Daily office commentary, Romans 14; “both are guests at Christ’s table”

14 Welcome with open arms fellow believers who don’t see things the way you do. And don’t jump all over them every time they do or say something you don’t agree with—even when it seems that they are strong on opinions but weak in the faith department.

While the intended audience for this epistle was an early Christian community made up of members from diverse backgrounds, we can apply it to our contemporary environment by widening the circle to those in our communities, countries, etc. We regularly interact with “fellows” who “don’t see things that way we do,” especially when it comes to political or social opinions. We have a strong tendency to “jump all over them every time they do or say something you don’t agree with — even when it seems that they are strong on opinions.”

Remember, they have their own history to deal with. Treat them gently.

We never know what others are going through or have gone through. That should make us humble about how we approach and interact with those we might disagree with on important issues.

2-4 For instance, a person who has been around for a while might well be convinced that he can eat anything on the table, while another, with a different background, might assume he should only be a vegetarian and eat accordingly. But since both are guests at Christ’s table, wouldn’t it be terribly rude if they fell to criticizing what the other ate or didn’t eat? God, after all, invited them both to the table. Do you have any business crossing people off the guest list or interfering with God’s welcome? If there are corrections to be made or manners to be learned, God can handle that without your help.

Because of basic social psychology (in this case, social identity theory), we’re all unconsciously motivated to see ourselves and our groups as right and good and to see those we disagree with as wrong and bad. If we have religious convictions, we often extend divine approbation to ourselves and our groups and our opinions and divine disapproval to others and their opinions.

Whatever our different convictions when it comes to politics or religion, we are all “guests at Christ’s table.” At the end of the day, we’re all members of the same “in-group.”

Or, say, one person thinks that some days should be set aside as holy and another thinks that each day is pretty much like any other. There are good reasons either way. So, each person is free to follow the convictions of conscience. 6-9 What’s important in all this is that if you keep a holy day, keep it for God’s sake; if you eat meat, eat it to the glory of God and thank God for prime rib; if you’re a vegetarian, eat vegetables to the glory of God and thank God for broccoli. None of us are permitted to insist on our own way in these matters. It’s God we are answerable to—all the way from life to death and everything in between—not each other. That’s why Jesus lived and died and then lived again: so that he could be our Master across the entire range of life and death, and free us from the petty tyrannies of each other.

“Petty tyrannies”

Our brains have evolved to be terrified of rejection and ostracism (before agriculture and civilization, to be rejected from your group was usually a death sentence). We therefore have strong motivations to reward those who think and act like us with social acceptance and punish those who do not with social rejection.

How often do we try to control other people’s opinions, thoughts, or behaviors through social approval or disapproval? How often do we “call out” thoughts or behavior that don’t conform to our group’s values and socially marginalize those that express those thoughts or behavior?

How often do we try to enact “petty tyrannies” of thought, opinion, and behavior on one another?

19-21 So let’s agree to use all our energy in getting along with each other. Help others with encouraging words; don’t drag them down by finding fault. You’re certainly not going to permit an argument over what is served or not served at supper to wreck God’s work among you, are you? I said it before and I’ll say it again: All food is good, but it can turn bad if you use it badly, if you use it to trip others up and send them sprawling. When you sit down to a meal, your primary concern should not be to feed your own face but to share the life of Jesus. So be sensitive and courteous to the others who are eating. Don’t eat or say or do things that might interfere with the free exchange of love.

Here, cultural/religious standards about what is appropriate to eat or drink is the example, but what else can this advice be applied to? Are we going to permit an argument over a preferred political candidate to wreck God’s work among us? Are we going to permit an argument over trade policy divide us?

In saying all this, I of course do not mean to imply that these differences of opinion are irrelevant. Nor am I arguing that there are very, very real consequences our social and political choices that affect the lives of millions and millions of people.

Is it possible, though, to seek to advance our political and social goals in a way that does not “interfere with the free exchange of love” and remembers that those we disagree with “have their own history to deal with”? What might this look like in practice?

One approach: Contemplative Activism

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