Sunday School Notes: Romans 14:18
For the one who serves Christ in this [way] is pleasing to God and approved by men.
We didn’t make a lot of progress today because we had new people in the group, and some review was necessary. Often, when we review, both new folks and regulars come up with topics for discussion, or thoughts to contribute, that maybe didn’t come up the first time. While we may not cover much new ground with regard to the text, we re-affirm the things we’ve learned so far, and hopefully encourage one another too.
For the sake of the notes, I’d like to highlight a couple of topics that came out of our discussion that I don’t know we’ve really discussed much before. The first has to do with the fact that we’re talking about secondary issues here. Paul says that both the Jews and Gentiles are brothers in Christ, and they should treat one another as such. Secondary issues should never get in the way of Christian unity. But how would they know what is and what isn’t a secondary issue? Paul makes it clear here that what they eat and drink has no bearing on their salvation. But would they have known what the primary issues are–the issues that do separate between believer and unbeliever? What about the deity of Christ, or Christ as the only way of salvation–would these be subjects the Roman church would have known are of primary importance?
We need to remember that Romans is divided into two parts: 1-11 is the theological foundation to Paul’s exhortation, and then 12-15:13 apply the theology in a very practical way to the church in Rome, dealing with specific issues. Romans is much beloved by the church largely because Paul’s theological foundation is, essentially, an exposition of the gospel. I’ve said before that I’m not aware of any other sacred text in any other religion that so clearly spells out its core doctrine in the way Paul does here in Romans. And the reason Paul takes the time to spell out the gospel is because the gospel is foundational to his argument for unity. The reason Jew and Gentile can be brethren in Christ is because salvation does not depend on works or the Law, but upon the finished work of Christ on the cross. His death and resurrection satisfies the wrath of God for both Jew and Gentile.
As we’ve noted in our study of 1-11, essential elements of the faith are either explicit or implicit in Paul’s presentation. In chapters 1-3, he makes clear that all are guilty before God, and Paul presents Christ as the only means of salvation. Nowhere does he offer an alternative way to be saved. So the uniqueness of Christ is certainly understood as being of primary importance (see 5:18-29, for example). We also looked at the way Paul takes Old Testament passages that speak of God, or are words of God, and ascribes them to Jesus (e.g., Paul’s use of Joel 2:32 in Romans 10:13, where he takes God’s title “Lord” and His function as savior in Joel and applies them to Jesus), indicating that this view of Jesus’ divinity was understood and crucial. So the answer to the question, “What’s essential?” would be answered largely in Romans 1-11. We also need to bear in mind that there may well be essential elements of doctrine that are not spelled out in Romans, possibly because Paul felt he could safely assume them, that are made clear in other letters (see, for example, Philippians 2:6-11 which was undoubtedly an early Christian hymn, that speaks in of Christ in very exalted language, hitting upon primary issues of Christian theology).
We also touched on how this attitude of differentiating between primary and secondary issues may be applied outside the church. The first thing to note is that the immediate context for Paul’s exhortations is the church, among fellow believers. Only those who are in Christ, who have that regenerate heart, and the desire to please God, will be disposed to see the wisdom and divine counsel in Paul’s words. Without that common spiritual bond, there is no obligation or compulsion to seek unity. However, I think there are two ways an attitude of forbearance and patience over non-essential issues can be of great use outside the church. First, as a witness to the world that Christians can unite on the gospel, that we recognize what our core beliefs are, and can lovingly and respectfully discuss and disagree on secondary issues. Such displays of love and respect within the body of Christ truly adorn the gospel, and can be used by God to draw people to Himself. Secondly, by displaying such patience and tolerance to people in the world with whom we disagree can cultivate a much better atmosphere for dialog. The more the world sees us as standing firm on doctrine that matters, but willing to dialog over issues that, while important, are open for discussion, the more they will be willing to engage us, to ask about our faith, and know that they can talk about their doubts and ask questions and get a fair hearing.
This ties in with our discussion of verse 18. Paul speaks of the one who serves Christ “in this [way]“–the Greek is literally “in this” (en toutô)–in what way?. This could refer just to the way discussed in verse 17 (i.e., the way of the Kingdom, which is righteousness, peace, and joy in the Spirit). I prefer to see Paul’s statement here in more general terms: the one who serves Christ in all the above, speaking of the attitude of love and respect for one’s brother, not using secondary differences to drive a wedge and cause brethren to stumble, pleases God. We should note that Paul says that it is with this attitude that we serve Christ–not ourselves. If our own egos and agendas are not part of the equation, then we will easily seek the best and the benefit of our brother in Christ. We won’t seek to destroy him, or to belittle him; we’ll want to build him up, and engage in friendly, respectful dialog, always with the glory of God and the service of Christ front-and-center of our interaction.
The idea of being pleasing (Greek euarestos) to God connects back to what Paul said in Romans 12:2, about being transformed by the renewing of our minds, so we know God good, pleasing (same word, euarestos), and perfect will. This attitude is part of what pleases God, and what we as Christians with a transformed mind should desire to have.
It seems odd here that Paul speaks of being “approved” or “respected” by men. Being a “man-pleaser” is not something Scripture usually advocates, but here it’s within a particular context. Paul isn’t saying we should do whatever it takes to make men happy. Rather, I think what he has in mind is the opposite of blasphêmeô, or bringing disrepute upon the gift of freedom in Christ, and, indeed the gospel. Not only does a good attitude cultivate the respect of your brother, and opens him up to an understanding and appreciation of what it means to have freedom in Christ, as we noted above, it also demonstrates the love of Christ in the unity of the church, which is a powerful witness to the world. It’s much easier to discuss issues with people when you have their “approval” or “respect.” That’s the environment Paul wants to see the Roman church cultivate, and its one we should strive for too.
We’ll continue with verse 19 next time. I don’t plan on doing as much review (if any), so we should, Lord willing, get a little further.