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Unity at the Table of Redemptive Peace
From Romans in the Everyday Bible Study series. Questions for groups or individuals at the end of this study are by Becky Castle Miller.
13 Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. 14 I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean. 15 If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ died. 16 Therefore do not let what you know is good be spoken of as evil. 17 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, 18 because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and receives human approval.
19 Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. 20 Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a person to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. 21 It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother or sister to fall.
22 So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves. 23 But whoever has doubts is condemned if they eat, because their eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.
Hobbits love to eat with one another. It is said they would eat six meals a day if they could. I don’t know how many meals the Roman Christians would eat if they could, but they are like hobbits in their love for eating with one another. Unless you were in the other faction. Unless your ambition was splintering relationships. The factions showed up in bright lights in the noticeable seating arrangements at the meals. Paul’s message for them is (1) eat together and (2) he had some very good reasons, which form the network of verses in Romans 14-15.
The letter of Romans was written to establish a theological foundation for unity at the table.
The letter of Romans was written to establish a theological foundation for unity at the table. Yes, for many of us Romans is so detailed in theology that we may wear down and drop out at the end of chapter eight, or perhaps after winding our way through chapters nine, ten, and eleven. So many drop out they fail to see the practical dimensions of this letter that begin in chapter twelve. Because this happens, I have chosen to begin at the end to give us a fresh reading of the letter (McKnight, Reading Romans Backward).
Three questions can be asked and answered about eating with one another.
Who’s at the table?
We need now to read again Romans 14:1-15:13 and write out what Paul tells the Powerless/Weak and the Powerful/Strong to do (and not to do), what Everyone is to do, and what Paul believes himself. It is not always easy to figure out at times which line belongs with Everyone and which with Paul. That’s because what Paul says to Everyone is what he believes! Doing this exercise helps us to fill in the profiles of the two groups among believers in Rome that we began doing in the previous passage. By the time we are done with today’s passage, we will have a good profile of each group. We want to keep our focus on the major ideas and so cannot enter into all the details.
Powerless/Weak: Does not eat everything (14:3); Sacred days (14:5)
Powerful/Strong: Accept the weak (14:1); No quarreling (14:1); Eats everything (14:3); Everyday alike (14:5); Bear with the weak (15:1); Avoid self-pleasing (15:1)
Everyone: Worship and eat to the Lord (14:6); Live and die for the Lord (14:7-8); Avoid stumbling blocks (14:13, 15b, 20-21); Act in love (14:15a); Pursue peace and edification (14:19); Preference respected (14:22); Avoid doubts (14:23); Please neighbors more than self (15:2); Unity glorifies God (15:5-6); Accept one another (15:7)
Paul: People differ (14:2, 13); Personal conviction matters (14:14, 17-18, 22); God accepts both sides (14:3-4); All will be judged (14:10-12); Nothing is unclean (14:14, 20); Kingdom is not eating and drinking (14:17); Kingdom is righteousness, peace, joy (14:17-18); God’s mission to the gentiles (15:8-12)
If one looks at which group receives the most instructions, and considers what that says about what is most important, one sees that Paul is easy on the Weak and heavier on the Strong and most of all, he’s instructing Everyone. We can follow suit by not focusing on who’s good and who’s bad but on what we all should be doing in the way of Christ. The lines under “Paul” above give a theological basis for what Paul tells Everyone to do, especially the Strong. It can be summarized in one simple order: eat together. Which may strike you as banal. It’s not. Beverly Daniel Tatum knows eating with another and not eating with one another are social actions, which is why she wrote her national bestseller, Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations about Race. Perhaps Paul’s letter could be entitled “Why Are All the Powerful Sitting Together in the Small Group?”
The above lists and the lists in our previous passage can now be put together to gain a profile of the messy situation among Roman believers. This was in Paul’s head when he began the letter as well as in the heart and soul of the Romans themselves. After all, this mess was their world and they were looking at one another as the letter was being read. It helps us to know about the mess before we open chapter one. Before we get there, we can ask a question that will sketch what Paul thinks they should do and this, too, helps us to read the letter when we get back to chapter one.
How should they eat together?
He tells the Strong to “accept the … weak” (14:1) and to “bear with the weak” (15:1), and for the first he points out their weak faith and for the second he speaks of failings (NIV). The Greek of 15:1 has a sharper social edge, and can be translated “We, the Powerful, ought to bear with the weaknesses of the Powerless” (15:1). But the big terms for now are “accept” and “bear with.” When we combine “accept” with food and days concerns in this passage, we know we are looking at typical kosher food regulations and calendar practices of Jewish believers in Jesus.
Instead of making a division at the table, the Strong were to welcome one another and sit next to one another as siblings, as equals. Which is why Paul instructs the Strong not to be quarreling with the Weak over their days and food practices (14:1). Discussions were turning into disputes over discernment, not doctrine. Paul tells the Powerful, again in 15:1, that they were to welcome the Powerless instead of doing what they wanted and demanding their viewpoint. The Strong were “not to please” themselves. Respect for the other required dropping the debates. (Easier said than done.)
The issue deserves our respect – for both sides! Some actions become symbolic of how serious one’s commitment is. They mark one as faithful. I will give one example that plays little role in most churches, but it was a marker in my church growing up. Carrying one’s Bible, preferably a Scofield Reference Bible, to church and following along in one’s own Bible during the sermon. The committed carried the Bible; those who didn’t were perceived as not-so-committed. (You can name your church’s markers.) So clear was this a marker that we didn’t even have pew Bibles. Carrying one’s Bible then communicated to many one’s commitment to the faith. It didn’t really, but it in some ways was how a person communicated to others I’m all-in. Such were the food laws and sacred days for the Weak, and just as much were they not for the Strong.
What are the basics for eating with one another
By the time Paul writes this letter, he’s a veteran missionary. He’s got in his memory a storehouse of stories and lessons learned. One compartment in his brain was a big one: there will nearly always be tension between gentile believers and Jewish believers on how best to live. Some will think the law of Moses matters more than others. From two decades plus of watching this tension grow among his churches, Paul developed some principles to live by. He learned that the table revealed both the presence and the lack of unity among believers. Just as the cafeteria table in a public place, like a school, reveals who’s who and who’s not. I will look at six major ideas that can re-shape our approach to differences among believers and thus bring a greater sense of unity at the table.
First, we can grow in unity if we learn to respect that people differ on some issues. Paul sees this as a matter of personal conviction and faith. He knows the Powerless can go to Leviticus, but he knows, too, the Powerful will appeal to other scriptures. Notice how he puts it when he writes “One person’s faith allows them to eat anything, but another…” (14:2). Yet, Paul wants each person’s preferences on such matters to be shaped by a clear faith and conviction (14:23). Paul says his own conviction (or preference) is that nothing is unclean (14:14), and he knows that different people can serve God either way (14:17-18). He sounds uber modern when he writes “whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God” (14:22).
Second, we can eat together in unity if we keep in mind that God accepts both the Powerless and the Powerful, not one or the other. Here are stunning words about the two sides: “God has accepted them” (14:3). Let each person, he teaches, worship and live and even die before the Lord (14:6-8). We are only a toenail from crossing the line into the implied conclusion: If God has accepted them, we should too!
Third, we can achieve unity if keep in mind that God (not we) will be the final judge in these matters (14:10-12). The judging actions of both sides are in view in Paul’s words. Notice “judge” in 14:10 and 14:3, and then “treat with contempt” in the same verses. Both are warned that God, not they, are the final judge. And, if we need the reminder, which we sometimes do, “God has accepted them” (14:3).
Fourth, Paul’s mission is to the gentiles, and in his gentile mission he has learned that food laws and sacred days can divide Christians deeply. We can live into a deeper unity if we strive for what is ultimately final. One of Paul’s own theological conclusions is that “nothing is unclean it itself,” and about this he is “full persuaded in the Lord Jesus” (14:14). He says later “all food is clean” (14:20). This means kosher food practices are fine, but they are not final. Some may choose not to eat pork, but not eating pork is not a mandated choice for all. Paul tolerates differences between Christians on some matters, but those differences are not to divide the believers because they don’t matter as much as our unity in Christ.
Fifth, we can reorient all of our behavior around the kingdom in way that diminishes the significance of acts of symbolic power that become “lines not to cross” between believers. Some may think kosher food is for all, but the kingdom of God is more important. In fact, the kingdom “is not a matter of eating or drinking” but instead all about “righteousness, peace and joy” (14:17). We can eat together in unity, then, if we recognize that the food is not the ultimate good for the kingdom.
Finally, Paul’s words to everyone deepen our capacities to achieve unity at the table. Here are some of his wise instructions: avoid causing other believers to fall away from the faith by doing something that totally trips them up. This is not the same as differing from one another. We will not reach total unanimity until the final kingdom, but we can learn not to do things that cause others to lose the faith (14:13, 15b, 20-21). We can pursue peace and love and building one another up in the faith (14:15, 19).
We know real people in our churches, and Paul opens some doors in our next passage to meet some real people in the house churches in Rome. You may be quite surprised what you find.
Questions for Reflection and Application
1. What do Paul’s instructions to those at the table tell you about Paul’s beliefs and values?
2. Which Jewish traditions and regulations lie behind the conflicts here?
3. How does Paul allow for varying convictions among faithful believers?
4. What are his instructions for unity in the face of difference?
5. What are some of your church’s markers that distinguish culturally between the committed and the not-so-committed?
Beverly Daniel Tatum Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? And Other Conversations about Race (rev. ed.; New York: Basic Books, 2017).