Remember when you first got your driver’s license? All that freedom, all that road, all that speed. You could go anywhere and do anything—except break curfew or give rides to other teens or to girls or speed or run red lights or take long road trips. Freedom has its limits, at least it ought to, especially to protect the less mature.
In Romans 14 we see a scenario in which freedom and limits are again in tension. Now that the Old Testament laws of cleanliness and purification were in the past, it meant that any food or drink was pure, so people were digging in. But this caused issues for other believers still more closely connected to the old ways. Their consciences were pricked by this new freedom—it felt wrong to eat or drink these new things, or even be in proximity to them.
So on one side we have people exercising their freedom in Christ. On the other side we have people abiding by their consciences. Both good things, but in tension.
Paul brings the tension back to the heart. He points out that food and drink are not the issue. The issue is love. People on one side were prioritizing their freedom above the hearts of fellow believers and causing them to struggle. He points out that, clean or not, if food or drink is seen as questionable by someone, then for that person to consume it would be sin. The liberated person should set aside their freedom temporarily in order to show love.
The church is a body and a family. When one part works in conflict with another, it breaks down. One person’s freedom in Christ cannot be a license to push another person into conflict with their conscience. All actions, attitudes, and convictions in the church must be done and held in such a way as to build up and support. They must pursue love.
The self-sacrifice of setting aside liberties is an indication of spiritual maturity. It shows that love for brothers and sisters is of greater value than one’s own freedom or pleasure.
Believers are no longer under the old law, but neither can we grab our freedoms and revel in them for our own happiness at the expense of others. We are free because of God’s profound love and grace through Jesus, so love and grace and Christlikeness must be the marks of our freedom.
Sometimes we will revel and eat or drink to our great pleasure. Other times we will sacrifice our freedoms for the sake of our brothers and sisters who have yet to discover the guilt-free freedom of Jesus. This is true maturity proven by love.
Written by Barnabas Piper