Romans 14: Food & Days
I’ve been working my way through the book The Pauline Paradox by a group called 119 Ministries, and I keep coming across these…issues. I hesitate to call them outright lies because I don’t know the heart of the author. But if they aren’t intentional lies, they’re incredibly irresponsible errors about what the Bible teaches. As an apologist, I make a point of not attacking people. Teachings and ideas, on the other hand, are fair game. And this book is full of problematic theology and questionable statements. In this article, I’m going to put three of its teachings to the test.
Setting the Table
119 Ministries (119M) is a Hebrew Roots organization that teaches that Christians are to keep the Old Testament Law of Moses with its kosher food laws, Saturday Sabbath, annual feasts, and so on. They put out a lot of content and have a substantial following online. The Pauline Paradox is their attempt to square the teachings of Paul with a Hebrew Roots worldview. (And it’s worth noting that the author is unnamed. I find it a bit suspect that this ministry intentionally hides the names of its teachers in everything they put out.)
On the plus side, 119M states explicitly that “Our works do not save us. We fully affirm the gospel and that our salvation is secured by grace through faith” (pp. 1-2). Their Hebrew Roots teachings, they claim, are only about how we ought to live as Christians: what does obedience look like? I also have to give them credit for tackling the biblical passages that present the most significant challenges to Hebrew Roots theology. (The very passages many Hebrew Roots teachers try to avoid.) 119M also consistently invites their readers and viewers to test their teachings, which I find commendable. And that’s exactly what this article is about. We’re going to look at their teachings in The Pauline Paradox regarding the fourteenth chapter of Romans. Specifically, three glaring errors that need to be exposed.
On pages 69-73 of The Pauline Paradox, the author(s) engages with chapter fourteen of Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. (Note: Paul’s complete thought runs from Romans 14:1–15:13.) In his excellent commentary, The Message of Romans, John Stott explains that in the two previous chapters—Romans 12 and 13—Paul emphasizes the importance of love in terms of loving both our enemies and our neighbors. And here in chapter 14, he provides a practical example of what it means to “walk in love” (Rom 14:15) with our brothers and sisters in Christ.
In this passage, the apostle discusses the relationship between two groups of believers in Rome, who he refers to as “the weak in faith” (Rom 14:1-2) and “the strong” (Rom 15:1). Paul cautions the two groups not to pass judgment on one other regarding two matters: food and days of observance. Regardless of their position on these issues, Paul admonishes both groups to accept one another. And he further urges the strong in faith to follow the example of Jesus and voluntarily constrain their personal freedom to avoid causing the weaker brothers and sisters to stumble (Rom 15:1-3).
The big problem in this passage for 119 Ministries (or any Hebrew Roots adherent) is that Paul is telling both groups of believers that whatever food they choose to eat (or not eat), and whichever days they choose to observe (or not observe), it’s all acceptable. This is a big deal. The Law of Moses is particular about what foods can and can’t be eaten and what days have to be observed. If Paul viewed Christians as being under Mosaic Law, this would be the time to admonish the church in Rome to keep it. Yet here in Romans 14, Paul refers to food and days as matters of opinion rather than requirements of obedience. He teaches that disagreements on these matters shouldn’t cause division in the body of believers. We are each free in Christ to follow our conscience in these areas.
The anonymous author of The Pauline Paradox surely sees the danger to Hebrew Roots theology. His discussion of Romans 14 begins by stating, “This chapter couldn’t be referring to the Sabbath and the dietary instructions” (p. 69). This book aims to re-interpret Paul’s writings in such a way that the Law of Moses, with its required observance of the Sabbath and kosher food laws, is seen as applying to Christians today. The author tells us so on the first page: “Ultimately, our goal will be to show that Paul did not teach that the Messiah did away with any of the commands of the Law” (p. 1).
To do this, the author must argue that the matters of food and days discussed in Romans 14 aren’t referring to the Sabbath and kosher food laws. Instead, he claims Paul is talking about lesser matters not required under the Law: “This chapter is regarding things outside of God’s Law that were matters of contention between believers in the first century” (p. 69). Unfortunately, in trying to bend the biblical text to support a Hebrew Roots narrative, the author’s arguments end up tangled in knots. Let’s look at three places where this happens.
1. Mere Opinion
Paul’s discussion in Romans 14 begins with this statement:
As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him.Romans 14:1-3
119 Ministries correctly frames the discussion regarding food: “Paul defines the debate for us in verse two—this was a quarrel between strict vegetarians and those who eat meat” (p. 72). The text does not explain why some believers had chosen to abstain from eating meat. But we do find some clues.
We know that early Christians were mostly Jewish followers of The Way. Gentiles were rapidly coming to faith in Jesus the Jewish Messiah (Yeshua HaMashiach) and being grafted into their faith community (Rom 11:11-24). And in Romans 14:14, when Paul discusses “unclean” food, we recognize this as a category of Jewish kosher food laws. Further, Paul closes this passage by urging the believers in Rome to live in harmony with one another (Rom 15:5-7), and he points out that Christ is the hope of Jews and Gentiles (Rom 15:8-13). These contextual clues suggest that the dispute among the Roman believers that the apostle Paul was addressing was a matter of Jewish-Gentile relations. And the “weak in faith” (14:1)—those abstaining from meat—were Jewish believers in Jesus. But why would they have been abstaining from all meat? Our 119 Ministries book offers a theory:
Some Jewish believers in Rome believed that meat purchased from certain Greek sources was considered “unclean,” even if the meat came from a clean animal permitted by God’s Law. . . some believers were concerned about the possibility that meat purchased from the marketplace had derived from pagan sacrificial offerings . . . This belief that such a possibility rendered clean meat unclean was based on nothing more than man’s opinions.”The Pauline Paradox, pp. 72-73
The 119M author frames the issue of abstaining from eating meat as a matter of “man’s opinions” rather than kosher food laws. The belief that meat from pagan sacrifices was biblically unclean, according to the author, was a matter of mere opinion, not Law. This claim sounded suspicious to me. Could meat sacrificed to pagan gods be considered “clean” under the Law of Moses? I decided to put it to the test.
The commandments that constitute the Law of Moses are scattered across the books of Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. Over the centuries, there have been a number of Jewish sages and rabbis who have numbered and categorized that list of mitzvot (commandments) for us. The Jewish Virtual Library provides a list of these 613 mitzvot, and I read through them all to see what they said about food or drink sacrificed to idols. It turns out the 119 Ministries claim is wrong. Eating meat sacrificed to idols is not just a matter of opinion; it is prohibited in the Law of Moses.
In what is traditionally #203 of the 613, a law is derived from Deuteronomy 32:38 that the Jews were “not to drink wine poured in service to idols.” (Some Jewish sources expand this Law to say: “not to eat or drink anything offered as sacrifice to an idol.”) Deuteronomy 14:21 is interpreted as law #188, typically codified as “not to eat the meat of an animal that died without ritual slaughter.” And law #393, derived from Leviticus 7:18, says Jews are “not to eat from sacrifices offered with improper intentions.”
Interestingly, modern Christians may not necessarily read the verses cited above and derive the same legal conclusions that the early Jews did. Rabbi Jack Abramowitz offers some modern Jewish insight on meat sacrificed to idols in an article called Disinvited. He says:
The Torah cautions us in several places not to forge treaties with the idolatrous inhabitants of Canaan. One such warning is in verse 34:12. Here it gives a reason for this ban: if we get complacent with them, we’ll end up eating from their sacrifices, which we are not to do . . . anything used in the worship of an idol, even something seemingly insignificant like water or salt, is prohibited for use . . . the Torah says, “the fat of whose offerings they ate, they drank the wine of whose libations” (Deut. 32:38). We see that the Torah equates the meat of idolatrous offerings and the wine of idolatrous libations in this regard.Rabbi Jack Abramowitz
The Christians in Rome whom Paul referred to as “weak in faith” were most likely made up primarily of Jewish believers in Jesus. And first-century Jews certainly would have seen eating meat from pagan sacrifices as an issue of the Law of Moses, rather than mere opinion. The most likely explanation for their abstinence from meat is that, due to a continuing commitment to Jewish kosher food regulations, they opted to avoid meat altogether rather than risk breaking any of the Mosaic commandments.
Paul’s message to the strong in faith is: don’t judge your weaker brothers and sisters who choose not to eat meat out of their respect for the Mosaic prohibitions. (And it’s worth noting that in Romans 15:1, Paul puts himself in the strong group who understands that no food is unclean in itself.) Conversely, Paul’s message to the weak in faith is: don’t judge your stronger brothers and sisters who are comfortable eating any kind of meat.
In either case, Paul teaches that each group is to accept the other with love and grace because God has accepted them all. And he further explains that “the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom 14:17). To the chagrin of Hebrew Roots adherents everywhere, Paul is teaching that food and days of observance, under the New Covenant of Christ, are, indeed, matters of opinion. They are permitted but not required. Christians are not under the Law of Moses.
2. Common and koinos
Sadly, The Pauline Paradox does not stop at just one glaring error on the topic of food. It makes a second glaring mistake, but this time in a different language. Paul writes:
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. 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.Romans 14:14-15
In this passage, the apostle is openly stating that all food is inherently clean. And in light of 14:2-3, we can further clarify that he means all meat is clean. Paul teaches that food is only unclean to the person who considers it unclean as a matter of personal conscience. This statement, of course, directly contradicts the Hebrew Roots worldview. Thus, 119 Ministries attempts to re-interpret this verse by appealing to the original Greek:
…the word translated as “unclean” is koinos. This is not the Greek word used elsewhere in the New Testament when speaking of ‘unclean’ animals (akathartos). Rather, koinos is used to denote common things. For example, in Acts 10:14, Peter says, “I have never eaten anything that is common [koinos] or unclean [akathartos]. In this verse, Peter uses two independent Greek adjectives when speaking to God, and it’s clear that he made a distinction between the two words—one is merely common, and one is unclean.The Pauline Paradox, p. 73
The book labors the point that there is a difference between common and unclean. It claims that the Greek word koinos isn’t used anywhere else in the New Testament to refer to “unclean” animals. This whole line of reasoning jumped out to me as fishy. So I decided to test it. In fact, I put it through two tests. It failed them both.
By the way, these are the kinds of tests we should all be doing when we come across claims we’re not sure about. Let’s be like the Bereans in Acts 17:11 who examined the Scriptures daily to see if the things they were being taught were true. The only reason groups like 119 Ministries can get away with these false teachings and rack up millions of views on their videos is that many Christians don’t spend enough time in the Word. And the more time we spend with the real thing—Holy Scripture—the easier it is to spot a counterfeit.
Test 1: Word Study
The first thing I wanted to test was the author’s statements about the Greek word koinos. So I looked up Romans 14:14 in an online lexicon. The entry confirmed that 119 Ministries is correct that the English word “unclean” was translated from the Greek word koinos.
Then I looked up the Greek word koinos in an online concordance. Here’s a summary of what it revealed:
|Strong’s Concordance||Usage: (a) common, shared, (b) Hebraistic use: profane; dirty, unclean, unwashed.|
|HELPS Word studies||properly, common, referring to what is defiled (stripped of specialness) because treated as ordinary (“common”) . . . is always used negatively, i.e. for what is profaned – except in Jude 1:3|
|NAS Exhaustive Concordance||Definition: common.|
NASB Translation: common (3), common property (1), impure (2), unclean (5), unholy (5)
|Thayer’s Greek Lexicon||2. by a usage foreign to classical Greek, common i.e. ordinary, belonging to the generality; by the Jews . . . unhallowed, levitically unclean. (Entry lists both Romans 14:14 and Acts 10:14 as using this “levitically unclean” meaning.)|
|The Englishman’s Concordance||Shows Romans 14:14 translating koinos as unclean, not as common.|
So what does all this tell us? Well, for one thing, when the 119M book states on page 73 that the Greek word koinos is not used elsewhere in the New Testament to refer to “unclean” animals, that’s simply not true. Our word study above confirms that koinos is used in several NT places to refer to unclean animals.
Secondly, even if the author’s raising of “unholy vs. unclean” is valid, it is a distinction without a difference. In Rom 14:14, Paul either says that all meat is clean (as every Bible translation indicates) or that all meat is holy. Either way, the apostle’s statement indicates that the regulations of the Law of Moses are no longer binding.
Test 2: Context
The next thing I investigated was how the Greek word koinos is used in context in the other passage cited in the 119M book: Acts 10:14. This is the passage that runs from Acts 10:9-16 where Peter has a vision:
The next day, as they were on their journey and approaching the city, Peter went up on the housetop about the sixth hour to pray. And he became hungry and wanted something to eat, but while they were preparing it, he fell into a trance and saw the heavens opened and something like a great sheet descending, being let down by its four corners upon the earth. In it were all kinds of animals and reptiles and birds of the air. And there came a voice to him: “Rise, Peter; kill and eat.” But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common (koinos) or unclean (akathartos).Acts 10:19-14, emphasis added
Before looking at the rest of the passage, let’s review what 119 Ministries claimed about Acts 10:14 (bolded above).
Peter uses two independent Greek adjectives when speaking to God, and it’s clear that he made a distinction between the two words—one is merely common (koinos), and one is unclean (akathartos).The Pauline Paradox, p. 73
The case this book makes is based on the words common and unclean having two separate meanings. And that case falls apart in two ways. First, it renders Peter’s claim absurd. When Peter says he has “never eaten anything that is common,” are we supposed to believe that he was claiming to have never eaten food that was “common” in the plain sense? Has he never eaten food that was shared property or ordinary? If that were the case, what point would Peter be trying to make? Under the Law of Moses, Jews were commanded to avoid unclean food, not ordinary, common, shared food. In fact, the sharing of common food during both regular meals and feasts was celebrated in Jewish culture.
Secondly, and more glaring, is the fact that the very next verse in this passage reveals that the two Greek words do mean the same thing. Let’s finish reading this passage, picking up from verse 14:
But Peter said, “By no means, Lord; for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.” And the voice came to him again a second time, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” This happened three times, and the thing was taken up at once to heaven.Acts 10:14-16, emphasis added
The bolded phrase above plainly reveals that clean (koinos) is used in this passage to mean the opposite of common. In other words, common means unclean. So when Peter said, “I have never eaten anything common or unclean,” he was using those two adjectives as synonyms. This is similar to how one might say, “I don’t like food that is hot or spicy.” Biblical authors regularly use repetition like this to add emphasis. Thus, it turns out the simple act of reading Acts 10:14 in context is all it takes to disprove this particular claim by 119 Ministries.
3. A Matter of Days
The second issue Paul talks about in Rom 14 is the matter of days of observance. The 119M book suggests that, rather than laws about Sabbath or feast days, the real issue here is what days Christians should fast. Again, the goal of this book is to downplay any reference to the Law of Moses and instead re-interpret Romans 14 as discussing lesser matters. The author faces this head-on, stating, “This verse couldn’t be referring to the Sabbath because of some obvious problems” (p. 70).
He then lists three problems with the days of observance referring to the Sabbath, and each issue he lists “begs the question.” In other words, the arguments he presents all assume that his conclusion is already true. His three arguments are (pp. 70-71):
- “God’s Law defines sin . . . If we could decide for ourselves when the Sabbath should be kept, then that means we could define sin for ourselves.” This statement assumes that keeping the legal Sabbath is required of Christians.
- “It’s already been demonstrated throughout this book that Paul kept and taught the Law of God and was not against it.” Assumes the book’s argument is correct that the Law of Moses is required of Christians.
- “This entire chapter is in the context of disputes over ‘opinions,’ and the Sabbath is not a matter of opinion.” Assumes that keeping the legal Sabbath is required of Christians.
To state it another way, the author approaches this issue in Romans 14:1-15:13 with the stated intention of proving that the Law of Moses is still in effect. And he does so by assuming the Law of Moses is still in effect. That is circular logic.
When it comes to building the case that the issue of days refers to fasting, the author offers the reader a sort of “blunder sandwich” by placing one error on top of another. He begins by stating,
The second matter is related to which day, or days, believers should fast: “Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him” (Romans 14:3).The Pauline Paradox, p. 70
The author argues that this passage in Romans is referring to traditional days of fasting. He seems to be suggesting that in 14:3, the phrase “the one who abstains” refers to someone who abstains from all food. In other words, it means “the one who fasts.” Yet, as we saw earlier, the author refers to this same passage (14:3) in his argument about food. There he (correctly) frames the discussion not as an issue of fasting but as “a quarrel between strict vegetarians and those who eat meat” (p. 72). The latter is correct. Paul does not contrast “those who eat anything” with “those who eat nothing.” He contrasts them with those who “eat only vegetables.” Thus, the phrase “the one who abstains” in 14:3 refers to eating meat, not fasting.
Indeed, the issue in view is not fasting but kosher food laws. This is further evidenced by the fact that kosher food laws were one of the chief issues of contention between Jews and Gentiles in the early church. (More on that below.) Moreover, Paul wraps up this passage in Romans with an appeal to mutual acceptance between the Jews and Gentiles (Rom 15:7-13). His position is that keeping the Mosaic dietary restrictions is permitted but not required. Paul teaches that no matter which side of the issue the believers in Rome land on, they are to accept those on the other side of the issue. So, contrary to what The Pauline Paradox claims, 14:3 is not about fasting.
But that’s just the first layer of error. The author then takes his incorrect interpretation of 14:3 and reads that into 14:5-6, which say:
One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.Romans 14:5-6
The book summarizes this passage by claiming:
The “day” that Paul is referring to is a matter of eating or abstaining. In other words, the opinions . . . addressed in this chapter concern fasting . . . Apparently, early believers disputed over which days during the week one should fast.The Pauline Paradox, p. 71
Here we see the author reading his false interpretation of fasting from 14:3 into 14:5-6. He’s conflating Paul’s two statements about days and food, reading them as a single topic. As if Paul is talking about which days to abstain from food.
But that would be a complete left-turn from how the apostle began this whole discussion. We saw that Romans 14:2-3 are talking about abstaining from meat, not fasting. Then, in 14:5, Paul introduces the idea of days to the debate. He has now put two topics on the table: days and food. And by the way, these two issues aren’t just random. As James Dunn points out in his commentary on Romans:
[Jewish] dietary rules constituted one of the clearest boundary markers which distinguished Jews from Gentiles. The observance of the Sabbath was another. Thus, eating unclean food and violating the Sabbath ranked together as the two chief hallmarks of covenant disloyalty, while strictness in both was of fundamental importance in maintaining covenant faithfulness.James D.G. Dunn, Romans in The Word Biblical Commentary (1988)
And in Romans 14:6, we see Paul commenting on each of these issues: “The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord.”
Lastly, notice how, as Paul develops his argument in this passage, he refers to what is eaten, not when it is consumed (parenthetical comments added):
For if your brother is grieved by what (not when) you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what (not when) you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died.Romans 14:15
Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what (not when) he eats.Romans 14:20
Paul is not teaching about which days to fast (i.e., when you eat), but rather which foods are clean (i.e., what you eat). The idea of fasting is foreign to this passage in Romans. In fact, Paul does not discuss fasting anywhere in the book of Romans. And yet, that is what 119 Ministries teach.
In Romans 14:1 – 15:13, the group of believers Paul referred to as “the weak in faith” were primarily Jewish believers in Jesus who wanted to maintain their Jewish covenant identity as the Gentiles were being grafted into their faith community. They wanted to continue to observe the days and the dietary regulations. And Paul teaches that’s just fine. Whether or not a believer in Jesus wants to keep these regulations, we are not to judge one another about it, but rather accept each other just as God has accepted us.
Paul’s teaching in this passage aligns with the decision of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15:1-29. The apostle Paul was at that council. Their decision matches what he teaches here: the sacred Mosaic traditions are permitted but not required. In other words, contrary to what our anonymous author(s) at 119 Ministries teaches, Christians are not under the Law of Moses.
In a passage that almost sounds like it could be aimed directly at 119 Ministries (and other Hebrew Roots organizations), Paul wrote:
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 . . . For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.Romans 14:13, 17-19