Continuing to verse sixteen, we hear “Therefore do not let what you consider good be spoken of as evil” (14:16). As Paul has said, “I know and am convinced that there is nothing unclean in itself” (14:14a). Paul informs his hearers, whose unity of table fellowship as befits the kingdom of God is of utmost concern to him, “If it is good for you, then it is good for you. Don’t let the opinion of another overshadow the application of conscience, especially if that opinion erects walls between believers.” Why? “For the kingdom of God does not consist of food and drink” (14:17a).
By now, this should be more than obvious. Those that participate in the kingdom of God, justified, in right covenant standing with the Creator God of the universe (the one that elected Abraham, Israel, and now, through Jesus, a people composed of all nations), should not allow differences in dietary practices, and especially those differences that are connected to the identification of the people of God before the coming of the Christ and the Christ-event (crucifixion and Resurrection), to persist or to play a determinative role in the way that the kingdom of God is primarily represented to the world, which was partially accomplished through the revolutionizing of the Hellenistic meal-table.
The meal table, which was so very crucial, in that time, in terms of delineating social position and standing, was transformed by the church as they sought to emulate the meal tables of their Lord Jesus. Whereas the Hellenistic meal table of the Greco-Roman world offered well-defined stratifications such that the meal table reflected the social status of all of its participants, the Christian meal table eschewed these stratifications, and when properly executed in accordance with the example of Jesus, presented to a watching world something that would have been conceived of as a jumbled and disjointed mess. Ideally, it would have been impossible for an observer, or a participant for that matter, to determine the social standing of the individual members of the assembly by means of an analysis of the meal table, for all mixed freely, sharing the same food and drink, participating in the activities of the table equally, and functioning as an egalitarian society in which the first were last and the last were first. All of this was done (or to be done) in a spirit of love and community, in such a way that no one, even in a situation in which social roles were reversed, lorded their newfound status over another. Failure to live up to this meal-table ideal was part of Paul’s major critique of the Corinthian church, and was a significant contributor to the rest of the problems in that church with which he found himself dealing.
However, if Jews and Gentiles managed to position themselves at separate tables, or to sequester themselves at different locations at the table in such a way that it became relatively simple to identify those that were Jews and those that were Gentiles, simply on the basis of their food, then what was being communicated that the kingdom of God did, in fact, consist of food and drink, rather than “righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit” (14:17b). Those who eschewed food-based divisions, neither foisting their predilections on others, nor condemning those that did not share their own sensibilities, but rather focused on the fact that all participated equally in God’s covenant based on belief in Jesus, that food had no intrinsic qualities of uncleanness, and that all that confessed Jesus as Lord did so because of the pouring out of the Holy Spirit on Jew and Gentile alike (according to the earliest traditions of the church), could have it said of them that “the one who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by people” (14:18).
With all that said, what’s the conclusion of this portion of Paul’s dissertation? Paul writes “So then, let us pursue what makes for peace and for building up one another. Do not destroy the work of God,” that being His temple (both individually and corporately) and the sign of His faithfulness to His covenant promises, “for the sake of food. For although all things are clean, it is wrong to cause anyone to stumble by what you eat” (14:20). Naturally, this could go both ways. Jewish believers could consider themselves to be unclean by food, and Gentile believers could be made to believe that they are somehow less than full participants in the covenant and its promises if they do not abide by the Jewish dietary practices that fell into the category of old covenant markers. Thusly, “It is good not to eat meat or drink wine,” items often used or dedicated or blessed in the temples of different gods (and therefore most definitely polluted by idolatry, possibly by sexual immorality, and certainly not slaughtered properly), “or to do anything that causes your brother to stumble” (14:21). The ambiguity here does not allow for dogmatism. Rather, it interjects an operative principle, which is love.
Consequently, and reaching again to the long-running narrative of God’s covenant faithfulness that begins with Abraham and culminates in Jesus, Paul says “The faith that you have, keep to yourself before God. Blessed is the one who does not judge himself by what he approves. But the man who doubts is condemned if he eats, because he does not do so from faith, and whatever is not from faith is sin” (14:22-23). What is crucial is bearing the divine image and reflecting the glory of God into the world. Faith is that which operates to cause belief in the Gospel’s proclamation, inculcates love, and marks one as a member of God’s covenant people. This is that of which we cannot lose sight in our dealings inside the assembly of the people of God. Acting in ways that are contrary to the Gospel and kingdom message, as demonstrated by the life of Jesus (and His meal tables), is what runs contrary to the faith that is claimed and what leads to a failure of both the individual and the community to rightly bear the image of God (sin).