Does Paul’s statement in Romans 14:14 Romans 14:14I know, and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus, that there is nothing unclean of itself: but to him that esteems any thing to be unclean, to him it is unclean.
American King James Version×that “I know and am convinced by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself” mean that there was no distinction between clean and unclean meats in the early Church?
An understanding of Greek terminology can help us here.
It is important to realize that two concepts of “unclean” were referred to in the New Testament, with different Greek words used to convey those ideas. “Unclean” could refer to animals not meant to be food (Leviticus 11; Deuteronomy 14). “Unclean” could also refer to ceremonial or ritual uncleanness.
In Romans 14 Paul used the word koinos, which means “common” (Vine’s Complete Expository Dictionary of Old and New Testament Words, Thomas Nelson Publishers, Nashville, 1985, p. 649). In addition to the meanings of “common” or “ordinary,” as used today in English (Acts 2:44 Acts 2:44And all that believed were together, and had all things common;
American King James Version×; 4:32; Titus 1:4 Titus 1:4To Titus, my own son after the common faith: Grace, mercy, and peace, from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ our Savior.
American King James Version×; Hebrews 10:29 Hebrews 10:29Of how much sorer punishment, suppose you, shall he be thought worthy, who has trodden under foot the Son of God, and has counted the blood of the covenant, with which he was sanctified, an unholy thing, and has done despite to the Spirit of grace?
American King James Version×; Jude 3), the word was also applied to things considered polluted or defiled. This same word, along with its verb form koinoo, is used in Mark 7:2 Mark 7:2And when they saw some of his disciples eat bread with defiled, that is to say, with unwashed, hands, they found fault.
American King James Version×, 15-23, where it clearly refers to ceremonial uncleanness because the disciples ate with unwashed hands.
Through a concordance or similar Bible help you can verify that koinos and koinoo are used throughout the New Testament to refer to ceremonial uncleanness, not to unclean animals or meats as defined in the Scriptures. Something could be “common”—ceremonially unclean—yet not appear on the proscribed list of meats that were biblically unclean.
An entirely different word, akathartos, is used for unclean meats in the New Testament. In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament commonly used in Paul’s day), akathartos is used to designate the unclean meats listed in Leviticus 11 and Deuteronomy 14.
In Acts 10 both koinos and akathartos describe Peter’s vision of the sheet filled with “all kinds of fourfooted animals of the earth, wild beasts, creeping things, and birds of the air” (verse 12), both clean and unclean. Peter himself distinguished between the two concepts of “unclean” by using both words in verse 14. After being told to “kill and eat,” Peter replied, “I have never eaten anything common [koinos] or unclean [akathartos].” Most Bible translations distinguish between the meanings of the two words used here. Peter used the same terminology in verse 28 and Acts 11:8 Acts 11:8But I said, Not so, Lord: for nothing common or unclean has at any time entered into my mouth.
American King James Version×in discussing the vision.
When Paul said in Romans 14:14 Romans 14:14I know, and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus, that there is nothing unclean of itself: but to him that esteems any thing to be unclean, to him it is unclean.
American King James Version×that “I know and am convinced by the Lord Jesus that there is nothing unclean of itself,” he was making the same point he had made earlier to the Corinthians: Just because meat that was otherwise lawful to eat may have been associated with idol worship does not mean that it is no longer fit for human consumption. As seen from the context, Paul wasn’t discussing biblical dietary restrictions at all.
Paul goes on to state in Romans 14:20 Romans 14:20For meat destroy not the work of God. All things indeed are pure; but it is evil for that man who eats with offense.
American King James Version×that “all food is clean” (New International Version). The word translated “clean” is katharos, “free from impure admixture, without blemish, spotless” (Vine’s, p. 103). Clean meats as such aren’t addressed in the New Testament, so there isn’t a specific word to describe them. Katharos is used to describe all kinds of cleanliness and purity, including clean dishes (Matthew 23:26 Matthew 23:26You blind Pharisee, cleanse first that which is within the cup and platter, that the outside of them may be clean also.
American King James Version×), bodies (John 13:10 John 13:10Jesus said to him, He that is washed needs not save to wash his feet, but is clean every whit: and you are clean, but not all.
American King James Version×) and clothing (Revelation 15:6 Revelation 15:6And the seven angels came out of the temple, having the seven plagues, clothed in pure and white linen, and having their breasts girded with golden girdles.
American King James Version×; 19:8, 14), “pure” religion (James 1:27 James 1:27Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.
American King James Version×), gold and glass (Revelation 21:18 Revelation 21:18And the building of the wall of it was of jasper: and the city was pure gold, like to clear glass.
American King James Version×).
Realize also that, in both verses 14 and 20 of Romans 14, the word food or meat isn’t in the original wording. No specific object is mentioned relative to cleanness or uncleanness. The sense of these verses is merely that “nothing [is] unclean [koinos: common or ceremonially defiled] of itself” and “All is clean [katharos: free from impure admixture, without blemish, spotless].”
Paul’s point is that any association of food with idolatrous activity had no bearing on whether that food was suitable for eating.