Welcoming—Living Peacefully with Different Values and Opinions (Romans 14–15)
At this point in the letter, Paul has finished developing his method of moral reasoning. Now he pauses to give some implications arising from it in the unique context of the Roman churches, namely, in the disputes among believers.
The chief implication for the Roman churches is welcome. The Roman Christians are to welcome one another. It’s not hard to see how Paul derives this implication. The goal of moral reasoning, according to Romans 6, is to “walk in newness of life,” meaning to bring a new quality of life to those around us. If you are in a broken relationship with someone, welcome is inherently a new quality of life. Welcome is reconciliation in practice. Quarrels seek to exclude others, but welcome seeks to include them, even when it means respecting areas of disagreement.
“Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions,” begins Paul (Rom. 14:1). The “weak in faith” may be those who lack confidence in their own convictions on disputed issues (see Rom. 14:23) and rely on strict rules to govern their actions. Specifically, some of the Jewish Christians kept the strictures of Jewish dietary laws and were offended by other Christians consuming non-kosher meat and drink. Apparently they refused even to eat with those who did not keep kosher. Although they regarded their strictness as a strength, Paul says it becomes a weakness when it causes them to judge those who do not share their conviction. Paul says that those who keep kosher “must not pass judgment on those who eat [non-kosher meat].”
Nonetheless, Paul’s response to their weakness is not to argue with them, nor to ignore their beliefs, but to do whatever will make them feel welcome. He tells those who do not keep kosher not to flaunt their freedom to eat anything, because doing so would require the kosher-keepers either to break fellowship with them or to violate their consciences. If there is no kosher meat to be found, then the non-kosher should join with the kosher and eat only vegetables, rather than demanding that the kosher-keepers violate their consciences. “It is wrong for you to make others fall by what you eat,” Paul says (Rom. 14:20).
Both groups feel strongly that their views are morally important. The strong believe that for Gentiles to keep kosher is a refusal of God’s grace in Christ Jesus. The weak believe that not keeping kosher—and the merely eating with people who don’t keep kosher—is an affront to God and a violation of the Jewish law. The argument is heated because freedom in Christ and obedience to God’s covenants are truly important moral and religious issues. But relationships in the community are even more important. Living in Christ is not about being right or wrong on any particular issue. It is about being in right relationship with God and with one another, about “peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Rom. 14:17).
Moral disagreements can be even more difficult at work, where there is less common ground. An interesting aspect in this regard is Paul’s special concern for the weak. Although he tells both groups not to judge each other, he places a greater practical burden on the strong. “We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves” (Rom. 15:1). Our model for this is Jesus, “who did not please himself” (Rom. 15:3). This means that those who are in the right, or in the majority, or who otherwise have the most power are called to voluntarily refrain from violating the consciences of others. In most workplaces, the opposite occurs. The weak must accommodate themselves to the dictates of the strong, even if doing so violates their conscience.
Imagine, for example, that someone in your workplace has religious or moral convictions that require a particular modesty of dress, say covering the hair or the shoulders or legs. These convictions could be a form of weakness, to use Paul’s terminology, if they make that person uncomfortable around others who do not conform to their idea of modest dress. Probably you would not object to the person wearing such modest dress themselves. But Paul’s argument implies that you and all your co-workers should also dress modestly according to the other person’s standards, at least if you want to make your workplace a place of welcome and reconciliation. The strong (those not hampered by legalism about dress codes) are to welcome the weak (those offended by others’ dress) by accommodating to their weakness.
Remember that Paul does not want us to demand that others accommodate to our compunctions. That would turn us into the weak, whereas Paul wants us to become strong in faith. We should not be the ones tsk-tsk-ing about others’ dress, language, or taste in music on the job. Imagine instead that Christians had a reputation for making everyone feel welcome, rather than for judging others’ tastes and habits. Would that help or hinder Christ’s mission in the world of work?
N.T. Wright, The Letter to the Romans, in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 10 (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1994), 735.
Another aspect of welcoming is that it strengthens the community. “Each of us must please the neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor” (Rom. 15:3) in much the same way that a welcoming host makes sure that a visit strengthens the guest. The “neighbor” here is another member of the community. “Let us then pursue what makes for peace and mutual upbuilding,” Paul says (Rom. 14:19). Mutual up-building means working together in community.
From chapters 14 and 15, we see that welcoming is a powerful practice. Paul is not talking about simply saying hello with smiles on our faces. He is talking about engaging in deep moral discernment as a community, yet remaining in warm relationship with those who come to different moral conclusions, even on important matters. As far as Paul is concerned, the continuing relationships in the community are more important than the particular moral conclusions. Relationships bring a quality of life to the community that far exceeds any possible satisfaction from being right about an issue or judging another to be wrong. It also is a more attractive witness to the world around us. “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (Rom. 15:7). When we welcome one another, the final result by God’s mercy (Rom. 15:9) is that “all the peoples praise him” (Rom. 15:12).