A Commentary by John Stott
But what kind of ‘destruction’ does Paul have in mind? Professor Dunn claims that, ‘as all recent commentators agree, what is in view…is final eschatological ruin’, meaning hell. I beg to disagree, for four reasons. First, are we really to believe that a Christian brother’s single act against his own conscience – which in any case is not his fault but the fault of the strong who have misled him, and which is therefore an unintentional mistake, not a deliberate disobedience – merits eternal condemnation? No, hell is reserved only for the stubborn, the impenitent, those who willfully persist in wrongdoing (2:5ff.). Secondly, such a view (the eternal destruction of a brother) is inconsistent with the doctrine of final perseverance, which the apostle has eloquently expressed in 8:28-39, affirming that absolutely nothing can ever separate us from God’s love. The hallmark of every authentic ‘brother’ or ‘sister’ is that he or she will, by God’s steadfast love, persevere to the end. Thirdly, Paul writes in verse 15 that the strong are capable of destroying the weak; but Jesus said that God himself is the only person who can and will destroy people in hell (Mt. 10:28). Fourthly, the context demands a different interpretation of ‘destroy’. *Apollymi* has a broad spectrum of senses which rage from ‘killing’ to ‘spoiling’. Here the opposite of to ‘destroy’ is to ‘build up’ (19f.; 15:2). Paul’s warning, therefore, is that the strong who mislead the weak to go against their consciences will seriously damage their Christian discipleship. He urges the strong against causing such injury to the weak. *Do not allow what you consider good* (i.e. the liberty you have found in Christ) *to be spoken of as evil* (16), because you flaunt it to the detriment of the weak.
(ii) Welcome him because the kingdom of God is more important than food (17-21).
If the first theological truth which undergirds Paul’s appeal to the strong for restraint is the cross of Christ, the second is the Kingdom of God, that is, the gracious rule of God through Christ and by the Spirit in the lives of his people, bringing a free salvation and demanding a radical obedience. Although the kingdom of God is not as central a doctrine in the teaching of Paul as it was in the teaching of Jesus, it nevertheless occupies a prominent place (E.g. Acts 14:22; 17:7; 19:8; 20:25; 28:23, 31; 1 Cor.6:10; Eph.5:5; Col.1:13). The apostle’s argument now is that, whenever the strong insist on using their liberty to eat whatever they like, even at the expense of the welfare of the weak, they are guilty of a grave lack of proportion. They are overestimating the importance of diet (which is trivial) and underestimating the importance of the kingdom (which is central). *For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit* (17). Righteousness, peace and joy inspired by the Spirit are sometimes understood as the subjective conditions of being righteous, peaceful and joyful. But in the wider context of Romans it is more natural to take them as objective states, namely justification through Christ, peace with God and rejoicing in the hope of God’s glory (5:1f.), of which the Holy Spirit himself is the pledge and foretaste (8:23). And the reason for the greater significance of the kingdom is that *anyone who serves Christ in this way* (REB ‘who shows himself a servant of Christ in this way’), who seeks first God’s kingdom (Mt.6:33) and acknowledges ‘that food and drink are secondary matters, *is pleasing to God and approved by men* (18).
Verses 19-21 repeat, enforce and apply the same teaching about proportion or balance. They contain three exhortations. First, *let us therefore make every effort to do* (literally, ‘let us then pursue’) *what leads to peace and to mutual edification* (19). ‘Peace’ here seems to be ‘shalom’ which is experienced within the Christian community, while ‘edification’ is building one another up in Christ. This is the positive goal which all should seek, and which the strong were neglecting in their insensitive treatment of the weak.