I want to look at the historical and cultural background of Romans 14 in this preface to our study. This may seem a little tedious at first, but it will put the Lordship of Christ over his people into its proper context. We need to know that his Lordship is not a dictatorship! Christ rules his people for his glory and for their good.
The context for Paul’s three verse exposition of the Lordship of Christ (14:7-9) is disputes over non-essential areas—matters neither commanded nor forbidden in Scripture for the Christian assembly. We call these areas “doubtful things.” Paul says these are not to be areas of debate to the point people are alienated from Christ’s church. Most local church strife is over internal matters that are not clearly commanded or forbidden in Scripture. For example, one church I heard about split over on which side of the auditorium the piano ought to be placed.
All areas of church life ought to be sorted into three biblical categories, in my view. Phillip Schaff calls this motto “the watchword of Christian peacemakers.”
In essentials, unity;
In non-essentials, liberty;
In all things, charity (i.e. love)
(see Ross, 2009).
The Dispute at Rome in Paul’s Day
At issue in Rome was whether certain Old Testament practices of self-denial to promote Christian identity are of any continuing benefit to Christians in maintaining their identity amid paganism (Shrogen, pp. 242-244).
Let’s look further into this matter.
Picture of Daniel in the Lion’s Den—
“Daniellion” by Briton Rivières (WikiMedia Commons)
Old Testament Background to the Abstention from Meat and Wine
I think, it helps to read Daniel 1 for the background to this “self-denial.”
3 Then the king instructed…the master of his eunuchs, to bring some of the children of Israel and some of the king’s descendants and some of the nobles, 4 young men in whom there was no blemish, but good-looking, gifted in all wisdom, possessing knowledge and quick to understand, who had ability to serve in the king’s palace, and whom they might teach the language and literature of the Chaldeans.
8 …Daniel purposed in his heart that he would not defile himself with the portion of the king’s delicacies, nor with the wine which he drank… .
11 So Daniel said to the steward…, 12 “Please test your servants for ten days, and let them give us vegetables to eat and water to drink. 13 Then let our appearance be examined before you, and the appearance of the young men who eat the portion of the king’s delicacies; and as you see fit, so deal with your servants.”
15 And at the end of ten days their features appeared better and fatter in flesh than all the young men who ate the portion of the king’s delicacies.
History of the Differences over Christian Conduct in Rome
Jews had been expelled from Rome by the Emperor Claudius in A.D. 49 “because of constant riots instigated by Crestus” (Christus ?), according to Suetonius. The word for Christ (Christos) was easily confused with the common slave-name Chrestus, both of which were pronounced in practically the same way (F. F. Bruce, pp. 316-317).
The Jewish-Christians had been expelled from Rome along with all the other Jews. The Jewish Synagogues in Rome disappeared for a while. The Gentile believers had formed their own assemblies while the exiles were away. When Jews returned to Rome after Claudius’ death in AD 54, the Jewish believers found themselves alienated from the re-formed Synagogues and the newer Christian assemblies formed in their absence. They were in the “no-man’s-land” of church homelessness.
Both Parties Erred in Rome
Brothers with a Mature Faith (Gentile believers) held that since food, drink, and special days were subjects not covered by the moral law, Christians can do as they please. They had matured in their grasp of Christian liberty while the Jewish believers were in exile. When their Jewish brothers returned, the Gentile believers flaunted their liberty and risked destroying the faith of those less mature than they were.
Brothers with an Immature Faith (Jewish believers) followed Daniel and those in the Old Testament Apocryphal books, rejecting the dainties of Roman life—fine wine, rich meat, and epicurean dining—as a means of maintaining their Christian identity in the pagan capital. The Jewish believers looked down upon those who exercised their Christian liberty and judged their conduct as too pagan-oriented (Shogren, pp. 242-243).
It seems both parties erred by making “the kingdom of God a matter of eating and drinking.” (Shogren, p. 240) This is contrary to Romans 14:17—
17 for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.
Analogies with Today’s Church Differences
How many people today have been alienated from the church over disputes concerning non-essential practices?
Man Made Rules for What to Drink
In the early 1900s most churches had two books on either side of the front of the church—(1) the Church Roll and (2) the Temperance Pledge Book. To join, a person signed the pledge not to drink; “lips that touch wine will never touch mine,” was the female temperance motto at the time. Only after signing the temperance pledge could one sign the roll joining the church. Yet, total abstinence from alcohol is not an essential to salvation. Self-control in the use of all things material is taught in Scripture, but non-use of alcohol is not taught in Scripture.
Man-made Rules for Personal Appearance
I remember in the mid-1970s in Chattanooga where I lived a church had a barber down front to cut the hair off any “hippie-type” who came forward to make a profession of faith. Talk about non-essentials! Hair style is personal, not religious. I wonder how many never even made it to that church because of the harsh treatment of long-haired seekers?
Our Proper Motivation for Christian Ethical Living
In Romans 15:1-13, Paul gives us the proper motivation for living—pleasing the Lord Jesus Christ who died that he might be Lord (Wagner, 1997).
15:3 For even Christ did not please Himself; but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached You fell on Me.”
If Jesus is the Lord who directs everyone’s conduct, we can get along with each other in the church though we differ in non-essential areas. If we insist on our own rights and privileges, we will always have strife.
This is the biblical background to why Christ’s Lordship is essential to the Christian life. Let’s look further into the Scriptures in future posts.
Bruce, F. F. (1962). “Christianity Under Claudius,” Bulletin of the John Rylands Library 44 (March 1962): pp. 309-326.
Ross, Mark. (2009). “In Essentials Unity, In Non-Essentials Liberty, In All Things Charity.” Accessed 25 May 2018 from https://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/essentials-unity-non-essentials-liberty-all-things/
Shogren, G. (2000). “Is the Kingdom of God about Eating and Drinking or Isn’t It?” (Romans 14:17). Novum Testamentum, 42(3), 238-256. Retrieved from http://www.jstor.org/stable/1561137
Wagner, J. R. (1997). “The Christ, Servant of Jew and Gentile: A Fresh Approach to Romans 15:8-9.” Journal of Biblical Literature, Vol. 116, No. 3 (Autumn, 1997), pp. 473-485.