In Romans 14, Paul has a rather lengthy speech for the Church in Rome about eating meat and eating vegetables. Paul says in 14:2. "One person has faith that he may eat all things but he who is weak eats only vegetables." For us, who are so separated from Paul's cultural and historical context, it is easy to wonder what eating meat or vegetables could possibly have to do with faith. Neither does Paul give us much help in this passage so that we might understand why those who eat vegetables are weak but another person has the faith to eat all things. Presumably, Paul has no need of explaining this because his audience is already well aware of their own reasons for what they eat or don't eat. Paul is simply trying to address the division that has arisen from these differences.
One very likely scenario for understanding this passage is to read it in light of what Paul wrote to the Church at Corinth in 1 Corinthians 8 and 10. In that letter, Paul spells out clearly that the issue is not just meat but meat that has been sacrificed to idols. As nearly any commentary on 1st Century Greco-Roman culture will point out, much of the meat that one could buy at the local market was meat that had been used in pagan worship practices. Many markets of that day probably had kosher sections designed specifically to do business with Jews who would not eat meat that had been used in the worship of a false god. However, changing circumstances may have lead to these kosher meats being unavailable in some locations at a given time. As a result, someone who wanted to avoid meat sacrificed to idols had no choice but to avoid meat all together, at least until kosher meats became available in the local market once again.
In Corinth, the issue of eating meat sacrificed to idols was a point of potential division in the Christian community. Apparently, some Christians believed that they were free to eat meat, even if it had been sacrificed to an idol because they knew that the idol was really nothing. It had no power and therefore could cause them no harm. On the other hand, it seems there were some Christians who believed that they should not eat meat sacrificed to idols because by doing so they would be participating in the worship of that false God. It seems very likely that this is the same issue that Paul is addressing in Romans 14. There is the threat of division in the church at Rome because when these Christians sit down to eat together (which was probably a common practice in the early church) some feel as though others are breaking the faith by what they eat.
Paul responds to this by saying that those who are strong enough in their faith to eat meat must not look down on those who are weak and eat only vegetables. (Isn't it interesting that it is those who follow more rules are considered "weak" in the faith?) Likewise, those who eat vegetables must not have contempt for those who eat meat. Paul says this is because the one who eats, eats to the Lord and the one who does not eat meat also does so to the Lord. For each person, the choice that they have made is an act of obedience and praise to God. Paul sees the issue of eating meat as a non-essential issue in the Christian life and therefore allows for a great variety of opinion on the matter and asks the Church at Rome to take the same approach. (As a side note, this should demonstrate just how much God's action in Jesus Christ and the dawning of the new age relativized everything in Paul's world view. It is difficult to imagine Saul, the strict Pharisaic Jew, making any allowance for meat sacrificed to idols since foods laws were one of the primary markers of Israel's identity.)
Of course, just because Paul allowed for a wide spectrum of behavior regarding the eating of meat does not mean that there is absolutely no rule of behavior in the Christian life and that anything goes as long as one is personally convinced of one's own actions. It should be obvious from everything that Paul has written up to this point in this letter and in his other letters that Paul believes in Christians holding each other accountable in the faith to certain non-negotiable beliefs and behaviors. However, it is alo equally clear from this passage that Paul is willing to allow for a considerable amount of liberty in how those beliefs and behaviors are actually lived out in each faith community and each person of faith.
I think the way that Paul addresses the issue of eating meat in this passage is tremendously significant for the Church today. Although meat that has been sacrificed to idols is not exactly one of the most pressing issues that the church faces today, dialoguing with one another about where we can allow for a liberty of opinion is and always will be. The kind of approach that Paul takes in this passage is actually very dear to me personally as I reflect on my own experiences in the Church and continue to minister as a pastor in the Church. There are so many petty things that threaten to divide us: worship styles, the color of carpet or paint, pews or chairs, Democrat or Republican (yes, even though I think politics are important, in comparison to God's kingdom, they are virtually inconsequential), social drinker or teetotaler (oh, does that one hit too close to home for us Nazarenes?). The list of "meat eating" issues that we have, at times, allowed to become the things that define us is nearly endless. We often forget that "the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit" (13:17). And this is no small matter because when we impose our own personal preferences and opinions on the gospel message, we often drive people away unnecesarily from its life giving hope. When we don't allow for this diversity of opinion in the non-essentials, we make it extremely difficult for those who don't fit our preconcieved notions of what it means to be a Christian to make the journey of discipleship with Jesus. Therefore, it is imperative for the Church today to truly wrestle with what it means to be the Church and to allow for diversity, as Paul did, in the things that are not essential to this identity.