14:13–14—Respect your brother’s conscience.
13 Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.
14 I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.
Verse 13 marks a transition. The first part of the verse, a command to stop judging one another, summarizes the chapter’s first 12 verses. Then Paul speaks directly to those who are “strong” in faith, and he will focus on their behavior to the end of the chapter.
Paul’s focus moves from liberty to love. The strong must be considerate of their weaker brothers. And of great importance, they must not pressure a brother to violate his or her conscience.
Think before flaunting your liberty
We may eat, drink, and do things in our Christian liberty at home or with some fellow believers that we would not do with other believers. The deciding factor is whether we might bring spiritual downfall to someone. That is what Paul means by “decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance” (literally an animal trap) in the way of a person. We must not influence or pressure someone to do anything their conscience forbids them to do.
The subjectivity of sin
Verse 14 states a principle Paul will elaborate in verse 23, which is that our conscience acts as a judge of what is right or wrong. The strong believer has a conscience trained to know objectively how to distinguish between right and wrong behavior according to biblical principles. The weaker believer is still learning what the gospel frees him or her to do. A behavior might be objectively okay, but if a person thinks it is wrong, to do it would violate the person’s conscience and be sinful. That’s how important the conscience is.
When Paul uses the word “unclean,” he is referring to things that caused ritual defilement under the Mosaic law. Paul traces his teaching to Jesus, who put an end to Levitical food laws. Jesus said what defiles a person is not what goes through the mouth, but rather the sinful thoughts that come from the heart (Mark 7:14–23). Mark notes in verse 19 that Jesus thus declared all foods clean.
Obviously, Paul is not saying everything without exception is “clean” and therefore okay for a Christian to do. This principle of conscience does not apply to moral or doctrinal issues. Some things are objectively wrong to do no matter what a person’s conscience might dictate. In such cases, knowledgeable believers must instruct and discipline offenders as the Bible instructs.
Be sensitive in “educating” one another
Douglas Moo says Paul wants the “strong” to realize that people differ in their ability to process and internalize truth. Someone can understand intellectually that a behavior is biblically sound and yet emotionally have qualms. Some people can be taught the truth and yet because of temperament, tradition, or family training be slower to live it out. Truth often takes time to go from mind to heart.
Here is the bottom line: We might think something is okay to do, but if someone else thinks it is wrong, we must not pressure the person to do it and probably should not do it in his or her presence. Give young believers time to grow, and don’t lecture older fuddy-duddies.