As Paul begins by encouraging tolerance of “weak” believers, he implies that other Roman Christians are strong in their faith. What may surprise some readers is that the strong, himself among them, are presented as being less concerned about rules.
This teaching is very much in line with Jesus’ ministry. A regular Bible reader can think of many situations where Jesus broke or bent the rules of his day because something larger was at stake, often irritating the very rules-oriented Pharisees in the process.
Paul is by no means encouraging a libertine lifestyle. (Neither was Jesus!) We have to keep what Paul says in context with the rest of Romans, where he often is clear about particular sins that must be avoided. It does seem, however, that there are rules, written or unwritten, in church life that may create discord.
Paul seems to be aware of division in the early church in Rome, but it is not completely clear to us what issues caused the division. There’s a strong possibility the Christians were debating whether it was okay to eat meat; most meat in the urban marketplace came from animals slaughtered during sacrifices to pagan gods.
There also seems to have been some dispute over the best day for Christian worship, possibly because Jewish Christians still saw Saturday as the Sabbath, while Christians not of Jewish descent figured any day would do. A second kind of food dispute also is possible, this one between Christians who wanted to follow Jewish dietary laws and Christians who saw no need to do so.
Again, note that as Paul deals with the divisive matters, he tends to cast those rigid about the rules as weak, in danger of starting disputes or even falling away from faith because they see others breaking what they perceive as a firm rule.
Paul’s solution, however, is not to tell those of weak faith to change. In fact, he’s careful to repeat earlier teachings about the importance of leaving judgment to God. Instead, he encourages a basic goal for the Roman church, and really, for any church. Without abandoning his call to holiness found in the rest of Romans, he calls all of us to strive for harmony. To accomplish harmony, we need tolerance and forgiveness for each other.
In the process, we lift each other up rather than tearing each other down. We grow stronger in the faith together. Such a process also causes us to emphasize the importance of the person before us, rather than the issue vexing us.
As Christians, we know the Bible doesn’t encourage situational ethics, but we do believe similar situations can call for different responses, assuming we’re not falling into or tolerating ongoing sin in the community.
In modern Western churches, we don’t have much of an ongoing debate regarding the consumption of meat. We do sometimes have strong differences of opinion about alcohol consumption, particularly among churchgoers in the Southeast United States.
For the record, I try to live by the Bible, and I cannot find any prohibitions against the general consumption of alcohol in Scripture. The Bible has much to say about drunkenness—what I would call a loss of control endangering self or others—but little about abstaining from drink, unless you’re taking a vow of some sort, along the lines of a Nazirite vow in Numbers 6. (In that case, you also cannot cut your hair.)
As a Christian, I’ve found myself employing different tactics around the issue of alcohol depending on the people involved.
In my pre-clergy life, I had a co-worker who was a serious alcoholic and very prone to succumb to drunkenness. The problem was we worked in a field where alcohol consumption was prevalent at cocktail parties, conferences, dinner meetings and such. Having no tendencies toward alcoholism myself, I felt free to drink in moderation, but I and some other Christian co-workers chose to abstain when around our friend. We hoped to keep him from feeling socially isolated, and perhaps we even altered to some degree a culture that was dangerous for him.
A few years later, I had to approach the use of alcohol in a different way. By then, I was a student at Asbury Theological Seminary. The school at the time had an ethos statement asking students not to drink alcohol, in deference to some of the seminary’s participating denominations that had strict rules about such things.
While traveling, I ran into another former co-worker who wanted me to sit down and talk at a restaurant he liked. In part, he was wanting spiritual advice. He also really, really wanted me to try a beer that had impressed him. I declined a couple of times, but I began to sense my reluctance was shutting down an otherwise important conversation. I think I was signaling to him I had somehow become less accessible in my transition to professional ministry.
I decided to have the beer. (Forgive me, Asbury Seminary.) The conversation opened up again, and as we sat there, I began to realize the beer was acting like a form of communion.
Paul also tells us we individually need to grow into a special kind of Christian, one confident in his or her faith. This is not false confidence or bravado. There’s a difference between being blindly assertive and truly confident. Paul points us toward a quiet confidence that comes from a strong prayer life and a deep knowledge of the Bible.
When we reach such a state, we can in good conscience say we have identified what is right and what is wrong, and then live accordingly, glorifying God with our lives as best we can.
The featured image is a photo of an ancient Roman marketplace, by Venanzio Cellitti, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.