We can’t be sure about the historical background of the issue Paul addresses in this chapter. It could be that the pastors of the church at Rome had contacted Paul to inform him of specific situations and asked for his Holy Spirit-inspired counsel. The issue arose from the diversity of the congregation, and Paul shows how we can experience a particularly rich kind of unity in diversity.
Rome was a melting pot of cultures and religions, and the church reflected that reality. Imagine the challenge of assimilating, blending, and uniting believers with such a diversity of backgrounds. In the same church were new believers and those who had been saved 20 years before at Pentecost, converted Jews (like Paul) and former idol-worshipers, wealthy Roman citizens and poor slaves or freedmen. That kind of diversity can either strengthen a church or weaken it.
In verse 1 Paul hints at the fact that one sign of spiritual immaturity is fighting over personal “opinions” (convictions that are nonessential when it comes to the core doctrines of our faith and are not mission-critical when it comes to the Great Commission). Evidently some in the church were elevating their personal preferences, individual tastes, and beliefs about secondary doctrines to the level of Scripture, and in doing so they were offending others and causing them to stumble in their faith — we can’t do that. Paul’s counsel was to apply the law of love (13:8-10) by showing respect for things that are important to your brothers and sisters in Christ.
Some believers in the church at Rome were adamantly against the practice of eating food that had been ceremonially offered to idols and then sold in the marketplace, and others had no problem eating it. Some believers had grown up observing special holidays (like Yom Kippur for Jewish Christians), and they were appalled when they saw fellow church members treating it like any other day. Some argued that their practice and preference was the only lifestyle God would bless, leaving newer and more immature believers confused and hurt.
The solution to the problem and the safeguard against church chaos is actually very simple. We must stop passing judgment on one another (v.8-10), and we must refrain from anything that causes a brother or sister in Christ to stumble (fact: your actions and attitudes can hinder the spiritual progress of others). This guidance has often been stated in this way: “In essentials, unity; in nonessentials, liberty; in everything, love.” Another way to put it: not everything I have a right to do is always right to do.
I should prayerfully develop a conviction about issues on which Scripture is silent and then be true to those convictions (v.22). But then I need to work hard to build up the unity of the church (v.19) and to keep the main thing the main thing: the kingdom of God is about righteousness, peace, Spirit-joy, and serving Jesus (v.17-18). I can either be a help or a hindrance. Today I will surrender my opinions and preferences to Christ and look for a way to help a brother or sister make some spiritual progress. How about you?