Romans, Sound Doctrine, and Christian Unity

(This excerpt is from Malone’s commentary on Roman’s 9-16, to be joined with Curtis Vaughn’s Romans 1-8; awaiting publication)

Three long years had passed since Paul was first arrested in Jerusalem till his coming to Rome. God answered his prayers to go to Rome, yet by means of many trials. However, it must be remembered that it was the benevolent collection from the predominantly Gentile churches (Corinth, Philippi, Rome, Thessalonica, Ephesus, etc.), which he delivered to the Jewish church in Jerusalem, which occasioned Paul’s arrest in Jerusalem (Acts 21:17-27:1). Thus, his controversies with the Jews led to his journey to Rome. Even though he had been warned by the prophet Agabus (Acts 21:10-14) that the visit to Jerusalem would end this way, he was determined even to death to take this collection from the Gentile churches back to the poor of the Jewish church in Jerusalem. Besides God’s directing, why was Paul so determined to do this?

There are probably several elements to Paul’s thinking about this collection, but one was this: he saw the voluntary collection from the Gentile churches to the poor of the Jewish church in Jerusalem to be a means to bring greater unity between Jewish and Gentile churches, as well as between individual Christians of both backgrounds. It would be an example and testimony of Christ’s call and prayer to love one another as He first loved us (John 13:34-35; 17:20-26).

This collection was not a demand from the Jewish Christians for reparations from Gentile Christians from their forefathers’ persecutions of the Jews. Nor was it anything but a one-time benevolent gift from Gentile churches to the poor saints in Jerusalem, also given as a token of appreciation that their salvation had come from the Jews (Rom 15:25-27). This collection was designed by Paul to bring unity between the two Christian groups who were having trouble melding into one new man (Eph 2:12-18). It would bring a greater unity to the worldwide church, thus bearing a faithful witness to the power of the gospel (Rom 1:16-17).

The remaining differences between professing Christians of Jewish and Gentile background are well documented in the New Testament. The Council of Jerusalem  over Gentile circumcision (Acts 15), the problems in Galatia with the heretical “Christian” Judaizers (Gal. 1:6-9), the tensions in Corinth over eating sacrificial Gentile meats (1 Cor 8-10), Paul’s Apostolic rebuke of Peter and Barnabas for withdrawing from Gentile believers in Antioch due to fear from “certain men from James” (Gal 2:11-14); all these incidents and more convinced Paul that the ongoing tensions between Jewish and Gentile Christians over past and present issues needed urgent attention. How often he had taught that such differences must no longer divide Christian unity (Gal 3:26-29; Eph 2:11-22; 1 Cor 8:1-13). Christ’s command to love one another must be upheld with Christian unity; one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, “one God and Father who is over all and through all and in all” (Eph 4:1-6; Rom 15:5-7).

At the writing of Romans, Paul hoped that this benevolent ministry to the poor Jewish saints in Jerusalem would prove acceptable to them (Rom 15:31), thus proving that the Gentile churches were of like faith and mind with the Jewish church. For after all, Gentile Christians, having received spiritual things from Jewish Christians, were indebted to serve them in material things (Rom 15:26-27).

The unity of Gentile and Jewish Christians was weighing on Paul’s mind as he wrote to the Romans from Corinth (Acts 20:3). Could it be that Paul had heard that there was a growing problem in Rome about a racial/cultural, Jew/Gentile divide in the church (Rom 9-11, 14)? Could it be that this concern had more to do with the structure and theological message of Romans than has been attributed to it? I believe so.

Paul’s Concern for Christian Unity in Rome

Many reasons have been offered for Paul’s purpose in writing to the Romans. Some point to the doctrinal nature of the book; that Paul, uncertain of his future, took the Roman Epistle as an opportunity to put down his gospel in complete form for all to read. Others emphasize his writing the full gospel specifically to the Roman churches in case he did not make it to Rome, or to gather their support for his mission to Spain. Still others to steel the Romans against possible heretical teachers or Jewish opposition (Vaughan, 14-15). All of these proposed purposes have merit with perhaps a combination was involved.

However, there is one purpose which deserves more attention than has been given it: that Paul was concerned that the largely Gentile Roman church, together with the Jewish minority, understand and practice Christian love and unity toward each other. Thus, unity in sound doctrine was necessary to overcome remaining racial/cultural/religious differences.

Dr. Curtis Vaughan takes the position that the Roman church was a mixture of Jews and Gentiles, the Gentiles being the majority:

A relatively small number of scholars hold that the church at Rome was preponderantly Jewish. Theodor Zahn, for example, argued that “in Rome the Gentile Christians constituted a comparatively small minority” (Introduction to the New Testament, II, 422).

The Traditional view is that the church was essentially a Gentile church. Paul addresses the Roman Christians as Gentiles (e. g., 1:5-6, 13-15; 11:13); in the progress of his argument he speaks of the Jews in the third person (cf. chs. 9-11); and the majority of the names cited in chapter 16 are Gentile names. Among others, Godet, Hort, Gifford, Sanday and Headlam, Denney, Dodd, and Murray subscribe to this view. Cranfield thinks no decisive answer can be given and suggests that we “leave the question open” (p. 21). (Vaughan, 13).

Taking the Gentiles in the majority (Rom 1:5-6, 13; 11:13; 15:15; see Hendriksen, 22), Paul is concerned that differences of race, religious background, past offenses, and even Christian opinions about secondary matters not destroy Christian unity in any church of Jesus Christ (Rom 12:1-15:13). For the gospel of Jesus Christ is for both Jew and Gentile, forging a new people of God under the New Covenant, and calling them to love one another as God has first loved each of them, to forgive one another as Christ forgave them, and to serve one another as Christ served them (Eph 4:31-5:2).

The author has come to believe that this purpose in Paul’s mind deserves much more attention than it has received in Romans. Further, the attention to proper Christian liberty in Romans 14 may indicate a problem in Rome much like 1 Corinthians 8-10. Also, the problem of Christian unity may be a key to understanding the greatly debated meaning of Romans 9-11 concerning God’s future plan for unbelieving Israel, both as a nation and as individuals.

In any case, this issue needs to be given more attention than it has received. We must remember that the Romans hated the Jews and vice-versa. We must remember that the Jews hated the Greeks for what Antiochus Epiphanes did to them and the Temple in 167 B. C.; they hated the Romans because of when Pompey captured Jerusalem in 63 B.C., defiling the Temple; they hated the Samaritans as unclean and heretics; they hated each other in the division between Sadducees and Pharisees; and they hated each other in the division between Hebraic and Hellenistic Jews scattered in the diaspora. In Paul’s day, the Gentiles generally hated the Jews and the Jews generally hated the Gentiles. Such was the background of racial/cultural/religious differences between the two groups which made up the Roman church. This was a major concern for Paul.

So, is there any real evidence in Romans that Paul’s general concern for Christian unity between Jews and Gentiles is a major purpose behind this Epistle as well as the other reasons mentioned above? I believe that there is much evidence of this. If we accept that the majority of Roman Christians were Gentile, while the minority were Jewish, then we can see Paul teaching sound doctrine as the unifying principle between different Christians and the practice of these doctrines of grace as the resolution of the differences between each other. The following reasons explain the interweaving of sound doctrine with exhortation as the basis for resolving racial/cultural/religious conflicts between Christian groupings (Rom 15:1-7).

1. First, we can better understand why Paul the Jew often emphasized his Apostleship to the Gentiles (Rom 1:5; 11:13; 15:16, 18).

This is in spite of the fact that, at the time of writing Romans and after, Paul usually preached first to the Jews before he turned to the Gentiles (Acts 13:14-52; 17:1-2, 10; 18:4-6, 19; 19:8-10, 21; 21:39-40; 22:1-24). Paul’s Gentile Apostleship never excluded the Jews from his preaching, but it explains why he emphasized his Gentile mission to the Roman church. They were largely Gentiles and must listen to their Apostle’s teaching about God’s plan for the salvation of Jews. They must not succumb to arrogance toward Jewish Christians, nor to Jews in general, simply because so many Gentiles were being saved while so many Jews were hardened toward the gospel (Rom 11:18-23).

2. Second, we can see how Paul’s consideration that the Roman church as largely Gentile explains his emphasis throughout the Epistle that the gospel is still for all men, both Jews and Gentiles (Rom 1:16-17; 2:10-11, 25-29; 3:9; 4:11-12; 5:18; 9:24; 10:4, 12-13; 11:12-15, 25-26; 30-31; 15:7-13).

The Gentile Roman church must not display arrogance toward believing Jews in their fellowship, nor must they adopt a hardness toward unbelieving Jews in regard to evangelism.

3. Third, we can now understand the fact that Paul mentions both Jew and Gentile in regard to condemnation and justification (Rom 1-4), yet only mentions “brethren”when instructing the mixed church for Christian living (Rom 5-8, 12-15).

This testifies to Paul’s concern that the former differences must no longer divide Christians. Now, together, they are one new people and must accept one another in love and unity even with different backgrounds and past offenses (Rom 12:3-5, 9-10, 16; 13:8-10; 14:1, 19; 15:5-7).  The sins of the past from one group against the other must be put to death at the feet of Christ as they accept each other as one new people.…by faith in the gospel of reconciliation. Again, there were no demands for reparations from one group against the other, nor were there demands from one group against the other to repent for their forefathers’ sins. Rather, there was to be unity based upon their common beliefs, their common Lord, and their acceptance of each other as both being “under grace” (Rom 6:14; 15:1-7).

4. Fourth, now we can understand why Paul composed such a robust exposition of the gospel to the Roman church.

Rome was at the Western extreme of the spread of the gospel up to Paul’s time of writing. He hoped to extend it to Spain and beyond. To prevent the Roman and farther churches from being infected by the Jew-Gentile conflicts and false teachers from the East (Rom 16:17-20), it would be logical for Paul to press for Roman unity based upon a thorough theological foundation for the future. If one were to plan a theological treatise to join Jews and Gentiles into one unified body in Christ, he would have to establish that both Jews and Gentiles are equally sinners and condemned by God (Rom 1-3:19); that both must be saved the same way through justification by faith alone in Christ alone (3:18-5:21); that both must live a godly life through union with Christ, kept and empowered by the same Spirit (6:1-8:39); that both have been saved by the same electing grace from among Jews and Gentiles (9:24); that both Jews and Gentiles are responsible to repent and believe in the same gospel preached (10:1-21); that God is continuing to save both from among Jews and Gentiles to the present day and will do so into the future (Rom 11:30-33); and that both are to live humbly together according to the same standards of Christian obedience in unity, refusing to let secondary matters divide them (12:1-15:13).

And this is exactly what Paul did in Romans. The structure of Romans shouts for Christian unity on the basis of each being sinners, saved by the same grace and Savior, and joined by God into one new people. Christian unity must be forged on the anvil of a robust theology of grace received.

The Lesson from Romans

In a day when Christian unity in the local church and beyond is fragile and fragmented, the robust theology of Romans calls all Christians to be unified by a robust understanding of the gospel, a holy life as defined by Scripture, and a humble commitment to Christian love toward one another….no matter the past sins of the other’s forefathers nor for present non-essential differences. The uncertain origin of the following appeal is a fitting summary for the purpose and argument of Romans: “Unity in things essential, liberty in things non-essential, charity in all things.”

What would happen if Christians and churches recommitted themselves to the sound theology of Romans, to the rediscovery of true holiness as defined by this Epistle, and to the practice of humble self-denying love between brethren of the same Lord, the same faith, the same baptism, and the same Father? What if sola scriptura and the sufficiency of Scripturealone sifted our hyper-reasoned opinions that divide true Christians? Perhaps the prayer of our Lord for Christian unity around Himself as a witness to the world would be answered with another great revival (John 17:21)! May God grant it so!

Now we who are strong ought to bear the weaknesses of those without strength and not just please ourselves. Each of us is to please his neighbor for his good, to his edification. For even Christ did not please Himself; but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.” For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, so that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. Now may the God who gives perseverance and encouragement grant you to be of the same mind with one another according to Christ Jesus, so that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, accept one another, just as Christ also accepted us to the glory of God. (Rom 15:1-7)