Paul’s letter to the Romans (14:1-15:7)

Generative AI summary:

Romans 14 discusses disagreements within the community over matters such as diet and observance of holy days, but it also has an eschatological aspect. The passage emphasizes that believers should not pass judgment on each other, as they will all stand before God’s judgment seat. The argument between the weak and the strong is set against the backdrop of tensions between Jews and Jewish believers, which will culminate in a day of God’s wrath against Israel.

Read time: 6 minutes

Romans 14 is usually read as a new section dealing with disagreements within the community over such matters as diet and observance of holy days. There is, however, an immediate and decisive eschatological aspect to the discussion:

Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. (Rom. 14:4).

Given that, we should not lose sight of the preceding warning about a coming “daytime” of conflict, when it will be necessary for the believers in Rome to take up the “weapons of light” (13:12). They should not engage in “rivalry and zeal” but should “put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires” (13:14). The language of “rivalry and zeal” (eridi kai zēlōi) may well recall the intra-communal tensions between Jews and Jewish believers that I think account for the earlier teaching about living peaceably, not seeking vengeance, and maintaining good relations with the governing authorities (12:14-13:7).

The point is that Paul pursues the argument about the weak and the strong against the background of a narrative experienced in the present in the form of the various tensions between the churches and the Jewish communities across the oikoumenē, which will culminate in a day of God’s wrath against Israel.

The weak and the strong

Jewett and Kotansky, Romans, 834, quote a passage from Horace as a “suggestive parallel” to Romans 14:1:

While he is thus running on, lo! there comes up Aristius Fuscus, a dear friend of mine, who knew the fellow right well. We halt. “Whence come you? Whither go you?” he asks and answers. … The cruel joker laughed, pretending not to understand. I grew hot with anger. “Surely you said there was something you wanted to tell me in private.”

“I mind it well, but I’ll tell you at a better time. Today is the thirtieth Sabbath. Would you affront the circumcised Jews?”

“I have no scruples,” say I.

“But I have. I’m a [little weaker], one of the many. You will pardon me; I’ll talk another day.” (Horace, Satires 1.9.60-72, Loeb)

Probably the argument about the Sabbath and not offending the Jews is merely a joke—I think Jewett and Kotansky may have got hold of the wrong end of the stick. Horace is being pestered by a man whom Aristius knows well and wants to avoid, so he makes an extravagant excuse. None of the men is Jewish. Still, it illustrates both the public perception of Jewish sensibilities and the idea that a person with religious and moral scruples might be regarded as “weak.”

The “faith” (pistei) in 14:1 is probably not the faith as a summary of Christian belief but the sort of “conviction” that distinguishes between the weak and the strong: “one person has the conviction (pisteui) to eat all things; the weak person eats vegetables” (14:2*).

The choice between eating “all things” and eating only “leafy vegetables” is difficult to explain, and it is tempting to read it as a caricature, or at least as a way of defining the absurd extremes within which more plausible dietary decisions were made—between kosher and non-kosher, between meat sacrificed to idols and meat not sacrificed to idols (cf. 1 Cor. 10:25-29), etc. Paul is also vague about the observance of special days (Rom. 14:5).

The moral asymmetry between the two groups is evident from 14:3: the strong “despise” the weak, the weak “pass judgment” on the strong—contempt, on the one hand, judgmentalism, on the other. In either case, this is a dispute between servants of the same master, to whom both groups will have to give account (14:4); both will stand before the judgment seat of God, whether they are alive or dead, at the moment when the pagan world bows the knee to and praises the living God (14:9-12). As throughout the letter, a specific day of wrath or judgment is firmly in view.

Be people pleasers

The concern for the public standing of the community, arguably in contrast to the Jews, appears again in Romans 14:16*: “Do not let the good thing of yours (pl.) be brought into disrepute” or “blasphemed” (blasphēmeisthō). Use of the word in the Septuagint strongly points to the disparagement of the God of Israel by Israel: “This is what the Lord says, Because of you, my name is continually blasphemed among the nations” (Is. 52:5; cf. 2 Kgs. 19:4, 6, 22; Dan. 3:96 LXX; 2 Macc. 10:34; 12:14). Paul is deeply conscious of the fact that civil unrest amongst the Jews, including those who are perceived to be Jews or Jewish sympathisers, has reflected very badly on the God of Israel.

In this case, the “good thing of yours” is what they share in Christ, despite the differences of opinion on certain matters. Those who serve Christ by not zealously promoting rivalries, etc., are “acceptable (euarestos: cf. 12:1) to God and approved by people” (14:18). Peace and order within the believing community and in relation to the Jews are the means by which the life of the community in Rome will be safeguarded, at least for the time being.

Why does Paul place so much weight on having a clear conscience: “Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves (dokimazei)” (Rom. 14:22)? The clue may lie in the word dokimazō, which, according to Jewett and Kotansky, means to “ascertain or approve in a public setting” (Romans, 871). As we have seen all the way through this section of the letter, Paul is anxious that the community of believers should not be tarred with the same brush as the troublesome Jews.

The example of Christ

The right attitude was exhibited by Christ, who did not please himself, but as it is written: “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me” (15:3). There are many in Israel who hate and wish to destroy the psalmist (Ps. 69:4). He has become a stranger to his brothers—just as Jewish Christians in Rome had become strangers to their brothers; and he prays that those who hope in God will not be put to shame. “For zeal for your house has consumed me, and the reproaches of those who reproach you have fallen on me” (Ps. 69:9).

So the believers in Rome must suffer the reproaches—the slanders and accusations—of the Jews in the synagogues. They should not retaliate, they should respond by doing good to their opponents, they should model inter-communal peace, they should maintain impeccable relations with their pagan neighbours and the governing authorities, they should not quarrel over matters of little importance, and they should “think the same among yourselves according to Christ Jesus, that unanimously in one voice you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom. 15:5-6*).