In Paul’s estimation, the strong and weak should welcome one another as Christ has welcomed them.
Reading Romans Backwards
By Scot McKnight
In his letter to the Romans, Paul’s biggest and best question for the strong as well as for the weak is this one: With whom did you dine last night? He’ll press it further: Are you the strong dining with the weak or not? Yes or no? That’s the question—the heart of lived theology.
The central action of Christian ethics for Paul in Romans is welcome, the foundation is the grace of God in Christ, and the true end of that act of welcoming is the glory of God. How the strong or the weak were to get to the act of welcome is not spelled out in detail.
Reading Romans backwards will get us there, for it shows that Romans 1–4 and 5–8 offer what amounts to two alternatives, one proposed by the weak and one proposed by Paul, whose proposal stands against both the strong and the weak. But that’s getting ahead of ourselves. For now we have to look at the theme of welcome.
The instruction to welcome is found at 14:1 and 15:7, and it lurks in 15:1 in other terms (“put up with” means “to shoulder the differences and decisions of the weak”): Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions (14:1). We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves (15:1). Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God (15:7).
This welcoming is about eating with one another. It is about invitations to those unlike us to our home and our table and our prayers and our food, and it is about doing this as siblings, not rivals and enemies. In Romans 15:7–13, Paul provides a rationale for a theology of the strong and the weak welcoming one another.
First-century Bible readers like Paul either had the Bible committed to memory or in conversation with others could come up with texts that mattered, and in this instance Paul turns to the Bible to deepen his argument for welcoming one another. Paul combines the Greek translations of Psalm 18:49 with Deuteronomy 32:43, with Psalm 117:1, and then finally with Isaiah 11:10. There appears to be a subtle move in these quotations, but it hinges on knowing who is speaking in the first use of the Old Testament: “Therefore I will confess you among the Gentiles.” If the “I” is Christ himself, then perhaps the first three citations are spoken by Christ to the churches of Rome. And it appears Christ is the one speaking: in verse 8, we read, “Christ … might confirm,” and Christ continues into verse 9 with “might glorify.” If this is the case, then Christ is speaking in the quotation in verse 9. That is, it is Christ who will confess God among the Gentiles (15:9), then perhaps also (I only suggest) it is Christ who exhorts the Gentiles to rejoice “with his people” (Israel, the weak, 15:10), and then it is also Christ who exhorts the Gentiles to “praise the Lord” (15:11). The fourth citation from the Old Testament, then, is a commentary by Paul on Jesus as the ruler of the Gentiles, too. This theme of the praise of the Gentiles, which is present in each citation from the Old Testament, reveals the doxological orientation of the Pauline mission and anticipates how he understands the collection for the saints (15:15–16, 25–27).
We have not wandered from the concrete expression of lived theology here that crystallizes into the theme of welcoming one another as siblings. As Christ has welcomed the strong and the weak, so the strong and the weak are to welcome one another. And as Christ welcomed them, so too it was Christ speaking through the Scriptures to announce that the work of God in the world expanded from Israel into the Gentiles to bring them all into one family, the body of Christ. Paul’s focus here is not on Jews in general, but on Jewish believers in Jesus as Messiah, and it is they who are to see in these Scriptures a summons to welcome the strong to the table as siblings.
Excerpted from Reading Romans Backwards: A Gospel of Peace in the Midst of Empire by Scot McKnight. Copyright © 2019 by Baylor University Press. Reprinted by arrangement with Baylor University Press. All rights reserved.