A theologian friend of mine told me recently that, “Romans 14-15 is the easy part, only application and no theology”. It can’t be further from the truth. After reading Carl Toney’s 2008 book (Paul's Inclusive Ethic: Resolving community Conflicts and Promoting Mission in Romans 14-15) a couple of years ago and now re-reading it for Romans elective I have found that rarely can we say that any part of Paul’s writing is purely application and no theology. If we read Romans 14-15, theology is everywhere. Why do we welcome those who we consider weak in faith or different from us? It is because God has welcomed them (14:3), a clear theological statement that we should welcome whom God has welcomed. He is the great patron and benefactor and we are made in his image and reflect his character and person that if God welcomes someone, it is incumbent for us to do likewise without disputing over opinions or scruples. Second, we are asked not to pass judgment on our weak (and strong brothers), again theological in that judgment belongs to the Lord and to God, the person will stand or fall just like everyone else. Third, everyone is God’s servant and not our servants and hence, it is not for us to patronize or worse cast aspersion on another’s servant. God is the Master and Lord and all of us are equally subject to God, irrespective of our stand on matters concerning foods, wine, Sabbaths and holy days.
Paul further theologizes that a person living out his faith in Christ has to be consistent with his convictions and let not others impinge on his conscience on how he takes or view things one way or the other. Whether it is in eating or abstaining from certain foods, one does it unto the Lord, giving thanks for his actions or abstinence as the case may be. Not only in giving thanks but whatever one does it is done or not done in God’s honour as we all live unto Him and die unto Him. Whatever our state, whether dead or alive, we belong to the Lord and this is supremely theological since Christ has died and lived again to be Lord of both the dead and the living. Since we all have to give an account of ourselves on judgment day (14:10-12), then we should not enter into judgment prematurely or despise our brother lest we are judged for our lack of restrain in passing judgment against another. It is best to let God be God and that all believers should worship together and live in harmony since we confess the one God.
In the light of the above, Paul exhorts the Romans, especially those who consider themselves strong not to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother or sister. If a brother’s faith is weak regarding certain foods, then in all good conscience the strong should not eat such foods in front of the brother, but instead should provide clean foods for communal meals during the assembly of the saints. By insisting on our rights or convictions that we can eat all things may grieve a brother and if a brother is so grieved, how can we say that we are walking in love (in Rom 12-13 twice Paul talks of the love command)? In fact, we are doing just the opposite and may lead to the destruction of a brother by our actions. Paul takes the actions of believers seriously in that what we do affect others for their good or weal including their eternal destiny. “Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food” (14:20).
Even when we think that what we are doing is good, we have to be mindful that what we do is not seen as evil by others for no one lives for himself alone. We live for one another as a body corporate in the sight of God and we are our brother’s keeper. Again, Paul’s theology comes to fore even in the matter of foods and the apostle enunciates a kingdom ethic which is based on righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. If we walk according to the Spirit as Paul in Romans 8 makes abundantly clear, our service to Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. This Pauline rationale of pleasing men may seem contradictory at first glance since elsewhere Paul makes it clear that he makes pleasing God his primary motivation in ministry and not in pleasing men (Gal 1:10). However, we must bear in mind the contexts of Galatians and Romans 14-15; the former goes to the core of Paul’s gospel message and there is no compromise with the Judean Judaizers lest the truth of the gospel is diluted or twisted in anyway, whereas in Romans 14-15 what is at stake is not the core Gospel message but things concerning Jewish scruples. Paul in Romans 16:17 could be equally firm if he thinks the core gospel doctrine is under threat so much so that Paul advises all to avoid those who cause divisions and create obstacles contrary to the doctrine (didaschen) that they have been taught.
Paul goes on to teach on things that could be kept private as a matter of conscience and faith. If we have faith to think that we can eat all foods, keep it between ourselves and God and not flaunt our faith openly and cause others to stumble as a result. Even if we approve our own behaviour or feel our faith enables us to do things others may frown upon, it is best not to be smug about it or pass judgment on ourselves. Paul concludes this section on welcoming the weak by another profound theological statement that whatever that is not from faith is sin. It is a principle that we must live according to our convictions and beliefs and let no one interfere inappropriately in the realm of our action or abstinence for what matters is we act according to our faith. It is significant that the phrase here is ek pisteos, the same phrase which is the theological linchpin in Paul’s theology of justification in that “a righteous shall live out of his faith or by faith (ho de dikaios ek pisteos zesetai)” (1:17). Here, living our faith is not just faith in Christ or faith in God but the outworking of our faith in day to day living by which we are justified before God – it is to God that we stand or fall.
Paul then addresses the strong directly (15:1) to bear with the perceived failings of the weak and in so doing, not pleasing ourselves or insisting our rights. In bearing with the weak, the strong may open up themselves to ridicule (why go into the trouble of providing for clean foods or not enjoying a drink) or opprobrium which is why Paul listed the example of Christ who took reproaches upon himself, reproaches that should befall God have fallen on Christ instead (cf. mocking on the cross – let see God save him, he can save others but cannot save himself).
Paul exhorts the strong (and the weak) to turn to Scriptures for encouragement and hope and in particular on how God has allowed from time to time His servants or nation Israel to be reproached but ultimately vindicating them. There is no greater proof of God’s vindication than one exhibited in the resurrection of Christ from the dead, making Christ the Lord of both the dead and the living.
Paul knows that despite his many Scriptural arguments, the strong and weak may still not get along and hence, his prayer to God that they may live in harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus and worship together with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. If Christ has welcomed each of us, strong and weak (in faith), there is no reason for disharmony or discord but a love for one another that spurs us to welcome or receive one another. If Christ has welcomed us, sinners, who are we to judge our fellow believers since we stand in need of God’s grace and mercy as much as everyone else. And to the strong (Gentile majority), Paul makes this last appeal that Christ the Lord was and is a Jewish messiah, a servant to the circumcised (Jewish nation) to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs (Gospel is preached to the Jew first and also to the Greek; Rom 1:16) by which God’s truthfulness is established and also the Gentiles (ESV “in order to” may suggest a hina clause but verse 9 begins with ta de ethne, “and the Gentiles”) might glorify God for his mercy. This hope of salvation for both Jews and Gentiles is prophesied in many Scriptures (Psalms, Deut, Isaiah) and is now being fulfilled right in front of the eyes of the mixed Roman congregations of both Jewish and Gentile believers. “Rejoice, O Gentiles with his people” suggests that the Gentiles together with God’s people, Israel will rejoice before the God of Israel and it is God’s will to bring together all peoples, Jews and Gentiles into one fold, one people of God. And in togetherness (you plural in 15:13) they will experience all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit they may abound in hope in the God of hope.
Bridging the Horizons: 21st Century Contemporary Church
I think it is quite clear by reading Paul’s Romans 14-15 that a church or congregation should welcome all comers, irrespective of their race or ethnicity. Faith in Christ is the great leveler, creating an egalitarian community of love based on God’s welcome of sinners. Since we are all sinners there is no ground for anyone or any group to feel superior to another group or race. A church could only be church if all races worship together because it is God’s will to make one people out of the many, Jews and Gentiles. Any division in the church, in separation from one another, goes contrary to the will of God in Christ. If this is not so, Paul would not have made strenuous arguments for church accord and harmony – why not Jewish believers meet on their own and Gentile believers do likewise – but that would go against core Gospel value and hence, Paul’s rebuke of Peter when Peter withdrew from table fellowship from the Gentiles and ate with the Jews only (Gal 2). Perhaps unwittingly, we commit the same offence in that we have different congregations largely based on racial backgrounds and many congregations are made up of 99% one single ethnic group. Often, language barriers are used as a reason for separation. Perhaps it is valid in the beginning if other races cannot understand the language of the majority but after a while, if say English is now the lingua franca as much as Greek was in Paul’s day, there is hardly any justification for division among congregations. Some years back I read of the state of the American Church that it was said that “The most segregated hour in America is 11am on a Sunday morning” where 95% of churches are basically made up of one ethnic group (the whites are white, and the blacks are black). Even in Singapore, I fear that segregation is truly ingrained even within one church that has separate congregations meeting on their own often divided by nothing else but ethnicity. If Indians, Chinese nationals, Koreans, Indonesians, Burmese, Vietnamese, Malays can all understand English, there is no reason not to worship together and doing otherwise tantamount to acting contrary to core Gospel value of unity and harmony between all races, the vision of the church as one community worshipping together in one place.
Divisions regarding other matters over worship style (liturgy/traditional vs. contemporary/charismatic) are some things to be avoided as well on the same principles enunciated by Paul in Romans 14-15. Likewise, the separation or segregation over age-groups is to be avoided for the church is one, made up of old and young. It is not that young children or young teenagers (13-15) should not be ministered to separately according to their needs. Nonetheless, it is not healthy to have a church or congregation for the youths and one for the adults as practiced by some churches. I will pour out the Spirit on all flesh, young men shall see visions and old men shall dream dreams; how shall different age groups benefit or mutually edify one another if there is segregation based on age? The glory of the young men is their strength and the old men their grey hairs (Proverbs). Again, we see a church is inter-generational or multi-generational and there is no evidence whatsoever that the early church worshipped according to age division. In practical terms, church leaders will have to take account of the needs of the young in their preaching and shaping of the service/liturgy to accommodate more contemporary style. This is not to say that older folks are backward or outdated and if they (young and old) are in tune with what the Spirit is saying and doing, there is no reason why the old and young cannot sit together and worship with one voice and glorify God the Father.