Monday, December 12, 2011

The Identity of the Weak and the Strong in Romans 14–15

In Rom 14:1–15:13 Paul distinguishes between the weak and the strong within the Christian community in Rome (Rom 14:1–2; 15:1). The identity of these two groups of people has long been debated.

Paul gives some clues in Rom 14:2 of the identity of these groups: “One person believes in eating everything, but the weak person eats [only] vegetables.” In Rom 14:5 the strong believe that all days are the same, whereas the weak believe that some days are more important than others. In 14:14 it is apparent that the issue distinguishing the strong and the weak from each other has to do with food and drink that is common and uncommon, or profane versus holy.

The practice of abstaining from certain foods, and keeping various days, in the context of a concern with things that are profane or holy fits in with what we know concerning Jewish religious practice defined by the law of Moses (see Acts 10:9–15). Therefore, the obvious conclusion concerning the issue that is in view in Rom 14:1–15:13 would be to link to the issue of the place of the Jewish food laws, and the Jewish practice of observing certain days as holy, within the Christian community in Rome.

But is this conclusion justified? When the wider context of Paul’s argument in Romans is taken into consideration, I believe that the evidence definitely supports the conclusion that the issue of the weak and the strong in Rom 14:1–15:13 revolves around the problem of Jewish and Gentile relations within the Christian community in Rome.

Historically at the time of the writing of the epistle to the Romans, Jewish exiles returning to Rome were bringing back into the Roman churches their traditional Jewish views of the necessity of keeping the law of Moses. The impact of this was to create division between Jews and non-Jews. The law of Moses was a body of laws and stipulations that were part of the covenant that God made with Israel at Mount Sinai after Israel had been rescued out of Egypt. This covenant was a covenant made exclusively with Israel (see “The Monoethnic Nature of the Mosaic Covenant”). As part of this covenant there were many laws that functioned to keep Israel separate from the other nations.

Certain foods (such as pork) were unclean to the Jews. But the Gentiles had no such restrictions. From the orthodox Jewish point of view, the law of Moses implied that the Gentiles were unclean; and this is why the Jews of Paul’s day traditionally could not eat or socialize together with Gentiles (see Acts 11:2–3). To do so would taint them with Gentile uncleanness. This was problematic for the early church. When a Jew and a Gentile believed Jesus, and came together as believers in church, what kind of fellowship could they have together if they could not eat or socialize with each other?

In order to deal with this problem some Jewish Christians were saying, “Look, force the Gentiles to become Jews. Circumcise them (if male), and make them keep the laws of Moses, to keep the Sabbath and to keep the food laws, etc. If they do that, there can be unity between us” (see Acts 15:1, 5). These Jewish Christians were called Judaizers because they wanted to make Gentiles Jewish.

The problem, however, with this “solution” is that it made salvation, righteousness, and church membership possible only for Jews! According to this view, Gentiles could not be members of God’s people, and share in the benefits of salvation, unless they gave up their Gentile citizenship, and became Jews. But Paul and the orthodox Christians in the early church refused to accept this Judaizing solution as biblical. Paul understood that the new covenant would bring salvation to the Gentiles as well as the Jews, but how could the new covenant bring salvation to the Gentiles if the Gentiles were forced to become Jews?

To argue his case for the inclusion of Gentiles within the people of God on the basis of faith in Jesus Christ, and no longer on the basis of keeping the law of Moses, Paul wrote this letter to the Romans. After explaining God’s plan of salvation in Rom 1–11, Paul turns in Rom 14:1–15:13 to give advice about how Jews and Gentiles could live together in harmony. This is particularly evident from the way that Paul concludes his appeal in this section of his letter. His concern with the weak and the strong living together in harmony is due to the fact that he desires that “with one heart and one mouth you might glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (Rom 15:6). Following straight on from this, Paul appeals to his readers: “Therefore, receive one another, just as Christ has received you to the glory of God” (Rom 15:7), which Paul then explicates in Rom 15:8–9 in terms of what Christ has done for “the circumcision” (i.e., Israelites) and for “the Gentiles.” Mention of “the circumcision” and “the Gentiles” here at the end of his integrated argument in Rom 14:1–15:13 shows that the issue between the weak and the strong was basically an issue involving the relationship of Jews and Gentiles within the Christian community. Paul’s quotations in Rom 15:9–12 from Ps 18:49; Deut 32:43; Ps 117:1; Isa 11:10, proving that the Gentiles would join together with Israel in singing praises to God in the new covenant age, also supports the idea that in Rom 14:1–15:13 Paul is primarily concerned with how Jews and Gentiles can live together harmoniously within the church.

The strong, therefore, were those who (like Paul) believed that in Christ Jesus “nothing is profane in itself” (Rom 14:14). That is to say, these people understood that, as a result of the coming of Jesus, the stipulations in the law of Moses that distinguished profane from holy, clean from unclean, no longer applied in the way that they once did. Those laws were simply illustrations until the time of the coming of the Messiah of the difference between holy and unholy, clean and unclean. They were illustrations that spoke of the need for God’s people to be free from the taint of sin, free from the taint of the “strange” customs of the people of the nations who did not know God. The strong, therefore, were those Christians who understood that the law of Moses no longer regulates the life of God’s people in the way that it during the old covenant age. The weak, on the other hand, were those Jewish Christians and Judaizing Gentiles who still kept the Mosaic food laws and the Mosaic religious calendar with its Sabbaths and regular feast days.


Anonymous said...

Didn't Messiah sya that as long as the Heavens and The Earth are here, not one Jot or tittle shall pass from Torah? (Matt 5:18)

Steven Coxhead said...

Hello Anonymous,

Yes, Jesus said that not one jot or tittle would pass away from the law until all things have taken place (Matt 5:18). But included in among those jots and tittles is Moses’ teaching in Deut 18:15, 18–19 that the prophet like Moses that God would raise up in the future must be obeyed. In other words, in the new covenant age, torah will be mediated by the Messiah, not Moses per se. This allows scope for modifications to torah if deemed necessary by God. If the Messiah were to change particular details of the law, such as the food laws, then (according to Moses) this must be obeyed. The 14-fold use of λέγω in Matt 5–7 by Jesus emphasizes his authority to interpret torah. This claim to authority was also noticed by the Jewish people who heard his teaching at the time (see Matt 7:28–29).