In the Roman house churches, those with weak faith chose to eat only vegetables (Romans 14:2). Those with strong faith ate a more omnivorous diet. What was the association between weak faith and a vegetarian diet, and what was the connection between meat-eating and strong faith? The world of the book of Romans is a very different world than exists today. To find the answers to these questions, we need to understand the historical differences between the world of Rome and the world of today.
How was the world of Rome different than the world of today? The vast majority of early Christians were poor (1 Corinthians 1:26, 27; James 2:5–7). In Rome, as in most societies, meat eating was a luxury that the poor were not often able to afford. In fact, about the only time the poor could afford to eat meat was when it went on sale. When did meat go on sale in Rome? The price of meat dramatically decreased during pagan festivals. At the festivals, many animals would be sacrificed at the pagan temples. They would provide more meat than the priests and their families could consume. The pagan priests would sell the excess meat at the market. Excess supply drives prices down and opens markets to new consumers.
This became a problem for impoverished Christians. They could only afford to eat meat when it was cheap. It was only cheap when it had been offered to false gods. Moreover, even for those Christians who weren’t poor, there was always the danger that the meat they purchased might have been offered to a false god. Some Christians with weak faith, therefore, chose to be vegetarian because of meat’s association with false gods. Other Christians with stronger faith realized that an idol is nothing (1 Corinthians 8:4) and that eating meat that might have been offered to a false god by someone else shouldn’t defile their own conscience (1 Corinthians 8:4–13). This is the world in which eating meat meant you had strong faith and being a vegetarian meant you had weak faith.
The world is much different today than it was in ancient Rome. In most parts of the world, meat isn’t offered to idols before it goes to market. Eating a vegetarian diet doesn’t portray you as weak in faith, and eating meat doesn’t show your faith is strong. Circumstances alter the conditions of things. In fact, in many parts of the world, meat isn’t a luxury; it is a staple. Frequent consumption of meat has been shown to have a negative impact on our health. Today, someone with perfectly strong faith may choose to eat vegetarian because they see that diet as the best possible way to honor God with their body.
Meat or no meat, we should create communities where we welcome one another and refuse to judge or condemn those who differ from us on disputable matters (Romans 14:3).