Understanding 'Unclean' in Romans 14

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Understanding 'Unclean' in Romans 14

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Does Paul's statement in Romans 14:14 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; 4:32; Titus 1:4; Hebrews 10:29; 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, 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 in discussing the vision.

When Paul said in Romans 14:14 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 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), bodies (John 13:10) and clothing (Revelation 15:6; 19:8, 14), "pure" religion (James 1:27), gold and glass (Revelation 21:18).

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.