The Jesus tradition, as it would have been known at that point in time, would have spoken to this matter quite clearly. Though we must reiterate that the Gospel accounts, in their written form, were years from being completed and shared amongst the believing communities at the time of the Jerusalem council and its attendant letter, the oral traditions of Jesus would have been making their rounds. Based on Paul’s position concerning joint table fellowship, with no real concerns being expressed by him about food (as indicated by his words from Galatians and the report of “no small disagreement” in Acts fifteen), we can reasonably and profitably conclude that the apostle was aware of that which is presented in the seventh chapter of Mark.
There we read “Then He (Jesus) called the crowd again and said to them, ‘Listen to Me, everyone, and understand. There is nothing outside of a person that can defiled him by going into him. Rather, it is what comes out of a person that defiles him.’” (7:14b-15) A few lines later, we hear Jesus expanding and expounding on this statement, saying “Are you so foolish? Don’t you understand that whatever goes into a person from outside cannot defile him? For it does not enter his heart but his stomach, and then goes out in the sewer” (7:18-19a). Mark parenthetically adds “This means all foods are clean” (7:19b). We can only imagine how this record of Jesus’ life and ministry would have been received within the church communities that had seen the dust-up between Paul and Peter, learned about the Jerusalem council, or received the letter that resulted from that council.
The scene in Mark concludes with Jesus saying “What comes out of a person defiles him. For from within, out of the human heart, come evil ideas, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, evil, deceit, debauchery, envy, slander, pride, and folly. All these evils come from within and defile a person” (7:20-23). Of course, what had prefaced these words from Jesus was His insistence that “Having no regard for the command of God, you hold fast to human tradition” (7:8), and this could certainly have colored Paul’s perception of the issue.
With this in mind, it can also be said that the far more pressing issue is the unity of the church. Concerns over who can sit where, based on where certain types of food are placed, seem wholly irrelevant when considered in the shadow of the cross or in the light of the Resurrection. Such considerations would seem to be a motivating factor behind what Paul communicates in the fourteenth chapter of Romans.
Let us consider the whole of that chapter in the light of the Acts controversy, doing so while the pouring out of the Spirit, the controversies and events and letter of Acts fifteen, concerns about food, Gentile justification (covenant participation), the unity of the church, the family of God composed of all peoples, the importance of the church’s meal table, the value and place of traditional covenant markers, costly acts of sacrificial love performed by those that claim allegiance to Jesus as Lord, and the role of faith (as connected to the story of Abraham that functions as part of the basis for Gentile participation in the covenant/kingdom of God family that was founded with Abraham) linger in the background. These things, rather than attempts at identifying the “weak,” “strong,” “servants,” “holy days,” “clean,” or “unclean,” will provide a more profitable reading that is far more consistent with the larger purpose of Romans and with Paul’s goal to advance the realm of the kingdom of God (multiplying the places at which heaven and earth will overlap via the activities of the people and communities that are to function as the Temple of God) through the announcement of that kingdom and the universal dominion of Jesus as the Christ (the Gospel).
Paul writes: “Now receive the one who is weak in the faith, and do not have disputes over differing opinions. One person believes in eating everything, but the weak person eats only vegetables. The one who eats everything must not despise the one who does not, and the one who abstains must not judge the one who eats everything, for God has accepted him. Who are you to pass judgment on another’s servant? Before his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand” (14:1-4).
As we read the opening we should not fail to notice Paul’s use of “opinions,” which, if the Acts fifteen controversy plays a role in his overall thinking about the church (which it most certainly does), allows us to enter into the previously referenced silence on offer in Acts fifteen when it comes to Paul’s response to the events there recorded and to the letter there delivered. It is certainly feasible that Paul here makes mental reference to the “opinions” of the Jerusalem council, while also addressing the opinions of believers in Rome. Regardless, they are opinions, which is key. We must imagine a deliberate use of that word, being reminded that so many opinions must be subsumed to the word offered by the cross and the Resurrection.
Also, Paul’s use of the language of “accepted” is not insignificant, for that is a word, being both ambiguously and equally applied to two groups of peoples, that suggests the importance of the unity and equality of believers, be they Jew or Gentile (which lurks in the background of issues of food consumption and table fellowship). In addition to that, the idea of the Lord being responsible for the standing of a believer could offer resonances of covenant standing, with the use of “Lord” going back to Jesus, who provides covenant standing to all peoples based on belief in Him and His Gospel.