When the prophet Isaiah had spoken of stern retribution against Judah for their sins, he balanced his message of woe with these words, “Destroy it not; for a blessing is in it”. The bunch of grapes may be ordinary enough upon the vine but should not be despised, for with the mysterious process of maturation a sweet wine would yet be developed. So in the trials of Israel’s judgments a profitable result would ensue, a remnant may yet grace the call of their God; a “blessing” was in the cluster!

The Hebrew for “destroy not” is Al-taschith and it is used as an appeal for preservation and protection. We find it as a subscript to Psalms 56, 57 and 74, where in each case there is a note of alarm as though something precious, something special was in jeopardy and so the psalmist cries unto Yahweh with anguished appeal, “Destroy not”! This little Hebraism has its roots in Moses’ passionate petition at the time of the golden calf, “O Lord God, destroy not Thy people and Thine inheritance, which Thou hast redeemed” (Deut 9:26).

With equal anxiety the apostle Paul appeals to the saints of the ecclesia at Rome: “Destroy not him with thy meat, for whom Christ died” (Rom 14:15).

He had not actually been to Rome and many of them he did not yet know. But he felt the precious nature of each of these saints, the worth of each one for whom Christ had died. If Christ had given his life for them, then woe betide the individual who treats their future glorification with casual indifference!

The Focus of Our Judgment

There is something very deep in the Apostle’s statement in this verse 15. How can it be true that my choice of meat can be influential upon the destiny of my brother? Could it really destroy him? Surely in Christ every brother has to stand in his own shoes and make his own assessment as to what is permissible to him in his life in Christ. For another to have such a restraint upon my liberties surely sounds unhealthy. Does not the other brother need to know that he stands or falls according to his own response to his own conscience? “Am I my brother’s keeper?”

Nevertheless the Apostle’s comment is clear and when he wrote to the Corinthians on the same subject he made an equally strong statement: “And through thy knowledge shall the weak brother perish, for whom Christ died?” Certainly Paul’s mind, of the Spirit of God, is quite plain but how do we understand such weighty consequences from the simple exercise of things for which our conscience is free? Obviously what we do in Christ is affected not only by my own conscience but also by the conscience of others. My judgment of what is right or wrong for my own life is not determined only by my personal assessment, Biblically, of what we can reason to be correct, but also by what effect my action or indulgence would have upon others. This is a higher way to think! It would be a laughing stock to our present world that praises personal rights, individual freedoms and independence for everyone’s chosen way. Christ’s way is the way of love and the way to life.

How does the apostle Paul work it out?

“Him that is Weak in Faith”

This is the opening phrase in Romans 14. Here “weak in faith” means that a brother holds a conscience upon a matter which is not actually well-advised, as the matter is not part of the commandments of Christ. In Paul’s day it was the Jewish brother in particular that he had in mind (cp sense of 15:7,8) for these brethren had grown up with many matters of conscience which were quite fanatically upheld in Judaism but were in many cases not supported by Old Testament teaching and certainly not endorsed by Christ.

Two such issues are given in verses 2–5, the first the eating of meat and the other the religious keeping of certain days of special holiness, some mentioned in the Law of Moses and others introduced through historical highlights in the Jewish nation.

Whatever we today may think of these matters, the truth was that Jewish people (and other of their proselytes) were strongly bent to refuse all meats and, of course, especially so if the food was first dedicated to heathen gods. The keeping of the Sabbath, new moon festivities and three annual feasts and other such celebrations were engrained items in the mind and conscience of Jewish people and often remained so even after baptism. Ecclesial controversy was sure to arise, for the larger picture on these issues had removed them as items of Christian ethics. Meats had no effect upon the moral health of a brother (Mk 7:18–20) and now every day was to be lived wholeheartedly in the service of Christ. Therefore writes the Apostle in a summary statement, “Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind” (v5).

“Unto the Lord”

Here is a critical phrase, for in the next three verses it occurs no less than six times. Whatever was done, whether in restraint or freedom, it was to be “unto the Lord”.

So this chapter has nothing to do with freeing brethren’s minds for acceptance of things for personal pleasure or indulgence. “Whether we live or die we are the Lord’s.” So whatever we do is for the honour of His name. Do we sometimes forget that the preparatory statement of this chapter is, “put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to fulfil the lusts thereof” (13:14). Whatever we bring into the scope of Romans 14 must be an issue which can be kept or rejected unto the Lord, that is, in good conscience before God.

Walking Charitably

Since the Lord will be judge and everyone will stand before Him, there was no value in despising or judging one another on the matters in question. Concentration upon the assumed sins of others was not therefore appropriate (verses 10–13). What we should be judging is whether the exercise of our own liberties and freedoms was injurious to the walk of our brethren and sisters: “judge this rather, that no man put a stumbling block or an occasion to fall in his brother’s way” (v13). Thus the apostle opens up his second major thrust in Romans 14.

It is this line of the Apostle’s argument which has such relevance to us today. Obviously our walk in Christ has important ramifications for good and evil upon our brothers and sisters, so what we choose to do must be influenced by the effects upon others. Are we still prepared to restrain our choices to ways which will be helpful to others obtaining the Kingdom? Has a world of so many options and opportunities encouraged us to abandon our careful reticence, to subtly accept the common view that morality is a personal matter and it is no place for anyone else to interfere with our right to choose what’s best for us.

Unhappily one senses that this is the mind of many today. All of us feel the pressure of a selfish world, to simply do our own thing, to absorb something of the unconcerning spirit which says that what’s right for me is what I’m going to do, without regard for the conscience or circumstances of others. To those who took this view in Rome, the Apostle said, “Thou walkest not charitably. Destroy not him with thy meat, for whom Christ died” (v15). The servant of Christ is not his own master and if he would honour his Master, then he certainly will bear in mind the other servants of his Master when he makes decisions about many matters in his life. The serious nature of this instruction is

underlined by the Apostle’s repetition of the consequences of independent selfish decisions, “For meat destroy not the work of God!” (v20).

“Destroy Not Him For Whom Christ Died”

There may be a number of ways in which we could destroy our brother, but in what way does the Apostle mean it in Romans 14? The sense of verse 14 makes it clear. Here Paul refers back to personal instruction from the Lord Jesus, that “there is nothing unclean of itself”. In the gospel records it is Matthew 15 and Mark 7 that amplify this teaching of the Lord. The disciples were impugned by the Pharisees because they had eaten with unwashen hands, something very contrary to contemporary Jewish practice (Mark 7:4,5). Jesus’ teaching was that nothing from without can defile the man, for true defilement comes from within out of the heart of man, where evil thoughts and practice defile the man before God. No material thing in itself can have this effect, whether meat or drink or disease or any other object. It is quite clear from verse 14 that in Rome there were those of strong conscience who were citing this instruction of Christ to justify their freedom in openly practising matters that were of great concern to those of a more stringent conscience. It is also clear from verse 20 that these “strong” were stating, “All things are pure”, a short hand way of summarising the teaching of the Lord (cp Mk 7:19). Paul makes it plain that he is well aware of Christ’s teachings, but if it was applied to justify practices that were bringing spiritual death to other brethren and sisters, then it was well time that these “strong” woke up to the consequences of their actions.

How was it that their exercise of legitimate rights in Christ could “destroy” their brothers? The answer lies in what effect our liberty has upon the conscience of others. A brother or sister may have a strong conviction that eating of meat was wrong. This was particularly an issue with Jewish brethren living in a Gentile world, for almost always the meat sold in the shops had been ‘sanctified’ by its offering to heathen idols (1 Corinthians 8 amplifies this situation). Others of Gentile background may also have adopted this conscience, as in their desire to abstain from every appearance of evil they may have thought this was a safe course. Alas, they became aware of well-known and prominent brethren with no concern about partaking of this meat; in fact they were pushing those of bound conscience to enjoy themselves in partaking, for all said and done the idol was nothing and God had given all meats to be enjoyed with thanksgiving (1 Tim 4:3). Without really satisfying their mind and conscience before God the “weak” had succumbed under the influence of their more liberated brethren and were now indulging in what they before despised. The danger lay in the wounding of the weak brother’s conscience which Paul calls “a sin against Christ” (1 Cor 8:12).

In Romans 14 he writes, “whatsoever is not of faith is sin”. So the matter is very serious. The brother of wounded conscience has lost his balance of judgment, for it is his conscience that preserves the integrity of his relationship to the Father. Weaken his conscience and he may well take up other areas of licence that will be distinctly detrimental to his walk in Christ and his eventual salvation. The “strong” brother’s brandishing of free conscience has not only undermined the faith of his simple brother but also put his own salvation in jeopardy. “If any man defile the temple of God, him shall God destroy”! (1 Cor 3:17).

Do All to the Glory of God

So in this wonderful way the Apostle has elevated the principles of our choice in a vast number of issues. Both in Romans and Corinthians the thrust of the argument is for the restraint of love on behalf of those with the “weaker” conscience. What is important in life? Do we wish to push our liberties to the point where they may harm others? Of course we don’t and yet so often our choice may have serious consequences upon others who watch and take note. We know that is what happens, because all of us are aware that in making decisions upon non-fundamental issues we are cognisant of what others do. What clothes shall we purchase, what house shall we buy, what degree of luxury or expense in our furniture, the car we drive, the places we eat, the holidays we take, the books we read, the technology we justify, the district we live in. In all these items and many others our life is affecting the conscience of others. That is a responsibility we all bear but the greater measure of responsibility is upon those who lead in ecclesial life for it is more often to their way of life that others set their course.

Perhaps there is no greater, more relevant exhortation and advice for these latter days. Anything goes today and so often it appears as though this abandoned spirit has come in the back door of our Brotherhood.

Let the apostle Paul have the last words.

“Let us therefore follow after the things which make for peace, and things wherewith one may edify another… whatsoever ye do, do all to the glory of God.”

“Even as I please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit, but the profit of many, that they may be saved” (Rom 14:19; 1 Cor 10:31, 33).