“Accept Christians who are weak in faith, and don’t argue with them about what they think is right or wrong. For instance, one person believes it is all right to eat anything. But another believer who has a sensitive conscience will eat only vegetables. Those who think it is all right to eat anything must not look down on those who won’t. And those who won’t eat certain foods must not condemn those who do, for God has accepted them.” (Romans 14:1-3)
Today we kick off a new blog topic, focusing on why it makes perfect sense to have a humble hermeneutic – especially when it comes to age-old issues that Christians (with equal trust, love, and knowledge of the Scriptures) have long disagreed about. I called this blog “The Romans Road” for a reason. Many of us grew up learning “The Romans Road” as an evangelistic tool. It used key verses from Romans to show an individual “why they needed to be/how to be” saved. In some sense, it grew out of the assumption that this is the central message of Romans: individual salvation. This emphasis has been a Western, post-reformation interpretive framework for the book of Romans – and largely grows out of Martin Luther’s personal crisis of faith and his subsequent “conversion” experience that was rooted in his study of Romans.
About ten years ago I was chatting with Pastor Fariborz Khandani, who was then pastor at the Iranian Church of Richmond Hill. He said to me, “Bill, you are such a Westerner! You read the Bible like it is a Western book, with a thesis, then the theology/argumentation (that you think is the main point of the book), and then some unimportant application at the end of the book. Then you do a sermon series on Romans and preach 100 sermons on Romans 1-11 (the theological argumentation) and only 2 sermons on Romans 12-16 (that is merely the unimportant application of “how we should live”). “But Bill”, he said, “the Bible is an Eastern book!”
And in an Eastern book, the purpose of the book is not found in the thesis at the front of the book, it is found at the end of the book!
Fariborz then went on to show me how many Old and New Testament books clearly spell out the author’s purpose for writing them in the very last chapter!
He then pointed out that the purpose for Paul writing Romans is found in Romans 14-15 not in Romans 1. The Jewish and Christians in Rome were fighting over what “good Christians” could eat or drink, or which religious festivals they needed to celebrate. Fariborz argued that in Romans 1-11 Paul, reveals why and how Jews and Gentiles needed to be saved and made One in Christ. Therefore, they need to treat each other differently – how they lived out their faith together was actually the point! The theological argument of Romans 1-11 is simply explaining why they need to live differently. So, while the traditional, post-reformation, Western reading of Romans saw it as a great treatise on individual salvation with a bit of application tacked on at the end, Eastern Christians viewed it as all about how we ought to treat fellow believers (with a bunch of theological foundation proving we are One in Christ).
Ironically, since I had this conversation, there is a mighty debate over this very issue. Whether or not you hold to the “New Perspective” or the traditional, post-reformation interpretation, it is a good reminder that a humble hermeneutic is a great place to start. Paul reminds us in Romans 14 to not look down on or condemn/judge each other over food, drink, and days (14:1-3, 10) and to act in love, so we are not a stumbling block to a brother or sister (14:12-16). Instead, we are to act following what we believe (14:21-23) and accept each other as Christ has accepted us – even when we disagree (15:7). What a good Christian should or should not eat or drink is one of many age-old issues that believers have broken fellowship over. May we heed Paul’s call to humility: to love and live out our Oneness in Christ even as we agree to disagree on secondary issues!
EFCC Executive Director