Good morning! Today with Romans 12-16 we finish the first of Paul’s letter to churches in the early decades of the church’s expansion. Where earlier parts of the letter have advocated theological and philosophical justification for Gentiles and Jews together in the faith, here Paul focuses on concrete instructions for everyday behavior. He characterizes the Christian life as one of humility and transformation, advises accommodation to political authorities, counsels peace-keeping in the Christian community and closes with many personal greetings to members of the church in Rome.
One stirring description of the Christian life comes early in our reading: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect” (12:2). Does Paul intend this description of discipleship to sound unattainably perfect? I wonder if he sets the bar so high that everyone will recognize how far below it they fall, which might serve as a check in an overachieving Roman context. In fact, Paul specifically counsels humility, perhaps in the effort to help disciples get along with one another. He lays out here a key idea of many body parts making up one body, and will develop this further in letters to the Corinthian church. The end of Romans 12 has a bold challenge to practice such humility and generosity—even to enemies—that it embarrasses and/or wins over the opponent. Reading Paul here, the Christian life seems like a daunting yet rewarding adventure!
Paul’s counsel at the beginning of Romans 13 to show deferential respect to authorities has been used in repressive governments such as Nazi Germany or the McCarthy era to argue church support of the status quo. Paul presumes that authorities are up to good, and their power comes from God. This does not make allowance, though, for corrupt, exploitative or violent regimes. What are Christians supposed to do there? Remember that Paul was writing in the complex circumstances of the Roman Empire, addressing people in the heart of imperial power. His advice to be a dutiful and honorable citizen may have been included in case the letter was intercepted by authorities, or intended to mollify believers who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo. That’s the only way I can explain these verses, because if Paul genuinely believes in assenting to whatever those in power say, he would be at odds with Jesus (and with himself in other letters). This provocative question remains: if “love is the fulfilling of [divine] law” (as Paul says in 13:10), what are believers to do with unloving (and therefore divinely unlawful) policies and practices of governmental authorities?
For life in the Christian community, Paul seeks equanimity among the believers. He wants them to not get too hung up on this or that specific practice, especially if it gets in the way of unity. In large part, he trusts each person to follow their own conscience. He tells the Romans not to judge one another, but instead the seek the well-being of the other. In fact, they are to go out of the way to accommodate the needs of others, particularly if their actions may lead others astray. He addresses diet practices since this was an ongoing tension among Jewish and Greek Christians, encouraging abstinence rather than offense when it comes to eating meat or non-kosher food.
In closing, Paul reiterates his desire to journey to Rome, except that he’s been otherwise busily occupied. (By Paul’s account, this letter comes when Paul is on his way from Macedonia and Achaia to Jerusalem with funds for the church there, before he was imprisoned and compelled on the journey to Rome at the end of Acts.) He mentions money in a subtle way that is often his practice at the end of letters, suggesting that funding for the Christian church rightly comes from Gentiles as a sign of gratitude for how they have been “let in” to salvation. He also customarily passes along greetings for many (which also invites letter recipients to treat those named as references for Paul’s character). Note how many women are among the church leaders Paul names and thanks. He models how important it is to thank and address people by name, a practice we encourage to this day when we wear name tags at public functions, including church. Happy reading!
Please join discussion of this passage at the Daily Bible Facebook group, or comment below. The passage for tomorrow is 1 Corinthians 1-3. Thanks for reading!