Living God’s Principles in Community, Part 2
With Romans 14:1-15:13 we enter into Paul’s longest section of advice on how to live the transformed life (Romans 12:1, 2), one based on the law of love (Romans 13:8-10). The core of that advice is not to be judgmental of others in the church who may not agree with you on various issues not central to the Christian message.
Still More Lessons on Transformed Living
The apostle has been preparing his readers for chapter 14 from the beginning of his letter. In the first chapter he raised the issue of Jews and Gentiles in the church. Then in chapter 2 he condemned one person’s censuring of another. Those who passed judgement on others, he noted, actually judge themselves (Romans 2:1).
Romans 14 raises an issue of central importance to the church in every age. The church was never meant to be a cozy club of like-minded people of one race or social position or intellectual caliber. Christians are not clones, identical in all respects. One of the difficulties the church has always faced is that included in its membership are the rich and the poor, the powerful and the powerless, those from every stratum of society, the old and the young, adults and children, the conservative and the radicals. And, of course, there are both Jews and Gentiles, and particularly prominent issue in the Roman congregation.
One of the most natural things is for me to want everyone in the church to believe and act as I do. After all, I’m right and have a text or ten quotations to prove it. Thus the matter is settled.
That is just the attitude Paul confronts head-on in Romans 14. From the first verse he argues for mutual acceptance of the “strong” and the “weak” and against “disputes over opinions.” While it is true that he identifies himself with the strong (Romans 15:1), it is equally the case that he has a great deal of understanding for those he deems “weak in faith” (Romans 14:1).
Verse 1 also makes it clear that not every belief held by church members is of equal importance. Some of them Paul identifies as “opinions” or “disputable matters” (NIV). The problem comes in when he told that everything that we believe is of equal importance and then try to force our concepts on others.
Paul raises his first illustration (a less-than-central issue) in verse 2, in which he notes that some believers argue that they can eat all things, while others take a vegetarian position. One aspect to note here is that the apostle is not discussing those who eat or do not eat unclean meats. To the contrary, the issue is eating meat versus eating none at all.
A second point of importance is that Paul’s main concern here is not diet. Rather, it is the attitude of the church members toward one another. Diet (as it says will be in verse 5 and 6) is merely an illustration. A third thing to note is that the apostle’s two illustrations (permissible diet and holy days) directly related to the Jewish/Gentile division in the Roman church.
Those preliminary thoughts bring us to the diet issue of Romans 14:2, 3. He is not condemning health-related vegetarianism but rather those who had given up eating flesh food for the wrong reason – that is, because they had weak faith. While we do not know exactly what the dietary issue was in Rome, we do know that in Corinth disagreement had raged in the church between those who would not eat meat sacrificed to idols and those who did. In that situation some who we might regard as the “weak in faith” refrained from consuming any meat because they would never be positive that someone hadn’t offered it to an idol. Paul responded that it really didn’t make any difference, since a firmly grounded Christian knew that an idol was nothing (I Corinthians 8:1-13). While the problem in Rome may not have been exactly the same as in Corinth, it was most likely related.
Romans 14:4 finds Paul moving beyond his illustration to his main point: “Who are you to pass judgement on the servant of another?” After all, God is their Master and Lord, and they will stand or fall based on His judgment alone. For church members to judge one another is for them to take upon themselves the prerogative of God. Thus passing judgment on another Christian is the ultimate sin, because it places us in the role of God.
Verse 5 brings us to Paul’s second Illustration related to judging others on peripheral matters of opinion. This time the apostle takes up the fact that some of the Roman congregation believed that certain days should be observed while others took the opposite position.
Paul doesn’t explicitly identify the issue, but it was apparently not the weekly Sabbath, since the seventh-day Sabbath is one of the Ten Commandments, and the apostle has already spoken in Romans several times to the importance of the Decalogue (The Ten Commandments) in the Christians life (see Romans 13:8-10; 7:12, 14, 16; 3:31).
The most likely candidates for the dispute were the feast days and yearly sabbaths. The debate between Jewish and gentile Christians over issues related to the Jewish ceremonial regulations had already led to the conference between Paul and the leaders of the Jewish Christians in Acts 15. On other occasions we find Paul dealing with the issue of special days and feasts in Galatians 4:10, 11 and Colossians 2:16, 17. In that latter passage, as in the present one, Paul had to deal with church members passing judgment on fellow believers regarding both members passing judgment on fellow believers regarding both food and disputed days. But there he explicitly notes that the festivals and sabbaths in question were “only a shadow of what is to come.” That language implies the yearly ceremonial Sabbaths (Leviticus 23:4-44), symbols pointing forward to Christ. The weekly Sabbath of the Decalogue, by way of contrast, directed attention backward to God’s work of Creation (see Genesis 2:1-3; Exodus 20:8-11).
Beyond the debate over days, Paul sets forth the important lesson in Romans 14:5, 6 that each person must live by their own convictions. God is leading each person who chooses to be led. But all don’t have the same background or advance at the same speed.
Verses 10-12 forcefully drive home in the major lessons that Paul has been focusing on since verse 1, namely, that no Christian has the responsibility or right to judge or despise another because each of us will have to stand before the judgement seat of God (verse 10) to give an account of our own life and actions (verse 12).
The final judgment of Christians is in effect a legal statement to the universe that they have accepted God’s grace and thus have a right to immortality. For a Christian the judgement is part of the good news. But it will be bad news for church members who have usurped the prerogative of God and have continued to pass judgment on others. After all, “each of us shall give account of himself to God” (verse 12) in that day. In his injunction for us to stop judging others, Paul is absolutely serious. We church members need to take him more seriously – today.
Verses 13-25 supply us with a second motivation for not judging others – one flowing out of Christian love. Believers who are strong in faith, because of their love, will be considerate of the consciences and scruples of their weaker neighbor’s in the church, who may not have figured out which are salvation issues, and which are not. As a result of their faith and love, Paul emphasizes in verses 13-23 that the “stronger” believers will exercise care not to offend the weaker.
He begins his discussion in verse 13 with an admonition for the various factions in the Roman Church (largely aligned long the axis of Jew verse Gentile) to cease judging one another – a problem that was tearing apart the Christian community. Thus their focus should not be on judging but on the determination not to cause another to stumble or fall.
Christians, therefore, must live with care. In spite of their liberty, they will avoid those things that will harm a brother or sister. That thought reminds us of the words of Christ, who said that “it would be better” for anyone who hurts the weak ones “to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea” (Matthew 18:5, 6).
Romans 14:14 reverts to the topic of food, suggesting that nothing is “unclean” in itself, even though it may be such in the minds of some believers. Here we need to ask what kind of defiled or unclean foods, Paul has in mind. We don’t know for sure, but one thing we can be certain – he is not referring to the unclean food prohibition of Deuteronomy 14. How do we know that? From the context. The issue Paul lays out in Romans 14:1, 2 is not between eating unclean or clean meats but rather between eating meat or no meat at all.
The context is all-important in understanding verse 14. Rather than discussing unclean food forbidden to the Jews in Deuteronomy, Paul is referring to foods that had become an issue of conflict in the Roman Christian community. As noted in our discussion of verses 1 and 2, it probably involved foods offered to idols that may have found their way into the market place. For Paul, that possibility was not a problem since an idol is nothing anyway (I Corinthians 8:1-13). Thus, as a “strong” believer, he didn’t worry about such things.
But not everyone shared Paul’s position. Some definitely hold that such food was defiled or impure and was forbidden to eat. The apostle doesn’t condemn such people, even though he believes they are wrong. Rather he respects their conscientious convictions.
We find a lesson for us here – the need to respect other people for their convictions just as we would like them to do the same for us. While we may not always agree, we can still live together in mutual respect.
Romans’ 14:15-23 moves from the problem of food, which was disrupting the church, to some general principles of Christian living. The first urges the “strong” not to hurt those who have scruples against certain kinds of foods, by what they eat. It is a Christians duty to think of everything, not as it affects ourselves only, but also as it affects others. That thought represents an important aspect of Christian love.
A second principle appears in verse 17 “the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” Paul is quite clear that the central issue of religion are “righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.” Righteousness here is not merely related to a Christian’s justified standing that bring peace and joy, but “in this context, ‘righteousness’ refers to that ‘faithfulness to the community” which is lived out by the members of the congregation, “peace” referred to that mutual behavior which is averse to all dissension, while “joy refers to the joyful cheerfulness with which afflictions are endured together within the church” as it awaits the Second advent of its Lord.
Those who have met Jesus will be peacemakers. They will pass on the peace they have found with God (Romans 5:1). This business of peace presents only two options. Either we will be peacemakers, or we will be among those who increase alienation in the world and the church. That alternative brings us to Paul’s point in Romans 14:19. Christians should be involved in building up one another.
Paul’s advice in romans 15:1 goes against the trend of all human history in every culture. Nearly everywhere the strong have tended to use their strength as a way to ease their personal burdens by making the weak bear them as well as their own. The strong rise to the top of any pyramid, and the weak become their servants. In fact, the strong in most systems are taking advantage of their own strengths as a natural right. Society, so the idea goes, owes me certain rights and privileges because of my talents, and my education, or my powerful connections. The oppression mentally stands at the heart of normal living.
But Paul tells us that the “normality” of a sinful world is not to prevail in the church. Christians who are truly Christians, he asserts in various places, live by the law of love rather than the law of the jungle (see Romans 13:8-10; Galatians 5:14).
Such is the law of the kingdom of God and of Christ. In Romans 15:1 Paul tells us that the strong, among whom he included himself, needed not merely to tolerate the misunderstandings and foibles of the weak but also to help them carry their burdens. A person of great talents, the apostle gave his life to serving those less capable and less enlightened then himself. And God is calling each of us today to the same ministry.
The definitions of weak and strong in Romans 15:1, of course, we must interpret in the context beginning in 14:1 and running through 15:13. The weak is that scenario where those who were immature in their faith regarding certain Jewish lifestyle issues in relation to the core meaning of the gospel. Whereas in Romans 15:1 Paul was speaking to the strong, in verse 2 he is addressing both the strong and the weak. It is the responsibility of each church member to seek to build up every other member.
The real purpose of the harmony among believers that Paul has been calling for is that “the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” might be fortified and honored (verse 6). Unfortunately, constant bickering among church members glorifies no one except the devil himself. Paul here makes heartfelt call/prayer for Christians to put away those differences that aren’t central to their faith and to begin to live as Christians should.
Romans 14 and 15 contain an important lesson for the twenty-first century church. We need to put our differences to one side so that our lives and our congregations might truly be a glory to God rather than warts in the kingdom.
“Accept one another” (Romans 15:7 NASB). With those words Paul returns to the beginning of his argument in Romans 14:1. In fact, he sandwiches the extended, closely reasoned discussion about the strong and the weak between two cries for acceptance: “Accept the one who is weak” (verse 1, NASB) and “accept one another” (Romans 15:7 NASB). The apostle addresses both pleas to the whole congregation at Rome, even though the first urges the church to welcome the weaker brother and the second entreats all church members to accept each other.
Both pleas have firm roots in a theological rationale: “The weak brother is to be accepted for God has accepted him (verse 14:3), and the members are welcome each other just as Christ accepted you (7a).
Paul has stopped dividing his readers into strong and weak. The apostle, we should note, intimately relates their acceptance of each other to justification by faith. Just as Christ has received other believers on the basis of their faith in Him, so are we as fellow believers to accept one another. Or, as Paul put it earlier in his argument: “God has accepted him. Who are you to judge the servant of another? (Romans 14:3, 4, NASB. When Christ has accepted someone, who am I to say that I will not take him or her as a Christian brother or sister on the basis of differences involving some marginal lifestyle issue?
Our acceptance of others also rests upon the gospel of grace. Of course, some of “those people” are disgusting. But then, so are you and I! Christianity is not a religion of the bigheaded. It leaves no room for spiritual pride.
With Romans 15:13 Paul has reached the end of the massive argument that he began in Romans 1:18. For fifteen intense chapters he has hammered home what is means to be a Christian.
Now he is ready to stop. But how should he conclude? Given the power and logic of his argument he could have ended with a triumphalist “I’m right and you’re wrong,” or “now you have the real truth so quit arguing.”
But the apostle is out to win souls – not arguments. Thus he concludes the most influential presentation of salvation in the history of Christianity with a prayer. Paul prays that “the God of hope” will fill his Roman readers (and us) with joy and peace as they trust in Him.
Closing Things Off (Romans 15:14-16:27)
In the last chapter and a half Paul concludes his great epistle with several important ideas. Each of them deserves extended treatment, but given the space, and limitations of time, I have made a decision to spend our brief time together in outlining Paul’s treatment of the plan of salvation and what it means for the church.
The first section of Paul’s exiting remarks (Romans 15:14-21) deals with his reasons for writing his letter to the Romans. The second section (verses 22-33) describes the apostle’s future plans to visit the Roman Christians on his way to Spain, a topic we examined briefly in the first chapter of his book. The third segment (Romans 16:1-23) contains personal remarks regarding various individuals of his acquaintance in Rome. The final verses (24-27) are a doxology to God who made the plan of salvation possible. Then the book fittingly closes with the simple word “Amen,” or truly.
This post ends our study on the book of Romans. I hope you have truly enjoyed it. I am unsure what our next weekend subject will be. I have thought about Stewardship or perhaps the book of John, or I, II, and III John. We will have to see how the Lord moves.