Rom 14:23 But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because he does not eat from faith; for whatever is not from faith is sin. (NKJV)

The normal interpretation of this text is that if you’re unsure about the rightness of what you’re doing, you shouldn’t do it. This creates many practical and even ethical difficulties, some of which I’ll give examples for below.

Some people are prone to doubt, some are analytical, and some are both of these things.

Especially if you have both of these traits, you can be led to inaction - which itself can create doubt; after all, we’re told to redeem the time.

1) The text in Romans 14 follows after a definite clarification that certain things are not a sin (v.14-15, 20). Yet, its readers are to abstain from that thing if they have doubt. Thus, is it not talking about doubts that arise from textual interpretations? That seems highly unlikely; I don’t hear of totally non-textual things being doubted, such as whether it’s a sin to turn over a rock during daylight.

2) What about instances where your non-action due to doubt leads to someone else’s suffering? Imagine being a police officer, and then at the final moment being struck with doubt: do I not shoot this perpetrator because I know he’ll probably go to hell? And even though not shooting him means that his victim will die?

3) Consider cases where a person is doing a good deed with righteous motivation behind it. But, there’s some aspect of it that he doubts. An example from my life: I’m an author, and I write Christian poems. But, I may make doctrinal errors in my poems. I can’t be certain I didn’t, so should I not publish them?

4) Practically, a doubting personality can doubt almost anything – and he may even have verse(s) in mind to support his reason for doubting. What this can lead to is a person that becomes totally burned out and depressed, because everything he wants to do is wrong. After all, he’s not redeeming the time. Or, he’s not redeeming it in the most efficient way. Note: both the Sabbath and Ecclesiastes show us that we’re not meant to be driven this hard. And also imagine a person who accepts that fact; now, he may doubt where to draw the line: how long should his break be, and how should he spend it?

5) And perhaps most powerfully: imagine someone that doubts all options. He may believe it’s acceptable to marry, but remain unsure if it’s right for him (1Co 7). He may even doubt that it’s right for him to stay single, due to burning with desire (v. 9). Yet, he may question if that burning rises to the level of justifying the conclusion that he must certainly marry (if able). But, he may interpret his society as one which has a ‘present distress’ (v. 26) that would lead Paul to recommend against marriage. So, among the only options (single vs married) – he doubts. Action (marrying) and inaction (staying single) both cause doubt. He is, as the text says, 'condemned' no matter what he does.

6) As an alternative to the same problem that 5 presented, consider carrying a handgun. He might doubt both options: not carrying means he can't help others, but he believes he should be ready to lay down his life (put himself at risk, in this case) to save another person. On the other hand, it could harm his testimony; in our political climate, many would be offended. My reason for including this second example is to point out that there's no end to the number of things where both action and inaction can be doubted.

How do we interpret the text, in light of the difficulties which the normal interpretation creates? And to do so without making the text to mean nothing at all?

  • 1
    This seems less like a doctrinal question than like a general philosophical question inspired by a religious text. Commented Mar 8, 2019 at 11:08
  • It sounds to me as though you are describing the 'fearful and unbelieving' See Revelation 21:8.They who are led of the Spirit, are the sons of God. Romans 8:14.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Mar 8, 2019 at 13:20
  • @NigelJ This text is written to believers, proving that believers can doubt.
    – icor103
    Commented Mar 8, 2019 at 15:57
  • 2
    @icor103 Yes, indeed. But I was commenting on your own description, not the text.
    – Nigel J
    Commented Mar 8, 2019 at 19:19
  • 1
    The number of diverging answers this question is receiving indicates that it is too "opinion based" for our Q&A site – which basically means that there are too many different ways that "Christians" deal with this text. If you'd like to ask for the viewpoint of a particular tradition (like Catholicism) or a particular theologian (like John Calvin), that'd make this more answerable. Thanks. Commented Mar 20, 2019 at 23:04

5 Answers 5


I find Anchor Yale Bible Commentary (AYBC) on Rom 14:23 quite helpful.

"But the one who has doubts is already condemned if he eats." The "weak" Christian, who has not yet acquired the inner liberty of the "strong," would be led astray by following the example of the "strong," because he or she would really be acting against the dictates of conscience. If weak Christians were to eat meat or drink wine to spare themselves the criticism or scorn of the strong, then they suffer condemnation (lit. "have been condemned," the pf. tense is used to express the condition in which they find themselves).

because the eating does not proceed from conviction. The basis of any moral act is the dictate of conscience. If to eat meat were not governed by the dictate of conscience, then sin would be involved.

For whatever proceeds not from conviction is sin. Lit., "all (Gr: pan) that is not of conviction (Gr: pistis) is sin (Gr: hamartia)". Paul ends his discussion with a maximlike utterance. The statement encounters three difficulties: 1. How generic is pan? 2. What is the sense of pistis? 3. What is the sense of hamartia?

  1. Augustine (...) understood pan as applies to everything, "in every case." Augustine was applying Paul's dictum to the controversy with the Pelagians and was really going beyond Paul's meaning. By contrast, John Chrysostom (...) rightly understood pan to refer to all such indifferent matters as those instanced in the preceding context (vv 2-3,5): all dietary and calendaric observances.
  2. As Augustine understood pistis, it would refer to basic Christian faith, as in 1:17 and 3:25,28. He took it thus in his controversy with the Pelagian Julian, maintaining that all deeds of pagans prior to justification were sinful (...). Again, he went beyond Paul's context, in which it is a question of Christian "weak" and "strong", not of pagans. But with other medieval commentators, Thomas Aquinas (...) understood pistis as meaning "conscience" ("omne quod est contra conscientiam"; ...) ... This interpretation of pistis as conscientia has been attributed to Origen (...), Ambrosiaster (...), and other patristic writers, who use the word "conscience," but it is debated whether these early writers really meant the same thing as the philosophical idea of conscientia. .... Luther (...) realized that pistis could be interpreted "in a double sense," as "opinion and conscience," but preferred "the absolute sense in the fashion of the apostle, as identical with faith in Christ." So too .... Yet many modern commentators (...) have realized the problem that this interpretation creates, in that it disregards the neutrality of many human acts, and therefore understood pistis to mean "conviction," a meaning acknowledged by BAGD (Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature), i.e. a confidence that proceeds from Christian faith, which is distinct from it and manifests itself as liberty with regard to indifferent matters (adiaphora) as in vv 1b, 22, 23a. [emphasis mine]
  3. Hamartia would denote not the power controlling human beings (3:9b) or indwelling sin (7:17), but the basic idea of hamartanein, "miss the mark": the Christian would miss the mark by conduct in a specific case that proceeds not from inner freedom or from a conviction about the act to be done.

Applying the above exegesis, the AYBC interpretation (by Joseph Fitzmyer) is:

Clearly, one has to respect the full Pauline context of 14:1-15:13 and the utterance in v23, maximlike though it sounds, should not be made into an absolute. The "maxim" is not applicable to all Christian conduct as such; it has to do with "all" indifferent matters, such as eating meat, drinking wine, and observing feasts. It is not a rule governing the basic relation of a Christian believer to God, much less the conduct of unbelieving pagan. See ... [another commentary].

Finally, here's the NLT (New Living Translation) of Rom 14:23:

But if you have doubts about whether or not you should eat something, you are sinning if you go ahead and do it. For you are not following your convictions. If you do anything you believe is not right, you are sinning.

So to answer your question

How do we interpret the text, in light of the difficulties which the normal interpretation creates? And to do so without making the text to mean nothing at all?

  1. I agree with the AYBC reading of the Rom 14:23b, that the meaning of "all" should be controlled by vv2-3,5 and even more proximate, by 14:23a. For the whole chapter 14 Paul is talking only about food (which for believer is a matter of indifference, since what is unclean is what goes out, not what goes in), so why isolate Rom 14:23b from the rest of the chapter and over-generalize it?
  2. The examples you cited (police offer, poem, doubting personality, marriage, handgun) are doubts created by situations, not by doubts whether Jesus is Lord, not by doubts whether you have been saved, not by doubts whether the eating meat is OK ("strong" Christians don't have this doubt). I would place it in the category as how to choose your investments in 401(K): stocks, bonds, cash. Do you really want to apply Rom 14:23 to this? For those situations, prudence is needed; prudence informed by both practical experience of the world, by counsel of good friends, by your intellect applying faith in Jesus, aided by the whispering of the Holy Spirit. Don't you see how decisions of those kinds are completely different in kind than what makes you believe Jesus in the first place?
  3. I like NLT's translation of Rom 14:23b: "If you do anything you believe is not right, you are sinning". Look at this translation logically: If X ("do anything you believe is not right") then Y ("you are sinning"). Therefore, if you KNOW for certain that doing X is wrong, and yet you do it, X is true, then Y follows. But in all your examples, you have doubts. That means you cannot decide. That means X is false. That means the "If X then Y" rule does NOT apply.

I hope it helps.

  • I like your response. A couple of thoughts: I considered that 'doubt' can be translated as 'distinction,' which is at least largely what you proposed. However, wouldn't you say that the sense of Rom 1:1 applies to things other than meats? I think Rom 1:5 indicates that. Then for example, if believer A tells B that smoking is a sin, but B believes it is not, they should not dispute over this doubtful thing? ... I think that's the only objection I had to interpreting the passages as disputation, or even strictly applying it to meats.
    – icor103
    Commented Mar 20, 2019 at 15:41
  • I believe what Paul wanted to emphasize the obedience of faith in Christ (Rom 1:5), in which both Jews and Gentiles are united (main theme of Rom 1-11). But the new "weak" Christians coming from "legacy" Jews whose old conscience were still strongly bothered by unclean food (like Peter in Acts 10) should not condemn "strong" Gentile Christians who were never bothered by unclean food, and vice versa, but instead Paul urged both parties to worship God with all their activities (including eating). This is not relativism, because both parties are ultimately answerable to God (Rom 14:23). Commented Mar 20, 2019 at 18:18
  • Smoking may not be a good example, as it is shown to be hazardous to health. But let's say going to theater (for wholesome movie), or drinking wine / coffee (not to excess), which some Christian groups still have objections. Paul would have said that as long as both sides are gracious to one another and as long as each side wants to glorify God in their movie-going, wine-drinking and coffee-drinking, all should be well, because it is freedom within love for Christ that is much more significant. Commented Mar 20, 2019 at 18:18
  • A more relevant example from my personal experience. I have a good friend who strongly believes in keeping Sabbath holy (no work at all, not even recreational activities like going to movies), in strict 10% tithing (set the first and best portion to the Lord), and in certain worship activities (like praying in tongue) as "higher grade". Practicing the spirit of Rom 14 for me is to recognize that it's her way of being devoted to the Lord, and while I prefer to express my devotion to the Lord through other ways, I shouldn't label her legalistic or tempt her to go to movies on Sunday. Commented Mar 20, 2019 at 18:40
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    To be blunt, Rom 14:23 doesn't; it would be forcing the text to say what it doesn't say. Going back to your excellent collection of situations, yes, those situations demand a response, and conscience is a big part of the decision making. But I can imagine making a decision without the full conviction of making 100% right choice simply because there is ambiguity. I can only act "in good faith", i.e. first deliberate, then pray over it, make a decision, and finally DO IT, and then let God handle the rest. Since it's an act of worship, we shouldn't beat ourselves over the lingering doubt. Commented Mar 20, 2019 at 19:41

Honestly, I don't see where this interpretation comes from. Looking at the rest of the chapter, it seems easy to see the context. The chapter is largely a discussion of how to regard a neighbor who is more scrupulous in practice of their faith than you. He uses the example of someone who, perhaps due to weak faith, has difficulty with the teaching of the cleanness of all foods:

I know, and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus, that there is nothing unclean of itself: but to him that esteems anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean.

But if your brother is grieved with your food, you no longer walk in love. Destroy not him with your food, for whom Christ died.

Let not then your good be evil spoken of: For the kingdom of God is not food and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.

Romans 14:14–17, King James 2000

In other words, if someone has a very restrictive interpretation of Christian teaching, and you doubt that they're correct, you shouldn't let that doubt govern your behavior—at least not in front of them. Instead, you should take account of their weakness, and modify your behavior to adapt to their imperfect understanding

It is good neither to eat meat, nor to drink wine, nor anything by which your brother stumbles, or is offended, or is made weak.

And if your neighbor believes that something is forbidden, and you doubt that, do not act on your doubt in front of them—you will not be acting in love, nor out of your faith, but out of a sense of judgment or of showing off your superior understanding and deeper faith:

And he that doubts is condemned if he eats, because he eats not of faith: for whatever is not of faith is sin.

  • I can see most of what you're saying as I read the chapter. However, it seems the one that's strong in the faith wouldn't doubt whether the meat could be eaten (v. 2). He'd be fully assured that it's not, wouldn't he? So, wouldn't the doubter in verse 23 be the weak brother? --- I will say, however, that 1Co 8 seems to be in line with the interpretation that you just gave.
    – icor103
    Commented Mar 9, 2019 at 5:23
  • @icor103 actually that makes sense as well, and is more in line with some other commentators, for example drbo.org/chapter/52014.htm Commented Mar 9, 2019 at 7:07
  • I've read about 10-15 commentators on this topic, and literally every one of them had the same interpretation (the one I gave in my OP). If I read you correctly, you don't disagree with that understanding. If so, any other thoughts on the problems I presented in my OP?
    – icor103
    Commented Mar 9, 2019 at 8:09

Regarding doubt, how do we apply Romans 14 in difficult situations?

Let us look at the Scriptural text of Romans 14:20-23 before moving on:

20 Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a person to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. 21 It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall. 22 So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves. 23 But whoever has doubts is condemned if they eat, because their eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin. - Romans 14;20-23

Treating this question as one about doubt there are several things we can do in difficult situations. I am not going to answer on the interpretation on the text which I find difficult to understand where the above interpretation is coming from.

It is true however that some souls doubt just about everything. There are however a few things we can do about it.

How do we interpret the text, in light of the difficulties which the normal interpretation creates? And to do so without making the text to mean nothing at all?

First of all, we should seek the help and guidance of ministers or other Christians we are comfortable with expressing our doubts and anxieties with and research the question that are making the doubts exist in the first place.

Although the question do not ask for it, I will give a Catholic perspective to this dilemma. One can take what is of possible benefit for oneself and leave the rest.

Two things, I would like to suggest: Find a good spiritual director (priest or [Protestant] pastor) and keep on praying (and get others to pray for you).

Find a spiritual director

Going through a time of doubt can be an alienating experience. Especially if it seems that everyone around you has a rock-solid faith life, you might be hesitant to talk to your family or friends about what you’re thinking. This is where a spiritual director can be extremely helpful: He or she can help you analyze your questions in a relaxed environment, and you don’t have to worry about it leading to arguments or tension the way it might with people in your personal life.

Keep praying (and ask others to pray for you)

It’s a natural reaction to stop talking to God if you’re not even sure that he’s there to hear you, but keep doing it anyway. Tell him you have doubts. Ask for help. Ask him to guide you to the right people and resources—and don’t forget to remain open to any answers you might receive. Ask others to pray for you too; if you don’t want to tell them you have doubts, just say it’s for a special intention. This may be the most difficult step of all, especially if you’ve been questioning your faith for a long time, but it is also the most important step. - Tips for Catholics With Doubts

Sometimes doubts can assail us to such an extent that we may even believe we are condemned to hell because we have no faith. In Catholicism we call this form of doubt the dark night of the soul.

In Roman Catholic spirituality

The term "dark night (of the soul)" in Roman Catholic spirituality describes a spiritual crisis in the journey toward union with God, like that described by St. John of the Cross.

St. Thérèse of the Child Jesus and the Holy Face, OCD, a 19th-century French nun and Doctor of the Church, wrote of her own experience of the dark night. Her dark night derived from doubt of the existence of eternity, to which doubt she nonetheless did not give intellectual or volitional assent, but rather prevailed by a deepening of her Catholic faith. However, she painfully suffered through this prolonged period of spiritual darkness, even declaring to her fellow nuns: "If you only knew what darkness I am plunged into..!"

While this spiritual crisis is usually temporary, it may endure for a long time. The "dark night" of St. Paul of the Cross in the 18th century endured 45 years, from which he ultimately recovered. The dark night of St. Teresa of Calcutta, whose own name in religion she selected in honor of St. Thérèse, "may be the most extensive such case on record", having endured from 1948 almost until her death in 1997, with only brief interludes of relief, according to her letters. - Dark Night of the Soul


Romans 14:22-23 New International Version (NIV) "22 So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves. 23 But whoever has doubts is condemned if they eat, because their eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin."

The passage speaks of faith,condemnation, doubt and sin in matters of partaking a food to eat. The question is, what kind of food does St.Paul speak that requires a believer to exercise his faith?

It is faith in the real presence of Jesus Christ in the Holy Eucharist and if one believer have doubt, he must not partake it in order not to commit a sin.

Below is the link of St.Paul teaching addressed to the Corinthians in manner of receiving or partaking the Eucharistic food.

V. The Implications of the Eucharist (1 Cor. 11:26-34)

Now that Paul has established that the Eucharist really is the Body and Blood of Christ, according to Jesus Christ Himself, that it establishes the New Covenant, that it is the bedrock of Christianity, and that it is truly a Memorial Sacrifice offered to God, and a sharing in Christ, he turns to the implications. First (1 Cor. 11:27),

Therefore whoever eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner, shall be guilty of the body and the blood of the Lord.

Notice how Paul uses Bread and Cup interchangeably with Body and Blood. If there was any question about whether or not Paul thought the Eucharist was symbolic, it should be gone by now.

"If you eat the Eucharist in an unworthy manner, you blaspheme against the Body and Blood of the Lord. Let’s look at Hebrews again. Hebrews 10:28-29:

Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace?

So to regard as unclean the “Blood of the Covenant,” which Hebrews 9:20 and 1 Cor. 11:25 already tied to the Eucharistic institution, is to trample under foot the Son of God, earning yourself severe and merciless death. If the Eucharist was simply symbolic, this would be the exact sort of legalism that Christ liberated us from. The notion that we have to treat mere symbols with such respect that our salvation depends on it is something Christians rightly reject, none moreso than Paul. But Paul does not put the Eucharist in that symbolic category. If the Eucharist truly is Christ, Paul’s conclusion is obviously correct.

Regarding doubt, how do we apply Romans 14 in difficult situations? Your question on doubts, St.Paul explain it further here to avoid committing the sin against faith.

Paul continues, in 1 Cor. 11:28-32, along the same theme:

But a man must examine himself, and in so doing he is to eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For he who eats and drinks, eats and drinks judgment to himself if he does not judge the body rightly. For this reason many among you are weak and sick, and a number sleep. But if we judged ourselves rightly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged, we are disciplined by the Lord so that we will not be condemned along with the world.

Receive the Eucharist unworthily, and it’s a damnable sin. Paul even suggests that there are Corinthians he’s writing to who are already dead in sin because of this: that’s the “number” who are already asleep he’s referring to. Paul means here spiritual weakness, spiritual sickness, and spiritual death. The context makes this clear, as do passages like John 6:58, where Jesus says that those who eat the Bread of Life will live forever. Neither Jesus or Paul means that the Eucharist makes you immortal on Earth, but in Heaven. And, as Paul notes, that’s true only if you (a) receive worthily, and (b) don’t then turn back to sin (1 Cor. 10:5-13, outlined above).

Finally, Paul concludes with two pieces of sound instruction (1 Cor. 11:33-34):

So then, my brethren, when you come together to eat, wait for one another. If anyone is hungry, let him eat at home, so that you will not come together for judgment. The remaining matters I will arrange when I come.

The first is to treat the Eucharist as Communion. Trying to reduce the Eucharist to “me and Jesus” without room for your neighbor and brother in Christ distorts the Eucharist. But the second piece of advice is to eat at home before you go! If we needed any clearer instruction that Paul doesn’t think the Eucharist is physical food, there you have it.



Romans 14:23 is the last verse of the chapter. Trying to determine what it means out of context is pointless.

Consider the entire chapter.

1-2: Him that is weak in the faith receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations. For one believeth that he may eat all things: another, who is weak, eateth herbs.

The topic here is how to handle new converts that are accepting the faith but have trouble incorporating it into their lives. In particular, this chapter begins by talking about vegetarians that are in the process of converting to Christianity. Many of the new converts were ascetics, who believed that meat, drink, and other physical pleasures were evil.

You, as a Christian know that it is okay to eat fried chicken with a bottle of beer, or steak with a glass of wine. The new convert might in principle be convinced of this too, but in practice he will still be very uncomfortable doing anything that until recently he considered to be a sin.

As he becomes more educated about Christianity, the convert will eventually shed his previous feelings, so that particular hangup is not something to make a big deal about. If you keep shoving food into his face and telling him it's okay to eat, he's going to be scared away, go back to his previous life, and fail to learn the more important spiritual meanings of Christianity.

13: Let us not therefore judge one another any more: but judge this rather, that no man put a stumblingblock or an occasion to fall in his brother's way.

17: For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the holy ghost.

20: For meat destroy not the work of God. ...

We should accommodate the new convert as much as possible. Even refraining from enjoying ourselves in his presence if it makes him uncomfortable. Our immediate concern should be with the basic doctrines of the faith, not with superficial behaviour.

Finally, we get to the concluding verse:

23: And he that doubteth is damned if he eat, because he eateth not of faith: for whatsoever is not of faith is sin.

If you force the new convert to do something that he still considers sinful, if you don't scare him away permanently, you are not only making him feel bad but accustomizing him to the feeling of doing what is wrong. Too much of that and he will end up accepting that feeling when performing real sins.

OP: The normal interpretation of this text is that if you’re unsure about the rightness of what you’re doing, you shouldn’t do it.

But that would be a wrong interpretation. The chapter isn't talking to the new convert, it is talking about how you should deal with new converts. I.e. if people are unsure about the rightness of something, they shouldn't be forced to do it, even if you know it isn't a sin.

Romans 14 is a complement to Collossians 2, which discusses the opposite situation, converted Christians that are made to feel bad for enjoying themselves by non-Christians that believe that physical pleasure is a sin.

Edit: To answer the original question, "how do we apply Romans 14 in difficult situations?", the answer is: "We don't!". It simply doesn't apply to our own difficult situations, it says we should avoid putting other people into difficult situations.

To "make the normal interpretation impossible" one simply has to realize that the normal interpretation is wrong.

  • Yes, it's talking to the strong about the new convert. The new convert is still relevant, though. v. 23 shows us that if the new convert eats even though he doubts, he's in sin... So, put yourself into the shoes of the new convert. Paul teaches that you're wrong if you eat. That wrongness is why the strong Christian must not tempt you to sin. How does the new convert deal with unreasonable doubts, or worse - doubts about action and inaction? That is: he thinks acting may be a sin, and he also thinks not acting may be a sin.
    – icor103
    Commented Mar 20, 2019 at 19:34
  • "How does the new convert deal with unreasonable doubts" -- but that's the point, the doubts aren't unreasonable, and the convert shouldn't have to deal with them. People should notice that they are making him uncomfortable and refrain from doing it. The whole chapter is aimed at the committed Christians, not at converts or doubters. Christians should simply tell the convert that it's not very important and for the moment don't worry about it, just do what feels right. Compare it with someone that's afraid of the water and being teased or bullied to get in and enjoy themselves. Commented Mar 20, 2019 at 19:45

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