St Paul draws his brief ethical excursus to a close with this chapter. Recall how at the start of chapter 12 he instructed the Roman Christians to discern the will of God? The word he used there for ‘discern’ (δοκιμάζειν in the Greek) is used for assaying metals. It takes serious application and care.
Chapter 14 is an exercise in that sort of discernment. What are Christians to think about a series of hot-button issues? The central questions in the tussle between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians in Rome was whether certain foods could be eaten, and whether certain feast days should be kept – questions on which the Jewish Christians were probably fairly conservative and the Gentile Christians probably fairly liberal.
First, says Paul, don’t judge one another. That’s God’s job. Second, hold the conscience of the other party uppermost in your decision-making process. Think: is what I do going to cause distress to someone else? If it is, don’t do it.
It is tempting to look at chapter 14 and see Paul saying ‘none of these things really matters; chill out, Jewish Christians!’ But in fact he doesn’t say that at all. He says they do really matter, because if they really matter to other Christians then they really matter to all of us.
If it is only faith that matters now, if there is to be no one-upmanship in Christ, if we do not live according to a legal-rulebook ethics code like the ancient Jews, then the only way we will learn to live together as brothers and sisters is if we consistently submit to one another, if we constantly look out for one another’s wellbeing, if we always promote one another’s consciences above our own. That’s what the art of ‘discerning’ entails in the daily life of a Christian community.
In our own day there are hot-button issues aplenty. We all have our opinions. But in pronouncing them – and in thinking and feeling them – do we promote the wellbeing of those whose consciences disagree with ours? Do we value the consciences of others more than we value our own?
These devotions were originally written for the parish of All Saints, Ascot and we are grateful for permission to republish them on Fulcrum.
Patrick is curate of All Saints’, Ascot in Berkshire. A musicologist by training, he is married to Lydia, a university lecturer, and dad to Madeleine. He writes (sporadically) at benedixisti.wordpress.com and tweets (even more sporadically) as @patrickgilday.