I had someone e-mail me recently with a question about whether Romans 14, with its teaching about the “strong” and the “weak”, provides good guidance for Christian who have come to realize that there are good reasons to accept biological evolution, and are now wondering whether to keep this to themselves or speak out about it in their churches. I thought I’d share what I wrote in reply, since it might be relevant to others.
I suppose the place to begin is by asking what the difference was between the situation in Galatians and in Romans. In the former, he seems to regard issues like food and circumcision as ones on which he will not bend, while in Romans he seems to encourage Christians to tolerate diverse practices. My own view is that in Galatians, circumcision was being demanded of the Gentile Christians as a requirement, whereas in Romans, Paul was encouraging Gentile Christians who were in no danger of having the kosher food laws imposed on them to nonetheless embrace and love those who continued to follow those laws.
Would this provide a good guideline for the approach of Christians who are well-informed about the sciences? Probably. If one is in a context in which young-earth creationism is being imposed as the only acceptable viewpoint, the Galatians approach is probably called for. But in a context in which it is recognized that different views are possible, Christians who accept evolution and modern science more generally should be understanding of those who do not, and recognize that ultimately “in Christ neither evolution nor young-earth creationism matters, but being a new creation”.
Of course, you’ll know that I do think that the stance Christians take on evolution is important. If nothing else, it affects the impression of Christians that educated people outside the church have. But I also think it is important to recognize that it can take time to work through these issues, and that some will presently find themselves unable to reconcile their faith with science, or live with simply holding the two in tension. If we drive such people from our midst, the chances are that they will simply find a more likeminded group of people to go to church with, and any growth that both we and they might have experienced through our interaction is thereby prevented. And of course, sometimes the “strong” may have a better viewpoint, but may go about promoting it in a way that is obnoxious and/or immature (in such cases, 1 Corinthians will probably provide more useful guidance than either Galatians or Romans), with results that are not to anyone’s benefit. It takes a certain level of maturity to “pick one’s battles”, and to seek to facilitate learning and growth rather than merely win arguments.
In short, I don’t think Paul encouraged Gentile Christians to feign circumcision in order to keep the peace – on the contrary! What I think he did encourage Gentile Christians to do is to not simply cook spare ribs for the church picnic and make issues come up unnecessarily. If evolution is an issue on which Christians in a particular church can tolerate diverse viewpoints, and perhaps even have interesting and respectful discussions, that is probably best. Not bringing up the issue unnecessarily might be the equivalent of not bringing baked clams to the pot luck in a first century church context in which Torah-observant Jewish Christians would be present. But (returning to our time) if some seem to be advocating or demanding that everyone accept their own young-earth creationist view, or some other viewpoint that is both scientifically and scripturally dubious, then personally I would probably want to find some respectful way of making my own viewpoint heard, and emphasize that this is an issue on which not all Christians agree, including Christians committed to Biblical authority and a high view of Scripture. Having some books and other resources ready to hand that address the issue from that perspective would will probably help deal with what follows.
Does this seem like good advice? What advice would you give on this matter?