Posted by: Moses | April 29, 2010

Christian Unity and Liberty: Part 3 of 4

Unity Despite Differences in Biblical Practice

Paul values Christian unity over the practice or lack of practice of principles derived from Scripture, in particular those derived from the Old Testament law. Romans 14:1-15:7 argues strongly for the preservation of fellowship among the brothers at Rome despite their disagreements on how the law was fulfilled. There is a measure of disagreement as to the parties involved in this dispute, but many see a conflict between “the weak [who] are mainly Jewish Christians, and the strong [who] are Gentile Christians” (Carson). The passage itself makes clear that the weaker faction refrained from eating certain meats and participated in certain holy days as a matter of honor to Christ.

As in 1 Cor 4:5 Paul argues for unity on the grounds of our ultimate judgment before Christ in Rom 14:1-4. Just as the Corinthians could humble themselves before the mystery of what God had not revealed, so the Romans could humble themselves before the mystery of what is permissible for servants of Christ. In Romans 14:4 all the servants of Christ will be made to stand “for the Lord is able to make [them] stand” in the final analysis (Rom 14:4). Paul argues on this basis that what matters most for a faithful servant of the Lord is his heart’s faithfulness not the accuracy of his scholarship concerning the law. Because of this “the weak and the strong are relieved of the arduous and inevitably frustrating task of shaping the other into their own image” freely relinquishing God’s responsibility (Chamblin, DPL).

At the outset of Romans, Paul gives a sort of thesis that “the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith’” (Rom 1:17 ESV). Calvin points to these verses as “the principal point or the main hinge of the first part of this Epistle, — that we are justified by faith through the mercy of God alone.” Furthermore, at the end of chapter fourteen, Paul reveals that “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin” (Rom 14:23). Paul communicates that a Christian must walk by faith. Jesus taught in the Sermon on the Mount that violations of the law are rooted in the heart’s motivations (Matt 5:17-30). In the case of sin, such motivations seem to always stem from some measure of unbelief, trusting our own inclinations rather than God’s design for human conduct. However, oddly enough “Paul…did not demand that Jewish Christians should give up keeping the Law, but only required them not to force the keeping of the Law upon the Gentiles” (Machen). He is concerned about a heart of loving unity, not a specific practice.

Comments like, “Let each one be convinced in his own mind” do not convey a relativistic attitude toward truth (Rom 14:5). The law is objective and good, and it objectively condemns us before God if it is used correctly (1 Tim 1:8-10). However, as in 1 Cor we have ethical decisions forcing us to choose between the better of two good things: when left with a choice between having every iota of Christian practice correct or loving one’s brother and welcoming him in fellowship, unity is preferred. The absolute truth of the situation consists in the necessity to love, even if the circumstances and the individual practices may vary.

If a person thinks he violates God’s law he is “guilty of…contempt of the divine authority” in his heart (Hodge). Since the actual food or day is nothing in Paul’s mind, this heart response is everything. The chapter before, Paul established a moral law many times more stringent than the Old Covenant law. The issues at stake in Romans 14 are moral dilemmas, not because food or days are anything in and of themselves, but because when individuals choose not to love one another because of such things they sin against their brothers and against God (Rom 14:1, 28-22). Romans 14 upholds the highest calling of the law in its mandates to be careful to love everyone.

Consequently, Paul urges the weaker brothers not to disdain their stronger brothers who do not keep the same strictures that they do. He also urges the stronger brothers to love their weaker brothers so much that they would freely abrogate their rights if practicing those rights could harm the weak. These exhortations are founded on a theology rooted in the truth of God’s eschatological leveling and the power of Christ to make both sets of believers stand in the final accounting.

Finally, Paul teaches that believers should teach the full-counsel of God. Though he does encourage deference between the two factions, Paul also teaches explicitly that the stronger brothers are technically right; “In the Lord Jesus…nothing is unclean in itself” (Rom 14:14). In following his example, the truth of freedom in Christ should be taught, but no one should be compelled to act against his conscience. In Rom 10:17 Paul teaches that faith comes by hearing the Word of God in evangelism; similarly, though deferent to their weak faith, Paul obviously longs as a pastor to strengthen them by writing this section of Romans. He teaches them the Word. The implicit message of Paul’s teaching here conveys that the strong must “bear with the failings of the weak” but also teach and bring them along in the faith as well (Rom 15:1). Martin Luther concludes that Rom 14:23 gives a call to “strengthen [the weaker brother] and build him up, in order that he may grow in the knowledge of our Lord.” However, in all of this hospitality and fellowship come first. Paul’s entire argument in Romans 14:1-15:7 provides rationale for his exhortation to welcome the “one who is weak in faith” (Rom 14:1). Paul concludes the section saying: “Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Rom 15:7). Paul designed this passage to stir up unity and fellowship above anything else. Charles Hodge latches onto this concluding truth, exhorting believers that since “God does not make eating or not eating . . . a condition of acceptance, Christians ought not to allow it to interfere with their communion as brethren.” Believers must seek out unity and never demand conditions for acceptance on work-based grounds that God does not. We are made righteous by God through faith, not any sort of ironed-out method of Christian practice, no matter how drenched it may be in the thematic wisdom of Scripture.

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Responses

  1. Heh am I actually the only reply to this amazing post?!?


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