Aaron Sherwood, Romans: A Structural, Thematic, and Exegetical Commentary

Sherwood Aaron. Romans: A Structural, Thematic, and Exegetical Commentary. Bellingham, Wash.: Lexham Press, 2020. xv+949 pp.; Hb.; $54.99. Link to Lexham Press

In the introduction to this new commentary on Romans, Aaron Sherwood states his goal is an accessible commentary that avoids atomistic approaches, one that “notes the trees but focus on the forest… the investigation especially looks at how Paul uses the letter structure to help convey his message. This approach allows Paul to set the theological priorities of Romans, ensuring that modern readers take Paul’s own meaning and theology from his discussion” (p. 1). Sherwood previously published a revision of his 2010 Ph.D. dissertation supervised by John Barclay, Paul and the Restoration of Humanity in Light of Ancient Jewish Traditions (Ancient Judaism and early Christianity 82; Brill, 2013) and The Word of God Has Not Failed: Paul’s Use of the Old Testament in Romans 9 (Lexham 2015).

Sherwood RomansIn the 91-page introduction to the book focuses more upon the overall shape and message of Romans. Sherwood offers three reasons Paul wrote the book of Romans. First, Paul wants to establish a warm relationship with his audience (1:1-15; 15:14-33). Second, Paul wants to care for his audience pastorally (12:1-15:13). Third, Paul must defend himself against a negative reputation that has preceded him to the Roman churches. So 1:16-11:36 is Paul’s apology for his gospel. Paul’s goal in this large section of the letter is to ensure that nothing prevents his pastoral care from being effective nor hinders his mission to Spain. What is unusual in this commentary is Sherwood’s view that the main body of the letter is 12:1-15:13 rather than the eleven-chapter theological section. Scholars often wonder why Paul wrote such a detailed theological treatise to churches he had not yet visited.

Sherman observes that scholars generally agree on most critical introductory issues for the book of Romans. Paul wrote the letter from Corinth in the winter of AD 56-57. The audience is a combination of Jews and non-Jews who were committed to Israel’s scriptural heritage. Paul wrote to numerous house churches, which were healthy, although they were facing a few challenges. Scholars are equally unanimous interview that Phoebe carried Paul’s letter to Rome and was the initial reader of the letter (p. 778). He agrees with Esther Ng’s conclusion that Phoebe was not the leader of a congregation, Paul’s patron, nor his serving helper. She worked as the provider of hospitality and a supporting member of Paul’s missionary organization.

Regarding the theology of Romans, Sherwood argues the main point of the book is the Gospel and the Christ-event which inaugurated God’s Kingdom on earth, so that believers are as eschatologically restored. Israel is located in Jesus, so those who trust in Jesus are Israel (p. 42). All believers are quote God’s “humanity of Israel,” so they ought to live out their relationship with Jesus and their identity as Jesus’s disciples (ethics, pastoral care). Since God’s goal in the Christ event his eschatological restoration of humanity, missions is God’s vehicle for working with God to provide salvation for unreached people.

With respect to Christology, Sherwood detects a (proto)Trinitarianism in Romans. Jesus is God’s Messiah, but the Father, Son and Holy Spirit share unique divine identity of Israel’s God. Soteriology saturates the book of Romans. He coins the term “righteousization,” which is more or less equivalent to the more common theological word “justification.” This term appears consistently throughout the commentary where one would expect the word justification. Believers are righteousized by entering into a trust relationship with God in Christ. In Romans, “the process of righteousization (or justification) seems to follow a certain algorithm:

  • Believers believe in the report of the Christ event.
  • At the same time, believers trust God’s declaration of who Christ is and what he accomplished, as well as what God accomplished through him.
  • Also at the same time, believers are in a trusting personal relationship with Jesus, and with God in Jesus.
  • Then, with the above three elements in place, God gifts believers with the removal of sin and guilt against himself.
  • God also gifts them with a transformation of their identity, by which their character emulates God’s own divine character (p. 60).

Sherwood observes that soteriology is relatively distant from the center of Paul’s theology in the book of Romans. “It is profound, but it is less substantial than is typically assumed” (p. 62). For example, Paul’s limited references to soteriology in Romans do not show God’s grace is inherently irresistible, nor does Sherwood find any idea of imputed righteousness in the book. Rather than imputed righteousness, “righteousizing is transformational” (p. 61).

This rejection of imputed righteousness is associated with a New Perspective on Paul, but Sherwood is not a representative of this view. He thinks the New Perspective provides two helpful correctives to the traditional view of Paul. First, Romans does not focus on the tension between grace and works (or Law), and second, Second Temple Judaism was not a legalistic religion. However, Sherwood thinks the New Perspective reduces Paul’s theology to its sociological dimension, something he calls “an unsound methodological emphasis” (p. 67). Sherwood takes the “works of the law” (ἔργων νόμου) in Romans 3:20 as the whole law rather than limiting the phrase to the boundary markers (such as circumcision, food taboos and Sabbath). In fact, Sherwood translates ἔργων νόμου as Torah rather than “works of the law.” He says this phrase means “the Jewish commonplace of Torah observance, in the sense of having a lifestyle, identity, and devotion to righteousness that is characterized by habitually living in faithfulness to the Torah” (p. 227). He includes a lengthy digression on the use of the phrase “works of the law” in 4QMMT. He concludes the similarity between Romans 3:20 and 4QMMT is “rather incidental” and 4QMMT “should not be allowed to distract from a proper understanding of Paul’s message” (p. 234). This discussion is somewhat disappointing since the primary source he cites in this section is a 1994 Biblical Archaeology Review magazine article by Martin Abegg rather than the two major articles on Paul and 4QMMT by James Dunn or N. T. Wright.

Given Sherwood’s previous work on Paul’s use of Scripture in Romans 9, it is not surprising he devotes a large section of his introduction to Paul’s use of scripture. He provides two charts of Paul’s citations of the Hebrew Bible, one in canonical order in a second in order of appearance in Romans. Sometimes Paul’s use of Scripture is described as a midrash, although it is certainly not exegesis. Sherwood points out Paul has already done his exegesis and is now using cited Scripture in a “faithful, contextually determined meaning of that scripture in a way that serves his communicative strategy” (p. 74). He suggests Paul uses references to Scripture in a way analogous to a modern academic. Paul makes his theological point and then offers a “footnote of authorities” to support his point (p. 77). He argues Romans was not written from the perspective of New Testament studies, “Paul’s use of Scripture requires an interpretation that comes out of Old Testament studies” (p. 77).

The introduction concludes with helpful a ten-page glossary of key terms.

In the body of the commentary itself, individual units begin with Sherwood, his own translation. This is followed by a paragraph highlighting key idea of the pericope with the thesis statement for the unit set out in bold type. He then outlines the structure of the unit by means of a syntactical display of the English text. Although there are some comments on the structure, he avoids technical rhetorical terms. “Analysis and Interpretation” is a phrase-by-phrase commentary on the English text. There is no Greek in the commentary’s body, and it is rare in the footnotes. Occasionally he refers to textual critical issues in the footnotes, but this is not the focus of the commentary. There are references to contemporary scholarship in the footnotes, but in the main text Sherwood provides a readable and accessible commentary on Paul’s key ideas uncluttered by scholarly debate. As he stressed in the introduction, his commentary is selective and non-comprehensive. Each unit concludes with a summary and theological reflection. These reflections focus on the unit itself rather than larger ideas of Pauline or canonical theology.

In addition to the commentary Sherwood provides several short digressions throughout the commentary. These deal with controversial issues such as homosexuality in Romans 1 (155-57), imputed righteousness (269-71), and Paul’s view of empire (p. 673-76). Following the commentary are seven substantial excurses on controversial theological topics commonly addressed in a Romans commentary.

  • Natural Theology and the Identity of the Accused in Romans 1:18-32
  • Interplay between Romans 3:27-8:17 and Galatians 3:1-4:7
  • Salvation, Redemption, Deliverance, and Atonement in Romans
  • The “I” In Romans7
  • Divine Foreknowledge and Predestination in Romans 8:28-30
  • The Salvation of “All Israel” In Romans 11:25-27
  • The Disputed Originality of Romans 16

These excurses are substantial (over fifty pages total). By separating them from their context in the main commentary, Sherwood achieves his goal of an accessible and readable commentary since the average reader is not prepared for a protracted discussion of the “I” in Romans 7. Sherwood argues Paul’s speaker in Chapter 7 is “a representative Jew who is both convicted of his obligation to obey Torah perfectly and is perfectly appalled by his inability to do so” (p. 629). Regarding predestination and Election in Romans 8:28-30, Sherwood avoids both Reformed and Arminian positions, stating that his exegesis is compatible with either position (which is probably not going to make either side very happy). Regarding the originality of Romans 16, he states clearly “all things considered, there are no compelling let alone sound reasons for rejecting the originality of Romans 16:1-23” (p. 851).

He does not think that “all Israel” in Romans 11:25- 27 refers to future salvation of unbelieving Jews (p. 841). In his view, the best reading of this passage is that Paul is making a positive statement about God’s process of reconstituting his people, come what may. “All Israel” therefore “refers to God’s corporate Christocentric people” (p. 846) and that a reading of Romans 11:25-32 “with an expectation of ethnic Jews’ salvation would be a mistake” (p. 847).

Conclusion. Sherwood achieves his goal of providing an accessible commentary that sheds light on Paul’s Letter to the Romans. He avoids tedious comparisons of views from other major commentaries, although he is certainly informed by them. Nor he does not get bogged down in exegetical details which distract the commentator from Paul’s overarching theological themes.

 

NB: Thanks to Lexham Press for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

 

Book Review: John D. Harvey, A Commentary on Romans

Harvey, John D. A Commentary on Romans. Kregel Exegetical Library. Grand Rapids, Mich. Kregel, 2020. 400 pp. Hb; $36.99. Link to Kregel Academic

Harvey consciously geared this commentary to non-academics. His goal is to assist readers of Romans who are active pastors, teachers, and Bible students. There is no detailed history of interpretation, no deep dive into extra biblical literature, no closely argued discussions of finer points of Greek verb tenses, and no extensive comments on textual criticism. Readers interested in these issues should consult his Romans: Exegetical Guide to the Greek New Testament (B&H Academic, 2017). Although his bibliography includes commentaries since 1965, his main lights are commentaries by Cranfield (ICC, 1980), Dunn (WBC, 1988), Jewett (Hermenia, 2007), Longenecker, (NIGTC 2016), Moo (NICNT, 1996), and Schreiner (BECNT, 1998). Moo and Schreiner have both published second editions since the completion of Harvey’s commentary.

Harvey, Commentary on RomansHe explains his exegetical methodology as answering three questions about each verse (p. 10). First, what did Paul say? Second, why did he say it? And third, what should I do with it? For more detailed methodological issues, readers should consult his Interpreting the Pauline Letters (Kregel Academic, 2012).

In the 40-page introduction, he argues Paul wrote the entire letter from Corinth in A.D. 56-57. He provides several pages of background for a letter, including a brief historical, social, cultural, and religious setting for Christianity in the city of Rome in the middle of the first century. He believes the audience as both Jews and Gentiles and that the letter addressed as a “cluster of issues.” The introduction also includes several pages and charts on genre and structure of Romans, including a brief look at the rhetoric of the letter.

Each section of the commentary begins with a fresh translation of the text with notes with brief textual critical issues and syntactical observations. These observations include grammatical categories but only rarely make reference to advanced grammars (those details are often found in his Exegetical Guide). Following this translation, Harvey sets the context and structure of the pericope in the overall outline of Romans. This is followed by a brief statement of the basic message of the section and detailed exegetical outline. Following this outline, he offers an explanation of the text, usually covering several verses at a time. In the body of the commentary Greek appears in parentheses without transliteration. Almost all interactions with commentaries appears in the footnotes. This makes for a concise commentary that does indeed focus on what Paul said and why did he say it?” Following the explanation of the text, Harvey makes a few comments under the heading Theology and Appropriation.” In this section he comments on biblical-theological issues in order to answer his third question, “what should I do with it?” In most cases, Harvey concludes with the words “Paul’s primary purpose for including his paragraph…”

Harvey translates the phrase διὰ πίστεως Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ Romans 3:22 “by faith in Jesus Christ” and τὸν ἐκ πίστεως Ἰησοῦ. in verse 26 as “the one who is of faith in Jesus.” He states both genitives are objective (p. 127). He does not enter into the scholarly discussion of pistis christou other than a footnote pointing to Schreiner’s discussion and conclusion in favor of the objective genitive.

The same is true for the meaning of “all sinned” in Romans 5:12. He observes there are five common interpretations and cites additional scholarship in the footnotes (p. 168). Harvey does not wade into the deep waters of the various ways the verse is used in systematic theology. Because his purpose in the commentary is the basic meaning of the text, he concludes “Paul’s primary purpose was to inform his readers that righteousness, acquittal, and life now apply to them because of what Christ has done as certain as sin, condemnation, and death previously applied to them because of what Adam did” (p. 169).

Comparing six major views on the identity of the “I” in Romans 7:2-25, he observes that although the options are bewildering, it is “best not to expend time and energy trying to decide, for example, whether ‘I’ describes Paul before or after his conversion” (p. 199).

The purpose of Romans 9-11 is the fulfillment of God’s plan. He argues God will fulfill his plan and keep his word to Israel, using Israel’s unresponsiveness to show mercy to all. On the controversial issue of what “all Israel” means in Romans 11, Harvey compares six recent commentaries in a chart (with Calvin and Schreiner combined). He agrees with Longenecker that “all Israel” refers to “a large number of elect an ethnic Jews near the end of history” (p. 291).

On the usually controversial issue of Paul’s female coworkers, Phoebe is a woman of high social standing in some wealth who was a leader in the church (p. 376). Like Prisca and Aquila, Andronicus and Junia are a husband and wife ministry team who were well known to the apostles (p.382, citing this Exegetical Guide for the details).

The book ends abruptly on page 400. There is no conclusion, no indices and only a select bibliography (pp 15-20).

Conclusion. There have been several second editions of major commentaries in Romans published in the last few years. Harvey’s commentary is less than half the length of the six major commentaries he works with in this book and it is far less engaged with contemporary Pauline scholarship than Longenecker, Moo, et al. But this should not be considered as a criticism, Harvey’s commentary achieves when it’s set out to accomplish, a simple explanation of what Paul said and why he said it for the busy pastor struggling to prepare Bible classes and sermons or Bible student who wants to go deeper than the average Bible study. This commentary is similar in approach to Grant Osborne’s Romans commentary and should not be compared to recent encyclopedic commentaries on Romans.

Other Reviewed Commentaries in this Series:

Duane Garrett, A Commentary on Exodus

Robert B. Chisholm, A Commentary on Judges and Ruth

Allen P. Ross, A Commentary on the Psalms. Volume 2 (Psalms 42-89)

Allen P. Ross, A Commentary on the Psalms, Volume 3 (Psalms 90-150)

NB: Thanks to Kregel for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

Book Review: Jared Compton and Andrew Naselli, Three Views on Israel and the Church: Perspectives on Romans 9-11.

Compton, Jared and Andrew David Naselli. Three Views on Israel and the Church: Perspectives on Romans 9-11. Grand Rapids, Mich.: Kregel Academic, 2019. 266 pp. Pb; $21.99  Link to Kregel Academic

This is the second volume in Kregel Academic’s Viewpoint series, joining Four Views on the Warning Passages in Hebrews (ed. Herb Bateman, 2007). The relationship of the church and Israel was part of the progressive dispensationalism debate in the 1980s and several edited volumes appeared with sections on the issue. Chad Brand edited a four views book on this topic, Perspectives on Israel and the Church (B&H, 2015). This is the first multi-view book on specifically on the relationship of Israel and the church based solely on Romans 9-11. Each chapter begins by tracing the argument of Romans 9-11, although chapter 11 contains most of the controversial issues.

Michael Vlach represents a traditional dispensationalist view (although he does not use the term) to argue for a future mass conversion of ethnic Israel. Fred G. Zaspel and James M. Hamilton Jr. also argue for a future mass conversion, but one that does not include a role for ethnic Israel. Theirs is a historical premillennialist approach which is informed by biblical theology. In contrast to these similar views, Benjamin Merkle argues Romans 9-11 does not imply a future mass-conversion of ethnic Israel, although a remnant of ethnic Israel will be saved in the future. All of the contributors to this volume work very hard to avoid supersessionism or any hint of the anti-Semitic attitudes of the church for centuries.

Vlach argues Paul understands Israel in in the same way Old Testament prophets did (p. 21). The prophets looked forward to a time when God would act in history to restore his people and he does not see anything in the New Testament that indicates these expectations were canceled or typologically fulfilled in the church. He argues that Paul’s use the Old Testament in these chapters is “largely contextual inconsistent with the intent of the OT prophets” and he does not use typological exegesis to transform Jewish expectations into Christian theology about the church (p. 63). Many readers will recognize this view as dispensationalism, although this is a word Vlach does not use. He also avoids using any language that might sound as if there are two peoples of God, Israel and the Church. In fact, he states “Jesus’s church encompasses both believing Israelites and Gentiles,” but also that “believing Israelites are still identified with Israel as they participate in Jesus’s church” (p. 71).

Zaspel and Hamilton take what they call a biblical-theological approach to Romans 9-11. They argue Old Testament prophecies are fulfilled in Christ and in the church. The first coming of Christ fulfilled a new exodus pattern yet they do understand that another iteration of this pattern will occur at Christ second coming. Gentiles in this “inter-advent period” are provoking the Jews to jealousy so that when Jesus returns there will be a mass conversion of Jews who will enter into the millennium (p. 123). The millennium is a step towards the new heaven and a new earth. Therefore, there is both continuity and discontinuity between what God has done for Israel in the past and what he is doing through the church in the present. A portion of this chapter is devoted to describing biblical theology as a kind of “drama of Scripture” which is focused on Christ as the fulfillment of the Old Testament story. There is certainly weren’t for this in the Paul’s letters since he describes Christ is the Passover (1 Cor. 5:7) or the manna in the wilderness as typologically fulfilled in communion (1 Cor 10:1-4). However, they stop short of saying everything in the Old Testament is fulfilled in Christ. Referring to the new exodus patter, they look forward to “yet one more iteration of the pattern at Christ second coming (p. 133).

Merkle does not think Romans 9-11 teaches a future mass-conversion of an ethnic Israel, but rather that there will always be a remnant of Israel until the end of time. The trouble for Merkle is the word “mass.” He does not represent the classic reform position that the church has replaced Israel as God’s people, nor does he want to represent any form of replacement theology. He is adamant the church does not replace Israel (p. 205). He agrees with the view that God has not rejected or abandon ethnic Israel, but he qualifies this with the word “completely” (p. 204). Merkle is the only author contributor to this book who attempts to define typology. Citing David Baker, he defines a type as “a biblical event, person or institution which serves as an example for pattern for other events, persons or institutions” (p. 163). A type is therefore a kind of foreshadowing in historical events (the type) of later, intensified events (the antitype). For Merkle, Israel is the type, and Jesus is the anti-type because he is the fulfillment of Israel; he is the “true Israel” because he fulfills “all did the nation of Israel was to have accomplished” (p. 164).

There are a series of exegetical decisions on nuances of the text on which each position must make a decision. First, what does pleroma mean in Romans 11:12 (Israel’s full inclusion) and 11:25 (the fullness of the Gentiles). Is the word quantitative (a full number) or qualitative (“the fullness”)?

Second, the nature of mystery in 11:25 is a key point. For Merkle, the “mystery” need not be mysterious, since it is a hidden thing now revealed, that there is an interdependence of salvation of Gentiles and Israel (p. 193). For Vlach, this mystery is that Israel has experienced a personal hardening which is allowed the Gentiles to come in to salvation, and this is the manner in which Israel will be (49).

Third, the exact nuance of meaning of “until” (achris hou) in 11:25 is important. Does this phrase imply a change of circumstances, so that after the full number of Gentiles is saved then Israel will be saved? Or does this phrase imply a termination: the partial hardening of Israel continues until the fullness of the Gentiles without any change of circumstances afterward? Vlach argues the normal sense of the phrase is a reversal (p. 50); Merkle takes the phrase as a termination (p. 185).

Fourth, the nuance of meaning of “and so” (kai houtos) in 11:26. Should this be read as temporal (and then all Israel will be saved) or modal (in this manner all Israel will be saved.” It may be the case that this is less of an issue since Vlach admits that either a temporal or a modal view would imply a future conversion of Israel (p. 54).

Fifth, what does Paul mean by “all Israel”? If he has ethnic Israel in mind throughout Romans 9-11, would he shift from ethnic Israel in 11:25 to spiritual Israel in 11:26? For Vlach, Zaspel and Hamilton, Paul means ethnic Israel in both cases, or Merkle, Paul refers to ethnic Israel and “remnant Israel”

Sixth, to what does Paul’s citation of Isaiah 59:20-21 refer? Does “the deliverer with come from Zion” a reference to the second coming or does it refer to Christ as deliverer at the cross? The citation certainly has a future sense, however for Merkle, it does not have a future from the perspective of Paul because for Paul it refers to Jesus, who has already delivered us from the wrath to come at the cross (p. 198).

I will now turn to some evaluation of the volume. One issue which the authors only allude to is the promise to ethnic Israel that they will dwell in the land promised to Abraham in peace and prosperity. If ethnic Israel does experience a future mass conversion, will they (literally) be restored to Israel? This is the traditional dispensational view, although Vlach only alludes to this in his chapter. Although Zaspel and Hamilton think Romans 9-11 looks forward to a future mass conversion, they are not interested in the land promises (p. 136 and Vlach’s response, p. 148-49).

I found it somewhat frustrating that the first two positions were so close. As Compton explains in his conclusion, this was certainly not the intention. There were a number of times  I thought the view of Zaspel and Hamilton was more or less dispensational, albeit in a progressive dispensationalist sense. Vlach certainly does not represent a classic dispensationalist in the Scofield tradition, nor does Merkle represent the classic Reformed position. As such, the viewpoints expressed in the book seem as though there an in-house discussion rather than between opposing positions.

A related second observation: the book would have been improved by including one or two more perspectives on Romans 9-11. For example, the book needs to have a representative of the traditional Reformed position, although finding someone to write a chapter espousing replacement theology might be difficult. Chapters written by representatives of newer views of Paul such as the New Perspective on Paul, the apocalyptic view of Paul, or the “Paul was in Judaism” viewpoint would have broadened the discussion of Romans 9-11 considerably.

Nevertheless, this volume is a welcome contribution to the ongoing discussion of these important chapters in the book of Romans.

 

NB: Thanks to Kregel Academic for kindly providing me with a review copy of this book. This did not influence my thoughts regarding the work.

The Problem of Sacred Days and Clean Foods – Romans 14:5-9

In Romans 14 Paul is trying to guide congregations to preserve the unity of the body of Christ despite having a wide variety of views on some practices. He mentions two in particular, considering some days sacred and eating some types of foods.

Esteeming one day over another may refer to when the Roman congregations chose to gather. The natural assumption is Jewish Christian congregations continued to worship on the Sabbath. Primarily Gentile congregations met whenever they could, apparently settling on Sunday, the day Jesus rose from the dead.

Image result for bacon wrapped cheeseburgerEating and abstaining may refer to Jewish food taboos. Again, when a primarily Jewish congregation shared a meal, the food would have been purchased and prepared with attention to cleanliness (i.e., not meat sacrificed to idols, nothing forbidden in Leviticus), etc. Primarily Gentile congregations may not have adopted Jewish food laws, accepting all foods as clean after one gives things for the Lord for the food. However, it is likely some Gentiles did choose to avoid food sacrificed to idols.

What matters for Paul is living one’s life “for the Lord” and not for ourselves. This means the one who is in Christ (a living sacrifice, one who is living in a way that promotes unity in the body of Christ), ought to voluntarily set aside preferences in deference to others.

Voluntarily setting something aside is the key to understanding the principle Paul wants to establish here. Like Jesus, who set aside certain rights he had as a member of the Godhead in order to become human (Phil 2:5-6), so to the member of the body of Christ in the present age must set aside their privileges the may legitimately be owed in order to preserve the unity of the Body of Christ.

Paul is not discussion sinful practices, but what are often called preferences. He is not talking about Gentiles visiting a prostitute (as he is in 1 Corinthians 6), since that is a practice incompatible with being a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God. This is the nature of the strong/weak in this passage: the person with weak faith considers eating food to be a mark of spirituality and therefore breaking those convictions would be a sin.

Does this only work one direction? A person who does not eat unclean food cannot “give up” their preferences and eat unclean food to make a Gentile feel comfortable? For example, if a person today is a vegetarian, can they “give up their conviction” and share meat with someone who eats meat? If I were to share a meal with a Seventh-Day Adventist, for example, I would have no problem eating any food they served. But they may have a serious problem eating something I serve. If I have a meal in an Israeli hotel, it is far easier for me to eat kosher than to insist on my rights and have the kitchen make me a bacon-wrapped cheeseburger.

It is far easier for the meat-eater to give up their conviction and eat only vegetables. This is certainly true on a physical level. But more importantly, with respect to convictions, the meat-eater is not violating a principle of their faith, but the vegetarian would be “sinning” with respect to their own world view.

There is a clear application of this principle for the modern church. I think there are some easy examples: If a member of congregation prefers one style of music for worship, they ought to be able to set that preference aside in order to reach people for Jesus Christ.

But I can imagine other situations which would make some Christians more uncomfortable. Could a pastor drink a beer with someone in order to not make a beer drinking member of their congregation comfortable? What about a pastor trying to reach a person in the south who is offered a wad of chewing tobacco. Could they accept the offer without violating their conscience? It is critically important to observe Paul is talking about practices which are not important for salvation in the present age nor is he talking about sinful practices (even if the weaker brother thinks they might be).

Both the weak and the strong are believers, and both are welcome in Christian worship and fellowship. For Paul, these are not matters to divide churches or break fellowship over. What are some problems you have encountered trying to find the right balance between preferences in local congregations?

Who are the Weak and Strong in Romans 14?

strong-and-weakAlthough it is possible Paul includes this section as a general commentary on how Jews and Gentiles ought to get along in mixed congregations, it is likely he has heard something about a specific conflict in the house churches in Rome. He describes some of the believers as weak and others as strong and admonishes the strong to not pass judgment on the weak.

Who are the “strong and weak” in this passage?

Most commonly, the “weak” are legalists and the “strong” are those that are not trying to “earn” status by their good works. This view has been eroded by the New Perspective on Paul, since it may not be the case that Jews in the first century say themselves as earning their salvation.

After surveying several options, Cranfield concludes the weak are those who desire to continue to observe the ceremonial law of the Old Testament. If this is the case, it is a similar situation to the Gentiles in Galatia who are being encouraged to fully convert to Judaism in order to follow Jesus.

It is possible this weak/strong discussion is an extension of the “meat sacrificed to idols” problem in 1 Corinthians, as suggested by Mark Reasoner. If so, then the weak might be the Jew, and the strong the Gentile. This suggestion has some merit since Paul wrote Romans from Corinth after the period of conflict had come to a close (after 2 Corinthians). It is possible his experience with the Corinthian believers colors his comments to the Romans who may be struggling with similar issues.

Paul Jewett draws attention to a brief exchanged in Horace in which one character does not wish to speak on the Sabbath because he is “a small man of weakness, one of many” (Jewett, Romans, 834; Horace Sat. 1.9.67–72). Reasoner used this line to argue “the person excessively observant in a foreign religion who matched the ‘weak’ caricature was known to Horace’s audience.” (Reasoner, 54).

What has always impressed me about this passage is that Paul never really says the weak are Jewish and the Gentiles are the strong. That may be what Paul is saying, but our post-Reformation reading of the text tends to obscure Paul’s subtle rhetoric. It is possible a Jewish Christian might hear “we who are strong ought to bear the failings of the weak” (Rom 15:1) as meaning, “we Jews who are strong and keep the law properly ought not to look down on the weak Gentiles who have not fully understood the Gospel yet.” But it is also possible a Gentile would hear Paul saying “We strong Gentiles who fully understand the grace of God should not look down on these weak Jews who insist on Old Covenant practices.”

Regardless of the practices of the weak, their faith is sufficient for Paul to consider them to be Christians. He does not tell the Roman congregations to expel them from the church like the young man in 1 Corinthians 5, nor does he admonish them like he the wealthy in 1 Corinthians 11:17-22. Both the weak and the strong are Christians and equally a part of the Christian community. Both are equally welcome at a communal meal where the Lord’s Table is being celebrated.

This issue has important ramifications for Christian fellowship in the present church. Churches often draw lines where they should not, or fail to draw lines when they should. Are there people who are often excluded from fellowship because of some practice (or non-practice)?

Bibliography: Mark Reasoner, The Strong and the Weak: Romans 14:1-15:13 in Context (SNTSMS 103; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).