Romans 14:1-12

This text is used for the Lectionary Year A on September 17, 2017.

At first read, Romans 14:1-12 seems to deal with matters which no longer concern us: cultural and religion driven divisions over food laws and calendars. Once we dig into the text, though, its potential application to tensions among Christians of any era become apparent. I’ve found it useful to keep the following matters in mind, as I work with the text.

First, the situation may be more complex than we sometimes think. No doubt gentile Christians made up the majority of the Roman congregation, while Jewish Christ followers comprised a minority. It’s tempting to assume a simple division between two groups in which gentiles believe Kosher laws and the Jewish religious calendar obsolete and Jewish adherents insist on the necessity of observance.

My hunch is any number of the Gentile Christians in the Roman church had been God-fearers before becoming Christians. If so, many of them may have been inclined to take food laws and the Jewish calendar seriously. As for the Jewish component of the church, perhaps a number of them took the same tack as Paul with regard to such matters and felt free to observe or not observe the food laws and calendar.

Second, if my first assumption is correct, the congregation in Rome may have had as many as five groups caught up in conflict: traditional Jews who followed Christ but kept the observances; gentiles who never practiced observance in the first place; gentiles who had embraced observance before becoming Christians and now continued to do so; Jewish Christ followers who no longer felt the need to keep the laws; and probably a fifth set of persons who found the controversy confusing and simply wished it would go away.

Third, the conflict was fueled by persons sincerely concerned about how best to follow Christ and honor God. It’s all too easy to assume those who held to the observances were bound by tradition and unable to embrace freedom in Christ. In like manner, we are tempted to believe those who dropped the observances represent progressive forces in the church’s life. My hunch is most persons on either side of the controversy were quite sincere.

Fourth, if we assume such sincerity, Paul’s counsel to the Roman Christians starts to sound evenhanded, compassionate, and wise. He calls on them to practice three disciplines.

Label the first disciple: humility. “Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another” (Romans 14:4)? Paul insists they remember all Christians are servants of God. Only the Lord of the servants may pass judgment on the servants. Servants are not permitted to judge one another. To put it another way, Paul is saying, “Know your place. Remember your place. Act in accordance with your place.”

Paul pivots to a second reason for the Romans to eschew judging one another: All are accountable to God, and God will pass judgment in God’s good time. I sometimes wonder if Paul might have Jesus’ parable of the wheat and tares in mind. In any case, he clearly believes the Roman Christians (and by extension all Christians) must learn to trust God to judge their fellow Christians rightly.

Finally, Paul tells the Romans to focus on one thing: Offering whatever they do with regard to observances to the Lord. Eat or abstain from eating, follow or do not follow the Jewish religious calendar, but whatever they do, they are to do with integrity and with the intent of serving God well.

Note how Paul attempts to shift the focus in the Roman church. They are tempted to portray their differences regarding right and wrong, winners and losers, or what is acceptable to God. Paul tells them to leave such questions to God and instead do whatever they choose to do solely “in honor of the Lord” (Romans 14:6). If they do so, they will find that all of them stand before the same Lord, united not by a uniformity of practice but instead by a shared allegiance to God.

As for preaching from the text, what if we allowed the text itself to do the preaching? For example, we might read the text as it stands, then follow by reading it aloud again and again, as we substitute contemporary division points among Christians for the Romans’ concerns.

Another approach might start with Paul’s questions: “Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister (Romans 14:10)?” Try and imagine the answers the Romans might have given. Might some have been based on scriptures from the Hebrew Bible? Would others have rested on the ancient antipathy between gentiles and Jews? Some, no doubt, would reflect a desire to honor one’s heritage. I can’t prove it, but perhaps some answers would prove to be driven either by the all too human need to break decisively with the past or our equally strong fear of not touching all the bases.

A third approach might build off Romans 14:10-12. What if all of us chose to leave the judgment of others to God? What habits of thought and practice might we have to break or take up? What would a congregation made up of folk who left judgment to God look like?


Michael A. Smith
Senior Pastor
Central Baptist Church of Fountain City, Knoxville, TN





Tags: community, judgment, judging, sincerity

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