Well into the season of the Church and deep into Romans, we now encounter the Apostle Paul addressing a familiar issue within the life of Christians walking together in our holy faith: The problem of weak and strong consciences. Paul addressed similar issues in 1 Corinthians 8. Clearly, no congregation will be immune from such things, especially ones in which the Gospel has resounded. Mature Christians and fledgling Christians need to learn how to coexist, so consciences are not damaged or, especially, the Gospel hindered amidst the congregation of the faithful.
In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul addresses the issue of food offered to idols. He concludes that (a) since the Trinity created the world, all foods could be declared good or clean and, therefore, could in principle be consumed, and (b) if the conscience of a weaker believer was injured, even those who had a mature conscience should abstain from such foods for the sake of the other.
Paul frames the conversation in an interesting manner, not in terms of consensual ethics (taking a consensus where the majority rules), but rather looking to establish a deeper spiritual principle disclosed in Romans 15:8-9: “For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for His mercy.” Hereby, Paul attempts to break down the walls which the early Christians effortlessly erected between those of different ethnic origins (specifically Jews and Gentiles) to drive them to the will and mind of Christ: Worship together as one body. He very well could have appealed to the words of Ephesians 4:1-6, which are entirely applicable. Jews and Gentiles baptized into Christ are all servants of the King, disciples of the Master. In fact, the Apostle will employ the theme of servants and master several times throughout the letter, as he does here in verses 4 and 6.
Jews and Gentiles baptized into Christ are all servants of the King, disciples of the Master.
While controversial when it comes to Pauline theology, N.T. Wright has it right when he reflects on this pericope and says:
What we are dealing with in this passage is, in fact, the direct consequence of Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith, which he has, of course, expounded at length earlier in the letter. Jews and Gentiles who believe in Jesus are welcomed equally because of Jesus’ own achievement in His death and resurrection. They are marked out solely by their belief that He is Lord, and that God raised Him from the dead... They must, therefore, learn to live together without looking down their noses at one another or implying for a moment that God is more pleased with one style of [devotional] behavior than with another.
Put differently, in the proclamation of Christ’s Gospel and the administration of Christ’s sacrament of Baptism, the gift of justifying faith and regeneration explodes demographic identifiers. God is no respecter of persons. Persons are justified by divine grace alone, through the gift of faith alone, on account of Jesus Christ alone. No one has an inherent quality within them or about them which commends them to God’s favor. On the contrary, we all stand equally condemned. Likewise, all who are justified are so on account of Christ’s representative life, obedience, death, resurrection, and ascension. Therefore, abstaining or imbibing of food and drink does nothing to commend the soul to God. It is a matter indifferent to the body of Christ, be it ever so much a conviction of the individual Christian. Such devotions, while a case of conscience for the individual and voluntarily observed, must not be superimposed upon the Church.
It is likewise concerning feast days or “holy days” (14:5-6). Paul likely has Jewish feast days in mind here. Some Christians observe, while others do not. Again, it is an indifferent matter as far as justification and even sanctification are concerned. Paul is not talking about the Sacraments or doctrine or preaching here; although such things are essential and defining for what constitutes the Church. They are, in fact, matters of life and death, justification and condemnation. Whether one observes a new moon or eats pork products is not.
Yet, the Apostle softens the application of this truth out of love for the “weak in faith” (14:1). “Weak in faith” does not mean tentative in devotion or vacillating in belief, but rather one who has not worked out that all foods are clean, and Christ’s resurrection has hallowed all days subsequent to the Resurrection as “sabbath rest” (in accordance with Hebrews 3:7-4:13).
The remainder of the pericope (4:7-12) substantiates the preceding instructions by disclosing how the final judgment is the only one which counts, thereby putting judging one another in its proper place, calling for humility and forbearance. For Paul, there is a higher principle at play here. He is concerned with the renewed heart of each believer, endowed as it is with divine love, answering to Christ Jesus for one’s thoughts, words, and deeds.
Craft of Preaching-Check out our previous articles on Romans 14:1-12.
Concordia Theology-Various helps from Concordia Seminary in St. Louis, MO to assist you preaching Romans 14:1-12.
Text Week-A treasury of resources from various traditions to help you preach Romans 14:1-12.
Lectionary Kick-Start-Check out this fantastic podcast from Craft of Preaching authors Peter Nafzger and David Schmitt as they dig into the texts for this Sunday!