Commentary on Romans 14:1-12
The clarion call of Romans 14:1-12 is captured in a single concept, “hospitality” (14:1a).
The Apostle Paul observes that the human condition, in all its form and nature, is marked by wickedness. Consciously, intentionally, and with a clear mind, the human family dehumanizes and pulls down those who do not belong to the tribe. The Apostle’s world had become tribal in nature, with the church caught in an intricate web of tribalism and racism between Jews and Gentiles.
The Apostle Paul is thus quick to alert Christians in Rome (and consequently, in every place) about the dangers of failing to live as a family. Whether one is weak or strong in faith, the main denominator is that we are all human. When all is said and done, it is about believing in God, just as Abraham, our faith ancestor, did when he responded to the call of God on his life (Romans 4:16-22). Thus, to be justified by God is to be given the obligation to welcome others in spite of their condition, background, nationality, or race (Romans 15:1-11). Briefly stated, to be forgiven before we confess our shortcomings is indeed to be given the gift of reciprocity (Romans 5:8).
Paul gives the mandate to Christians that, at any moment and season, each one of us should be ready to extend hospitality to others. The 21st century, like the church in Rome, is operating under the same ecclesial and political system of the weak and the strong, whereby others are excluded, shunned, and at times silenced. The wealthy and educated ones, regardless of their faith, tend to look down on the uneducated, the poor, and those living in the so-called Global South. Yet, the Apostle Paul’s appeal is for people to live in a Trinitarian manner, by honoring and appreciating the humanity of each other.
The practice of domination often occurred in the context of food and cultural ideals. Through these references, Paul seems to be hinting at the way the Jewish and Gentile Christians categorized each other. As we read this part of Romans, we are also called to put ourselves in the place of ancient Jews and Gentiles, and to recognize the changes that are necessary to be a hospitable church. While we like to missionize and evangelize other people, we tragically avoid diversity. As a result, Sunday morning has become deeply tribal in church attendance. In sociological, theological, political, and cultural ways, today’s church is characterized by hostility between races and nationalities. It is not a surprise that the Apostle Paul in verse 4 slides into his diatribe way of engaging readers, asking, “Who are you to pass judgement on the servant of another?” (Romans 14:4). If 21st-century Christians look into the divine mirror, they will be astonished to discover the ways they categorize people as insiders and outsiders. Where there are categories, there is no unity.
The question to be addressed in today’s church is as follows: tolerance or love? Romans 14:1-12 is a call to introspection of individuals, groups, clergy, and faith pillars who have settled into a culture of tolerance instead of love, hospitality, and appreciation of others. The entire New Testament is about love, but many people operate with a mindset of tolerating others, rather than loving them.
However clergy and lay Christians choose to address this question, the Apostle Paul boils everything down to God, in whom all created beings have their foundation, form, living, and destiny. Read from a resurrection and spiritual point of view, Romans 14:1-12 seems to reiterate and interpret Romans 8:31-39 and also Philippians 2:5-11. Paul cautions readers that rituals, cultural ideals, rules, doctrines, and laws do not have the power to offer salvation; only God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit are sources of salvation to all believers. Whether we criticize or categorize others, God is the only one who has the final say upon each person’s being. While the concept of accountability has been politically abused, we will be well informed to reread Romans 14:10-12 and relearn in a new way that our accountability is to God and to no other. The sin of the present-day church is perhaps the way pettiness, triviality, and insensitivity have lodged themselves in the hearts, minds, and souls of church leaders and believers. At times, this has led to the decline and even death of congregations. When the focus is on making others perfect instead of helping them to grow, the body of Christ suffers.
In many ways, the Apostle Paul repeatedly reverts to the role of a transformed mind and conscience, and reminds readers that a transformed mind is always open to others. A spiritually renewed mind does not put stumbling blocks in another’s Christian formation and growth in God; rather, a transformed mind becomes a resource for discipleship, spiritual growth, and caring (Romans 14:17-18). Today, the divided and splintered global Christian world is in need of spiritually renewed minds and hearts. With a renewed mind comes the fruits of righteousness, peace, love, joy, and reconciliation. Romans 14:19 is the summative part of the letter, as the Apostle Paul summons all Christian practitioners to what matters most in the life of the church; namely, harmony and mutual growth of every living human being. When the church fails to be a sacred space for unity and appreciation of diversity, the entire secular world suffers.
The sin of the church is found in its failure to transform and renew the minds of many lay people. Discipleship efforts without transformation of the mind lead to the church becoming an ideological religious community. In other words, an untransformed mind is a ticking bomb that can explode at any moment and time in the life of the church. The God of the Apostle Paul, Jesus who called him, and the Holy Spirit who worked in his life were not ideological but counter-ideological. It may be that the church and all Christian practitioners are being summoned by God to a season of reorientation of minds, hearts, and souls so that the focus is on building the Kingdom of God, locally and internationally.