Well my friends, it is here, at long last! My long-awaited conclusion to a rather unconventional series on Paul’s letter to the Romans. It has been quite the journey…
Let me get something out of the way quickly: the events of the past year pretty much derailed me entirely in terms of any meaningful focus on Simple Praxis. But 2020 is now upon us, and I have a renewed vision and detailed plans for inspiring and refreshing content to come in the months ahead. Stay tuned.
Meanwhile, we’re once more turning our attention to Romans. Throughout this series on his flagship epistle, we’ve witnessed Paul slay sacred cows right and left—taking to task both Jews and Gentiles for their lack of orthopractic grace in finding common ground to build sustainable faith community together. Over and over again, Paul has had to return to base principles to paint a picture of innovative divine bridge-building and mystical unity between God, Christ, and all of Creation. Romans has been an artful and witty composition over the past 13 chapters, and today we find ourselves at chapter 14 which is laudable for its forthrightness and clarity on a subject Christians continue to stumble over on a daily basis these two thousand years later: How To Tolerate Diversity of Values and Beliefs.
Or as the hippies would say: All you need is love.
If I were to select one of the more coloquial modern translations (the New Living Translation aka NLT is a personal favorite) and grab random verses out of Romans 14 and present them in a modern “tweet-style” setting, it’s very likely some would acuse me of peddling hippie-dippie, “peace, love, and tolerance”, liberal lefty bullshit. Here are a few examples:
Accept other believers who are weak in faith, and don’t argue with them about what they think is right or wrong.
Some think one day is more holy than another day, while others think every day is alike. You should each be fully convinced that whichever day you choose is acceptable.
Why do you condemn another believer? Why do you look down on another believer? Remember, we will all stand before the judgement seat…so let’s stop condemning each other.
The Kingdom of God is not a matter of what we eat or drink, but of living a life of goodness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.
Let us aim for harmony in the church and try to build each other up.
Blessed are those who don’t feel guilty for doing something they have decided is right.
What the what? What is this utter nonsense Paul is spewing forth? What is this foolishness that makes a mockery of God’s righteous laws and commandments? How dare Paul act like what people believe and how they choose to live their lives to the best of their ability is somehow up for personal interpretation and conspicuous variation?
Yet that is exactly what Paul is doing here. It may seem like the exact examples Paul covers in Romans 14 (which kinds of foods to eat, which days of the week are set aside for worship, etc.) are not of much relevance to today’s context, but you must realize that to first-century Jews and Gentiles alike, these matters were very important indeed.
Listen, I’ve seen conservatives pontifcate on this chapter and claim that the freedom of conscience Paul is putting forth here is limited to the extreme minutiae of theological sidelines and is not a license to respectfully disgree on major points of Christian faith.
But that is simply inaccurate.
From our modern vantage point, we see conversations about days of the week or meat vs. vegatables and assume these are simply minor differences…certainly nothing that rises to the level of the nature of, say, Christ’s atonement, or how leaders should or should not be ordained, or the role of women in the church, or sexual orientation and gender identity, or any number of other present-day brouhahas. But the issues raised in Romans 14 were certainly not minor differences to Paul’s audience.
Remember the Setting of Late 1st-century Rome
As I explained in an earlier installment of this series, Paul’s letter to the Romans is addressed to two very different demographics: Messianic Jews who by and large had only recently been permitted to return to Rome, and Gentiles who were all over the map in terms of both their familiarity with the faith and their status in the Roman world. So the differences in values these groups had with regard to worship styles, table settings, and other matters of hospitality and gathering together were obviously a source of sharp contention.
Paul clearly has his opinions and isn’t shy to share them in this letter. But he’s also quick to state that his goal isn’t to get one group to agree with the other, or get one set of values to dominate over any other. He’s after something much loftier, much more challenging to pull off. He’s after that dreaded T word: tolerance. Or as the hippies would say: Peace and love, man. Peace and love.
In the past two thousand years of Church history, perhaps the one common characteristic we’ve beheld more than any other is that we Christians are not very good at this tolerance thing. Holy wars? We got that nailed. Excommunicating heretics? Yeah, baby, yeah. Splitting over theological disagreements and creating yet another sect or denomination? Easy peasy.
Getting along with one another and respecting everyone at the table even in the midst of diverse beliefs and practices? Whoa Nelly! Them’s fightin’ woids!
If only Paul were here today to witness the utter lack of grace, compassion, and forbearance (to use an old-fashioned word for tolerance) within Christian communities online and off, I fear he would crumple up in abject despair.
We’ve screwed up, time and time again. Badly.
But that doesn’t mean we should just hang up our hats now and give up. Now, more than ever, when it seems like the Christian “brand” in America is all but destroyed due to infighting, partisanship, culture wars, and evangelical hijinks reaching all the way to the highest levels of government; now more than ever, we need to find a way to build loving Christian community based around enlightened principles of harmony, diversity, and equal representation at all costs.
Men and women. Young and old. Queers and straights. Cisgendered and transgendered individuals. Whites and blacks and everyone in-between. Those who are able-bodied and those who live every day with physical or cognitive impairment. Left and Right (politically). Up and down (aka the rich and the poor). Folks who wear a tie to work and listen to Chris Tomlin, and folks who happily show off their death metal tattoos and attend AEE.
Gatekeepers Take Notice: We’re Quitting You
Call me cra-cra-crazy, but I just don’t think the Paul who wrote Romans 14 would ever have been happy perceiving the Body of Christ as a sort of God-ordained gatekeeper deciding who’s culturally, politically, or spiritually in or out. It’s simply untenable to me. That’s not to say Paul didn’t care about morality. Quite the opposite! But we’ve confused the depths of our God-given moral conscience with superficial appearances of propriety.
By way of example (there are so many), we think it’s right Christian and proper to proclaim that “sex outside of marriage is a sin”—yet we fail to recognize the well-developed principles of consent and appreciation for sexual health and psychological well-being often found in sex-positive secular communities…all the while ignoring wide-spread dysfunctional marriages within the church due to misogyny, lack of science-based knowledge of sexuality and gender, and fundamentalist interpretations of obscure Biblical passages only tangentially related to romantic relationships. If sexual immortality is running amok in the world today, it is absolutely not the sole domain of the unchurched. (And is far too often swept under the rug within the church to protect those in power!)
Again, I’m not saying the answer is let’s all go have sex with whomever, whenever. But secular culture has seen the rank hypocrisy of the Christians, always quick to point a finger at others while remaining utterly blind to the total shitshow present within their own faith community, and it has said it wants nothing to do with that putrid garbage. On this and a wide variety of other issues which should never have been culture war fodder to begin with, the Church has lost its credibility to a shocking degree.
Take climate change as another example. That it is seen as simply a fever dream conjured up by socialist Democrats by a large swatch of church-going Americans—despite the fact that human-caused global warming to due to rising CO2 levels has been well documented by the scientific community for decades now—is mind-boggling to me. Want to debate how literally we should take Jesus’ depictions of the afterlife? Fine. But why the actual f**k are evangelicals haggling with their fellow Americans over how to save our planet from imminent climate-induced environmental catastrophe?
There are days I look at the state of Christianity in my present context and just want to wash my hands of the whole kit and kaboodle. Stick a fork in it, it’s done. Then I find myself wandering back to Romans, reading what Paul said about how we should be focused on building each other up in love and unity, imploring us to cease with the constant arguments and pointing fingers at everybody about what they think is right or wrong, and I think…damn, that’s a Christianity I can get behind. Living a life of goodness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit? Sign me up!
Don’t know if that’s possible.
Don’t know if I’ll ever find it.
But a man can dream.
Paul dreamed. Let us then fight the good fight and honor Paul by finishing what he started, these two thousand years later.
I’ll let him have the final say in the matter:
If you serve Christ with this attitude, you will please God, and others will approve of you, too.
May God, who gives this patience and encouragement, help you live in complete harmony with each other, as is fitting for followers of Christ Jesus. Then all of you can join together with one voice, giving praise and glory to God, the Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ.
✢ ✢ ✢