Sinful Personal Preferences (Romans 14.22-23)


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Can personal preferences be sinful? Maybe.

Throughout Romans 14.1-15.13, Paul is teaching Christians how to live with their differences over personal preferences. His teaching assumes a distinction between moral principles (which are absolute and require Christian unity) and personal preferences (which are relative and allow for Christian diversity). When it comes to things like adultery, lying, and murder, for example, there is only one Christian principle: Don’t! But when it comes to things like eating meat or vegetables, drinking alcohol or abstaining, Christians are free to do as they wish. So, it would seem that personal preferences cannot be sinful.

But in Romans 14.22-23, Paul argues that in fact personal preferences can be sinful under two conditions. Here’s what he writes:

So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he approves. But the man who has doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.

The first condition under which personal preferences can be sinful is if they harm someone else. As Paul makes abundantly clear throughout this passage, eating and drinking are matters of Christian freedom. But given their cultural and religious backgrounds, some Christians—in Paul’s day and ours—have scruples about eating meat and drinking alcohol. Although Christians are free to eat and drink whatever they want, they are not free to ride roughshod over the feelings of “weaker,” more scrupulous Christians. It would be wrong, for example, to exercise your Christian freedom by drinking alcohol in front of an alcoholic Christian who is currently in recovery. When Paul writes, “Blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he approves,” he is thinking of this first condition. A Christian who prizes personal freedom over loving fellowship has not yet learned the way of Jesus. His actions are totally un-Christlike.

The second condition under which personal preferences can be sinful is if they proceed from doubt rather than faith. If the first condition pertains to “stronger” Christians and their exercise of freedom, the second condition pertains to “weaker” Christians and their exercise of freedom. “The man who has doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.” Let’s say a vegetarian Christian decides to go ahead and eat a steak because all her Christian friends are doing it, but she still has scruples about meat. She is acting out of peer pressure, not faith. Her action is therefore sinful because she is violating her conscience. Christian freedom is a blessed thing, but sometimes, we have to work our way slowly into it. Our beliefs must develop alongside our emotions and our actions in order for us to be truly, Christianly free. 

So, can personal preferences be sinful? Only if exercised without love or faith. Other than that, no, they can’t.

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