In Paul’s day, the church in Rome struggled with disunity over whether Christians could eat meat from animals which had been sacrificed to idols. We might tend to minimize this issue since it’s something that we don’t struggle with, but for diaspora Jews it was deadly serious. They saw themselves as acting in the tradition of Daniel and his three friends in Babylon when they refused to eat the king’s delicacies.¹ It was a lifestyle that cost them dearly and their devotion to God was wrapped up in their vegetarian diets. Gentile Christians, on the other hand, had come to accept that pagan gods didn’t exist and wondered why it mattered that an animal had been sacrificed to a nonentity.
Paul weighed in on the debate. Oddly, this “Hebrew of Hebrews”² came down on the Gentile side of the argument, but only theoretically:
I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean.
Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a person 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 or sister to fall.
So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if they eat, because their eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin. (Romans 14:14, 20-23 NIV)
Eating meat from a pagan sacrifice was officially okay unless someone had doubts. Then it wasn’t.
According to Paul, we’re either motivated by faith or something else. The gospel of Christ declares any action, no matter how benign or doctrinally correct, done out of “something else” to be sin.
In the case of the Roman church, sin occurred when action was dictated by conformity rather than conscience. Succumbing to peer pressure violates the gospel. Under Christ, “positive peer pressure” doesn’t exist.
This doesn’t mean that we need to continually sift through our motives for every one of the 35,000 decisions on average we make per day. It means that we need to be attentive to our consciences and catch ourselves before we take moral shortcuts. We need to examine the way we present ourselves in public to ascertain whether we’re projecting a persona. Most of all, we need to look at our spiritual life and repent of tradition, rote ritual, hero worship, legalism, superstition, or anything else that might masquerade as faith. Because, when done out of wrong motives, even our religion can become sin.
- Daniel 1
- Philippians 3:5