we ought to love one another even when it constrains our own freedom or we must never take lightly our own conscience or anyone else’s conscience.
The question at issue in this passage is the relationship between the right of Christians to use their freedom and their commensurate responsibility to use that undoubted freedom in a way that is constructive rather than destructive of Christian fellowship.
The principle of conscience
When Christ fulfilled and brought an end to the law, part of what came to an end was the whole regimen of clean and unclean foods which had been, and remains, one of the distinguishing characteristics of the Jewish faith. Realization that that regimen no longer had any religious authority for them seems to have been rather difficult for those Christians for whom, prior to their conversion, such considerations had been at the center of their religious convictions. After all, one of the ways Israel was to respond appropriately as chosen people to the God who had redeemed and called her was to observe certain dietary restrictions. For former Jews to live in total freedom from such restrictions was obviously difficult, and difficult in proportion to the extent to which they had previously sought to live under the law God had given to Israel. One can see the extent of that difficulty in the story of Peter’s vision in Acts 10:9–19. Peter resists the heavenly voice (God!) that tells him dietary restrictions no longer apply (v. 10); and even after being told the same thing three times, Peter still has difficulty absorbing what the vision meant (vv. 16–19).
A similar kind of difficulty was faced by gentile converts to the Christian faith. Many of them had followed religious practices which involved eating meat that had been sacrificed to some god or goddess, or which involved drinking wine as part of their participation in cultic celebrations. For some of them, apparently, the identification of such food and drink with the idols they had formerly worshiped had been so complete that now, as Christians, it seemed inappropriate to continue to consume them. Paul faced a similar problem in Corinth (see 1 Cor. 8). Obviously, while the religious convictions of these Christian converts had changed, their consciences remained sensitive to those former convictions.
Other Christians, who were not bothered by such former associations, felt their freedom in Christ enabled them to eat or drink anything they pleased for “the kingdom of God does not mean food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (v. 17). Is that valid insight to be sacrificed to those unable or unwilling to realize it? Is my freedom to be limited by the ignorance or weak conscience of others? It is that problem Paul is addressing in our passage.