Sermon Commentary for Sunday, September 17, 2023
Romans 14:1-12 Commentary
Many English translations of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’ agree on the rendering of its first verb. They translate the Greek word proslambanesthe, as “accept.” However, the English Standard Version renders this word as “welcome.” Maybe it’s on to something.
In chapter 14, Paul continues to explore the implications of Romans 12:18’s “If it possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” In this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson, he calls Rome’s Christians to “live at peace” with people whose faith is weaker or stronger than theirs. The apostles basically calls his readers to accept rather than judge them.
North American society is one in which many of its members at least claim to prize tolerance. Such tolerance, however, has limits. Most of us naturally only tolerate people with whose political perspective we agree. What’s more, while tolerance may allow people to coexist with others who have divergent views, it doesn’t necessarily welcome the “other.” Romans 14’s Paul invites Jesus’ friends to welcome those whose Christian faith is in some way stronger or weaker than ours.
Those who preach this passage want to anchor such acceptance in God’s way with God’s people in Jesus Christ. Paul, in fact, explicitly makes that link in verse 3. There, after all, he says, “The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted [proslabeto] him.”* In doing so he summons God’s dearly beloved people to by the power of the Holy Spirit seek to imitate God in accepting and welcoming those whom God accepts and welcomes.
Yet this opens one of this text’s “cans of worms”: what makes faith “weaker” or “stronger”? The Greek word that translations generally render as “weak” is asthenounta. Its root asthenes is sometimes translated as “feeble.” So Paul is describing Christians whose faith is literally weak or feeble.
Yet preachers may want to explore what may be the surprising evidence of such weakness. We, after all, sometimes equate strength of opinions with strength of faith. Christians sometimes assume that the people whose faith is the strongest are those who most vigorously insist on certain tenets of that faith.
Many people thought of Al (not his real name) as one of the strongest Christians they knew. He tenaciously held to his understanding of what it meant to follow Jesus. He especially promoted a very rigorous understanding and practice of Sabbath. Al, in fact, once told me that the answer to every question anyone ever asked was in the Bible.
But Romans 14’s Paul seems to turn such conventional wisdom upside down. In verse 2 he says that “One man’s faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables.” In doing so, he at least implies that the person who holds the least stringent views on what’s part of an acceptable diet for Christians has the strongest faith.
Paul goes on to describe two more manifestations of “weak” faith. In verse 5 he says, “One man considers one day more sacred [par – literally “above”] than another; another man considers every day alike [hemeran].” In verse 7 the apostle also alludes to Christians’ eating or abstention from eating of meat.
Paul implies that these various understandings of Christian ethics are what he calls in verse 1 “disputable matters [dialogismon].” Other translations render this noun as “opinions,” “what they think is right or wrong,” or even “debatable issues.”
There is, however, great irony in this assertion: 21st century Christians seem to expend almost unlimited time and energy disputing about what’s disputable. Jesus’ friends almost ceaselessly debate the identity of debatable issues. At least some of the controversies about, for example, God’s creative work, Christ’s divinity and the presence of the Holy Spirit seem to have somewhat receded. However, controversies about what it means to obediently respond to God’s grace have filled that vacuum.
Each preacher must prayerfully, humbly and in dependence on the Holy Spirit decide how deeply to delve into these controversies. Wise preachers will want to handle at least this part of this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson in consultation with and submission to their church’s leadership’s insight and wisdom.
In fact, the height of Spirit-saturated wisdom may be for preachers to focus not on the identity of the disputable matters, but on Christians’ posture toward those whose perspectives on them differ from our own. By God’s grace, after all, this draws attention away from people and toward our gracious God.
It isn’t just that Paul insists that God accepts those whose opinions on debatable issues differ from our own. It’s also that, finally, Jesus’ adopted siblings are first of all accountable not to other Christians, but to God. As Paul writes in verse 11, “We will all stand [parastesometha] before God’s judgment seat [bemati tou Theou].”
Paul echoes that assertion in verse 12 when he insists that “Each one of us will give [dosei] an account [logon] of himself to God.” Verses 11 and 12 testify to the fact that someday soon God will hold all people, the living and the dead, accountable for what we’ve done, said and even thought. Several modern Scriptural paraphrases help reflect the poignancy of Paul’s assertion. The Message, for example, paraphrases the apostle as insisting that “each of us will give a personal account to God.”
However, because this prospect terrifies some Christians, preachers want to temper our reminder of God’s judgment with a reminder of God’s amazing grace. Yes, someday God will set all things right, in part by judging evil and condemning the wicked. However, those who have received God’s grace with our faith in Jesus Christ have nothing to fear. Our Judge is our Savior.
Paul suggests that since God is each person’s judge, Jesus’ adopted siblings don’t have to judge each other on debatable matters. As we’ve already noted, that’s this Sunday’s Epistolary Lesson’s very first assertion. Paul echoes it quickly in verse 3 when he says, “The man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does.” The verb that we translate as “condemn” is krineto. It literally means “to judge.”
Paul says something similar in verse 4 when he rhetorically asks, “Who are you to judge [krinon] someone else’s servant?” Both that question’s structure and its subsequent “To his own master he stands or falls” suggest that people are not in a place to judge their fellow servants of God. It’s Christians’ Master, not their fellow believers who are responsible for judging each other.
Paul picks up this theme again in verse 10: “Why do you judge [krineis] your brother? Or why do you look down on [exoutheneis] your brother?” Our fellow Christians are not, in other words, defendants in our courtroom. Even those who disagree with us on debatable matters are, instead, both God’s servants and our brothers (and sisters) in the Lord Jesus Christ.
Romans 14’s preachers should probably parse out just what Paul seems to mean when he refers to “judging” our fellow Christians. We might note that only God is fully equipped to judge people. Too many things cloud God’s dearly beloved people’s understanding for us to adequately evaluate people’s character.
Preachers might also point out that Paul’s use of the verb krineo has strong overtones of everlasting condemnation. So it’s almost as if he’s referring to Christians’ evaluation of other Christians’ eternal well-being. Jesus’ friends who judge each other basically consign those we deem guilty to eternal punishment.
What’s more, the Church has some responsibility for protecting the community’s well-being. Jesus’ followers do what we can to ensure that people don’t harm others, especially people who are vulnerable. Yet while we may need to condemn actions that are harmful, Paul won’t let us condemn the people who do them. In fact, even when we judge certain behaviors, we do so humbly, carefully and in consultation with the wider Church.
This is, after all, part of what it means for Christians to submit to Jesus lordship. Paul uses some form of the word we translate as “Lord” (kurios) no less than 10 times in just 12 verses. This suggests that accepting and welcoming rather than condemning Christians with whom we disagree is a vital part of our bending of our knees and confessing with our tongue Christ’s lordship over not just creation, but also us.
*I have here and elsewhere added in brackets the Greek words for the English words the NIV translation uses.
In his book, Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis writes, “Some of us who seem quite nice people may, in fact, have made so little use of a good heredity and a good upbringing that we are really worse than those we regard as fiends. Can we be quite certain how we should have behaved if we had been saddled with then psychological outfit, and then with the bad upbringing, and then with the power, say, of Himmler?
“That is why Christians are told not to judge. We see only the results which a person’s choices make out of his raw material. But God does not judge him on the raw material at all, but on what he has done with it.”
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