What you’re about to read might change the way you understand the New Testament book of Romans and the way you pursue unity in your Church.
The purpose of Paul’s letter we call “Romans” was to bring unity to the Church based on the great doctrine of justification by faith.
In Romans (particularly chapters 1-11), the apostle provides the most extensive presentation of justification by faith one can find in the Scripture. What is sometimes underemphasized (or missed altogether) is the fact that he taught this amazing doctrine for the primary purpose of calling for unity in the Church (between Gentile and Hebrew Christians, chapters 14-15).
There are powerful implications behind this fact — implications that reach all churches, in all places, at all times. A little background is necessary.
Occasion for Romans
We can assume that the gospel reached Rome through “visitors from Rome, (both Jews and converts to Judaism)” who were present at the first Christian Pentecost in Jerusalem (A.D. 30, see: Acts 2:10-11).
In these earliest stages, Christianity in Rome would have been predominantly Jewish converts to Christ. As the gospel spread, however, the membership of the Churches included Gentile converts to Christ. This became a source of considerable challenge to the early Church (see: Acts 15).
The Church at Rome faced a serious turning point when the Roman Emperor Claudius (A.D. 41-54) by imperial order (about A.D. 49) demanded that all Jews leave Rome. Since Claudius would not have distinguished Christian from non-Christian Jews, believing Jews (Christians) had to leave Rome (see: Acts 18:2).
This left the relatively young congregation in the hands of Gentile converts.
We can assume that the Church took on more of a Gentile Christian flavoring during the years under the edict of Claudius. This meant, among other things, that sensitivity to matters of Jewish customs (like special days and diet) would not have been an issue in the Church.
After the edict passed (with the death of Claudius), the Hebrew believers began migrating back to Rome. As they reentered the fellowship of the house Churches in Rome, they faced significant challenges over differences between Jewish and Gentile believers (Romans 14-15).
These historical circumstances provide the necessary backdrop for understanding the book of Romans. The words of Romans 14:1-3 tell the story:
“As for the one who is weak in faith (those feel obligated to customs), welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him” (ESV).
These words were directed to Gentile believers as they welcomed Hebrew Christians back into fellowship. The potential for disunity in the Church posed a real threat to the witness of the gospel in Rome.
The best safeguard against this threat was a shared understanding of the gospel— thus this amazing exposition of the gospel in the book we call “Romans.”
The best remedy for this threat of disunity is the gospel. This is why the apostle wrote such a powerful letter on the rich doctrines of the gospel. The aim of this teaching was to protect the unity of these strategically placed believers.
The apostle Paul wrote so that Gentile and Jewish believers “with one mind and one voice …. may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ” (15:6). He admonished them to “accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you” (15:7).
The gospel (explored deeply in Romans 1-11) explains how Christ accepted us and set the example for our treatment of one another.
Even the apostle’s closing appeal should be understood in light of this larger purpose. “I urge you, brothers, to watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way that are contrary to the teaching you have learned. Keep away from them” (16:17).
Unity based in the gospel is the aim.
The way the apostle builds up to this primary purpose is a great reminder that a deeply rich theology of salvation is the basis for unified relationships in the Church.
From the beginning, he emphasized “first to the Jew, then to the Gentile” (1:16) and in chapters 9-11, he especially encouraged humility among gentile Christians toward their Jewish brothers. A prominent theme undergirding this rich exposition of the gospel is the call to unity in the gospel for both Jew and Gentile. For example:
“There is no difference between Jew and Gentile, for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Christ Jesus” (3:22-24).
As a kind of final wrapped up of this point, chapters 9-11 closes with the declaration:
“God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all” (11:32).
The larger purpose behind this rich doctrinal focus is to call the believers to unity based on a common salvation. The gospel they’ve been given transcends the most powerful earthly barriers of race, culture and tradition (cf. Ephesians 2:11-22). All of this leads to the main concerns of Romans 14-15 in view of the historical circumstances outlined above.
This exquisite presentation of salvation is framed in a rich vocabulary. Where this vocabulary is absent, relationships never reach their God-intended, joy and unity. Where gospel clarity is weak, believers are more likely to engage in wrongful disputes and disunity over disputable matters (see: Romans 14:1-3).
If you have disunity in your Church the gospel is the best solution. Teach the book of Romans in the historical context explained above.
For a Church to be joyfully united in “the unity of the Spirit” (Ephesians 4:3), it must have a shared vocabulary of Depravity (the story behind our story), Grace (our deliverance) and Glory (our transcending hope in the hopelessness of a fallen world). The book of Romans provides and defines the terms for all three.
Unity on disputable matters, see: Understanding legalism