Walking together with differences

Paul’s pastoral approach to a divided church – a study of Romans chapters 14&15.

Christopher Marshall is professor at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand, and is the holder of the Diana Unwin Chair in Restorative Justice in the School of Government. He also has training and experience in mediation and restorative justice facilitation.

“in Rom 14-15, Paul deals with the age-old problem of tensions in church between conservatives and liberals, between traditionalists and progressives, fundamentalists and modernists – especially when comes to interpretation of biblical prescriptions.

Such tensions continue to exist ….”

The issues at stake

 “Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarrelling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them … Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another?”  (Roms 14.1ff)

These chapters address major disputes in church at Rome over the meaning of biblical teaching relating to food, purity laws & festival observance. The church was deeply divided over whether or how biblical regulations relating to ritual purity applied to new Christian community, of mixed Jewish-Gentile ethnicity.

In this sense, it was a hermeneutical dispute – a disagreement over what to do with specific biblical prescriptions in a new setting. And Paul’s manner of dealing with dispute may have things to teach us about our hermeneutical reasoning today on what is essential and what non-essential.

The first century Roman church was extremely diverse – composed of rich and poor, slave and free, male and female and (most troublesomely of all) Jews and Gentiles.

As so often happens, this diversity became a major source of tension within the church. Many Jewish believers stressed Christianity was essentially a Jewish movement, a messianic fulfilment of Jewish destiny. All Christian believers were obligated to observe Mosaic law and distinctive Jewish customs, in order to be acceptable to God & belong to Israel’s heritage.

Other believers insisted faith in Christ transcended any obligations to Jewish law and custom. They were no longer obligatory. Some went further and claimed this Christian movement was totally independent of Israel. The Jewish roots of this faith were now totally irrelevant and to be discarded.

Throughout the epistle, Paul addresses this critical issue of Jewish-Gentile relations in new Christian era.

In chaps 1-11, Paul argues theologically for the all-sufficiency of faith in Christ – “for Jew first and also for Greek”.  He insists circumcision and “works of law” are not intrinsic to salvation. Faith in Christ replaces the traditional boundary-markers of Jewish nationalism. Yet, at same time, this Christian movement cannot cut itself adrift from its Jewish base. Gentiles are grafted into Israel, are participants in God’s ancient people.

Then in chaps 12-15, Paul deals with the various pastoral or ecclesiological ramifications of this theological argument.

In Chap 14, he turns directly to issue of strained relationships between two different groups in church – those he deems “weak” (14:1) and “strong” (15:1).

“Weak” – the mainly Jewish Christians who insisted on the necessity of all believers observing those biblical signs of fidelity to God’s covenant. This included circumcision. But three other requirements were also especially important in the Roman context. Avoiding “unkosher” meat – any meat potentially associated with pagan sacrifice. To be doubly sure, some believers had apparently become vegetarians to guard against accidental eating of idol meat (14:2,6). Abstaining from wine – not out of objection to alcohol, but because the wine available in Hellenistic cities was sometimes used in libations to idols (14.21). Observing holy days – especially Sabbath observance (“judging one day to be better than another”, 14:5)

The “Weak” claimed that fellow Christians who disregarded such practices were not genuine members of God’s people, so were not welcomed by God. They were heretics.

“Strong” – the believers who emphasised Christian freedom from biblical dietary restrictions and who “judged all days alike’’(14:5). They perhaps considered such observances to be evidence of clinging to an outmoded faith that was now superseded.

So, in Rom 14-15, Paul deals with the age-old problem of tensions in church between conservatives and liberals, traditionalists and progressives, fundamentalists and modernists – especially when it comes to interpretation of biblical prescriptions. Such tensions continue to exist over a whole range of doctrinal, ecclesiastical, and (esp. today) moral issues.

Before examining Paul’s response to this, we must stress that the particular issue that divided the Roman church was not their minor “squabble”. It was not a case of small-minded niggles over obviously inessential details or irrelevant theological niceties (adiaphora). It may seem petty to us. We know much more important things to divide over – like baptism, ordination of women and same-sex marriage!

But the issue facing the Roman church was of much greater importance to them than any of these issues are to us. For most first century Jews, biblical purity laws, dietary practices, and Sabbath keeping were considered essential expressions of covenantal loyalty to God. In the Maccabean period, loyal Jews were tortured to death rather than breach those food laws laid down by God in scripture. ‘Their very identity was inextricably bound up with the continued observance of the laws of clean and unclean. To breach these laws would have been an act of profound and decisive disloyalty to everything which they and their people and their religion had stood hitherto.” (James Dunn)

At stake, then, was the basic character of the Christian church, and the entire self- understanding and identity of this new religious movement. Was Christianity to remain a messianic sect within the cultural horizons of traditional Judaism? Or to become a multi-cultural community that transcended Jewish nationalism, whilst continuing to claim Jewish heritage?

This issue underlies the whole of Romans. It drives Paul’s extensive reflection on the meaning of the biblical text (quoted over 50x in the epistle, including 6x in chs 14-15)

Paul’s advice in Roms 14-15 is all more astonishing when we recognise the seriousness of the theological, sociological and ecclesiological issues at stake.


Paul’s Two-Fold Advice

I wish to suggest that Paul’s advice to the divided church at Rome boils down to two principles. Accept diversity of interpretation yet hold fast to the essentials of faithful discipleship.

a) Accept legitimate diversity
Paul instructs both “weak” and “strong” – both conservatives and progressives – to accept one another as brothers and sisters in Christ.

Traditionalists must not be judgmental or condemnatory towards more liberal believers. ‘Those who abstain [from meat & wine] must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them’ (v.3). Judgmentalism and censoriousness are the besetting sins of religious conservatives  – ‘we know what Scripture teaches; they don’t agree with us; therefore, they disagree with God and should be condemned’.

Progressives, who rejoice in freedom, must not “despise” those who abstain” (v.3) and look down on them as inferiors. Instead they must “welcome them”, and “not just for the purpose of quarrelling over opinions ” (14:1) They must embrace conservatives as equals, not simply ridicule or correct or trivialise their opinions.

Smugness and intellectual superiority are the besetting sins of religious liberals. The test of true liberalism is its liberty to accept conservatives!

In a word, Paul demands mutual, loving forbearance and hospitality.

“Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another …. Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God.” (14.13, 20). “May God …. grant you to live in harmony with one another, in accordance with Christ Jesus, so that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” (15:5-7)

Paul is saying it is possible for equally sincere Christians to disagree on major issues of faith and practice, yet for both to still hold valid positions. For me to be right about something does not necessarily mean that those who disagree with me are completely wrong.  All of us have, at best, an imperfect grasp of biblical meaning. So my insight into a text can only be enhanced by listening to those who see things differently.

This does not mean it must end-up with a bland relativism that reduces textual imperatives to subjective opinion, or that obliterates, or fatally problematizes, any meaningful distinction between truth and error, right and wrong. Nor does it mean Christians should never engage in debate over matters that divide them.  Paul counsels: “Let all be fully convinced in their own minds” (14:4). And he feels free to express own opinions on issue, ‘I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean’ (Rom 14:14).

Paul is careful to add some crucial qualifications to the open-hearted acceptance of one another’s convictions. Both parties must be submitted to the Lordship of Christ.
Both must reach conclusions in conscious dependence on Lord. Both must live out their convictions in honour of the Lord & in thankfulness to God.

“Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. Those who observe the day, observe it in honour of the Lord. Also, those who eat, eat in honour of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honour of the Lord and give thanks to God. We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s”…. “So then, each of us will be accountable to God …” “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin”. (vv.5-9,12, 22)

There is a limit to legitimate diversity. Christian interpretation not free-for-all, where everything goes. Not by any means! These limits are set by what is consistent with obedience to Christ and what done sincerely from faith in God.

So if other Christians hold views we disagree with, and may even consider totally inappropriate for genuine believers to hold, as long as they have arrived at their position in conscious submission to the rule and teaching of Christ, and hold it with clear conscience, in thankfulness to God, and aware of coming Day when must give account to God, then it is our bounden duty to welcome them in same way Christ has welcomed us – graciously, warmly, unreservedly!  For if Christ is that person’s Lord, not me, it is Christ’s responsibility – not ours – to convict that person of what is an obedient response. So Paul counsels loving, but principled, tolerance between disputing parties in church as a way of recognising the supreme Lordship of Christ.

But there is another side to Paul’s pastoral advice. He reasserts the essential truths of the gospel that all believers must be passionately committed to. 


b) Hold firm to essential features of discipleship

In a statement pregnant with meaning, Paul asserts:

‘So do not let your “good” be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not food and drink, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. The one who thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and has human approval. Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual up-building’ (14:16-18)

Here Paul sums up the essence of commitment to the Kingdom of God in three phrases, each with a comprehensive range of meaning. The same three considerations can also serve as hermeneutical parameters for beginning to assess validity of particular interpretations of Scriptural teachings (cf. Micah 6:8; Matt 23:23)

i. Righteousness

The Kingdom of God, Paul says, about righteousness. Jesus made same point: “Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you” (Matt 6:33).

Righteousness denotes doing or bringing about what is right, in broadest sense. It means living and acting justly before face of God.

Righteousness includes social righteousness – what we mean by “justice”. NEB and JB uses the word “justice” in translating Rom 14:17. For Paul, the Christian Gospel is the “revelation of the righteousness or justice of God” (1:17; 3:21). It is God’s rectifying activity intervening to liberate humanity oppressed by sin and death and restore to relationships of freedom and trust. The Gospel reveals God’s passionate concern for restorative justice. The Kingdom of God, Paul tells us, is fundamentally about the rule of healing, restoring, liberating justice.

ii. Peace

i. The Kingdom of God is also characterised by peace. Not just absence of conflict but a positive condition of well-being in all relationships of life (condition of “all-rightness”). Paul uses “peace” in Romans in three main connections:

The experience of peace with God. “Therefore being justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 5:1).

For harmonious relations between individual Christians. “Let us then pursue what makes for peace and mutual upbuilding” (14:19).

For equitable and just relations in wider human community. In Rom 3, Paul condemns human race for its proclivity to violence: “Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery are in their paths, and the way of peace they have not known. There is no fear of God before their eyes” (3:15-18). When God’s kingdom comes in fullness, “justice and peace will kiss each other” (Ps 85:10).

In meantime, our task is to work towards God’s peace and justice on earth now, as witness to character of God’s coming reign.

It follows from this that any interpretation of the demands of Scripture that fails to promote justice and foster peace is likely to be a flawed interpretation. Just as Jesus teaches a “hermeneutics of mercy” (Matt 23:23), so Paul advocates “hermeneutics of peace”. But with also a third component:

iii. Joy in the Holy Spirit

The Kingdom of God is not only justice and peace, also about spiritual joy – the pulsating experience of Spirit’s presence and power in community. Of course, joy a subjective experience. It cannot be measured in standard doses. Nor is it fool proof. Just as one can be blissfully unaware, so one can be joyfully misguided. Yet, for all that, there is a deep joy that comes from hearing God speak truthfully to us…a sense of freedom and hope and delight. So just as our appropriation of Scripture should be tested for its commitment to justice and peace, is must also be assessed for the quality of spiritual life it engenders.

Interestingly, after citing several biblical texts about incorporation of Gentiles in Romans 15, Paul wraps up by saying:

“May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit” (Rom 15:13)


Paul’s words in Romans 14-15 include a twofold challenge for addressing disputes over biblical interpretation.

The challenge to nurture mutual tolerance and respect within Christian community as positive testimony to vastness of divine truth, to finiteness of human capacity to comprehend it, and to supremacy of Christ’s lordship.

The challenge to be firmly committed to three essential out-workings of God’s kingdom in world, against which we also test every appropriation of Scripture:

The test of justice.

The test of peace.

The test of spiritual life and joy

     –  righteousness; relationships; reverence

‘May the God of hope fill [us] with all joy and peace in believing, so that [we] may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit ‘(Rom 15:13)


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