But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because he does not eat from faith; for whatever is not from faith is sin (Rom. 14:23).
The context of this passage is talking about eating meat offered to idols (14:1-22). And Paul’s overall point is that there is nothing wrong with eating meat that has been offered to idols, because idols don’t really exist. Well, idols exist, but the things they pretend to represent, other gods, don’t really exist. And because the gods don’t exist, the idols have no real power, and thus food used to worship nothing is not evil in itself. But that’s the logical side of things.
In real life, people who have spent their whole lives worshipping those false gods, have a difficult time understanding and believing that they don’t really exist and thus that the rituals really had no effect in the world. Food that had been part of worshiping false gods, at the time real gods, but now false and none existent, still has taint on it. Sometimes, it is difficult to get past what you grew up believing.
This means that there are a number of Christians out there who are still stuck believing that what they formerly believed, as non-Christians, has an element of real truth in the world, and is thus still dangerous, even sinful. To participate in something that turned out to be so evil, must, in some sense still be evil.
What are some examples of this? Well the first thing that springs to mind is the use of alcohol. In the world, alcohol is an idol. Those who worship it by drinking it are called alcoholics. Those who worship it by not drinking are called…well, they aren’t called anything, but they do attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings with the same reverence and awe they used to attend bars. Either way, alcohol is at the center of their lives and thus an idol. Then, when they get saved, many Christians still believe alcohol is evil and should be avoided at all costs. It is in now in the same category as food offered to idols in Romans 14.
Other idols, or food offered to idols, in our context might be playing cards, smoking cigars, certain kinds of foods, taking certain kinds of medications, wearing certain kinds of clothing, hairdos, etc. The list can go on and on, and is usually comprised of things we left when we came to Christ; that we saw as binding to us as non-Christians. These are most often things that we believe would drag us back into sin if we participated in them again after having been saved. Those weights that entangle us (Heb. 12:1).
It’s true and right that we should avoid those things that bind us, and that drag us back into lives of debauchery, but the Bible tells us that those idols are not real. The power they have over us, or had over us, was nothing real. The problem was always our sinful hearts, not the idols themselves. And unless the things we did in worship of idols is sinful in itself, they aren’t wrong to do now that we know Jesus.
To make things interesting, there are those who have been saved out of real pagan worship, and have been totally freed from the tentacles of the former gods. These folks are free to do things that were formerly part of idolatrous worship. They know, for example, that alcohol in itself is not evil and so they can have a glass of wine for their stomach (1 Tim. 5:23). They can have a bit of wine to encourage them at a party (Ecc. 9:7). And they joyfully celebrate the Lord’s Supper with a goblet of wine because that’s the drink Jesus enjoyed (Lk. 7:34).
When these two young Christians get together it is easy to see how sparks might fly. One believes it is still sin to participate in those “evil” practices. The other believes that the old ways were empty, completely devoid of any truth, and thus of no consequence at all. They are free to participate in them. Now, in the presence of someone who thinks it wrong, both sides are prone to try to push their beliefs on the other. One says, “You’re sinning to do that,” the other might say “You’re sinning to believe such silliness.” Both end up sinning against the other because of their views.
By the time Paul gets to our sentence, the uber “mature” ones (those who know that idols were nothing and so the worship did nothing to the food) have prevailed and they have convinced the weaker brothers (those who still believe the food was tainted by the idols in some way) to eat even though they really believe there’s something wrong with eating. Paul said, eating when you think there’s something wrong with the food is sinful. It’s sinful because they don’t really believe, have faith, that God is One, that idols represent nothing, that there is nothing conferred to the food when nothing actually happens. Things done when faith is absent is sinful.
Our temptation at this point may be to rejoice that we have it right because we know that idols don’t really represent anything, but we sin when we force our views on weaker brothers who aren’t where we are in our understanding (Cf. v. 15). So, if a weaker brother is stumbled by observing us eating, or he eats because we shamed him into it, or coerced him in some other way, we both sin. Them, because they aren’t eating in faith. We, because we have not loved our brother.
Always remember, there is a higher right than being right.