I have finally and reluctantly concluded that if one is willing to do the historical and exegetical work with an open mind to reading the Scriptures on their terms, there really is no other possible conclusion. I am fully cognizant, however, that most people do not have ready access to the details I will share below.
I spoke of two rules of hermeneutics. The first and easiest is to seek the controlling phrase, which establishes the context of a pericope, and is often found in the opening verse; as is the case, for example, in Mark 7 (the ritual washing of hands), Acts 15 (justification by circumcision/law keeping/ethnic conversion), and in Romans 14 (matters of opinion). This rule is often less helpful in prophetic passages, which can range all over the place, even sometimes within the same verse. Prophetic passages excepting, however, it is generally true that we need to seek the controlling phrase.
The second is much more difficult to wrestle with, but bears up under contemplation and investigation. The professor from whom I learned it said, “Hermeneutical principle number one is this: what the text could not have possibly meant to the original inspired biblical author, it cannot possibly mean today.”
My position on contradiction and change is something different from these two rules of hermeneutics. First, God is immutable; his character never changes (Ps. 102:27; Mal. 3:6; James 1:17, etc.), and second, God (and therefore Scripture) never contradicts Himself (or itself). This does not mean that God doesn’t change instructions to mankind, but what we find is that case laws (specific applications of unchanging principles) are changed, and never moral laws, which are eternal because they reflect God’s character, which is eternal and unchanging. (This is inherent in the meaning of the word moral, which comes from the Latin mores, “customs or manners,” which change with society, but in the case of God are unchanging because He is immutable, i.e., God’s morals are ethical.)
In other words, adultery is not wrong because God flipped a coin and decided it would be so, but it could have been permissible had He decided otherwise. No, it is wrong because God cannot steal and cannot break his word; it would violate His character. Adultery has never been and will never be permissible; this is a moral law that cannot change. In the same manner, anything described by Scripture as “detestable” or an “abomination” is offensive to God’s nature and cannot change. Should a prophet/apostle have suggested that God changed his mind on one of these matters, he would have been rejected as a false prophet, on the basis of Deuteronomy 12:1-13:18, and very specifically of 12:32-13:5.
Deuteronomy 12-13 is an excellent place to practice discerning the case-specific from the enduring principle. I won’t do so here, but note that we find there instructions that guide our worship today, identify false prophets, and establish the second principle for recognition of Scripture (i.e., all subsequent potential scripture must agree with preceding Scripture or it is to be rejected).
So, God’s character does not change, though He may “change his mind,” (this, however, is an anthropomorphism, where something God does is explained in a manner that makes sense to mankind, while God knew from eternity what, for example, Moses and Abraham would say and what He would do as a result). Secondly, God does not contradict himself and Scripture does not contradict itself. This is not to deny that God makes changes in his instructions to mankind, and many examples could be given (e.g., where one is permitted to sacrifice), but these changes are always found to be modifications in application rather than revocations of principle.
So, if we were to take Genesis 9:3 or Romans 14:14 we are going to find something consistent with the meta-narrative of Scripture. Sometimes recognizing this is easy (e.g., Rom 14:14) and sometimes it is somewhat more difficult (e.g., Gen 9:3), but we can ferret out the intended meaning without doubt, if we are willing to submit to whatever Scripture actually says, regardless of what it might do to our present understanding or preferred system of interpretation. So let’s go there, and along the way we’ll hit Acts 10:9-29, and 1 Timothy 4:3-4.
There is no discussion in Romans 14 about whether it is okay to eat unclean meat, nor about whether we ought to keep the Sabbath. The context of the entire passage rules out the possibility of these two items being under discussion. For Paul and for his intended audience these are not matters of opinion; they are incontrovertibly declared by Scripture. And the rule of interpretation helpfully reminds us, “what it could not have meant to them, it cannot mean to us.”
I realize they are matters of opinion today, but we don’t interpret Scripture by contemporary opinion, but by exegesis of the text within its historical and scriptural context.
So let’s do that with Acts 10, because starting there becomes the key to instantly understanding Romans 14:14 (and the rest of the passage). Before we go there, recall that none of the passages which are now taken to suggest God changed his mind about clean/unclean meat (and the Sabbath) had even been written at the time Paul wrote the letter to the Romans. No one held what is today’s popular opinion regarding clean/unclean meat at the time. So the situation is analogous to the following: I am preparing to write you a letter in which I will reveal that God has changed His mind about whether homosexuality is permissible… do you think I will treat that revelation as an aside, as a “matter of opinion,” or will that be a major focus of my letter? How will your opinion of my legitimacy as a prophet from God be affected by that letter? Will you canonize my letter or reject it?
I wrote an actual letter on Acts 10 some years ago to another friend, so I will attach that here. As you ponder the explanation of Acts 10, keep in mind that in Romans 14:14, the word rendered “unclean” is κοινὸν (koinon), which does not mean “unclean,” but “common” or “profane.” This is one of only two places in the KJV New Testament where κοινὸν is rendered “unclean,” and the other occasion (Hebrews 9:13) incontrovertibly confirms my claim, for it should also not be rendered “unclean” but “common, profane, or impure,” as it refers specifically to ceremonial impurity (as opposed to akathartos, which describes morally unclean). Read on as κοινὸν will feature significantly in Acts 10… (transition to attached pdf).
Okay… (assuming you have digested the thoughts on Acts 10), we now see that the issue of whether something (or someone) was considered κοινὸν/common, is a matter of tradition… or “opinions”, above and beyond the Scripture’s requirement, which actually accords with the controlling context of Romans 14, “As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions.” So rather than having a verse which overturns (at that time) 3000 years of accepted Scriptural authority in a passing comment, what we actually have is Paul saying—in agreement with the surrounding context— that while nothing is common in and of itself, if someone considers it to be common then for that person it is… therefore do not offend their conscience. Please note, furthermore, that the entire pericope is not talking about relaxing Scriptural injunctions (in that case Matthew 5:17-20 would apply and invalidate Paul’s comment), but about issues where an individual goes further than Scripture requires.
Romans 14:14 is typically read as if Paul was suddenly—in the middle of a passage about people who are stricter than Scripture itself—relaxing one of God’s major prohibitions—contra Jesus who specifically prohibited such a thing, and yet we believe that this is something Jesus taught Paul in Antioch or in Arabia. This makes absolutely no sense—and yet we do it. It may be the most common and most egregious instance of eisegesis vs. exegesis ever seen. The preconditioning required speaks volumes about the capacity of human nature to read through selective lenses—and we all do it; I am as guilty as another. I have been repeatedly struck by the grace of God to open our eyes only to that which we are ready to see. O how we depend upon the truth that, “There is therefore now no condemnation to them which are in Christ Jesus!” Would that we would come to understand what it means to, “walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit!” “Because the carnal mind is enmity against God: for it is not subject to the law of God, neither indeed can be…But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit”… and therefore are subject to the law of God, which is, “fulfilled in us, who walk not after the flesh, but after the Spirit.”
- Romans 14:14 does not say, “there is nothing unclean of itself”
- it would violate the logic of the passage, if it did say that
- it would have been rejected by the hearers and caused Paul to be rejected as a legitimate apostle if he had said that.
To go back to something you said, is it possible to imagine that someone could engage in homosexuality “to the Lord”? The idea is first unthinkable, but secondly directly contradicts the flow of logic in Romans 14, as I’ve explained above. And this is the scenario Paul’s readers found themselves in—as we feel/think about homosexuality, so they thought about eating unclean meat. And now the legitimacy of the interpretive maxim is revealed: what the text could not have possibly meant to the original inspired biblical author, it cannot possibly mean today.
Finally, and this will take us to Genesis 9:3 and 1 Timothy 4:3-4. Notice how Paul uses “Nothing” in Romans 14:14. It is a universal indicative that is not truly universal: it presumes first the statements of God and is inclusive of “all” but the previously precluded. We find this often throughout Scripture. Thou shalt not work on the Sabbath, period…but the priests are specifically instructed to do so in the Tabernacle/Temple. “Tell Aaron your brother not to come at any time into the Holy Place inside the veil, before the mercy seat that is on the ark, so that he may not die” (Lev 16:2) …except for the specific time and manner about which I will now instruct him.
Similarly, when God says, “Every moving thing…” we are expected to understand that this doesn’t include the blowfish, which is poisonous, nor the unclean animals which if you were to eat one of the single pair available would eradicate the species. Notice the next word, “even as the green herb” which were also “all” given, except of course those that were poisonous, and except of course, from the Tree of Life. So, when we read “everything created” in 1 Timothy 4:3-4, we have to read it in the context of the surrounding verses, and in the context of the entire Scripture, knowing that nothing Paul says will contradict what God has already established.
It should be obvious from the surrounding verses what Paul has in mind here; for once again, he is describing extra-biblical strictures, “forbidding to marry and abstaining from food.” So, as you said earlier, is it possible to eat that which God has forbidden “to the Lord” or “if it be received with thanksgiving?”
Let’s apply the logic that is often used to read this passage in another context and see how well it works.
“For every woman God created is good, and no women is to be refused, if she be received with thanksgiving: For she is sanctified by the word of God and prayer.”
True, every woman God created is good (Gen 1:31), but this doesn’t mean all women may be received with thanksgiving, for that would violate God’s prohibition.
I hope this has been helpful in revealing the logic I was using, and explains a bit more about how we approach Scripture and life. Even more, I hope it was convincing, and if it was not, I would love to hear why not.