After his discussion of judging others in verses 1-12, Paul moves onto Christian Liberty and the responsibilities that come with it. He divides this discussion into four points:
First, we should be willing to sacrifice some of our liberty for the sake of others:
Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. 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. If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died.
It’s interesting to notice that this begins with Paul saying we should stop judging others, isn’t it? Once again, he uses the example of dietary practices, but this applies to many other things. If a brother or sister thinks rock and roll is the Devil’s music, then for his sake, I’ll play something else when he’s around. (My Grandmother used to think jazz was the Devil’s music!) The point is that we should have respect for the conscience of others, even though we may (rightly) believe them to be mistaken, for to get in their face may well cause them a crisis of faith and being “right” isn’t the point of love.
Second, don’t allow what your conscience knows to be good to be spoken of as evil:
Therefore do not let what you know is good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and receives human approval.
There can be some natural tension between this point and the last point, but if we are careful in our discernment, we will notice the difference. In the first point, we are speaking entirely of opinions; what we eat or drink. The second point goes to matters of truth. Thus, there are two sides to Christian liberty: one the one hand, we may need to sacrifice minor matters of opinion for the sake of someone else. On the other hand, we must defend the truth of God and His Word. Here’s a different example: Suppose a brother announces that smoking cigarettes is a sin. He is exercising his right to his opinion, but in the process, he is falsely teaching the Word, for smoking is never mentioned in Scripture, and there is no principle to apply to it that does not involved taking something out of its context. As a teacher of the Word, I will feel obligated to correct the Scriptural error (in love) while acknowledging that he has every right not to like smoking. I would sacrifice my liberty by not smoking around him. For the record, I am not now, nor have I ever been a smoker; I think it’s really stupid… but not a sin. See the difference?
Third, we should only do things that build others up in Christ:
Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. 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.
Being “right” isn’t the standard we are called to; the standard we are called to is love; putting the interests of others ahead of our own. Thus, in all that we do, we should do it for the benefit of others, and if that means that we skip something we like, so what?
Fourth, we should be true to our own convictions:
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.
These two verses tie the first three points together, but in an awkward way, at least for the modern reader. Paul carried through his example of dietary practices, which are not nearly the big deal now that they were in his time. Yet the principle is clear enough; we should, in all things, act and live according to our faith. What does the Christian faith hold as a priority above everything else? Simply stated, it’s love God, love your neighbor. Thus, in all that we do, we must put God first and foremost, and then put our neighbor ahead of ourselves. I’m quite certain that if we remember to live that way, we’ll have nothing at all to worry about.