15 For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died.
16 So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil.
Is meat from an animal that was sacrificed in a pagan temple somehow spiritually contaminated? If you recently converted to Christ after a lifetime of worshiping the temple’s idol and eating meat sacrificed to it, you might think so. Of course, the idol is not a real god, because there is only one true God. But if your conscience hasn’t caught up with your theological understanding, to eat this meat could offend your conscience.
If you were biblically knowledgeable, on the other hand, you would see no problem with the meat and like its bargain price. You might bring it to community meals and even buy and eat it in the idol’s temple. When your brother tells you your behavior offends him, you brush it off and think he is ill informed and downright silly. You keep eating, and meanwhile your brother stops coming to the gatherings. Just as well, you think, because his faith is so weak anyway.
The extreme word “destroy”
This appears to have been the situation Paul had to address in Rome and also earlier in Corinth (see 1 Corinthians 8). We can imagine the debates over this issue got heated, since it came down to eating or not eating any meat. This is because there was no way to tell in meat markets which meat had been used in sacrifices. Those with weaker consciences therefore considered all meat off limits, while the strong ridiculed the idea of giving up one of their favorite foods.
Paul saw the danger of any pressure on the weak to eat the meat, because such behavior by the strong could “destroy” their brothers’ faith. Paul has in mind a spiritual destruction. Perhaps he means that some of the weaker believers might succumb to pressure to eat meat in violation of their consciences, withdraw from fellowship, and eventually abandon faith in Christ.
Paul used the same language in his warning to strong believers in Corinth: “And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ” (1 Corinthians 8:11–12). Paul concluded that if the choice is between eating meat and stumbling his brother, he would never eat meat.
Misrepresenting the gospel
Christian liberty is good. But the strong abused this gift of liberty to the point of damaging their brothers, who spoke evil of this very gift for which Christ died. (“Spoken of as evil” translates a strong word meaning “reviled,” or “denounced,” or “blasphemed”). Abuse of liberty caused the source of that liberty, the gospel, to be denounced. And in pushing their liberty, the strong abused an even more important principle of the gospel, which is love.
Sometimes it is overly scrupulous believers whose misrepresentation of the gospel could cause it to be reviled. In his comments on verse 16, RC Sproul gives a personal example:
I went out to a restaurant once with a group of Christians who invited me to speak to them. There were about fifteen of us and a woman kindly took us out for a meal to a nice restaurant. At the beginning of the meal, the steward came around with the wine list and asked if anyone wanted any wine. Our hostess spoke up for the whole group and said, ‘No, thank you, none of us wants wine because we are Christians.’ I remember feeling totally embarrassed by that remark. I wanted to go after the wine steward and say to her, ‘I am sorry that that woman was so rude to you. I want you to understand that it is not a universal law among Christians that no Christian is allowed to drink wine. There are many Christians who drink wine.’
The damage that was done in that scenario was that the wine steward had been informed that a Christian is a person who never drinks wine. That’s a distortion of the gospel. There the weaker brother—the weaker sister in this case—had gone too far. However, I just kept my mouth shut. I probably should have said, ‘Wait, I’ll have a glass of wine.’ I think that’s what the apostle Paul would have done in that situation.
Paul would respect and bend over backwards to take care of the weaknesses of the weaker brother, but he would not allow the weaker brother to exercise tyranny over the church to the end that the gospel and its message would be distorted.