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Sunday Study: Paul on Freedom of Conscience – Romans 14

October 5th, 2009 by Matt

In the 14th chapter of Paul’s letter to the Romans there is an interesting discussion of strictures relating to the eating of meat. The discussion is interesting because it brings up issues which have application beyond the context Paul addressed. Specifically, Paul affirms in these passages the existence of a prima facie right to freedom of conscience and bases his conclusions on the existence of such a right.

The context is as follows; under the laws of The Torah, Jews were forbidden to eat various meats that were considered unclean. These laws were laid down in Deuteronomy 15. The Torah, however, permitted Gentiles (non-Jews) to eat any meat that did not have “its lifeblood still in it” (probably meaning that the meat must be cut from an animal that is dead and not from a living animal). Both Jews and Gentiles were also commanded to refrain from idolatry.

In the book of Acts we read that the first century Church contained both Jews and Gentiles and the food laws became a source of some contention. As I argued in a previous post series Sunday Study: Did Christ Abolish the Old Testament Law? Gentiles were not required to obey the entire law of Moses but were required to follow those laws, laid down in The Torah, which were considered to be binding on both Jew and Gentile.  Hence, Gentiles were permitted to eat any kind of meat. However, at the same time Gentiles were commanded to refrain from idolatry.

This factor was complicated by the fact that, in the Gentile world, meat eating was often associated with idolatry. This could occur in two ways; first, it was common for public community meals to be held in the temple. A sacrifice to an idol was made and the meal formally devoted to a pagan deity. Paul condemns taking part in this kind of meal in 1st Corinthians 10:13-20 and in the apostolic decree recorded in Acts 15. The second way eating meat could be associated with idolatry was much more indirect. After a sacrifice had taken place any meat left over would be sold to merchants and then on-sold in the market place as normal meat. It was difficult, if not impossible, to tell whether meat purchased in the market had come from meat that had been part of a sacrifice (in its original killing devoted to idols). It appears evident from Paul’s epistles (Romans 14, 1 Corinthans 9-10) that some Christians believed that any meat eating was idolatrous, even if it was not eaten in a formal religious ceremony but merely bought at the market and eaten in a context where a Christian ate it in his own home and gave thanks to God for it. Such people, therefore, ate “only vegetables.” (Romans 14:2)

Paul’s response to the problem is nuanced; three things need to be noted. First, Paul quite emphatically states that those who forbade the eating of meat per se were wrong. Paul stated, “As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself.” (v14) Further he argues that eating meat was not idolatrous because it did not take place in an idolatrous context. The believer who eats meat “eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God;” (v6) far from the meal being a sacrificial meal devoted to Zeus or Apollo it was a meal eaten in a Christian home out of gratitude and devotion to God. Paul goes so far as to suggest that those who abstain from eating all meat possess a faith that is “weak.” (v2)

Second, Paul goes on to suggest that even though there is nothing wrong with eating meat, a person who eats meat who believes it is wrong, nevertheless, sins.  Paul states “I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean.” (v14) He goes on to state “But the man who has doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.” (v23)

Paul here seems to be drawing a distinction between objective and subjective duties. An objective duty is what our duty is in reality or actuality. A subjective duty, on the other hand, is what a person believes that their duty is. Obviously these two need not coincide, sometimes people mistakenly think that a particular action is permissible when it is not and similarly, a person can mistakenly believe they have a duty to perform an action when in fact they do not have such a duty.  Paul’s point is that while eating meat violates no objective duty, it is contrary to the subjective duties of those who believe God prohibits such conduct.

This raises an interesting question. Why should we be concerned about a person who violates their subjective duties? After all, if there is, in fact, no objective duty to not eat meat then this person is, in reality, doing nothing wrong at all; he thinks he is, but his thought is mistaken, why would this be a problem?

Something like this line of thought was expressed by Augustine of Hippo in the fourth century and was addressed by Aquinas some 800 years later. Aquinas starts by summarising Augustine’s inference,

According to Augustine, the command of a lower authority does not bind if it be contrary to the command of a higher authority: for instance, if a provincial governor command something that is forbidden by the emperor. But erring reason sometimes proposes what is against the command of a higher power, namely, God Whose power is supreme. Therefore the decision of an erring reason does not bind. Consequently the will is not evil if it be at variance with erring reason.[1]

By erring reason, Aquinas meant a mistaken deliverance of conscience; in other words, a subjective duty that did not correspond with an objective obligation. Aquinas’s response is straightforward,

The saying of Augustine holds good when it is known that the inferior authority prescribes something contrary to the command of the higher authority. But if a man were to believe the command of the proconsul to be the command of the emperor, in scorning the command of the proconsul he would scorn the command of the emperor. In like manner if a man were to know that human reason was dictating something contrary to God’s commandment, he would not be bound to abide by reason: but then reason would not be entirely erroneous. But when erring reason proposes something as being commanded by God, then to scorn the dictate of reason is to scorn the commandment of God.[2]

Aquinas’s point is that when a person mistakenly believes that a certain action is morally required, they mistakenly believe that God has commanded them to perform the action. If they did not think this, if they believed God had prohibited the action, then they would know the action was wrong and hence it would not be a case of mistaken conscience.  But seeing as the person believes God has commanded the action, to not do it would be at least in terms of one’s mental intention, to spurn God and hence by not doing it, would be culpable. Donagan sums the position up well in his book The Theory of Morality noting the history of theological reflection on this passage. Donagan states,

they [Christian Theologians] also ruled that an action done against conscience is always culpable A man is not merely held in culpable if he does something impermissible in accordance with his conscience, he is held culpable if he does not. The reason is simple. In acting against conscience, a violation of the moral law must be intended; and such intentions are always culpable, even though, because of the agents erroneous conscience, nothing materially wrong is done.[3]

Aquinas suggested, correctly I think, that this was Paul’s point. While those weak in the faith have a mistaken conscience, they mistakenly believe God forbids them to not eat meat, their failure to act on this mistaken belief would be culpable and blameworthy. They would in fact be spurning what they believe to be God’s commands and hence sinning if they ate meat.

Paul’s response to the Roman church then is interesting. He suggests that prima facie even a mistaken conscience should be respected;

Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way. As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean. If your brother is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy your brother for whom Christ died.

Paul’s basic point here is that it is wrong and contrary to God’s command, to try to pressure or coerce another person to act contrary to their own conscience, even where their conscience is mistaken. In fact, obedience to God requires one to avoid doing activities one knows to be objectively permissible in a context where one knows that doing so is likely to lead to a person being pressured or seduced into acting against their conscience.

Of course this is only a prima facie obligation; Paul here is addressing a context where the mistake is not a serious one. A person, who fails to eat meat, does nothing seriously wrong and causes no one else any harm. It would be a mistake then to extend Paul’s point to cases where a person mistakenly believed God has commanded them to murder, rape or to commit incest, for example. Clearly there are times when an erroneous conscience must not be respected in this way. Nevertheless, Paul’s point is significant. Prima facie God commands that people respect other people’s moral and religious beliefs and not exert pressure on those people to violate them, even if these beliefs are mistaken. It was this insight of Paul’s that would become the foundation for later discussions of religious tolerance that found their way into the constitutional laws of today’s liberal democracies.


[1] Summa Theologica II I Q 19 A5.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Alan Donagan The Theory of Morality (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979) 136.

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