Coming back together for education this Fall is a long process that is more a marathon than a sprint—and we’ve already run uphill for a year and a half. This leads to the problems we’re now facing, described in Part 1. How do we continue to navigate these conflicts, divisions, and needs, without enough staff or resources?
In this uncertain and anxious context, Paul gives a blueprint for living together as a community near the end of the book of Romans. Paul warns the readers of his letter against being “high-minded.”
Throughout Romans, Paul urges the reader to self-inspection and introspective judgment: he keeps saying that these words are meant for you. Chapter 1, where Paul points outward to pagan sinners, is a mere prelude to Romans 2:1, where he swiftly turns the finger on the reader: “Therefore you are without excuse when you do the same thing!”
Likewise, in Romans 14-15, Paul’s argument is focused on you. In times past, scripture was written for you, Paul says, to give you patience and hope (15:4). In the future, you will stand before the judgment seat of Christ and give an account of yourself (14:12). Therefore, you should be wholly convinced (14:5) but you should not block others by insisting that their convictions match yours (14:13). This is all so you all may glorify God (15:6).
You have power (dynamis in Greek) to act today because you stand between the vanished past and the invisible future. Acting in faith is trusting that the God who quickens the dead and calls what is not into being (4:17) can and will keep promises. This “strong” faith is the hallmark of the group Paul is speaking to in this passage: the Greek word is Dynatoi, the capable, the powerful, those who believe like Abraham.
Paul talks to “us strong Dynatoi” about how we relate to “those weak Adynatoi.” Much of his distinction between the groups comes from what, and who, they are able to accept. In the first century, if you were able to accept meat into your body (even if it may have been offered to idols), you were one of the Dynatoi. In the twenty-first century, if you are able to accept a vaccine into your body (even if it’s new, because it’s been extensively tested), I’d say that you are also one of the Dynatoi. That’s me—so I can’t avoid Paul’s words.
I wonder if dynatoi can be translated as “open-minded.” As a curious, even voracious reader, I’ve been proud of my own openness to people and ideas. It’s oh so easy to slip over from being “open-minded” to being “high-minded.”
So how should the Dynatoi who are able to accept relate to those closed-minded Adynatoi who are unable? Christ as the ascended Lord has accepted Dynatoi and Adynatoi into one family. Just as you accept meat or mRNA in faith, you accept the Adynatoi in faith (14:1).1 You don’t merely tolerate him, you love him, carrying his burdens (15:1). The Adynatos may not be able to accept what I can accept, but God is “able to make him stand” (14:4).
This is where the passage challenges me, specifically. I have spent half of the last eighteen months waiting and praying for a vaccine, then the other half promoting it to others in print and in video. My COVID playlist on YouTube contains sixty-four videos on these topics, attracting some useful comments and a lot of anti-vax bots. I have spent hours in one-on-one conversations persuading people to take the vaccine.
My convictions are clear and unwavering. Vaccines work. People who refuse to take the vaccine put others in danger. How am I to accept them, as Paul requires, without brushing my strong pro-vaccine position under the rug?
I start by accepting the wide diversity among my vaccinated friends. One is the pastor of a church in Canada, whose family is high-risk, that has mandated vaccines for in-person worship. Another invited me to his Michigan church in April during a wave of COVID infections. I disagree with something in each of these sentences, but I accept both of my friends as fellow members of the Kingdom of God.
With this dynamic in mind, I turn to the science. The full hospitals in unvaccinated areas of the country, and the enhanced transmissibility of the Delta variant both in the lab and the field, speak to the danger of this virus. Those without any protection simply cannot safely gather.
But there are multiple paths to protection. As mentioned in part 1, Trevor Bedford listed three shields we have against this virus: immunization, mitigation, and natural immunity. All three are important for holding back this virus. For those who were infected and survived, natural immunity remains, and science measures that immunity as strong.
A rivalry has sprung up over whether natural immunity or vaccination immunity is better, which has evolved (or devolved) into political sides elevating one and disparaging the other, each becoming “high-minded” in the dismissal of the other side. The distinction is drawn too sharply in both directions. Something is going on here beyond the science itself. We are arguing which is better, when both are good enough.
Vaccination immunity has the supreme advantage that you won’t die from it. I cannot recommend that highly enough. But, if someone has medical documentation of prior infection, or antibodies or T-cell receptors2 that recognize other parts of the virus, that person is protected—and should be, in my opinion—accepted. As one recent systematic pre-print review concludes, “The protective effect of prior SARS-CoV-2 infection on re-infection is high and similar to the protective effect of vaccination.”3
One course of action is demonstrated to be several times better than either natural immunity or vaccination immunity—having both. Dave Blake, the scientist behind the purple/orange colored graphs mentioned in Part 1, surveys the field and estimates that being vaccinated but never infected, or being infected but never vaccinated, are each at least twice as protective as never experiencing either. Meanwhile, both vaccination and prior infection together are about six times as protective!4 Vaccination after prior infection generates super-strong antibodies that even recognized a “polymutant” virus combining variant mutations that is highly resistant to other known antibodies.5
In light of this, I want to endorse, exhort, and encourage vaccination for those who have recovered from infection, while personally accepting documented prior infection as a substitute for vaccination based on the evidence collated by Blake and by Kojima et al.
I don’t know what’s going on inside those who can’t accept the vaccine. Maybe some are not able because they have lost family members to the opioid crisis and no longer trust pharmaceutical companies. Or maybe they have endangered themselves and others needlessly. Or both! The Lord will judge them, not me. I’ve spoken my own mind clearly, and now I am looking for ways to persuade, accept, and even love my neighbor. Natural immunity provides a way.
Paul’s solution of “accept those who are unable” is simple, but is found difficult and left untried, which may be why he places it so late in his letter. NT Wright thinks Chapter 15 summarizes three arcs, each going back to Chapters 14, 12, and even all the way back to the beginning.6 Paul pairs this triple conclusion with a triple citation of scripture, ending not with his own words but Isaiah’s: “In Him shall the Gentiles hope” (Romans 15:12; Isaiah 11:10).
At this, the end of the grand argument of Romans, Paul appeals not to faith (strong or weak), or love, but hope. It’s hope that draws the community together here as they look toward the future, continuing in the faith that God had already kept His promises in the past tense through Jesus, expressed in the love in the present tense that holds us together through the power of the Spirit.
This hope rests on a future of judgment, where I will stand before the risen Lord together with a multitude and give a personal account. I must look inside myself and see where I am blocking God’s work in myself, and take care that I do not block this work in others with needless forced imitation.
My university has recently adopted a new slogan: “Faith for the Future.” Faith in a future judged by and summed up in love is also hope. I hope that as we come together, after and amid all these trials and valleys, God is calling us to serve and endure with each other—the strong and the weak, the Dynatoi and the Adynatoi, a diverse community that shows the powers and principalities that they are judged and found wanting. This common hope binds us together as we follow a cruciform path toward eternal life.
- Paul uses a different word for “weak” here, but I’m using his term from 15:1 throughout for simplicity.
- One intriguing T-cell test can be found at https://www.t-detect.com/
- Kojima, Noah, N. K. Shrestha, and Jeffrey D. Klausner. “A Systematic Review of the Protective Effect of Prior SARS-CoV-2 Infection on Repeat Infection.” medRxiv (2021).
- Blake collects the evidence in this thread: https://twitter.com/_stah/status/1424719345062658048?s=20
- Schmidt, Fabian, et al. “High genetic barrier to SARS-CoV-2 polyclonal neutralizing antibody escape.” Nature (2021): 1-9.
- Wright, N.T. The New Interpreter’s Bible: Acts; Introduction to Epistolary Literature; Romans; 1 Corinthians (Volume X). Abingdon Press, 2002, p. 744.