Is Church Unity Possible? - An Excerpt from Romans (The Story of God Bible Commentary Series)
The Story of God Bible Commentary explains and illuminates each passage of Scripture in light of the Bible’s grand story. It aims to set each passage within the context of Scripture and leads the reader to (1) “Listen to the Story,” (2) “Explain the Story,” and (3) “Live the Story.”
In his commentary on Romans, Michael F. Bird examines each portion of scripture through this three-step process. This week’s excerpt is taken from the “Listen to the Story” and “Explain the Story” sections of Romans 14:1 – 15:13 revealing the apostle Paul’s instruction on the perennial problem of church disunity.
LISTEN TO THE STORY
Problems of Disunity
The Roman churches had some problems, problems of disunity it seems. The problems may be potential or actual, it’s hard to tell, and Paul’s own information is undoubtedly secondhand from one or more of the folks listed in Romans 16:3 – 16. The situation appears to be that there were probably competing views on Torah observance in Rome. Whether it was socially, ethnically, or theologically motivated, there were differences of opinion among the Roman congregations about what role the Torah should have in the life of the believers.
The expulsion (AD 49) and return (AD 54) of the Jewish Christians probably exacerbated some of these tensions especially over who has authority to arbitrate on these disputes. Paul’s center of gravity is that he does not want the Roman churches to fragment along ethnic lines or to have violent divisions over how to fuse Torah and Messiah. He’s been there, done that, bought the t-shirt, and it has a lot of polemical blood spilt on it after acrimonious divisions in Antioch and Galatia. So Paul engages in some preventive pastoral care to get the Roman churches united around the Lord Jesus and the mission of God through apostles like himself.
Paul’s solution was simple. He tells the Romans that you have one Lord, who is Lord over all believers, so welcome one another just as the Messiah welcomed you! He sets before them his “charter of Christian liberty and mutual tolerance” rooted in the Messiah and expressed in love. Paul can say that because in his mind the climax of the biblical story is the Messiah restoring Israel and leading the Gentiles to praise God, as the dense collection of Old Testament citations in Romans 15:7 – 12 indicates. Paul sees Jesus as the Lord who presides over the united people of God.
Paul draws heavily on his previous exhortations to his churches (esp. 1 Corinthians 8 – 10); in many ways he is dealing with a universal problem that happens in any faith community where there is a mixture of the scrupulous and the accommodating or the conservatives and the progressives. It would be wrong, however, to infer that Romans 14:1 – 15:13 is just a generalized summary of his ethical teaching from his earlier letters about how to handle differences of opinion. Whereas the disputes in Corinth were about whether believers could eat idol meat (1 Cor 8:1 – 10; 10:24 – 33) and attend banquets in pagan temples (1 Cor 10:1 – 23), in Romans 14 the presenting matters are vegetarianism (14:2, 20 – 21), observing sacred days (14:5 – 6), and wine (14:17, 21). Whereas the weak in Corinth were converted pagans who were trying to break with their pagan past, in Romans the weak are probably Jewish Christians and maybe judaizing Gentiles who were varyingly entrenched in the Jewish way of life.
As we will see, these matters of vegetarianism, sacred days, and wine had various connotations in the Roman context. These matters were not just a fastidious fad or a mark of over-ardent piety, but encompassed the life ordeath issue of covenant loyalty for Jews living in a pagan world. It is crucial to grasp that if we are to understand what the disputes were about and how to apply Paul’s exhortations to our own context.
Paul proceeds by: (1) urging the Romans to embrace diversity under the lordship of Jesus
(14:1 – 12); (2) offering practical advice on cultivating unity in the churches (14:13 – 23); (3) petitioning them to imitate Christ in these matters and thereby glorify God (15:1 – 6); and (4) exhorting them to welcome each other just as Christ welcomed them (15:7 – 13).
EXPLAIN THE STORY
Jesus Is Lord of the Weak and the Strong (14:1 – 12)
Paul continues the theme of the debt of love and shows how it should work itself out in a community where there are disputable matters. His immediate point in vv. 1 – 12 is to urge the Roman Christians to accept each other, though he accents the need for the “strong” to accept “weak” probably because the majority of his audience are among the “strong.” Everyone stands under the Lord and everyone will stand before the Lord, so it is not their place to judge one another.
“Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters” (v. 1). The imperative verb “accept” (proslambanomai) dominates the opening sentence, and its appearance again in 15:7 with “accept one another” forms an inclusio. This bracketing of 14:1 – 15:13 by the theme of “acceptance” helpfully identifies the main point of the exhortation as urging the Roman believers to “accept” each other (though “welcome” is probably a better translation as per the ESV, CEB, NJB, etc.). The root for the command is not pragmatic; it is christological, “just as Christ accepted you” (15:7). Instead of being contentious over “disputable matters,” they should imitate Christ. These disputable matters we will see pertain to meat, sacred days, and wine.
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