It’s amazing how much trouble we have interpreting and applying Romans 14. So many want to immediately jump to the merits of the disagreement, figuring we have to decide who is right before we can decide whom to accept. But the point of Romans 14 is that we don’t have to do that, indeed, that we shouldn’t do that. We must, instead — as a matter of community discipline — refuse to judge and condemn those within the household of faith we disagree with regarding such things.
But our instincts are very strong that tolerating and accepting those we disagree with condones their error. It’s deep in our Church of Christ DNA. We just can’t shake that utterly false assumption. And so, when Romans 14 comes up, we change the subject. We seek to defend the status quo by distraction. Or we claim that Romans 14 isn’t about doctrine — because we see, as to the holy day and eating meat issues, one side or the other as wrong.
But, of course, one side of the other is wrong. And that proves the issues to be doctrinal. If Romans 14 were about non-doctrinal issues — the color to paint the walls — then Paul would have used examples where neither side could be proven wrong by the Bible. But he used issues that the Bible addresses and that were yet highly controversial in his day — issues where both sides were arguing from the scriptures, even though one side (at least) was in error.
Our efforts to run from Romans 14 demonstrate how very hard-hearted we’ve become on certain issues. We’d far rather have the pleasure of condemning our brother than the pleasure of accepting him into fellowship. But consider what Romans 14 is really saying.
There’s a great essay by Sean F. Winter in Baptist Sacramentalism 2: “Ambiguous Genitives, Pauline Baptism and Roman Insulae: Resources from Romans to Support Pushing the Boundaries of Unity.” I love his take on Romans 14-15 –
You see, the Roman Christians were likely meeting in “high-rise, overcrowded tenement apartments known as insulae. This social context provides the most plausible explanation for hostility and enmity between different Christian groups in the city. The references to domestic servants (oiketai) in 14:4 and use of terms relating to the well being of the household (oikodome) in 14:19 and 15:2 confirm the suggestion.
This explains, secondly, why Paul uses the verb proslambano in 14:1 and 15:7. In context it clearly means ‘take one another into your dwellings’. For Robert Jewett it here ‘carries the technical sense of reception into the fellowship of the congregation, that is, to the common meal’. For our purposes it is enough to remind ourselves that the image is not of mutual respect from a distance, but of radical hospitality and mutuality.
(emphasis added). For, I’m sure, this reason the ESV translates,
(Rom 15:7 ESV) 7 Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.
(Psa 27:10 ESV) For my father and my mother have forsaken me, but the LORD will take me in.
(Psa 73:24 ESV) You guide me with your counsel, and afterward you will receive me to glory.
(Act 28:2 NIV) The islanders showed us unusual kindness. They built a fire and welcomed us all because it was raining and cold.
The word translated here is stronger than “accept” or even “welcome.” It’s a word for hospitality extended — “welcome into your home.” It’s far stonger than “tolerate.”
Thus, Romans 15:7transforms from,
(Rom 15:7 NIV) Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.
(Rom 15:7) Welcome one another into your homes to share in the communion/love feast, then, just as Christ welcomes you to share communion/the love feast at home with him, in order to bring praise to God.
Romans 14:1-3 thus becomes –
(Rom 14:1-3) Receive him whose faith is weak into your home to share in the communion/love feast, without passing judgment on disputable matters. 2 One man’s faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. 3 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 received him to share communion/the love feast in your home with him.
The language becomes all the more poignant when we recall that going back to the prophets, salvation is pictured as joining God at a banquet table, and Jesus shares this imagery in much of this own teaching.
And here’s the critical conclusion for us. It’s great to be all progressive and gracious and consider those instrumentalists as saved, too. But if you don’t actually invite them into your communion, you’ve really missed the point of being brothers in Christ. The communion/love feast is symbolic of being part of a single community and family — of offering one another love, acceptance, hospitality, and protection.
You see, these passages aren’t so much about the theology of unity as the practice of unity — and we all need to get better at that.