A Commentary by John Stott
To be sure the groups were not identical; there was some overlap. The text does not allow us to make the neat equation that ‘weak = Jewish Christian’ and ‘strong = Gentiles Christian’. For doubtless some of the weak were Gentile believers who had been ‘God-fearers’ on the edge of the synagogue and had grown accustomed to the traditions of Judaism, whereas some of the strong were Jewish Christians who (like Paul) had developed an educated conscience and rejoiced in their Christian freedom. Certainly this was Paul’s personal position. He makes it quite clear that he believes the position of the strong to be correct (14:14, 20); he writes throughout from the perspective of the strong; and he explicitly associates himself with them when he writes, ‘We who are strong…’ (15:1).
Professor Dunn goes further. The tensions in Rome, he suggests, were ‘between those who saw themselves as part of an essentially Jewish movement and therefore obliged to observe the characteristic and distinctive Jewish customs, and those who shared Paul’s understanding of a gospel which transcended Jewish particularity’. Although diet had always differentiated Jews from their pagan neighbours (as in the case of Daniel in Babylon, Dn.1:3ff.), ‘the Maccabean crisis had made observance of these (dietary laws) a test of Jewishness, a badge of loyalty to covenant and nation’. In fact, ‘dietary rules constituted one of the clearest boundary markers which distinguished Jews from Gentiles’. The observance of the sabbath was another. Thus ‘”eating unclean food and violating the sabbath” ranked together as the two chief hallmarks of covenant disloyalty’, while strictness in both was of fundamental importance in maintaining covenant faithfulness. Therefore, James Dunn concludes, to characterize Romans 14-15 as ‘a discussion of “unessentials”…misses the centrality and crucial nature of the issue for earliest Christianity’s self-understanding’.
All this is without doubt true and well said, but only so long as we go immediately to clarify Paul’s position in relation to it. For vital to his strategy in these chapters is his insistence that, from a gospel perspective, questions of diet and days are precisely *non-essentials*. He even approaches sarcasm when he juxtaposes ‘the kingdom of God’ with ‘eating and drinking’, as if they could be compared (14:17), and when he pleads with the strong, ‘Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food’ (14:20).
There is a similar need for discernment today. We must not elevate non-essentials. especially issues of custom and ceremony, to the level of the essential and make them tests of orthodoxy and conditions of fellowship. Nor must we marginalize fundamental theological or moral questions as if they were only cultural and of no great importance. Paul distinguished between these things; so should we.
Paul does not insist that everybody else agrees with him, as he did in the early chapters of his letter regarding the way of salvation. No, the Roman issues were *dialogismoi* (1) ‘doubtful points’ (NEB) or ‘disputable matters’ (NIV), ‘opinions’ (RSV) on which it was not necessary for all Christians to agree. The sixteenth-century Reformers called such things *adiaphora*, ‘matters of indifference’, whether (as here) they were customs or ceremonies, or secondary beliefs which are not part of the gospel or the creed. In either case they are matters on which Scripture does not clearly pronounce. In our day we might mention such practices as the mode of baptism (whether by immersion or affusion), episcopal confirmation (whether it is a legitimate part of Christian initiation), the giving and receiving of a wedding ring (which was hotly contested by the Puritans in the seventeenth century), and the use of cosmetics, jewellery and alcohol, together with such beliefs as which *charismata* are available and /or important, whether miraculous ‘signs and wonders’ are intended to be frequent or infrequent, how Old Testament prophecy has been or will be fulfilled, when and how the millennium will be established, the relation of history to eschatology, and the precise nature of both heaven and hell. In these and other issues, today as in the first-century Rome, the problem is how to handle conscientious differences in matters on which Scripture is either silent or seemingly equivocal, in such a way as to prevent them from disrupting the Christian fellowship.
One further characteristic of this passage deserves our attention, namely Paul’s remarkable blend of theology and ethics. He is treating some very mundane matters, yet he grounds them in the truths of the cross, the resurrection, the parousia and the judgment. Griffith Thomas appropriately entitled his exposition of Romans 14 ‘High Doctrines for Humble Duties’.
The outline of Paul’s argument in this long section (14:1-15:13) seems to be as follows. First, he lays down the fundamental principle of acceptance (especially the acceptance of the weak) which undergirds the whole discussion. It is positive (‘Accept him’), yet qualified (‘without passing judgment on disputable matters’, 1). Then secondly, covering the rest of the passage, he develops three negative deductions which follow from his positive principle. He tells his readers that they must neither despise nor condemn the weak (2-13a); that they must neither offend nor destroy them (13b-23); and that they must not please themselves, but follow Christ’s unselfish example (15:1-4). In conclusion he celebrates the union of Jews and Gentiles in the worship of God (15:5-13).
Tomorrow: Romans 14;1 Our relationship to the weak: 1) The positive principle.