Everybody loves Romans! It is the meat and potatoes of biblical doctrine. It is gospel and Christian living rolled into one. It is the summit of theology and the canopy of Christian hope. Preaching, teaching, reading, and studying Romans is hard work, but it is a labour of love, for the reward of a deeper understanding of the gospel at theological and spiritual depth makes the fear and frustration worth it.
I’ve had the pleasure of lecturing on Romans on three different continents. In the process I’ve learned a lot about Romans and a lot about what students know and don’t know about Romans. One interesting fact I’ve noticed is that most seminary courses on Romans usually only go as far as Romans 8. Sometimes they might creep as far as Romans 9–11 if the teacher likes eschatology. On rare occasions you might be fortunate enough to hear your teacher even get into Rom 12:1-2 if he’s sniffing around for some application. But from what I’ve heard, rarely does anyone go further than that. You might get a footnote to Romans 13 with a few brief remarks on Christians being good citizens and something vague about Paul and the Ten Commandments. But anything beyond Romans 8 or Romans 12 is a mystery to most students I’ve met. It’s like those medieval ocean maps that mark distant waters with the phrase, “Beware, here there be moving islands”. Everyone knows that there is “stuff” beyond Romans 12, but no one really know what it is or cares what it is!
But Romans 14–15 is not a dispensable appendix to the letter. It is not the after dinner mints to theological feast of the earlier chapters. To the contrary, I want to insist that Romans 14–15 is the pastoral climax to Paul’s letter to the Romans. Romans 14–15 is where the theology of the gospel hits the road of church life. It addresses the subject of how people with different convictions can still accept one another, worship together, and serve the same Lord together. It is where Paul’s picture of the gospelized church becomes a reality.
In this section, specifically Romans 14:1–15:13, we find Paul the pastor at work to prevent a potential factitious cosmopolitan church from splitting along ethnic or legal lines. He’s been through vitriolic debates in Antioch, Galatia, and Corinth and he wants to make sure that the Roman churches do not go the same way. The gospel came to Rome independently of Paul through Jewish Christians. However, it appears that an influx of Gentiles into the church has created tensions between how much of the Law one has to hold to. Paul identifies two positions as the “weak” and the “strong”. Tempting as it to say that the “weak” are exclusively Jewish Christians and the “strong” are exclusively Gentile Christians we have to remember: (1) that Paul, a Jewish Christian, numbers himself among the strong (Rom 14:14); and (2) Some Gentiles who were formerly God-fearers or proselytes may have had conservative views on the Law observance and be among the weak. Now “weak” does not mean inferior, cowardly, or legalistic. It means someone who had a conscience that is easily offended. A weak person is one who has an intense fear that something must be earnestly avoided.
Key points of contention in Rome among the house churches include vegetarianism (because meat could be tainted with pagan religion), avoidance of wine (because of its use in drink offerings to Roman gods), and observing special days (like the Sabbath). The issues are generated out of two main questions: To what extent can a believer participate in the world around them without being compromised and also how much of the Old Covenant Law carries over into the New Covenant period.
Paul’s answer can be summed up with reference to two main verses: “So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual up-building” (Rom 14:19) and “Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Rom 15:7). Paul wants those who disagree with these matters to mutually affirm each other as fellow servants of the Lord Jesus Christ (see Rom 14:6-9). The key is knowing the difference between the things that make a difference and the things that don’t make a difference. If we had to summarize Paul’s instruction in this section we could put it as follows:
Let me say that on some issues I know I am a stronger brother and on some issues I know I am a weaker brother. For instance, when it comes to alcohol, I have no problem with drinking responsibly and in moderation (in fact I’m drinking a glass of Australian Merlot as I write this article!). Despite coming from a family that had alcohol abuse of the worst kind, I know that nothing in Scripture expressly prohibits moderate enjoyment of alcohol. I am, however, mindful that I do not let my freedom in Christ offend my brothers and sisters who are very sensitive to this topic so I am careful who I drink around and who I speak to about the joys of a good red wine. On the other hand on some issues I know I am a weaker brother. I remember being shocked to learn that a number of my American friends, who are Bible Professors and ordained Pastors no less, attended a Christian Halloween party. My revulsion is because I think of Halloween as an American celebration of witchcraft and paganism. I could never in good conscience attend a party like that. I wonder why any Christian would. Yet I also know that my Christian friends do not approve or practice witchcraft. It’s just Christian guys and gals dressing up in a costume. Despite my revulsion at the prospect I do not look down on them because I know what they are doing is an expression of their freedom in Christian.
Paul allows Christian freedom and flexibility on matters that are adiaphora or “indifferent”. We should be the same. We need a theological triage of matters that (1) the basis for fellowship and unity (e.g., atonement, authority of Scripture, bodily resurrection, etc); (2) matters that are serious, but other views can be tolerated (e.g., baptism, eucharist, etc.); and (3) topics about which a Christian is free to follow conscience as led by the Spirit (Bible translations, home schooling, alcohol, etc). For God is glorified when we accept each other as Christ accepts us.