To Whom Shall We Live (or Die)?

by Rachel Tulloch

A Reflection on Romans 14:1-12
Wine Before Breakfast
Originally Delivered February 27, 2007

Upon first glance, we might wonder whether Paul doesn’t sound like a modern liberal in this passage with his commands about accepting diversity and not passing judgment.

However, while tolerance has become the buzz word today for accepting differences and not judging, the Christian ethic goes much further than this – it is an ethic of welcome. “Welcome the one whose faith is weak”.

I can tolerate someone whom I do not love, but a community committed to Christ opens its arms in welcome, embracing a diversity of ethnicities, classes, opinions and practices and breaking down those barriers that divide.

As we have been reading throughout the book, this is crucial to Paul’s understanding of the gospel. Jews and Gentiles coming together is not just a practical matter of how the church should function, but their unity is the essential outworking of Jesus’ Messiahship.

Here, the issue seems to be between those who are concerned to keep Jewish kosher rules even if the situation requires them to give up meat altogether in order to do so and those who feel that those rules are no longer binding for followers of Christ. Secondly, there are those who insist on keeping the Jewish feasts and special days while others did not consider that necessary.

The most common reading of Romans 14 that I have heard is that on trivial questions, such as style or format, things that do not matter much, we are to tolerate differences without judging. However, on significant or important theological or moral issues, differences cannot legitimately exist.

Whether one eats meat or not or celebrates those days or not really doesn’t matter, so let’s focus on what’s important instead of letting small things divide us.

However, although there are certainly areas where our conclusions matter more than in other areas, I don’t think this is really the point of this passage for several reasons. For one, as we have been learning throughout the book of Romans, the theological implications of Paul’s understanding of the gospel for Jew and Gentile relations was huge.

There were many theological questions at stake here directly related to the Old Testament dietary laws, how they reflected the mind and will of God, and how that that played out practically for those churches in their circumstances.

The role of the Mosaic law in the Christian church was a hugely important theological issue and this is evidenced by the portion of the New Testament letters wrestling through it.

Secondly, if these issues were really that trivial, you’d think Paul would say, “it doesn’t matter. Do whatever you want.” But instead, he says to be fully convinced in your own mind. Initially, that would seem to make problems worse, right? Isn’t it all of these firm convictions that is causing division in the first place?

Thirdly, it is very easy to say focus on what is important. But, most of the time we can’t agree on what is important and what isn’t. Those who were holding to food restrictions and special days obviously considered those things to be important, to be theologically significant, while perhaps others did not.

The relative importance we place on contested issues depends largely on our theological precommitments. And there have been so many things that have been divisive in church history ever since New Testament times – from style, music and ritual to doctrine and practice. This has been so damaging to the gospel.

While some things are more important than others, I think Paul is saying that none of these issues should be used as a basis for exclusion. None of them should undermine our identity as a community of welcome, because that undermines the gospel.

It is before our master (not our doctrine statements or boards of directors) that we stand or fall and we will stand. Because of the faithfulness of our master, we will stand. He is able to make us stand. There is so much grace in that statement, so much of God’s faithfulness. How can our commitment to a God of so much grace be embodied in any other way but in grace to each other?

But we should still be convinced in our own minds. How can we hold strong convictions that may be opposed while still retaining unity? The modern liberal thinks that is impossible. We have to get rid of the convictions. But for Paul, that unity is found not in agreement of all particulars, but in the direction of our actions and convictions. To whom do we eat or not eat? To whom do we celebrate or not celebrate? More crucially, to whom do we live or die?

To whom do we belong?

We are constantly bombarded with messages that seem to convince us that we belong to ourselves, or we belong to a group or a nation, or that we serve the economic order or the political structure. Are we servants of our philosophies or our theological particulars?

No, “we do not live to ourselves alone and we do not die to ourselves alone. If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord, so if we live or die, we belong to the Lord.” We belong to God alone and we are his servants and by extension servants of others. He did not live or die for himself alone, but for others, for us.

For this reason, Christ died and came to life….

And we can live to God by abstaining or enjoying, because as Paul says, both are ways of giving thanks to God. Both are ways of recognizing that we have nothing that we have not been given. They are ways of accepting God’s gifts not as ends in themselves and ways of trusting God to sustain.

This is not about an “anything goes” mentality, because just as one can abstain or enjoy for God, so also one can also either refrain or indulge purely for oneself and not for God or others.

We see this in an asceticism that pursues pain for its own sake or a hedonism/consumerism that pursues pleasure for its own sake. The real question here according to Paul is ‘who is my Lord, and what kind of person am I?’. This does not lower the standard, but raises it.

Many times, our pluralism is more about ourselves than about others. It is about me doing what I want. No one interferes with me and I have no stake in others’ lives either. But this welcome, based in God’s welcoming of the whole world through Jesus, is other-focused.

This is an absolute commitment to the other, to not allow ethnic or theological differences to cause us to exclude anyone. This is a binding together in which we share life with those who are different than we are, in which their joys become our joys and their grief becomes our tears.

There is a dying involved here. It is fascinating how Paul moves so quickly from a discussion of church disagreements to talking about living and dying for the Lord. Because a community of welcome is also a community of the cross.

That’s why it matters so much who our master is. We have to give of ourselves in order to welcome others. Embracing even those I am fully convinced are wrong on some things is just an extension of the embrace of the One who gave himself for those who rejected him.

He is the one for whom we live and die, and the one to whom we all have to answer.

Rachel Tulloch

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