Dealing with difference in Rome
In his Epistle to the Romans, Paul devoted a lengthy section (14:1-15:6) to tensions within the Christian community there. J.D.G. Dunn interprets the situation as arising from the return to Rome of Jewish Christians who had been expelled from Rome in 49 but who now, back in Rome after the death of Claudius in 54, found that Gentile Christians were in the majority in the communities. Obstacles had arisen in the way or re-integrating the returnees into the small communities. The one group felt obliged to continue to observe traditional dietary rules and feasts, bearers of their Jewish-Christian identity; these were not part of the Christian identity of the other group. What was at stake, one scholar wrote, was “the complex issue of the continuity and discontinuity between Judaism and Christian belief.”
St. Paul clearly states his own view: “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself” (Rom 14:14), and from his own perspective he regards those clinging to the old traditions as “weak in faith” (14:1) and those who agree with him as “the strong” (15:1). What is striking, however, is the even-handed way in which he wishes the tensions to be addressed: “Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains condemn the one who eats” (14:6). Dunn comments:
There is a sharp psychological insight here, since more or less any grouping that shares a common ideology will have a spectrum of opinion in their understanding and implementation of that ideology, and the temptation will always be what Paul saw it to be: For those embracing a tighter understanding to regard others who disagreed as apostates from ‘the true faith’, and for those interpreting the common ideology more loosely to despise the more scrupulous for their narrow-mindedness and rigidity. The modern attitudes of and to the various fundamentalisms of twenty-first-century religions provide all the illustration that might be needed.
Paul devotes 14:4-12 largely to the “weak in faith,” and 14:13-15:6 to the “strong.” He urges the latter:
Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died. … Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make others fall by what he eats; it is right not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother stumble…. We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves; let each of us please his neighbor for his good , to build him up. For Christ did not please himself.
And his prayer and injunction for all is:
May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.