Reading Romans Backwards: Yielding Power

An insight I picked up from Scot McKnight's book Reading Romans Backwards concerns the relationship between the "strong" and the "weak" in Romans 14.1-15.13.

As I mentioned in yesterday's post, McKnight identifies the "weak" with the Jewish members of the church who, upon their return to Rome, found themselves displaced and marginalized among the Gentile house churches. The Gentile leaders of the Roman house churches were in the position of the "strong."

Many have tended to read "strong" versus "weak" in Romans as a contrast in conscience, stronger versus weaker consciences. In this instance, the Jewish members were offended by Gentile practices in relation to food. But in McKnight's analysis, the contrast here wasn't simply one of conscience, it was also one of power.

McKnight illustrates this by looking at how we translate "strong" and "weak." Specifically, the Greek word for "strong" is dunatoi, from the Greek root dunamai meaning "to be able" and "to have power." The "weak," by contrast, are adunatoi, without ability or power. So the issue isn't solely one of conscience, there's a power asymmetry at work as well. Consequently, McKnight likes how the CEB translates texts like Romans 15.1:
We who are powerful need to be patient with the weakness of those who don’t have power, and not please ourselves.
Clearer translations here get to the heart of Paul's pastoral recommendations. Paul isn't saying that the most offended person in the room gets their way. Which is how many churches have interpreted the text, that the squeakiest wheel gets the grease. Of course, if someone is offended we shouldn't blow that person off. But what Paul is talking about is more complicated than flat differences of conscience. Paul is talking about asymmetries of power, and he's asking the powerful to yield power in deference to those who have less power. Yes, the conflict between those who had power and those who did not was an offense being caused by the food that was on the table, but the deeper issue had to with who had the power to set the table in the first place. Who had control of the house and space. Who could dictate to whom. And Paul looks at those people, the powerful, and asks them to yield to the less powerful.

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