14:17-20 Do not allow that good gift of freedom which you possess to become a thing which gets you into disrepute. For the Kingdom of God does not consist of food and drink, but of righteousness and peace and joy, which are the gifts of the Holy Spirit. For the man who rules his life by this principle, and so becomes the slave of Christ, is well-pleasing to God and approved by men. So, then, let it be the things that make for peace that we pursue, and the things which build up one another. Do not destroy God's work for the sake of food. True, all things are pure; but it is wrong for a man to make life's road more difficult for someone else through what he eats.
In essence, Paul is here dealing with the peril and the abuse of Christian freedom. To a Jew, Christian freedom has its dangers. All his life he had been compassed about by a multiplicity of rules and regulations. So many things were unclean and so many were clean. So many animals might not be eaten; so many purity laws must be observed. When the Jew came into Christianity he found that all the petty rules and regulations were abolished at one stroke, and the danger was that he might interpret Christianity as a freedom to do exactly as he liked. We must remember that Christian freedom and Christian love go hand in hand; we must hold fast to the truth that Christian freedom and brotherly love are bound up together.
Paul reminds his people that Christianity does not consist in eating and drinking what one likes. It consists in three great things, all of which are essentially unselfish things.
There is righteousness, and this consists in giving to men and to God what is their due. Now the very first thing that is due to a fellow man in the Christian life is sympathy and consideration; the moment we become a Christian the feelings of the other man become more important than our own; Christianity means putting others first and self last. We cannot give a man what is due to him and do what we like.
There is peace. In the New Testament peace does not mean simply absence of trouble; it is not a negative thing, but is intensely positive; it means everything that makes for a man's highest good. The Jews themselves often thought of peace as a state of right relationships between man and man. If we insist that Christian freedom means doing what we like, that is precisely the state we can never attain. Christianity consists entirely in personal relationships to man and to God. The untrammelled freedom of Christian liberty is conditioned by the Christian obligation to live in a right relationship, in peace, with our fellow men.
There is joy. Christian joy can never be a selfish thing. It does not consist in making ourselves happy; it consists in making others happy. A so-called happiness which made someone else distressed would not be Christian. If a man, in his search for happiness, brings a hurt heart and a wounded conscience to someone else, the ultimate end of his search will be, not joy, but sorrow. Christian joy is not individualistic; it is interdependent. Joy comes to the Christian only when he brings joy to others, even if it costs him personal limitation.
When a man follows this principle he becomes the slave of Christ. Here is the essence of the matter. Christian freedom means that we are free to do, not what we like, but what Christ likes. Without Christ a man is a slave to his habits, his pleasures, his indulgences. He is not really doing what he likes. He is doing what the things which have him in their grip make him do. Once the power of Christ enters into him he is master of himself, and then, and only then, real freedom enters his life. Then he is free not to treat men and not to live life as his own selfish human nature would have him do; he is free to show to all men the same attitude of love as Jesus showed.
Paul ends by setting out the Christian aim within the fellowship. (a) It is the aim of peace; the aim that the members of the fellowship should be in a right relationship with each other. A church where there is strife and contention, quarrels and bitterness, divisions and breaches, has lost all right to the name of church. It is not a fragment of the Kingdom of Heaven; it is simply an earthbound society. (b) It is the aim of upbuilding. The picture of the church as a building runs through the New Testament. The members are stones within the building. Anything which loosens the fabric of the church is against God; anything which makes that fabric stronger and more secure is of God.
The tragedy is that in so many cases it is little unimportant things which disturb the peace of the brethren, matters of law and procedure and precedent and prestige. A new age would dawn in the Church if we remembered that our rights are far less important than our obligations, if we remembered that, while we possess Christian liberty, it is always an offence to use it as if it conferred upon us the right to grieve the heart and conscience of someone else. Unless a church is a body of people who, in love, consider one another it is not a church at all.