Romans 14:15                                 IT’S A LOVING WALK

We’re looking at what it means to be on a Christian walk. Paul’s last use of this image of the Christian walk in his letter to the Roman believers, is in a befuddling passage in chapter 14. He writes: ‘If your brother is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer walking in love.’(15) What on earth is he talking about? Well it wasn’t a latter day Jamie Oliver on a healthy eating campaign! I’ll try my best to throw some light on it. Basically he’s talking about how a community of believers copes with differences of outlook and behaviour. The whole letter has been about very different people can use their differences to be a creative community; about how Jews and Gentiles can live and grow together. There’s much needed wisdom here, relevant to one of today’s most urgent issues. How on earth do we bring diverse people together? It’s a great challenge and he gives us a wake-up call!

  • First we must wake up to judgement 14:7-13 cf. v.4 & 7-12

We judge other people, and the closer we get to know people, the more likely we are to judge. Our phrase, ‘walking in love’, follows a passage about how we judge each other. We do form opinions of others. That’s part of life and very necessary at times. If only the Christian Church had come to a judgement about Adolf Hitler when he was rising to power! Paul isn’t talking about that kind of judgement but about how we get drawn into condemning others for the way they think or behave. This was happening in the church in Rome. And it centred on what they eat or rather shouldn’t eat. Food bought in the market place had been dedicated to some Roman god in religious rituals. Some thought this made it ‘unclean’ (those with ‘weak faith’), while for others, to eat this food wasn’t a problem. They judged one another and so drifted from the path of love. So Paul says quite simply: ‘Cut it out!’ Jesus says something similar. ‘Don’t judge, or you too will be judged.’ (Matthew 7:1) We tread dangerous ground when we judge, because our judgement comes back to bite us. Both seem to be saying human beings aren’t cut out to be judges. Paul had talked of Jesus being Lord of the living and the dead. Human judgement crucified Jesus – ‘He’s dangerous!’ ‘He’s leading the people astray.’ ‘He’s cursed by God.’ Etc. etc. However, Jesus’ resurrection reverses that judgement because it’s God who judges. God judges human judgement and it’s infinitely more authoritative than mere human judgement. Our human judgements are limited and partial, but by judging others we actually put ourselves in God’s place. I walked my daughter’s Springer Spaniel yesterday. They are pure energy coiled up ready to spring! And I was told she was learning to walk to heel – no easy task for a Springer! So I had to choke her back if she didn’t walk to heel. So we are with judgement – it springs into life and races across the field of human activity. But as we walk close to Jesus, our prejudices, our arrogance, our judging spirits, are choked back. Gentleness replaces judgementalism, understanding overcomes disapproval, tolerance replaces criticism. We don’t know all there is to know about why someone thinks or behaves in the way they do. Let’s not drift from walking in love through zeal to judge.

  • Second we need to wake up to power 14:1 & 15:1

But more is going on than judgemental attitudes. At this point Paul is drawing threads together in what’s been a closely argued letter. He names a key division. There are those with ‘weak faith’, while others have a robust faith which was ‘strong’. The opening verses of chapters 14 and 15 state this clearly. There’s a play for power, for power is always at work in human groups. Some background will shed some light! Just before 50 AD the Jews were banished from Rome – not for the first time! Emperor Claudius told them to leave because of trouble surrounding the Jewish community. With one stroke Jewish leadership of a young church disappeared. Gentile believers became leaders. But when Nero replaced Claudias the Jews were allowed to return. They found a very different church led by Gentiles! It was the perfect recipe for tension, judgement and hurt, with Jewish leaders now marginalised. Power had shifted – probably for good. Paul’s letter was written to address this problem amongst other things. The ‘strong’ (15:1), Gentile believers, who had no qualms about eating meat involved in Roman temple worship exercised power to control. While the ‘weak’ (14:1), probably Jewish believers brought up with ingrained habits of what’s clean or unclean, resented their loss of power. They could only use moral power to condemn the ‘strong’ (v.3)  Tensions rose and fragmentation beckoned. It doesn’t take much to imagine all this. What does Paul do? Don’t use power to control such secondary issues where people can choose. We are use power neither to nor condemn. Rather we use what power and influence we have to create by building bridges for ‘peace and mutual up-building.’ After all God’s kingdom is about ‘righteousness, peace and joy’ (17)). Walking in love is a power that creates that neither seeks to control, nor is quick to condemn.

  • Finally we must wake up to the impact we have on one another 14:13. It’s all very well having personal choice about issues of secondary importance. But choices we make impact others, because we influence one another. Here we strike up hard against one of the main values of Western culture. We’ve made an idol of personal right to choose and freedom of expression. Look at the recent Charlie Hebdo edition that chose to mock Muhammad. Just because we can do or say something, doesn’t make it right to do it. The New Testament has a word for action careless about consequences – ‘scandalize’. It means to trap someone, or cause them to stumble: ‘Instead, make up your mind not to put a stumbling-block (literally ‘scandalize’) or obstacle in your brother’s way.’ He’s saying to those who’ve no qualms about eating meat, don’t flaunt your behaviour. Consider its impact on others, those who haven’t the same robust conscience as you. On occasions we may need to restrain our freedom because we know someone may be influenced in such a way that jeopardises their journey of faith. Love takes this into account and we voluntarily lay aside personal freedom for the well-being of others. This is not a popular message today. We’ve sown a wind and reaped a whirlwind with regard to money, sex and power – the big three drivers of human cultures. Much personal dis-ease and social fragmentation around us is a direct consequence of behaviours taking no account of its impact. Paul offers much-needed wisdom about the impact of our lives. Walking in love in Paul is practical. It involves awareness of the needs and convictions of others and adjusting our own freedoms in the light of this.


For reflection

  1. Share experiences of being misjudged. What feelings does it generate?
  2. Why did Jesus and Paul warn us not to judge others? See Matthew 7:1 & Romans 14:13
  3. How can we control our tendency to judge?
  4. Share your experience of personalities that were powerful both in a good way and a bad way.
  5. Consider how Jesus wanted power to be used amongst human beings. Mark 10:42-45
  6. What does Paul want power to achieve amongst a Christian community? See Romans 14:17 & 19
  7. In Romans 14 Paul argues we should be aware of the impact of our behaviour on others and this may limit our freedom? Is this always the case?
  8. Talk about behaviours or ways of living that may cause other believers to ‘stumble’.
  9. How do we stop this from becoming a principle that restricts and traps us altogether? When should we ignore or lay aside the principle Paul is encouraging?