I enjoy a free and clear conscience when it comes to drinking alcohol (in moderation, of course).
But my husband doesn’t drink alcohol. His family has a history of alcoholism, and because of that and other factors, he’s decided to not drink alcohol at all. Most of his experiences near it have been destructive and ungodly, so he’s taken a pretty extreme approach in abstaining from alcohol.
In Romans 14, Paul shares practical guidance for navigating situations like this, where people who love the Lord come to different conclusions about how they should conduct themselves. The Christians in Rome were arguing over things like what foods they can and cannot eat, and which days they should set aside as holy.
A New Freedom: Rules Don’t Lead to Righteousness
You see, God’s people were used to centuries of following specific laws that governed their daily lives—how to wash garments and make sacrifices, which foods to eat and when, and which days they were allowed to do what. These laws were put in place to help God’s people set their sights on righteousness and cleanliness before God.
However, the author of Hebrew writes:
The law is only a shadow of the good things that are coming—not the realities themselves. For this reason it can never, by the same sacrifices repeated endlessly year after year, make perfect those who draw near to worship. (Hebrews 10:1)
The law is a shadow, or a hint, of the purification to come. . . but it cannot make us perfect. However, Christ can! Romans was written to believers after Christ’s death and resurrection. Having been already made perfect by Christ’s sacrifice (Hebrews 10:14), these new Christians were granted the freedom that comes with being made new in Christ; the freedom to rely on Christ’s perfection to make us clean, instead of rules and laws.
Even so, some Christians still chose to adhere very strictly to certain laws—and in Romans 14, Paul explains that it is totally okay. God accepts both those who follow the traditional laws, and those who exercise their new freedom (Romans 14:3).
Conflict Over the Inconsequential
Despite this, the disagreement around inconsequential day-to-day conduct caused great division. Paul wrote to the Romans to encourage them to set their judgment aside and learn to love one another. He urged them to respect those who might not be fully walking in this new freedom, and consider how it might be most edifying to abstain from or limit themselves for the sake of another. The idea is that we must be willing to give things up if it hinders our fellow brother or sister, or causes them to stumble (Romans 14:13).
When it comes to my husband’s distaste for alcohol, Paul’s words to the Romans have been really helpful. We all interact with other Christians who have come to different conclusions about daily choices—whether it’s the shows we watch, the clothes we wear, the food we eat, or whether we should drink alcohol. And Paul’s advice in Romans 14 is a great resource for navigating these murky waters.
Here are three key takeaways from Romans 14 that I find helpful when addressing this topic:
1. It doesn’t matter why it’s a stumbling block for them (see verses 3, 4, 10 & 13)
My first instinct is to analyze why someone is abstaining from something or restricting themselves in a certain way. However, the reason behind why someone has certain limits in place should not determine whether or not I respect them. I am not the judge of their conscience, so in this case, the “why” doesn’t really matter.
This point is really emphasized when Paul asks the rhetorical question, “Who are you to judge someone else’s servant?” and follows it up with, “To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.” (Romans 14:4, emphasis added)
This humbling truth reminds me that it is only because of Christ’s sacrifice that any of us are able to stand before our Holy God. By nature, we are all weak. Some people have strict limits in place because, like my husband, they are aware of their vulnerabilities, and choose to make decisions that will spur them towards righteousness.
It is not my place to judge the weaknesses of others. Instead, I should find a way to love them.
2. Show love by sacrificing for others
There are going to be times when exercising freedom in our own clear conscience causes someone else anxiety or pain. We have to be sensitive to this, because if we proceed down this course, we are no longer acting in love (Romans 14:15). We should make every effort to do what leads to peace and mutual edification (Romans 14:19).
Though I feel no personal conviction about abstaining from alcohol, my husband does, and I found that sometimes when I drink, it acts as a stumbling block for him, causing distress and unrest. As a result, I now avoid drinking for the most part.
In order to better love my husband, I sometimes choose to give up my freedom by avoiding alcohol. Showing our love for other Christians can look different in different situations. Sometimes it might be not watching seemingly innocent shows or movies with certain friends, because it might be a trigger for lust or envy for them. It could also be as simple as not eating pork around Christian friends who abstain because it’s traditionally known as an unclean meat.
Whatever form this takes, ultimately it’s about giving up some of our freedom for the benefit of a Christian brother or sister. By doing this, we show love to individuals, and prioritize edification and peace.
3. Ultimately, it’s not about me
Romans 14 is a splash of cold water that reminds us that this life isn’t about us. We should acknowledge that we have faults and weaknesses, and do what we can to be sensitive to the weaknesses of others. Sometimes, being sensitive might mean choosing to not exercise freedoms—even freedoms that we feel like we have a legitimate claim to. Ultimately, we do this for the good of our community and to serve other people.
Of course, giving up our freedom in certain situations doesn’t mean giving it up all the time. But for each situation, we should consider the people we’re with, how our actions might affect others, and what God is guiding us to do through our conscience. For example, I’ve learned that when I’m offered alcohol by a Christian family over a quiet dinner, my husband is not really affected by me drinking alcohol. However, it is a hindrance to him if it’s offered at a loud bar downtown with company that abuses alcohol.
When and where it’s appropriate, let us be eager to inconvenience ourselves for the sake of showing sacrificial love to others.
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. (Romans 14: 20b-21)