Worship: Conflict at Rome: Romans 14

Have you ever heard someone in the church say, “I just want to go somewhere I can be comfortable”? Some Christians are uncomfortable with new approaches to music, food or worship days. Some feel pressured to adopt new practices before they have resolved the issues.

Unfortunately, some stay at home rather than face the stress. Change often brings discomfort, so how are these feelings best resolved? These feelings are not unique to today — Paul addressed similar situations in the church in Rome.

By the time Paul wrote Romans, about 50,000 Jews lived in Rome, a city of about one million people. Their grandparents were brought to Rome as slaves, and they achieved the right to meet in synagogues on Saturday and to worship their God. This is in contrast to Romans who worshiped their gods daily in their homes. Idols adorned corners throughout the city so travelers could worship. Romans worked seven days, using the eighth and sometimes a ninth for markets and festivals, so conflict existed between Roman culture and Jewish belief.

Enter Christians

Christians originally met in synagogues with Jews, but growing animosity from Jews led Christians to worship separately in houses. After all, the Sanhedrin, the governing body for the Jews in Judea, had sanctioned the crucifixion of Jesus, imprisoned Peter and John, martyred Stephen and James, persecuted Christians in Judea, and attacked Paul. So Paul addressed the house churches of Rome (16:5) about conflict on a new level—Jew vs. Christian.

About A.D. 49, a dispute arose among Jews and Christians about Chrestus, probably referring to Christ, whom the Christians accepted as Savior. Fearing that Jews were insurrectionists, Emperor Claudius banished all Jews, including Jewish Christians, from Rome. Gentile Christians were allowed to remain.

The death of Claudius in A.D. 54 ended the banishment of Jews from Rome. Aquila and Priscilla returned to Rome, as did other Jewish Christians (16:3). Not all Gentile Christians welcomed the returning Jewish Christians, so Paul wrote them to accept Jewish Christians and to understand that God would graft in many Israelites into the body of Christ (9:11-24).

In A.D. 57 many members of the church in Rome were Gentile Christians who had come from pagan roots in polytheism without any particular day of worship. Probably some Gentile proselytes of the Jews had become Christians and would have been observing some, but not all, of the Jewish requirements.

Jewish Christians who kept Old Testament traditions formed a third group. A fourth group, probably the smallest, may have been Jewish Christians who had abandoned their traditions as unnecessary and unwanted.

Painful conflict threatened the work of God (14:20). Opinions differed on what should determine holiness in the Christian calling. Did eating certain meats make a person unholy? Was a certain day to be kept holy? The message God sent to that church has much to teach us about the work of the Spirit in our church today.

Although Paul does not give details, he sets forth principles to counter the problems and leads us to better understand the difficulties confronting each group. Paul builds the theme in Romans on God’s reply to Habakkuk: “The just shall live by faith.” His solution to disagreement in the church shows us how to live in faith (Romans 13:8 to 15:13).

Consider these principles:

Love your neighbor as yourself (13:8-10). Love fulfills the purpose of the law and sums up the intent of the commandments. Christians should resolve to do no harm to their neighbors and, even more difficult, to love others regardless of circumstances.

Live daily in the light of Jesus (13:11-14). Awaken from lethargy and live in the light of our Lord Jesus Christ, not in the actions of darkness: no drunken parties, no sexual immorality and no dissension. Thus, Paul struck at three enemies of love: apathy, lust and hatred. Christians must clothe themselves with Jesus Christ, not with carnality.

Accept differences in eating (14:1-4). Some felt free to eat any meat served. Others felt that God did not accept those who did not adhere to dietary restrictions of the Old Testament.

Concerns about meat probably ran the gamut from unclean meats of Leviticus 11, to meat offered to idols, to improperly bled animals, to blemished sacrifices. Romans had no qualms about eating various meats. They sacrificed pigs, goats and dogs to their gods in the temples.

Two problems resulted: those who ate indiscriminately often ridiculed anyone who restricted what could be eaten. Those who held to dietary restrictions often judged the liberalness of others. Some “conservative” members would refuse to eat with “liberals.”

Paul warned them not to be contemptuous or condemning (14:3, 10). Why? Both parties serve God, even though they may be uncomfortable with traditions maintained by others. Those eating freely did so to God, and those limiting their diet did so to God, thankful for what they had to eat.

Accept differences in worship (14:5-8)

Some members believed that one day was holy, while others believed that all days were alike, that no day was inherently holy. Holiness in God lies in commonality of worship and prayer, not in traditions. Paul probably repeats the concerns about eating because Christians had common meals on the day of worship, and conflict would destroy the work God was doing in them. While Paul supported the position that no day was any longer inherently sacred, he did not require anyone to act against Christian conscience.

Live and die in Jesus (14:9-13)

Jesus lives today. Since he is the judge, and he accepts those who live and die in him, we should not judge others in their chosen religious traditions. Days and foods do not matter, but Jesus does.

Do not block Jesus (14:13-18)

Individuals with a greater sense of freedom must not place a stumbling block in the path of those who feel greater restrictions. Paul supported this position by writing that “nothing is unclean [koinos] in itself” (verse 14), for the new law in Christ changed what is holy. “The kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but of righteousness and peace and joy” (verse 17), for all who serve Jesus Christ are accepted by God (verse 18). Strong Christians must be peacemakers.

Paul taught that although Christians are no longer required to keep Old Testament regulations, members could choose to maintain those traditions. However, just because the doctrine of the church was set forth does not mean everyone at that time was comfortable with it, especially those who had spent lifetimes within Judaism. So Paul admonished everyone to be tolerant of one another and to live by personal conscience in the walk with Jesus.

Live in the kingdom in faith (14:19-23)

Seek peace, so that no one destroys the work of God (verse 20). Christians, as the body of Christ, should build, not destroy. Maintain a strong commitment to Jesus and his work of the kingdom now.

Again Paul states the principle of the new covenant: “All food is clean” (katharizo) (verse 20). However, the strong should not purposefully eat or drink anything that would be offensive to others in their company. Nor should those with greater restrictions judge others if they encounter them eating freely. Live in the faith you possess with God.

Imitate the sacrifice of Jesus Christ (15:1-6)

Jesus did not become a human sacrifice for us because it was the comfortable thing to do. He came to serve, to save and to be sacrificed. Christians accept a life of service and sacrifice, even when it is not comfortable to do so. Freedom in Jesus means leaving comfort zones to bear with those who do not share the same approach to liberty.

To bridge distinctions of worship, Paul focused on building unity through following Jesus Christ (verse 5). In unity Christians glorify God and Jesus (verse 6). Accept others as Christ accepts you (15:7-13). God is praised when his people place responsibility to love others above their rights of personal freedom. Christ is Lord and servant of both Jew and Gentile. Each needs to appreciate the culture of the other.

How comfortable are you with freedoms that exist in Christian grace? From greater variety in song services, to variation in personal expression, from worship on different days, to freedom in eating, we should be thankful for the wider opportunity to praise God as we live in his love.

Differences on these issues should not overwhelm our focus on Jesus and his kingdom. True comfort lies in a close relationship with Jesus and tolerance for one another. “The just shall live by faith.”

Author: Russell Duke

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