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Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Stray Thoughts from Romans 14

I’m struck by my own tendency to read into the text of scripture my current circumstances and the modes of thought that dominate the age in which we live.

It’s a bad habit, but also a hard one to break.

Two weeks ago in Too Hot to Handle, Immanuel Can and I explored the meaning of the word “judge”, as in “judge not lest you be judged”. We did not get into Romans 14, but the entire chapter is about judging and worthy of a few extra moments of consideration.

I’d suggest you cannot properly interpret Romans 14 without trying at least a little to understand the mindset of Jews and Gentiles in the early church and the differences between them.

The Abolition of Discernment

In our own age, when we read the words “pass judgment”, we associate them primarily with the expression of opinions, or even with the private holding of opinions. This is the battleground of political correctness, in which personal convictions that remain unvoiced may be said to give rise to “microaggressions” or “triggering”. It is not enough that we avoid actually making statements thought to be racist, sexist, homophobic, transphobic or otherwise inflammatory. The Left wants to invade the thought life and proscribe certain attitudes entirely.

We modern Westerners are thus forbidden by an aggressive and mostly-urban minority from retaining any values, even personal and privately held ones. Progressives would have us shed not only the habit of publicly condemning or shaming others, but the habit of thinking critically at all.

They would forbid discernment.

Importing the Present into the Past

If we read Paul’s nearly 2,000 year-old question, “Why do you pass judgment on your brother?” in the light of the current mindset, we will make nonsense of Romans 14. Discernment is demonstrably not what Paul is condemning in this chapter. If you disallow among believers the private holding of opinions, the particular problem Paul is addressing disappears entirely (though many new problems are introduced). He would hardly have devoted a chapter to something he could dismiss with a few sentences.

But Paul says, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself”. That’s an opinion, and one he continues to hold. And he expects others to hold opinions too, including those contrary to his, for he goes on to say, “It is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean” (though he himself disagrees with the thought processes of the weaker brother).

Further, Paul makes it clear that coming to conclusions about what God requires in every area of life is absolutely necessary even though we may do so imperfectly. Remaining in doubt is a recipe for trouble. We cannot do without personal opinions, though they ought to be based on the word of God:
“But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.”
Earlier, he says, “Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind”.

So having and retaining opinions — even incorrect ones caused by flawed interpretation or limited understanding — is not the problem addressed in this chapter. The problem is what sorts of things we might DO because of these differences of opinion. To Paul, judging is an ACTION, not merely a thought process.

So what sorts of actions is Paul condemning then?

This is where a little bit of cultural background is helpful. I’m not suggesting reading a lot of extra-biblical history here, but looking carefully at the passage and other scriptures to see what “judging” in the negative sense actually involved.

1.  Quarreling

Paul starts with “As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions”. Disputable matters such as what a Christian may eat or drink are not the primary focus of the church of God. About such issues we are to have our views and be able to back them up, but they are not to damage our testimony in the world or take up time better used for fellowship, worship and the pursuit of the knowledge of God.

This does not forbid the discussion of such issues, for otherwise there would be areas of Christian experience in which we could never learn or grow. It does, however, exclude acrimonious or bitter arguments among believers over subjects that are not worth the heat.

2.  Despising

Verse 3 implies an equivalency between “passing judgment” and “despising” others. “Despise” here is exoutheneĊ in the Greek, variously translated “condemn”, “belittle”, “regard with contempt”, “criticize” or “find fault”. All these translations suggest that the danger here is not that we might hold different opinions or discuss them theoretically, but that we might treat our fellow Christians as inferiors because of their opinions.

Such behaviours work against the “righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit”, which Paul says are the substance of the kingdom of God.

3.  Excluding

Paul doesn’t get into the dangers of excluding or refusing to meet with other believers in Romans, but when we understand the historical context of his words here, we cannot avoid thinking of the cultural snobbishness of Judaism. This wrong sense of God-sanctioned superiority among Jews must surely have given rise to many, if not all, the problems Paul is here addressing.
In Short

It is this sort of “passing judgment” — the kind that argues bitterly over comparatively trivial matters, despises as inferior those for whom Christ died and potentially even excludes them from fellowship — that Paul is condemning as inconsistent with faith in Jesus Christ.

Few of us today with our modern, multicultural frame of reference are disposed to engage in such behaviours. The danger in our society is rather the opposite error: that we might fear being considered judgmental so greatly that we’d abandon our critical faculties entirely and fail to be judges in those matters on which the New Testament is very clear indeed.

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