Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand.
Look at that first line. What an interesting way to open this discussion. How might this apply today? Mainly, I think it shows that this goes a whole lot deeper than just “don’t drink around people that have a problem with alcohol”, or some such usual application. Growing up, this was the main way these verses were used in my life. People would say “you shouldn’t drink alcohol, because some people might have alcohol abuse problems and, seeing you drink, it might lead them into their alcoholism.” This introductory line shows us this is a lot deeper than mere behaviors or doctrinal superiority.
As for the rest of these verses, there a few other big takeaways (other than the hilarious swipe at vegetarians, haha).
First, it does not say that because some hypothetical believers out there might not feel comfortable with some things that others who otherwise feel free to do those things should abstain all together, always, in all places. The burden here is on the person who is “weak”, or who is bothered. They bear the weight to communicate this to the community. They are to let it be made known, and the body is to respond accordingly.
This is Paul teaching us how to respond to the realities and messiness of actual, particular members in the community, not to act generally in anticipation of possibilities.
Second, Paul is quite clear through this whole passage that everything is clean and everything is permissible. He goes on to say that those that don’t feel comfortable with that bold reality–those who see some things as inherently “sinful” or “unclean”–are actually experiencing a weakness in their faith. They are not the “more spiritual” ones. They are not the ones that are more concerned with others in the broader culture. They are not the ones reading scriptures wisely.
All things are clean (including alcohol). This text is not about that. It’s about the reality that we have to learn to live in diverse communities, with different people with different types of baggage and frustration. This is written to people that are experiencing very close life in community with one another. Paul is not talking about abstaining from food because some random non-Christian might think that Christianity is now a sham, or some random person might be tempted to alcoholism. He is talking about relationships among believers who are close enough to know what their consciences says to one another about these things, and then respond accordingly.
We abstain not in light of possible others around us, but actual others. Those we serve in our abstinence should have a name and face, and should be known deeply and well-enough in the community that they have let others know their weakness. It is only in this case that the community should joyfully and willingly abstain from some things, out of love.
And lastly, this section is about diversity. Think about it. These people of different consciences are together in the same community. They are both welcome and accepted there. They are not ruled by church rules and “laws” restricting some people of one conscience from living in accordance with that freedom. Rather, people from all over the place are living as the community, being members of the community, and becoming leaders in the community, no matter their issues of conscience.
These verses imply that there is to be a diversity of conscience within the community and leadership, with everyone seeking to serve and defer to those around them in love. Now doesn’t that sound so much more reasonable, loving, and Christian in our day and age?