Sunday School Notes: Romans 12:14
Bless those persecuting [you]; bless and do not curse.
We didn’t have Sunday School last week, which is why I didn’t post any Sunday School Notes last Tuesday, so we pick up this week where we left off a few weeks ago.
Romans 12 can be split into three sections, not counting verses 1 and 2 which are mainly introductory. The theme of the first is using your God-given gifts, recognizing that one person’s gift is no more or less important than another, and everyone has a vital role to play in the church no matter what it is you are called to do (verses 3-8). The second section, verses 9-13, exhort the readers to genuine, sincere love, particularly for the brethren, and to show that love through sharing and hospitality. This final section (verses 14-21) deal with attitudes toward one’s fellow Christians, and toward those outside the church, particularly when those outside the church are not particularly friendly or sympathetic to the faith.
The opening line of the last section gave us much food for thought and discussion (evidently!). There’s an interesting link between verse 13 and verse 14 that’s not obvious outside of the Greek. When Paul says we should “pursue hospitality,” the word translated “pursue” is the Greek verb diôkô. That same verb is used in verse 14 for “those who persecute”–both “pursue” and “persecute” are within the range of meanings for diôkô. I don’t know that there’s a significant theological point to this, and Paul may not have intended one. But this does at least remind us that these sections are connected, and there is a stream of thought Paul is following.
I think we were all struck by how significant this verse is, particularly when we consider how unique this idea is to Christianity. No other worldview, religion, or philosophy, either in Paul’s time or ours, teaches this kind of attitude toward the opposition–even when that opposition is violent. The “persecutors” in Paul’s day were not simply people who won’t speak to you, or who “unfriend” you on Facebook. These were people who would do you physical harm, throw you in prison, or otherwise wreck your life simply because of your faith in Christ. Our natural human reaction is to strike back, to return the violence, or at least seek revenge (something Paul will address in a few verses). But Paul, echoing Jesus’ teaching in Matthew 5:43-48 and Luke 6:27-28, notes that this is not the Christian way.
Notice that Paul doesn’t say, “don’t seek to harm your persecutors,” or “accept persecution without ill will toward your persecutor.” He goes one step further: bless your persecutors! This is not merely turning the other cheek: this is actively desiring the best for those who are actively pursuing the worst for you. How often we glibly pass over such passages without really stopping to comprehend the radical nature of this. Perhaps it’s because we don’t yet know what it means to suffer persecution as Paul and the early Christians did. And yet, how often we fail to obey this command. When someone cuts us off on the road, or someone makes a snide or nasty comment about us–the hateful, vengeful thoughts spring to mind quite readily. How often do we respond with prayer, and a desire for that person to be blessed?
Much of our conversation revolved around the practical outworking of this passage. How do we respond to our society in ways that show love and a desire for blessing, especially when so many seem determined to insult and cause problems for us? One example that was raised concerned the practice of boycotting retailers whose corporate policies and practices conflict with biblical standards. Is this really a loving way to respond, especially considering a successful boycott may cost employees their jobs? One response to this was that the church should be ready to help those who are adversely affected by boycotts.
A few of us questioned the value of boycotts today, partly since so many businesses have policies and/or practices that are offensive to Christians, and also because the financial effects of such boycotts are usually so insignificant, no business is going to change its practice as a result.
We recognized that it is important for Christians to proclaim God’s truth, and to make a stand for biblical values. But then the church needs to live those values. The world needs to see Christians conducting themselves in ways that both convict the world, and, by the grace of God, attract unbelievers to learn more about Christ and the gospel. Too many churches have abandoned the gospel–the real gospel that calls for repentance from sin and turning to Christ–and have capitulated to the world and worldly values, as if you can do any good apart from knowing Christ. This neither saves, nor does it bring salt and light to a fallen world. Such churches have truly lost their saltiness.
It might be useful to recall the social situation in Rome. The Roman church was not living in a Christian culture. Indeed, Roman society was even more pagan that 21st century America! And not just Rome: there were no Christian countries, towns, or villages in the first century world. But Paul doesn’t call for boycotts or any kind of action like that against businesses. To the church in Corinth, he counsels that whether one buys from the market meat that was formerly on a pagan altar is a matter of conscience (see 1 Corinthians 10). He doesn’t direct the Corinthian church to boycott the meat markets. On the other hand, he doesn’t prohibit them from abstaining, either.
Likewise, we as Christians will respond to the evil in our culture in the way that our Scripture-soaked, renewed minds (remember 12:2!) believe is best. However, we are, perhaps, most effective in honoring God and adorning the gospel when, by the power of the Spirit, we live out commands such as this: Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.
If you were at the study and want to share your thoughts on this passge (there’s a lot more than this that was said), or if you weren’t there but want to share thoughts or ask questions anyway–please do so! The comments are open, or if you want to contact me privately, my email address is in the “About” section.