By Fergus King
5 March 2023
Should Christians maintain unity in the face of serious ethical dilemmas? This is a question which bedevils our modern denominational and ecumenical life. Sometimes we find it so much easier to talk to Christians from another tradition rather than our own. And this is not a new phenomenon. Within the 20th century, discussions over the correct ethical, pastoral, and doctrinal issues such as contraception, divorce, and the ordination of women have all been cited as the issue which will finally split the church. Today, human sexuality is invested with the same fear or excitement – let us be honest, reactions to the prospect are divided.
Yet, contentious issues are nothing new. Equally, advice on what to do in such situations may be just as ancient. So, what might the ancients have to tell the moderns? It seems that a strategy may lie tucked away inside that most robust of early Christian documents: Paul’s letter to the Romans – a community which seems ripe to split when Paul writes to them.
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Their contentious issue is one to which we give hardly any thought, but which was hugely divisive in antiquity: food. The issue is described in Romans 14, in the section of the letter from chapters 12 to 16 where Paul gives the Romans advice on how to live well, after spelling out his understanding of the gospel in Romans 1-11. The issue to the forefront in Romans 14 is what is the right diet for Christians. It has seen the congregation demarcated by two groups: the “weak” and the “strong”. The “weak” apparently eat only vegetables. The factions seem to have turned the debate into a contest about who is the real believer. This is often a useful exercise for us to direct to ourselves when spiritual pride comes knocking.
Food and related questions were a hugely complicated business for the first Christians. What to eat, where, when, and with whom? For some, it marked one of the major fault lines in emerging Christianity – not necessarily between Jew and non-Jew, but about how much of Jewish tradition one needed to uphold to be a real Christian. These often manifested themselves in discussions about keeping Jewish food laws (such as in Galatians 2:11-15 and Mark 7:14-23), made more fraught by the fact that Jesus himself had set no clear precedent. It was Mark, not Jesus, who stated, “Thus he declared all foods clean” (Mark 7:20), presumably in the hopes of resolving the matter. A simple dominical word would have nipped any controversy in the bud. For others, the question was about which foods associated with Graeco-Roman religious life one might safely eat (see 1 Corinthians 8:1-14, 10:14-23): foods eaten in temples, foods recognisably associated with a particular cult, or foods from an unidentified source? Paul’s answers in order are: NO, NO, and YES. Either way, food was as complicated then as those other contentious issues are today. Paul is aware that the matter is so fraught that it can divide the community. This he does not want, so he sets out his views about food, and demands that a different perspective be adopted.
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He starts by recognising that all humanity, Jew and Greek alike, has fallen short of God (Romans 1-3): everyone is in a mess. He then describes in Romans 4-10 the response that needs to be made to God. Not keeping the Law (or laws), but faith. By faith Paul means a behaviour which embraces three elements: understanding God as revealed in Jesus, trusting God, and being loyal to God: head, heart, and loyalty. The stuff of faith is found in the story of Jesus, and it gives the essentials of living well:
… if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For one believes with the heart, leading to righteousness, and one confesses with the mouth, leading to salvation. (Romans 10:9-10)
This is the hallmark of the Christian. If the Romans have wanted to make food the “make or break” issue, Paul has given a definitive “no”.
What, then happens to the food issue? First, Paul has relegated its importance in comparison to faith in Jesus. But he then shows its lesser importance by using arguments familiar to his audience. He has already recognised that they may approach such matters either from the perspectives afforded by Judaism, or Graeco-Romanitas, or a mixture of the two. So, he provides an argument from each to downgrade the significance of food as compared to the confession of Jesus as Lord.
From the Greeks and the Romans, he borrows an ethical category known as the adiaphora. Actions may be morally beneficial (good), harmful (bad), or indifferent (neutral). These last are the adiaphora. Instead of treating food as good or bad, he says that food is one of them. While he does not use the term itself, the flow of his argument is clear: eating or not eating is a matter of indifference since both may give honour to God (Romans 14: 5-6). To further use the ancient category: either choice may be a preferred action, but neither is ultimately good or bad. So, it’s not worth fighting over.
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The second argument is perhaps more unexpected. Modern readers often assume that Jewish law was very clear on what should be done, or not. We tend to assume they were based on absolutes. But this was not so for all. We assume that if something was declared unclean (akathartos), it was always unclean. But there was a second category, “common” (koinos), which we might call “grey areas”. We can recognise this reality from some of the recorded arguments between Jesus and his opponents in the gospels: there are times when it is right to do actions on the Sabbath which would usually be considered prohibited (for instance, Luke 14:5). And we do well to remember Ed P. Sanders’ assessment in Jesus and Judaism that Jesus hardly ever broke the Law itself, but frequently disputed what constituted a breach in different interpretations.
But Judaism of the time knew different ways of interpreting the Law. One of the most famous teachers of the Law, Hillel, thought items and acts were pure or impure not as absolutes, but because of the agent’s intention. Crudely, “If you think it is impure, it is impure for you, but not for all”. Interestingly, potential connections between Hillel and Paul are found in Gamaliel (Acts 22:3; see also Acts 23:6; 26:5): a Pharisee identified as Hillel’s grandson and Paul’s teacher. Paul is likely to have stood within this legal tradition. Again, the effect is the same as for the adiaphora: the contentious issue is relegated in importance – well below the confession of Jesus as Lord.
So, what we find in Romans is Paul effectively saying that an item deemed to be highly contentious should not in itself be grounds for a split within the community of the church.
After all that, it must be admitted that we do not know whether the Romans followed Paul’s advice or not. However, its preservation within the Scriptures which we all deem formative of our Christian behaviour suggest that his words are still worthy of our consideration when we run up against issues which threaten to fracture our community life. We might do better to look to that shared confession of Jesus as Lord as a reason to maintain unity when we disagree strongly on other matters. And we might ask, irrespective of what the Roman Christians did, whether we should heed Paul’s advice.
The Reverend Dr Fergus King is Farnham Maynard Lecturer in Ministry Education and director of the Ministry Education Centre, Trinity College Theological School.
This is a summary of the Brighton Covenant of Churches: Founders’ Lecture 2022, held at St Stephen’s Greenvale, available online at: vimeo.com/764760436.
A fuller version will be published in Many Believed because of her Testimony: Essays celebrating the Scholarship and Service of Dorothy Lee, ed. Robert Derrenbacker, Christopher A. Porter, and Muriel Porter (Eugene OR: Wipf & Stock, forthcoming).
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