20 Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats.
21 It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.
Except for the phrase about everything being “clean,” Paul addresses these words to the Roman believers who are strong in faith.
Build up, don’t tear down
Verse 19 was an exhortation to pursue peace and mutual edification or “upbuilding” (ESV), where the Greek word refers to construction of a building. Here in verse 20 Paul extends this construction metaphor with the word “destroy,” which means to tear down a building. The “work of God” refers not to the church as a whole but to the Holy Spirit’s regenerative and sanctifying work in each person.
Paul warns the strong not to so elevate their liberty that they tear down God’s spiritual work in a fellow brother or sister. (For the sake of his wordplay, Paul uses a different word from his warning in verse 15 not to “destroy” someone for whom Christ died.)
Meat and wine
This is Paul’s first mention of the specific food and beverage that were at issue in Rome and also in Corinth (1 Corinthians 8). Prior to their conversions, some of the believers had partaken of meat and wine that were offered to idols in the pagan temples. At this point in their Christian experience, their consciences were not yet sufficiently informed by the word of God to avoid feelings of guilt if they partook of these items.
The priority of the gospel
In this controversy we must keep in mind what was at stake and what was not. If believers were pressured to violate their weak consciences, they could suffer spiritual harm. That was the problem Paul sought to guard against, and it did not jeopardize the authenticity of the gospel.
In an earlier episode that involved eating and the Apostle Peter, the truth of the gospel was very much at stake, and Paul wrote some harsh words about that in Galatians 2:11–14. When Peter met with the Gentile believers in Antioch, he ate freely with them. Then some Jews came from Jerusalem with the intent to pressure Peter and all the Jews to abide by the Jewish laws, including those that forbade Jews from sharing meals with Gentiles. Peter gave in to the pressure and stopped eating with Gentiles, which led to Paul’s strong rebuke.
In that circumstance involving food, both the Jews and Peter violated the message of grace at the heart of the gospel. Peter should have known better, because the Lord had shown Peter in a dream prior to his meeting with Cornelius that all food was “clean” and to be eaten freely (Acts 10–11).
Circumcision is another morally neutral issue that Paul dealt with differently depending on the context. RC Sproul observes that in Paul’s early ministry he circumcised people who wanted it done out of tradition or family custom.