The Line of Thought in Romans 14,13-15,7

The Line of Thought in Romans 14,13-15,7


The Line of Thought in Romans 14,13-15,7

In a previous short study I divided Rom 14,1-13 into six small units paying attention to Paul's use of the first, second or third person. This facilitated the analysis and helped clarify Paul's reasoning, that is his balanced attention both to the weak and to the strong Christians. As is well known, the addressees of Romans are more particularly the Gentile Christians. In 14,1-13 Paul appears to exhort both the weak and the strong, the first not to pass judgment and the second not to despise. Yet close reading brought to light not only that, according to Paul, the faith of the strong is correct, but also that patient love for the weak must prevail[1]. How can we best examine the verses which follow in 14,13-15,7[2]?


Michael Theobald detects a concentric structure in 14,13-23: A (vv. 13-14), B (v. 15), C (vv. 16-18), B' (vv. 19-20a) and A' (vv. 20b-23)[3]. In A and A' we have the maxims: "Nothing is unclean () in itself" (A, negative in v. 14b) and "everything is clean () indeed" (A', positive in v. 20b). These statements can be compared with the saying in the central unit C: "For the kingdom of God is not food and drink... (v. 17). In both A and A' there is a wordplay on the verb (v. 13ab and vv. 22b-23a); moreover,  in v. 13c corresponds with  in v. 21b. As to B and B' we notice  in v. 15a.c and v. 20a and we may perhaps compare  in v. 15c with  in v. 20a, both verbs in the imperative present, second person singular, preceded by .

Yet, striking though these data may be, I do not think that they allow us to assume that Paul arranged this passage in five concentric units, nor that his original readers or listeners could have recognized this clever structure. Neither the use of the grammatical persons nor the vocabulary is consistent through these units. The length and the content of the so-called corresponding units are fairly dissimilar. The connecting conclusive particle  in vv. 16a and v. 19a also argues against the division proposed by Theobald. Finally, I do not see that vv. 16-18 (C) contain the central idea of the passage. The plea for a concentric structure in 14,13-23 remains unconvincing.

It would seem that in Rom 14,13-15,7 Paul employs the first person plural, as it were, to generalize the address and to include the weak, who are probably mostly Jewish Christians. In the verses in which Paul uses the second person plural or singular, he appears to direct his warnings to the strong, mostly Gentile Christians. With this distinction in mind the Greek text can be presented in four somewhat artificial subdivisions: 14,13a and 13b-16 (indented),; 14,17-19; 14,20-15,1 (indented); 15,2-7a and 7b (indented):






c 







































Whether Paul distinguished sections in this passage must remain highly uncertain. Our division, however, may help us to better follow Paul's line of thought.

Close Reading[4]

Romans 14,13a and 13bc-16

13aLet us no more pass judgment on one another,

bbut rather decide

cnever to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.

14aI know and am persuaded in the Lord

bthat nothing is unclean in itself;

cbut it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.

15aIf your brother is being injured by what you eat,

byou are no longer walking in love.

cDo not let what you eat cause the ruin of one

dfor whom Christ died.

16So do not let your good be spoken of as evil.

Verse 13a is a concluding () exhortation, by which Paul probably addresses all Christians in Rome: let us therefore no longer pass judgment (present tense) on one another. But immediately, in v. 13bc, he speaks directly to those who are strong, in the second person plural: but make the following () decision, namely: not to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of the (weak) brother. There is a shift of meaning in the use of  in 13a and 13b: from "to pass judgment" to "decide".

Verse 14a points to Paul's own strict conviction that is grounded in the Lord Jesus[5]. Not without emphasis he declares: "I know and am persuaded". What follows in 14bc leaves no doubt. Paul is convinced that nothing is unclean in itself; but he adds: something is unclean for the one who thinks it unclean; yes, for that person it is unclean indeed. The stress on  cannot be overlooked. Verse 14c refers to the weak Christian.

In v. 15 Paul addresses the strong in the second person singular. If your weak brother grieves because of the food you eat (15a), you are no longer walking in love (15b). The prohibition of 15c is, as it were, the conclusion that is drawn from 15b: do not cause his ruin by your food. What verse 15d adds is a sudden all-important motivation: for Christ has given his life for that weak brother. This must make the addressee pause.

Verse 16 is again a conclusive () exhortation. The sentence is dense, in paraphrase: your insight is correct, but your free attitude can be misunderstood and slandered. Do not let this happen! Paul has come back to the second person plural: "your good", that is the kingdom of God, that is righteousness, peace and joy (cf. v. 17).

The second person (plural or singular) clearly dominates 14,13b-16.

Romans 14,17-19

17For the kingdom of God is not food and drink

butrighteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit;

18for he who thus serves Christ is acceptable to God

and approved by men.

19aLet us then pursue what makes for peace

band for mutual upbuilding.

Through the theme of "food" there is a connection between v. 17 and v. 15; moreover, verse 17 provides a motive for what is said in v. 16. Yet our attention should first go to v. 19. Just as in 14,16, so also in v. 19a Paul underlines the conclusion by , here reinforced by . The first person plural of the exhortative  points to the whole community of Roman Christians. Verse 19b confirms this interpretation: upbuilding must be mutual (). We notice the inclusive expressions  and .

It would seem that this universal sense already breaks through in the preceding motivating clauses (twice with ): for the kingdom of God is righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, not food and drink (v. 17); the second motivation (v. 18) indicates what the Christian reaches if he serves Christ on this principle (, with reference to v. 17): he will be acceptable to God and approved by men. Just as in 14,15d, so also in 14,18 "Christ" is mentioned (cf. v. 14a: "the Lord Jesus"). We also note the trinitarian character of v. 17 (the Holy Spirit) and v. 18 (Christ and God)[6].

The whole of vv. 17-19 most probably applies to all the Christians in Rome.

Romans 14,20-15,1 (indented)

20aDo not, for the sake of food, destroy the work

of God.

bEverything is indeed clean,

cbut it is wrong for anyone to make others fall

by what he eats.

21aIt is right not to eat meat or drink wine

bor do anything that makes your brother stumble.

22aThe faith you have, keep between yourself and God;

bhappy is he who has no reason to judge himself

for what he approves.

23aBut he who has doubts is condemned, if he eats,

bbecause he does not act from faith;

cfor whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.

1aWe who are strong have to bear with the failing of the weak

band not to please ourselves.

The sudden appearance of the second person singular (vv. 20a, 21b and 22a) reminds us of 14,4a.10ab and 15. The term "food" in 14,20a is taken up from vv. 17 and 15. Verse 20a contains Paul's main concern: do not destroy what God has achieved in the weak brother[7]. V. 20bc explains. The conviction of the strong is right: yes, everything is clean (v. 20b). The emphasis, however, lies on v. 20c: But it is wrong for a person to eat and cause scandal; this eating becomes an occasion of sin for the weak[8]. Verse 20b can be compared with v. 14b, and verse 20c with v. 14c. Twice, first, in vv. 14b and 20b, the correct insight (the maxim) is formulated, but immediately after comes, in v. 14c, the mention of "thinking" of the weak and, in v. 20c, the possible offensive behavior of the strong. In v. 20c  refers to the strong person who acts in the wrong way ([] ...).

In v. 21ab Paul now shows to the strong the right way: it is good ( [] ...) not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother stumble. Verse 21b repeats , present in 21a, but a verb and direct object are missing, which we render literally: "nor (do anything) by which your brother stumbles".

Paul now, in v. 22a, addresses the strong directly:  ("as for you"). What follows in this verse should probably be rendered literally as: "the faith you have according to yourself (= in private?), have it before God" (otherwise RSV)[9]. The blessing of v. 22b is probably meant for the same strong man: "blessed is he who does not condemn himself by what he approves".

In v. 23ab Paul points to the weak person (cf. v. 14c). The one who is doubting, if he eats, is already condemned, because that eating does not find its origin in faith. The Greek here is dense. Verse 23c generalizes and provides the reason: "whatever does not proceed from faith is sin". In this context, the term "faith" in v. 23b and v. 23c may have the nuance of faith-conviction, "Glaubensüberzeugung" (Theobald). One should also notice the play on words:  (v. 22b: probably "to condemn"),  (v. 23a, "to doubt") and  (v. 23a, decidedly "to condemn").

It will surprise the reader that in 15,1 Paul employs the first person plural and so puts himself into the category of the strong. What this verse emphasizes, positively and negatively, is the behavior that he prescribes: we who are strong ought to carry the weaknesses of those without strength; we should not please ourselves. The whole of 5,1 reminds us of 14,20a in the same subdivision and also of 14,13bc.

Romans 15,2-7

2let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to edify him.

3aFor Christ did not please himself,

bbut, as it is written,

c"The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me."

4aFor whatever was written in former days

bwas written for your instruction,

that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.

5May the God of steadfastness and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus,

6that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

7aWelcome one another, therefore,

bas Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.

Rom 15,1-13 constitutes the third part of Paul's lengthy paraenesis in 14,1-15,13. Christ is put forward here as the sole and impressive example: he did not please himself and suffered reproaches (v. 3); he has welcomed both weak and strong (v. 7b). See also the mention of "Christ Jesus" in v. 5 and of "our Lord Jesus Christ" in v. 6. This Christ, by becoming a servant, confirmed the promises to the patriarchs (and Israel) (v. 8). Yet, Paul above all highlights how God in his mercy took care of the Gentile Christians (vv. 9-12). Verse 13 finishes the passage by means of a last prayer. It would seem that in 15,2-7a Paul deals with all Christians in Rome, both strong and weak. He employs the first person plural in v. 2 (each of us) and v. 6: "... that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ".

Verse 2 inculcates the appropriate behavior of all Christians: to please their neighbor, to edify him. Verse 3a grounds () the previous exhortation and uses the same verb : "For Christ did not 'please' himself". In v. 3bc Psalm 69,9 is cited and applied to Christ: "But, as it is written ...". The psalmist complains to God and says: the insults meant for you (= God) have fallen (also) on me. Paul understands "on me" as signifying "on Christ".

Verses 4-6 consist of an explaining motivation (, v. 4) and a prayer that repeats part of the vocabulary from the preceding verse, "steadfastness and encouragement" (vv. 5-6). Paul himself is convinced that whatever was formerly written contains instruction which leads to steadfastness and encouragement and, henceforth, to hope. The added prayer in vv. 5-6 now calls God the "God of steadfastness and encouragement" and asks him for a life in harmony with one another; this will result in glorification of God. Paul very much stresses the importance of that harmony: "to think in the same way" and "in accord with Christ Jesus" (v. 5); "with one mind ()" and "with one voice" (v. 6)[10].

Although the same verb "to welcome" (, cf. also in 14,1) is used, a shift is already taking place in v. 7b: from all Christians in 7a to more specifically the strong in vv. 8-13. In these last verses, however, Paul will distinguish between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians. This distinction justifies the opinion that the strong mostly belong to the last group and the weak to the first.

The Text within Romans 14,1-15,13

The main point of Paul's paraenesis in Rom 14,1-15,13 is his repeated injunction that the strong Christians in Rome must bear the weaknesses of the weak, that love prevails over knowledge. More than once Paul declares that "the faith" of the strong is the more adult faith and is correct; yet insight must give way to loving patience. The example of Christ is the decisive argument.

In the first part (14,1-12) there is a balance in the admonishment: the weak should not pass judgment on the strong; the strong should not despise the weak. Both those who eat and those who abstain do it to honor the Lord and give him thanks. Let all be accountable to God; let all be fully convinced in their own mind. There should be no quarrelling over opinions. Yet, although Paul emphasizes that the strong will be upheld, that the Lord will make them stand - and in this way Paul defends the strong - the principal concern of his paraenesis in 14,1-15,13 is already expressed in the very first verse of this first part in the address to the strong: "Welcome those who are weak in faith" (14,1).

In the second part (14,13-23) Paul continues to exhort the strong (and the weak). No judgment should be passed on another, but the strong Christians must decide never to put a stumbling block in the way of the weak. They should not destroy the work of God. It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes the weak brother stumble. In this part, attention is focused on the reflection about food. Paul reasons, he tries to persuade his readers. He firmly and clearly proclaims his personal insight, twice: "nothing is unclean in itself" (v. 14b); "everything is clean" (v. 20b). But the kingdom of God is not food or drink, but righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Let us therefore pursue what makes for peace and mutual upbuilding. It is wrong and bad to make the brother fall by what you eat; it is right and good not to eat meat or drink wine in order to avoid the stumbling of the weak. For the weak Christians may have doubts and if they eat, while doubting, they sin and are condemned. Take care that outsiders do not speak of your "good" (the kingdom of God) as if it is evil. The strong should realize that by their behavior they can cause the ruin of the weak for whom Christ died. This part is mainly a call to the strong Christians for deeper reflection: what is food, what is the kingdom of God, what is, in Christ's eye, the value of the weak brother, what are the consequences of my behavior, what is my conviction and faith before God? This kind of reflection underscores the injunctions.

The third and last part consists of 15,1-13. By joining himself to the strong Christians Paul reinforces his plea: we "ought to put up with the failures of the weak" (v. 1). Already in 14,9 and, more concretely, in 14,15d the saving death (and resurrection) was mentioned. Here, for the third time, confirmed by a quotation from Ps 69,9, Paul underlines that Christ did not please himself (cf. 15,3-6). So, in 15,7, he can write once more: "Welcome one another ... just as Christ has welcomed you". How Christ has welcomed the strong (now referred to as Gentile Christians), is worked out in vv. 8-12. In vv. 8-9a the style is irregular and difficult. We may paraphrase these verses as follows: "For, I tell you, it is true that Christ became a servant of the Jews to show God's fidelity to the promises given to the patriarchs, but in order to show God's mercy Christ received the Gentiles so that they, too, may glorify God"[11]. Then, in vv. 9b-12, no less than four Old Testament quotations are added to highlight the welcoming of the Gentiles. While still exhorting the strong in this part, the example of Christ is broadly depicted. It must, however, strike the reader that Paul at the end, in vv. 9-12, so emphatically stresses God's mercy on the Gentiles.

The whole of 14,1-15,13 is exhortation, addressed above all to the strong Christians in Rome. In the first part, Paul also describes the situation of both weak and strong. In the second, much space is devoted to reflection. In the last part, what Christ has done stands at the center, with special attention to his welcoming of the Gentiles "for the glory of God" (15,7b).

October 2017Jan LAMBRECHT

[1] Cf. Jan LAMBRECHT, "Paul's Reasoning in Romans 14,1-13" (online).

[2] For 15,8-13, see my "Syntactical and Logical Remarks on Romans 15,8-9a", in NovT 42 (2000-257-261; also in J. LAMBRECHT, Collected Studies on Pauline Literature and on The Book of Revelation (AnBib 147), Rome: Editrice Pontificio Istituto Biblico, 2001, pp. 29-33.

[3] Michael THEOBALD, "Erkenntnis und Liebe. Kriterien glaubenskonformen Handelns nach Römer 14,13-23", in ID., Studien zum Römerbrief (WUNT 136), Tübingen: Mohr Siebeck, 2001, pp. 481-510, especially 483-487: "Die Architektur des Textes". The aim of this solid and theologically rich study is much more comprehensive than that of our brief note, which is limited to a close reading and an attempt to discover Paul's way of reasoning in the whole of 14,1-15,13.

[4] The translation is taken from the RSV.

[5] In v. 14b (and v. 20b) Paul most probably does not refer to the "Jesusüberlieferung, that is to the saying of Jesus which we find in Mk 7,15 (cf. v. 19). See THEOBALD, "Erkenntnis und Liebe", pp. 491-494. "Jesus" in Rom 14,14a points to the present risen Lord.

[6] Cf. the final prayer of 15,13 with the mention of God and the Holy Spirit, and also the mention of "joy" and "peace".