Romans 14 for purple churches (August 13, 2023)

In Romans 14, Paul writes about how we're going to encounter other Christians who think differently than us on issues we consider important. His response? Welcome them and put up with them.

Outlook Standard Lesson for August 13, 2023
Scripture passage and lesson focus: Romans 14:10-23

This summer, we’ve been exploring the theme “The Righteous Reign of God,” looking at a broad sweep of biblical teaching about God’s reign. We’ve spent time with the prophets, with Jesus, and now we consider how the early church reckoned with the impact of Jesus’ life — how he inaugurated God’s kingdom and how, through him, we are joint heirs to this kingdom. Today’s reading helps us explore how to address conflict in God’s inaugurated but not consummated kingdom.

Why is food such a big deal?

While Romans 14 may focus on passing judgment, the underlying impetus for Paul’s writing is the question of how first-century Christians were to treat Mosaic food laws (Leviticus 11; Deuteronomy 14). Keep in mind, Romans was written before there was a clear divide between Jewish and Christian faiths. The earliest members of the church were Jewish people wrestling their faith, culture and Scripture in light of Jesus’ life and teachings. So while we wouldn’t think twice if saw a couple of vegetarian dishes at a church potluck, the topic of food was a church-dividing issue during Paul’s era.

For instance, Galatians makes it clear that, at least in one context, these issues threatened both the church and the gospel. The epistle, which scholars guess was written about 10 years before Romans, shows Paul criticizing Peter for withdrawing from table fellowship with Gentiles (Galatians 2:11-14) and that he voiced strong opposition to the Galatians observing “special days, and months, and season, and years” (Galatians 4:10).

The issue of food in the early church is on par with how our modern church wrestles with topics like ethical and moral sexual relationships, White supremacy and immigration. Paul’s advice in Romans 14 that people welcome one another and not judge different convictions hits differently when we apply it to our own situation.

How do we handle disagreements?

In her Romans 14 commentary, Mary Hinkle Shore writes that Paul seems to be engaging the question: “When no one is claiming another Savior besides Jesus or leaning on a source of righteousness besides the righteousness of Christ, and yet the church disagrees, what do we do?” Paul’s response is relatively simple: welcome one another (14:1) and put up with each other’s failings (15:1).

Why should we put up with people who act differently than us? First, Paul says to give your siblings in Christ grace because they seek to honor the Lord (14:6). Second, Christ is Lord of all (14:7-9), and it is God’s will that we worship in community. Third, God alone is judge (14:10-12).

When we encounter someone who has a different opinion than us, especially when it is an issue we care deeply about, the temptation is to contemptuously disregard them, or even “cancel” them. When someone doesn’t live like us or vote like us, we look at them and think, “fools” (or perhaps a stronger term), and we see no contradiction between our belief in Christ and our disdain.

An alternative vision of Christian community

The kingdom of God is among us, and yet, it is not complete. This means that there are going to be disagreements in the church. In Romans 14, Paul essentially says that we have to put up with each other for the time being — and to do so with “peace and mutual upbuilding” (v. 19). By the grace of the Holy Spirit, we need to look beyond what divides us to focus on bringing about God’s goodness: “For the kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (v. 17).

When the church uses the guideposts of righteousness, peace, and joy, we can abide disagreement over many other things. (And there will be a lot of disagreements – just take a quick tour through church history.) Yet somehow – and perhaps this is the miracle of the kingdom of God – the church continues. There will be times to talk about different opinions and to call out behavior that does not align with God’s will, but we can never lose sight of the fact that God calls us to be one body (1 Corinthians 12:12-13). Perhaps we learn something about God’s heart by caring for people who hold views that are different than ours.

Questions for discussion:

  1. In the vein of food laws to first-century Christians, what are some church-dividing issues today?
  2. What are some ways to discern if a difference of opinion is worth addressing or letting go to focus on righteousness, peace, and joy?
  3. What benefits come from belonging to a community with diverse views? How can your church foster this type of environment?