By James Driedger
The apostle Paul figured he could be “all things to all people” (1 Cor. 9:22). So, who is Paul for the EM Conference today and in its mission to advance Christ’s kingdom culture?
I want to suggest that Paul is our mediator, and that he is so through his appeal to the church in Rome to “accept one another” (Rom. 15:7). While this phrase was written to mobilize the support of the fractioning church in Rome, that Paul might have a base from which to continue his work in Spain, I believe that through the Spirit of God it is a phrase for us.
To grasp the meaning of Paul’s words “welcome one another,” we must rewind to chapter 14, where he writes: “As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him” (14:1).
By calling a group within the church — that in time he will refer to as the “strong” (15:1) — to welcome those who are “weak,” Paul reveals a fractured church. And the question is: “What were they divided over?” Were they divided on matters essential or non-essential to the Christian faith?
Describing One Party
To begin, we must not fail to recognize that Paul refers to one party as those “weak in faith.” The expression itself reveals that this group had saving faith even if it was deficient. We should not view this, therefore, as a Christian/non-Christian divide; it speaks of an in-house divide, as it were, that Paul did not view as essential to the integrity of this Christian community.
What were these Christian’s divided over? There were two matters: (1) the “weak” ate only vegetables, probably to avoid food sacrificed to idols, while the “strong” ate all food (14:2, 21); and (2) the “weak” valued one day in the week above the others, while the “strong” made no distinction between days (14:5).
One of the greater challenges for early Christianity centred around the relationship between Jewish and Gentile Christians as it pertained to the relevance of the Law. The “weak” in our passage were likely Jewish Christians who abstained from non-kosher foods and observed the Sabbath. They had trusted in Jesus as Messiah, but were unable to accept that in Christ certain practices, that for so long had defined them as the people of God, were no longer binding.
How does Paul seek to mend this division over non-essential matters?
He begins by countering the mutual judgment that defined this community with a call for mutual acceptance. “Let not the one who eats [the “strong”] despise the one who abstains [the “weak”], and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him” (14:3). Paul is cognizant that those with more freedom in Christ have the tendency of looking down upon those with less freedom as legalists, while those with less freedom often view themselves as the righteous remnant who have resisted compromise unlike those others. Paul finds this unacceptable.
When we judge someone’s faith over a matter that we disagree with, but that is not essential to Christianity and its moral vision, we set ourselves up against God who has already welcomed that person. To be sure, Paul is not calling for total tolerance, but he is calling for tolerance within the confines of the faith.
Paul’s second argument stresses the importance of godly motivation. Undermining the significance of any day or diet, he writes: “The one who observes the day, observes it in honour of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honour of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honour of the Lord” (14:6). The reason why someone eats something or esteems a day as holy, for Paul, is more important than the practice itself.
He does not say that any action one can think of is now permissible as long as they claim right motives; but in matters not antithetical to the gospel, Paul will tolerate diversity as long as people live to honour God. And in this divide, he is sure that both parties “live to the Lord” (14:7).
Paul directs his final argument to the “strong,” instructing them to not “put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother or sister;” if they do, they are “no longer walking in love.” (14:13, 15). Those who are “strong” are not to jeopardize the faith of the “weak,” by pushing them to do (or not do) something that they view at odds with their faith, as this often results in disillusionment and (at worst) the destruction of their faith.
Paul believes that there is something more important than one’s liberty in Christ—namely, the building-up of the church. Paul would always have you seek the good of your church over your personal freedom. This is not to say that one must change their convictions and practices per se; but they should be filtered through a does-this-build-up-the-church? grid.
The Way of Christ
For Paul, this is the way of Christ. “We who are strong, have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak… Because Christ did not please himself’” (15:1, 3). That Paul would draw a comparison between Christ’s sacrifice and the duty of the “strong” to change their diet may appear unwarranted, but it is intended to jolt the reader. If Christ was willing to lay down his life for those who are “weak,” will the “strong” not make these lesser sacrifices?
Paul closes by praying that God would grant this church to “live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify God” (15:5-6).
Notice that Paul prays that they would live in harmony with one another. What does harmony imply? It implies the absence of unison. When Paul prays for unity, he expects a measure of diversity to remain; yet Paul believes that “with one voice” this church can still glorify God.
I invite you to welcome Paul the mediator to guide us as a conference in the coming months. There are matters that we disagree on that have the potential of threatening our harmony in advancing Christ’s kingdom culture.
To, semi-reluctantly, speak to the elephant in the room: we are divided on whether women may serve as pastors in our conference. While, at this time, I identify as a soft-complementarian (though admittedly, I find this term and egalitarian unhelpful and a barrier in this discussion), I would like to suggest that this divide is over a matter non-essential to our faith.
It is without question a significant and necessary discussion and it cannot be fully separated from the gospel’s implications (which are surely essential), but the matter never makes it into Paul’s core statements about the gospel. It is never listed in those vice-catalogues deemed antithetical to the gospel and finds no mention in the Church’s early creeds.
I’m aware that rigorous discussion is a prerequisite before we can agree on what constitutes an essential of our faith, but my conviction is that Paul would be disheartened if we were unable to move in the direction of harmony—not uniformity—on this matter.
Listening to Paul our mediator, therefore, let us refrain from criticizing those whom Christ has already accepted; let us recognize the wholehearted faith of many with whom we disagree, and let us consider the benefit of our conference above our individual preferences.
James Driedger (MDiv, PTS) is an associate pastor at Blumenort Community Church. He lives in Steinbach with his wife and two sons.