I know this is a lot to take in…trust me. I do. Totally get it. But here’s what I can tell you: if I can read through stuff and at least begin to kind of, maybe, a little bit feel like it makes more sense than it ever has over the course of the last 40+ years of my life – so can you. The only thing I don’t understand is why it took me so long to even try. Below are a few questions from an assignment I had in a class on the book of Romans. Note: A guy named Paul wrote the book and Paul USED TO KILL CHRISTIANS JUST ‘CAUSE BEFORE HE TALKED TO JESUS. Paul was Jewish and hated Christians. So if a guy who pretty much used to suck can turn away from former sucking and end up writing most of the New Testament…I’d say we all have a shot. “So you’re tellin’ me there’s a chance?” Yes, Jim Carrey, I am. Read on.
(1) “So then let us pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another”: Begin by briefly reflecting on how you understand Paul’s ethical exhortations to relate to his theological musings in Romans. How does the character of God, as revealed in the Christ Event, inform Paul’s instructions regarding how the community ought to behave and treat one another? What key images stand out to you as you survey Paul’s paraenesis? What are the ethical implications Paul draws for the community of believers who are “in Christ”? How does Paul’s understanding of faith inform his exhortation to practice? In short, How do you see Paul’s theology and ethics “fitting together”?
1. It is still the same good news of the gospel message in Chapters 1-11 which offers the exact indispensable connection to Paul’s ethical exhortations found in the remaining three chapters of Romans. While he certainly goes into specifics in 14:1-15:13, there is no shortage of underlying theme – believers are in Christ. Paul has done a fantastic job of calling attention to the aboveboard essentialism which is intrinsic in God’s grace; now he continues to illustrate various ways in which His grace should be incorporated into the daily lives (i.e. actions) of those belonging in Christ.
While Paul’s whole point is unity, he initially separates the bunch into two groups according to their faith: those who are “weak” (in it) and those who are “strong.” He does not admonish either group for being entirely right or wrong, but instead focuses on the attitude of “the strong” which he includes himself among (15:1) by indicating they have been treating the weak with ridicule and judgement. I find this interesting in that Paul is essentially throwing himself under the proverbial bus to solidify his point of having both groups in mind. Unity cannot occur by definition unless there is a consolidation, and Paul is coaxing each side here to make specific choices regarding purity (of food in 14:1, et al) which he knows/hopes will subsequently lead to specific purity of more significance, i.e. clean consciences in their own estimations in and effort “to foster unity and other-regard, with the example of Christ in mind (15:1-9).” While the specificity with which Paul’s examples (14:14, 17, 20) must have resonated, the subject in his exhortation remains the same throughout: the good news of the saving power of God’s love revealed in Christ.
The Furnish article says it best in my opinion – the word ‘intersection’ cannot do justice to the organic relationship of theologyand ethics seen in Romans; neither term is utilized at all within the epistle. Perhaps trumping both words is what Paul’s own singular word says best: “gospel.” We certainly see key images appear in Paul’s rhetoric/exhortation, but there is zero question that those images serve as more of a backdrop against the center stage of the Christ Event and the deliverance from sin and death into a new life reigned under grace which it brings. In Paul’s first perspicuous appeal, believers are called to a realization that they are “dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus” (5:11), while two further appeals in 6:12-13 demand consideration for the inherently moral character of “this new life.” Those who have died (to sin; to their “old ways”) have been freed to “belong to one another.” The imagery Paul uses of baptism to portray the burial of a sin-dominated self that has been “crucified with” Christ shows a release of the power of sin in favor of a “newness of life” (6:4) just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father.
Paul is neatly wrapping up his theological exhortations with a bow of ethical practice. While he has initially segregated (strong v. weak, etc.) camps, the critical effort in so doing was not to isolate, but rather to insulate. Paul was insulating the entire group of believers so they might finally and fully understand that it is not a matter of which group they belong, but that they must be a part of thegroup – those who belong to Christ who “died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living” (14:9).
(2) The ethical paradigm of Christ and Christian hospitality:
(A.i.) Discuss what you think to be the basic issues Paul is addressing in terms of exhortation to “the strong” and “the weak”, not yet identifying who you think might be “the weak” and “the strong”. Name the particular issues and in which verses they appear, and the particularities of Paul’s choice of words. (This first part is primarily about what issues are on the table, and why you think they might relate to what Paul has previously said in the epistle.) (A.ii.) And, then, discuss the particular warrantsthat Paul uses as the reasons for his exhortation (i.e., 15:1–3, 7–12).
(B) Now compare some different approaches of other commentators with Sampley regarding Paul’s rhetorical strategy in addressing the issues of “the strong” and “the weak”. (What difference does it make if one assumes that the referents of Paul’s division between “the weak” vs. “the strong” are “Jew” vs. “gentile”, versus if one assumes that Paul is deliberately obscure about identifying the referents? What is the significance of choosing to compare Rom 14:1 – 15:13 with either 1 Corinthians 8–10 or with 2 Corinthians 1–7? What kind of presupposition does each of the commentators have [e.g., what is at stake for these commentators and for Sampley]?)
2A.i. My estimation of the basic issues which Paul is addressing in his “strong v. weak” exhortation include the following: (micro) – food purity as it relates to practicality and long-standing customs; (macro) – addressing how an established community can maintain its unity (i.e. practicality & long-standing customs) in the face of differing opinions. According to the Karris article, “maintenance of unity is rooted in a strong community which in faith and love and concern can tolerate differences of opinion in indifferent matters such as eating or not eating certain types of food” (page 172). The article points out there is a clear predominance of words connoting “community”: adelphos(14: 10, 13, 15 [cf. Rom. 13:8-10], 21; 15:2 [toplesion]); allelous (14:13, 19; 15:5, 7); oikodome (14:19; 15:2); “we are the Lord’s” (14:9); “with one voice” (15:6). The purpose of multiple variants of “community,” I believe, is not that dissimilar to Paul’s altogether purpose of unification among an entire body. Whether the “weak” and “strong” epitomizes a particular group or entire disparate communities is not the pressing issue. The overarching ultra-important issue Paul is addressing here is the relationship between freedom and love, as it (according to Karris) “introduces Christ.”
2A.ii. Once we, or they, or an inclusionary or exclusionary group “get to Christ”…all are unified as one body of Christ. The foundation(s) which Paul uses as the reasons for his exhortations (15:1-3; 7-12) is then, in direct proportional effort to “get people to Christ,” i.e. Paul’s theological “spin” in his paraenesis is tactically done in order to spread the gospel. He wisely realizes, as he has always done, that there is a two-fold approach to his central message. The warrants Paul uses addressed and related to the possible present situations within the Roman community, but also within any Christian community. When someone comes in from the outside to a community, a group, a self-contained entity rooted in its strength of tradition and acceptance, they must connect. Paul connected to those whom he gave his exhortations on the basis of he knew what was going on in their collective group-world. He was establishing “his cred,” so the group would not just quickly dismiss what he was beseeching under the heading of “he doesn’t know us, therefore he doesn’t know what he’s talking about! Why should we listen?!?”
Beyond that, Paul is putting the encumbrance squarely on the shoulders of the purported “strong” to help the “weak” and to please them (15:1), therein stating that each of them should please his neighbor for his good (15:2), for the purpose of “upbuilding” (in the Greek). Again, the reasons in these statements are (also) two-fold: not only was there some literal sense of “strengthening” the actual households that served as the bases for the Christ-movement in Rome, but also a figurative sense of community “betterment.” Esler points out that Paul’s use of “neighbor” deserves exposition. Just prior, in Rom. 13:9, a quote of instruction from Leviticus 19:18 was made: “You will love your neighbor as yourself,” and immediately thereafter in 13:10, “Love does no evil to a neighbor.” I believe the usage we see Paul engaging in here in his exhortation is the markedly important issue of the freedom and love relationship…as it introduces Christ. Everything for Paul was about relationships, but none more valuable than each individual’s with Jesus.
2B. Sampley’s approach and discussion made roughly 150% sense to me; in fact, I loved the entire article! The idea of frank speech verses oblique or indirect speech by Paul on the basis of the established relationship(s) he had with his audience should not have been such a novel idea, but light bulbs were happening a la Christmas tree displays. For Sampley, the significance of choosing to compare Rom. 14:1-15:13 with 2 Cor. 1-7 was to highlight that point exactly. Paul wrote a “painful letter” (i.e. elicited their guilt) to the Corinthians, calling them to task. His letter and the words within were direct and pulled no punches, for he had an established and solid relationship with those readers and was in a position to speak candidly. However, that was absolutely not the case with people in Rome. Paul had not been there. He did not have the luxury or necessity of time in establishing any kind of personal connections or relationships. Therefore, his usage of figured speech was ingenious and purposeful. Figured speech requires the readers or hearers to draw their own conclusions, with the application to themselves of what has just been said their own sole responsibility. The deliverer of the information (Paul) assumes no responsibility, because he has not yet earned the right (via relationship and trust) to take it. Whereas direct speech – again, Paul’s chosen methodology to the Corinthians and Galatians – comes across as argumentative and confrontational, figured speech (according to Sampley) is “allusive and evocative” (page 45). Direct speech needs proofs (which the Romans would have scoffed about, believing full-well in their minds that Paul did not possess [their specific] proofs); figured speech invites the hearer to establish its accuracy by self-application.
This is an absolutely beautiful approach by Paul, as he is nothing but elusive in any kind of identification of “the weak” or “the strong” and instead simply encourages the strong to help the weak. Obviously, it’s a win-win for him, as everyone will narcissistically throw themselves into the “strong” camp, thereby rendering them in a position of “helping” their brothers and sisters in Christ. Ah, unity.
Sampley contends that defining the strong and the weak is insignificant. He even goes so far as to remind us that many of the interpretive models which are used to uncover particulars in Romans are probably the same models that are used to do the same in Corinthians and Galatians – and that it’s like putting a square peg in a round hole. Paul did not speak to the Romans in the same manner as he did to those in other communities, because he couldn’t. “By whatever means necessary” is the motto which comes to my mind as I continue to study and learn more about this. Paul was on a mission; he was a missionary! And the only implication as far as he was concerned was what would happen to non-believers and those “groups” of people he failed to reach.
Certainly, the implication of who was in the “weak” camp and who comprise the “strong” camp was of no consequence, for everyone is addressed in Romans 15:7 when Paul again refers to an example of Christ that is a development of the thought of 1 Cor. 11:1: “Be imitators of me as I am of Christ.” It does not say “The ‘weak’ be imitators of me” nor “The ‘strong’ be imitators of me.” The example of Christ that the Romans are being implored to imitate as they welcome one another is found in the example contained in 1 Cor. 10:32-33: “Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God, just as I try to please all men in everything I do, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.” Karris states it so well: “The stress of Rom. 15:7-13, therefore is on the servant nature of Christ (15:7), who makes the two one. Christ is all things to all men, to Jews and Gentiles, so that he might save them all, so that they might give glory to God.”
Karl Barth states it even better on this passage: “Jesus reveals and realizes God’s mercy upon earth, ‘in order to make the one nation and the many together into one.”” Paul, as an incredible servant himself, was also making the two (strong and weak) one – one solid body unified in Christ – despite themselves or their indifferences over insignificant matters.
 Blackwell, Ben C., Goodrich, John K., Maston, Jason. Reading Romans in Context, Paul and Second Temple Judaism. Page 151. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2015.
Furnish, Victor Paul. Living to God, Walking in Love: Theology and Ethics in Romans. Page 193. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2012.
 Furnish, Victor Paul. Living to God, Walking in Love: Theology and Ethics in Romans. Page 200. Atlanta: Society of Biblical Literature, 2012.