The great blueprint for preserving the unity and catholicity of the Church is found in the epistle to the Romans. Many moderns have this rosy view of the New Testament Church as “all in one accord”. All those Bible characters in their togas were pretty much on the same page, we imagine. It wasn’t until later, we are told, that we mucked things up by turning from the simple purity of the gospel to arguing about “cold Christs and tangled trinities” or becoming obsessed over ethnic differences and quibbles about food or holy days or minute theological points or whatnot.
In fact, however, the Church was born in a stewpot of ethnic fractiousness, doctrinal details, and nitnoid pastoral issues—just like today. Jews distrusted Gentiles. Gentiles distrusted Jews. If you ate this dish it was viewed as a blot on your character. If you hung around with this crowd instead of that one, you were a marked man. One need only read the gospels to see this going on and, as the Church moves into the book of Acts, these tensions don’t go away. The Greek-speaking Jewish Christians are suspicious that the Hebrew-speaking Jewish Christians are giving them the short end of the stick. Later on, when Gentiles start to become believers, some Jewish Christians try to compel them to be circumcised and keep kosher. Some early believers are wracked with scruples about whether to eat meat since the markets typically got their supplies from animals offered to strange gods at pagan temples. Jewish Christians wondered if they were betraying God if they did not keep the feasts and fasts God had commanded their ancestors. Some Gentiles got it in their heads that they could spit on the entirety of the Jewish tradition on the theory that Jesus had made it okay to disregard the Ten Commandments.
The Church at Rome was grappling with all this and more. That’s why Paul writes them the longest letter in the New Testament: to help them figure out their relationships with God and each other and navigate the turbulent waters of a world every bit as multicultural and filled with conflicting religious and philosophical claims as our own.
As we have already seen in our two previous columns, the basic teaching of Paul—like the Church after him—is “In essential things unity and in doubtful things liberty.” But above all, Paul emphasizes that we can only do this if we are “rooted and grounded in love” (Ephesians 3:17). This means that both the unity and the catholicity of the Church can only live if they breathe the air of charity.
This explains completely the moral teaching of Romans 14 which baffles so many modern people, both Christian and non-Christian. After all, Paul appears to contradict himself. In Galatians, he is full of fire and fury against the attempt to keep the ceremonial law:
Now I, Paul, say to you that if you receive circumcision… [y]ou are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace (Galatians 5:2-4).
But in Acts 16:3 we find that he himself had Timothy circumcised. He passionately agrees with Jesus that it is not what goes into the belly, but what comes out of the heart that defiles. Yet he himself insists that under certain circumstances he would never eat meat. What gives?
What gives is that Paul is obeying the law of love, not a list of do’s and don’ts or a theory of Catholic morality which says “That which is not forbidden is compulsory”. In love, he defends Gentile converts from the burden of having to keep the ceremonial Law of Moses because he knows we are saved not by works of the Law, but by trusting in Christ to whom those works pointed. In love, he circumcises Timothy, not because he thinks circumcision will save Timothy, but because he does not want to scandalize his unbelieving Jewish brothers or make them think that Jesus means to abolish the Law rather than fulfill it. And in Romans 14, he writes in love to tell his Gentile and Jewish Christian brothers and sisters that they must obey the law of love, not pass judgment on one another over non-essentials. The Gentile must not insist that his Jewish brother violate his conscience by abandoning the customs of his fathers. The Jewish Christian must not place upon his fellow Gentile believer a demand that God has not made. He who eats must eat “to the Lord” just as he who abstains must abstain “to the Lord”.
But all must be done in love. That’s the deal: In essential things, unity. In doubtful things, liberty. In all things, charity.