Let us therefore no longer pass judgement on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another. (Romans 14:13)
These last chapters of Paul’s great letter are dominated by a plea for the church to live in diversity, thinking of its differences and disagreements as less important than looking out for each other. That’s not quite how we usually look to the world around us.
Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarrelling over opinions. (14:1)
Interestingly, Paul seems to see the weak as those who don’t yet feel free from traditional religious laws and customs. The strong are those who realise that they can eat what they want and observe sabbath and festivals or not, still being faithful to God. Of course, they’re the ones who think like Paul. Doubtless there were some on the other side of the disagreement who felt that they were the ones with strong faith, not like that compromised liberal Paul…
Paul’s point is that it doesn’t matter enough to be worth making life difficult for each other. The ‘weak’ and the ‘strong’ (however each of them rate themselves on that one) are both honoring God by their rules or by their freedom. And these aren’t trivial matters. The laws about food and sabbath were the key markers of Judaism, against which Paul was now arguing vigorously. He’s not saying that these disagreements don’t matter. He is saying that love for God and love for each other matter far more.
Truth is important. But (a) we can never be sure that we have the whole picture of truth and (b) love for the one with whom we disagree is more important. And Paul doesn’t seem to have in mind the ‘tough love’ of making someone realise that they’re wrong by constantly arguing or declaring them less Christian than I am. He seems to be thinking of love which makes allowances for the weaknesses and errors of others – even to the extent of changing the way that I live to make life and faith easier to live for the person whom I know to be wrong.
Imagine what the church would show the world by living that way. Imagine what it would be like to be part of that church.
I didn’t expect, when I started this reading of Paul’s letter to the Romans, that it would end up leading to this. It’s darkly ironic that this letter should be so often quoted by one Christian against another – about the meaning of grace, about the nature of salvation, about the continuing place of the Jews in God’s plan, about same-sex relationships, about… I can’t help thinking we’ve rather missed the point.
The kingdom of God is not food and drink but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. (14:19)