Our relationship with the weak (preaching resource for 12/4/22)

This post exegetes Romans chapters 14 and 15, providing context for the 12/4/22 (Advent 2) RCL Epistles reading. This exegesis draws on commentary from John Stott's "The Message of Romans".

"Pentecost" by Maino (public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Introduction

In Romans 12 and 13, Paul presents love (rather than the Law) as the ethical center of the gospel. He then goes on in Romns 14 and 15 to give a lengthy example of how love is to be lived in the real circumstances of the church in Rome. The issue being addressed is the strained relations between two church groups, which Paul calls the ‘weak’ and the ‘strong’. His plea is that the ‘strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak’ (Rom. 15:1) and the weak must not sit in judgment of the strong. 

Who are the weak? It's likely that they were Jewish Christians who, because of their uninformed consciences, felt it necessary to continue adherence to Jewish customs and regulations regarding diet and days. This fits the historic context, for the Jews who had been expelled from Rome in A.D. 49 were allowed to return in A.D. 54 (two or three years before Paul wrote Romans). Among the returning Jews were, doubtless, Jewish-Christians who may not yet have embraced fully the stipulations of the A.D. 49 Jerusalem Council, which declared that Christians are released from the Law of Moses. And so in Rome there was tension between weak-in-conscience Jewish Christians (which would have included some Gentile proselytes to Judaism) and strong-in-conscience Gentile Christians (including some Jewish Christians who, like Paul, were fully liberated from the Law). These Gentile Christians in Rome were used to exercising full freedom from the Law in their worship and personal practices (including diet) but now some weak-in-conscience, Law-observant Jewish Christians had returned to Rome. As a result, factions arose within the church.

Paul’s conciliatory attitude toward the weak-in-conscience Jewish Christians is consistent with the A.D. 49 Jerusalem Council decree which called upon Gentile Christians in certain circumstances to curtail their freedom in Christ in order not to offend the uninformed consciences of certain Jewish Christians.  Paul makes it clear that the position of the strong is correct (Rom. 14:14, 20) and he explicitly associates himself with the strong when he writes, ‘We who are strong...’ (15:1). However, Paul urges both groups (the strong in particular) not to let their disputes over non-essential matters escalate to the point that they would ‘destroy the work of God’ (14:20).  

Paul’s presentation in this section seems to be as follows: First, he lays down the fundamental principle of acceptance (especially acceptance of the weak). This principle is positive (‘accept him’), yet qualified (‘without passing judgment on disputable matters’—he does not call for acceptance in essential matters that would compromise the gospel). Second, Paul develops three negative deductions that follow from his positive principle of acceptance. He tells his readers they must neither despise nor condemn the weak (14:2-13a); that they must neither offend nor destroy them (14: 13b-23); and that they must not please themselves, but follow Christ’s unselfish example (15:1-4). In conclusion Paul celebrates the union of Jews and Gentiles in the worship of God (15:5-13).

The positive principle

Paul's positive principle has two parts: 

  1. *Accept him whose faith is weak* (1a). These individual brothers and sisters are weak in faith (meaning ‘conviction’), immature, untaught, and (as Paul’s unfolding argument makes clear) mistaken. Yet on that account they are to be neither ignored, nor reproached, nor (at least at this stage) corrected, but rather to be received into the fellowship. The Greek word for ‘accept’ (proslambano) means to welcome. It implies the warmth and kindness of genuine love.  We should not, however, read into Paul’s statement the modern idea of indiscriminate acceptance.  Though God’s love is unconditional, his acceptance of us is not, since it depends on our repentance and faith in Jesus Christ. We are to accept one another ‘just as Christ accepted’ us (15:7); not on some other basis.
  2. Having reflected on the principle of acceptance, we need to observe its qualification: *without passing judgment on disputable matters* (1b). Paul is saying that we must receive the weak person with a warm and genuine welcome, ‘without debate over his misgivings’ or scruples (REB), or ‘not for the purpose of getting into quarrels about opinions’ (BAGD). In other words, we are not to turn the church into a debating society or a law court. The welcome we give them must include respect for their opinions, though such respect and acceptance must never compromise the truth of the gospel which tells us of the basis of our unmerited acceptance in Christ.

The negative consequences

1. Do not despise or condemn the weak person (Romans 14:2-13a)

Paul notes that we are to welcome the weak due to four theological truths:  

a. Welcome him because God has welcomed him (2-3)

Paul chooses the dietary question as his first illustration of how the weak and the strong, the fearful and the free, should behave toward one another. *One man’s faith allows him to eat everything*, his freedom in Christ having liberated him from unnecessary scruples about food, *but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables* (2). This is probably because the only foolproof way of ensuring that he never eats non-kosher or unclean meat is not to eat any meat at all. How are these Christians to regard one another? *The man who eats everything* (the strong) *must not look down on him who does not* (who is weak on account of his uneducated conscience), *and the man who does not eat everything* (the weak) *must not condemn the man who does* (who is strong on account of his liberty). Whereas the strong might be tempted to pity the weakness of the weak, the weak might regard the strong, who have abandoned Israel’s time-honored food laws, as having committed apostasy and therefore as deserving condemnation. The reason both the despising and the condemnation of a fellow Christian are wrong is that *God has accepted him* (3). Indeed, the best way to determine what our attitude to other people should be is to determine what God’s attitude to them is. 

b. Welcome him because Christ died and rose to be the Lord (4-9)

If it is inappropriate to reject somebody whom God has welcomed, it is likewise inappropriate to interfere in the relationship between a master and his servant. *Who are you to judge someone else’s servant?* (4a).  We have no business to come between a fellow Christian and Christ his Master, or to usurp Christ’s position in his life. *To his own master he stands or falls*. For he is not responsible to us, nor are we responsible for him. *And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand* (4b), giving him approval, whether he has ours or not.

Paul illustrates this point by referring to the observance or non-observance of Jewish festivals: *One man considers one day more sacred than another* (the weak); *another man considers every day alike* (the strong). The latter does not distinguish between days any more than he does between foods. Paul’s first concern for them is this: *each one should be fully convinced in his own mind* (5). Paul is not encouraging mindless behavior or legalism. But assuming that each (weak and strong) has reflected on the issue and has reached a firm decision; he will then reckon his practice to be part of his personal conviction. *He who regards one day as special does so to the Lord* (6a). He does it, that is, ‘in honor of the Lord’ (RSV), with the intention of pleasing and honoring him. 

And the same is true of the one who regards every day alike, although Paul does not mention him in verse 6. Instead, he reverts to the question of meat and in doing so adds an important double principle, which is related to thanksgiving. *He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God* (6b). Whether one is an eater or an abstainer, the same two principles apply: If we are able to receive something from God with thanksgiving, as his gift to us, then we can offer it back, as our service to him. The two movements, from him to us and from us to him, belong together and are vital aspects of our Christian walk. Both are valuable and practical tests: ‘Can I thank God for this? Can I do this unto the Lord? 

This introduction of the Lord into our lives, applies to every situation. *For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone* (7). On the contrary, *If* (that is, ‘while’) *we live, we live to the Lord; and if* (that is ‘when’) *we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord* (8). While we continue to live on earth and when through death we begin the life of heaven, everything we have and are belongs to the Lord Jesus and must therefore be lived to his honor and glory. Why is this? Here is Paul’s answer. *For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living* (9). Paul lifts the mundane question of our mutual relationships in the church to the high theological level of the death, resurrection and consequent universal lordship of Jesus. Because he is our Lord, we must live for him. Because he is also the Lord of our fellow Christians, we must respect their relationship to him as their Lord.

c. Welcome him because he is your brother (10a)

Paul next poses two straight questions: *Why do you judge your brother?* And, *Why do you look down on your brother?* (10a). Despising and judging fellow Christians are wrong. Why? Not only because God has accepted them, because Christ has died and risen to be our common Lord, but also because they and we are related to one another in the strongest possible way, by family ties. Whether we are thinking of the weak, with all their doubts and fears, or of the strong, with all their assurance and freedom, they are our brothers and sisters. When we remember this, our attitude to them becomes at once less critical and impatient, more generous and tender.

d. Welcome him because we will all stand before God’s judgment seat (10b-13a)

There is an obvious link between our not judging our brother (10a) and our having to *stand before God’s judgment seat* (10b). We should not judge, because we are going to be judged. There seems to be an allusion to the words of Jesus: ‘Do not judge, or you too will be judged’ (Mt. 7:1). Jesus was not forbidding criticism, or telling us to suspend our critical faculties. If we did that, we would not be able to obey one of his next instructions, namely to ‘watch out for false prophets’ (Mt. 7:15). No, what is prohibited to the followers of Jesus is not criticism but ‘judging’ in the sense of ‘passing judgment on’ or condemning. And the reason given is that we ourselves will one day appear before the Judge. In other words, we have no warrant to climb on to the seat of judgment and start passing sentence, because God alone is judge and we are not, as we will be forcibly reminded when the roles are reversed.

In order to confirm this, Paul quotes from Isaiah 45:23: ‘*As surely as I live,’ says the Lord. ‘Every knee will bow before me; every tongue will confess to God*’ (11).  The emphasis is on the universality of God’s jurisdiction, in that *every knee* and *every tongue* will pay homage to him. *So then*, Paul continues, in the light of this Scripture, *each of us* individually, *will give an account of himself*, not of other people, *to God* (12). *Therefore*, because God is the Judge and we are among the judged, *let us stop passing judgment on one another* (13a), for then we shall avoid the folly of usurping God’s prerogative.

2. Do not offend or destroy the weak person (Romans 14:13b-23)

In spite of three ‘one another’ verses (13a, 19, 15:7), which speak of reciprocal duties between the weak and the strong, the chief emphasis throughout this section is on the responsibility of the strong toward the weak. The argument moves on, however, from how the strong should regard the weak to how they should treat them, that is, from attitudes (not despising them or condemning them) to actions (not causing them to stumble or destroying them).  *Instead* of passing judgment on one another, Paul writes, *make up your mind not to put any stumbling-block or obstacle in your brother’s way* (13b). There is a double use of the verb ‘to judge’: ‘Let us therefore cease judging one another, but rather make this simple judgment...’ (NEB). The judgment or decision which we are to make is to avoid putting either a hindrance or a snare in our brother’s path and so causing him to trip and fall. Why? Paul gives two theological reasons:

a. Welcome him because he is your brother for whom Christ died (14-16)     

Before deploying this argument, Paul explains in the dilemma which faces the strong. It is created by two truths in conflict with each other. First, *as one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced*, as strong Christians are when they have a correct understanding of the New Covenant, *that no food is unclean in itself* (14a). *But*, and this is the second part of the dilemma, *if anyone regards something as unclean*, because his conscience tells him it is, *then for him it is unclean* (14b), and he should not partake of it. Verse 14 refers, of course, to ceremonial or cultural (not moral) issues, for Paul is quite explicit that some of our thoughts, words and deeds are intrinsically evil.

The paradox, then, which faces the strong, is that some foods are both clean and unclean simultaneously. On the one hand, the strong are convinced that under the New Covenant all meats are clean. But the weak are convinced otherwise. How should the strong behave when two consciences are in collision? Although the strong are correct, and Paul shares their conviction because the Lord Jesus has endorsed it, he believes that the strong must not ride roughshod over the scruples of the weak by imposing their view on them. On the contrary, they must defer to the weaker brother’s conscience (even though it is mistaken) and not violate it or cause him to violate it.  Here is the reason: *If your brother is distressed* (feels grief and pain) *because of what you eat*, not only because he sees you doing something of which he disapproves, but because he is induced to follow your example against his conscience, *you are no longer acting in love* (15a), no longer walking the path of love. For love never disregards weak consciences. Love limits its own liberty out of respect for them (1 Cor. 8:9ff.). For to wound a weaker brother’s conscience is not only to distress him but to ‘destroy’ him and that is incompatible with love: *Do not by your eating destroy your brother for whom Christ died* (15b).

b. Welcome him because the kingdom of God is more important than food (17-21)

Paul’s argument now is that, whenever the strong insist on using their liberty to eat whatever they like, even at the expense of the welfare of the weak, they are guilty of overestimating the importance of diet (which is trivial) and underestimating the importance of the kingdom (which is central). *For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit* (17). Righteousness, peace and joy here are objective states, namely justification through Christ, peace with God, and rejoicing in the hope of God’s glory (5:1f.), of which the Holy Spirit himself is the pledge and foretaste (8:23). And the reason for the greater significance of the kingdom is that *anyone who serves Christ in this way* (REB ‘who shows himself a servant of Christ in this way’), who seeks first God’s kingdom (Mt.6:33) and acknowledges that food and drink are secondary matters, *is pleasing to God and approved by men* (18). Verses 19-21 repeat, enforce and apply the same teaching about proportion or balance. They contain three exhortations: 

  1. *Let us therefore make every effort to do* (literally, ‘let us then pursue’) *what leads to peace and to mutual edification* (19). ‘Peace’ here seems to be ‘shalom’ which is experienced within the Christian community, while ‘edification’ is building one another up in Christ. This is the positive goal which all should seek, and which the strong were neglecting in their insensitive treatment of the weak.
  2. *Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food* (20a). ‘The work of God’ in this context seems to be a reference to the church. ‘Destroy’ means to ‘tear down’ or ‘throw down’, particularly in relation to buildings. It appears to be deliberately contrasted with the previous verse. Our responsibility is to seek to build up the church (19), not to tear it down (20). And in particular we must not tear it down *for the sake of food*.  Surely ‘for the sake of a plate of meat’ (JBP) we are not going to wreck the church! Are you strong really prepared, he asks, to distress a brother *because of what you eat* (15a), to damage him spiritually *by your eating* (15b), to prize your *eating and drinking* above God’s kingdom (17), and now to demolish God’s church *for the sake of food* (20)? There must have been some red faces among the strong as they listened to Paul’s letter being read in church. His gentle sarcasm showed up their skewed perspective. They would have to give up insisting on their liberties at the expense of the welfare of others, and put the cross, the kingdom and the unity of the church first.
  3. Paul expresses a contrast between two kinds of behavior, which he declares to be respectively ‘wrong’ and ‘right’.  *All food is clean*, he affirms, a truth repeated from verse 14, *but it is wrong for a man to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble* (20b). This being so *it is better not to eat meat or drink wine (which is here mentioned for the first time) or to do anything else that will cause your brother to fall* (21). The statement that ‘all food is clean’ sounds like the slogan of the strong. And Paul agrees with it. Here is the theological truth which gave them their liberty to eat anything they liked. But there were other factors to consider, which would require them to limit the exercise of their liberty. In particular, there was the weaker brother or sister with the uninformed, oversensitive conscience, who was convinced that not all food was clean. So it would be *evil* for the strong to use their liberty to harm the weak. Alternatively, it would be *good* for the strong (Paul drives the argument to its logical conclusion) to eat no meat and drink no wine, that is, to become vegetarians and total abstainers, and to go to any other extreme of renunciation, if necessary to serve the welfare of the weak.

Paul concludes (22-23) by drawing a distinction between belief and action, that is, between private conviction and public behavior. *So*, he writes, as regards the private sphere, *whatever you believe about these things*, whether you are strong and believe you can eat anything, or weak and believe you cannot, *keep between yourself and God* (22a), keep it a secret. There is no need either to parade your views or to impose them on other people. As for public behavior, there are two options, represented by two ‘men’ whom we quickly recognize as a strong and a weak Christian respectively. The strong Christian is blessed because his conscience approves of his eating everything, so that he can follow his conscience without any guilt feelings. *Blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he approves (22b). But the man who has doubts, that is, the weak Christian who is plagued with misgivings because his conscience gives him vacillating signals, *is condemned if he eats* (by his conscience, not by God), *because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith* (REB ‘which does not arise from conviction’) *is sin* (23).  This final epigram exalts the significance of our conscience. Although, as we have seen, it is not infallible, it is nevertheless sacrosanct, so that to go against it (to act *not from faith*) is to sin against our conscience. At the same time, alongside this explicit instruction not to violate our conscience, there is an implicit requirement to educate it—a primary role of the church in its instruction of its members.

3. Do not please yourselves (Romans 15:1-13)

*We who are strong*, he begins, and thus for the first time he both identifies them with this name and at the same time identifies himself as one of them. What then is the Christian responsibility of the strong toward the weak? Note three points: 

  1. The strong *ought to bear with the failings* (literally, ‘weaknesses’) *of the weak* (1a). Strong people are of course tempted to wield their strength to discard or crush the weak. Paul urges them instead to bear with them. The Greek verb for ‘bear’ can mean either to ‘endure’ in the sense of ‘tolerate’, or to ‘carry’ and ‘support’. The context suggests that the latter is correct here. One person’s strength can compensate for another person’s weakness.
  2. *We who are strong ought...not to please ourselves* (1b). To be self-centered and self-seeking is natural to our fallen human nature. But we ought not to use our strength to serve our own advantage. As Paul has been arguing, Christians with a strong conscience must not trample on the consciences of the weak.
  3. *Each of us should please his neighbor for his good, to build him up* (2). Neighbor pleasing, which Scripture commands (Lev. 19:18; cf. Rom. 13:9), must not be confused with ‘men-pleasing’, which Scripture condemns (E.g. Gal.1:10; Col.3:22; 1 Thess.2:4). In this pejorative sense, to ‘please men’, usually in antithesis to pleasing God, means to flatter people in order to curry favor with them, to win their approval by some unprincipled compromise. It is always incompatible with integrity and sincerity. Perhaps it is to avoid such a possible misunderstanding that Paul qualifies his appeal to please our neighbor with the clause *for his good, to build him up*. Instead of causing to stumble (14:13. 20, 21), tearing down (14:20) or damaging (14:15) our neighbor, we are to build him up. And this up-building of the weak will doubtless include helping to educate and so strengthen their conscience.  Once again Paul adds a theological foundation to his appeal. This time it concerns Jesus Christ himself, and in particular his example. Why should we please our neighbor and not ourselves?

a. Because Christ did not please himself (3-4)

Instead of pleasing himself, Christ gave himself in the service of his Father and of human beings. Paul quotes from Psalm 69, which vividly describes the unjust, unreasonable sufferings of a righteous man, and which is quoted of Christ four or five times in the New Testament, being regarded as a messianic prediction. Its verse 9 includes the words Paul quotes. *As it is written: ‘The insults of those who insult you have fallen on me*’ (3). That is to say, as an example of his refusing to please himself, Christ so completely identified himself with the name, will, cause and glory of the Father that insults intended for God fell upon him.

b. Because Christ is the way to united worship (5-6)

Verses 5-6 are in the form of a benediction. Paul’s prayer is that *the God who gives endurance and encouragement* (through Scripture, as we have seen) may *give you a spirit of unity among yourselves*, or literally, ‘may give you to think the same thing among yourselves (5a). This can hardly be a plea that the Roman Christians may come to agree with each other about everything, since Paul has been at pains to urge the weak and the strong to accept each other in spite of their conscientious disagreement on secondary matters. It must therefore be a prayer for their unity of mind in essentials.  For Paul’s petition is this: *May...God...give you a spirit of unity...as you follow Christ Jesus* (5b), literally ‘according to Christ Jesus’. This seems to indicate that the person of Jesus Christ himself is the focus of our unity, and that therefore the more we agree with him and about him, the more we will agree with one another. But what is the purpose of this unity of mind? It is in order that we may engage in the common worship of God: *so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ* (6).  Thus, the one mind (5) is expressed through the one heart and the one mouth (6); indeed without this unity of mind about Christ and his gospel, unity of heart and mouth in worship is impossible. 

c. Because Christ accepted you (7)

With verse 7 Paul returns to the beginning, to his original and positive appeal for acceptance. Indeed Paul’s whole argument about the weak and strong is sandwiched between the two cries, *Accept him* (14:1) and *Accept one another* (15:7a). Both are addressed to the whole congregation, although the first urges the church to welcome the weaker brother, while the second urges all church members to welcome each other. Both also have a theological base. The weak brother is to be accepted *for God has accepted him* (14:3), and the members are to welcome each other *just as Christ accepted you* (7a). Moreover, Christ’s acceptance of us was also *in order to bring praise to God* (7b). The entire credit for the welcome we have received goes to him who took the initiative through Christ to reconcile us to himself and to each other.

d. Because Christ has become a servant (8-13)

With verse 8 Paul slips almost imperceptibly from the unity of the weak and the strong through Christ to the unity of Jews and Gentiles through the same Christ. Further, in both cases the unity is with a view to worship, ‘so that’ they ‘may glorify God’ together (6, 9ff.). Paul’s intent is to say that Jesus’ role as the Jewish Messiah has two parallel purposes: first *to confirm the promises made to the patriarchs* and secondly to incorporate the Gentiles as well.  His ministry to the Jews was *on behalf of the God’s truth*, to demonstrate his faithfulness to the covenant promises, whereas his ministry to the Gentiles was on account of *his [uncovenanted] mercy*. For, although the Old Testament contains many prophesies of the inclusion of the Gentiles, and indeed the promise to Abraham was that the nations would be blessed through his posterity, yet God had made no covenant with the Gentiles comparable to his covenant with Israel. Consequently, it was in mercy to the Gentiles, as it was in faithfulness to Israel, that Christ became a servant for the benefit of both.

This truth of the inclusion of Jews and Gentiles in the messianic community Paul now enforces with four Old Testament quotations that refer both to the Gentiles and to the worship of God, although each contains a slightly different emphasis. He then concludes with another benediction: *May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him* (13a). The reference to joy and peace recalls the apostle’s definition of the kingdom of God (14:7). Now he adds faith (*as you trust in him*) as the means by which joy and peace grow within us, and he prays that his Roman readers will be filled with both. He also anticipates that this filling will result in an overflowing: *so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit* (13b).  Hope looks to the future, and since Paul has just quoted Isaiah’s prophecy that the Messiah will be the object of the Gentiles’ hope (12), we are given a clue as to what hope is in his mind.  Paul is looking forward to the time the ‘fullness’ of both Israel and the Gentiles will have come in (11:12, 25), then to the culmination of history with the Parousia, and then beyond it to the glory of the new universe which Jews and Gentiles will together inherit. Thus joy, peace, faith and hope are essential Christian qualities. If faith is the means to joy and peace, overflowing hope is their consequence, and all four are due to the power of the Holy Spirit within us.

Conclusion: faith and love

Two principles stand out in Paul’s discussion of the relations between the strong and the weak in the churches in Rome. The first is the principle of faith. Everything must be done 'from faith', he writes (14:23). Again, 'each one should be fully convinced in his own mind' (14:5). We need therefore to educate our consciences by the Word of God, so that we become strong in faith, growing in settled convictions and so in Christian liberty. Secondly, there is the principle of love. Everything must be done according to love (14:15). We need therefore to remember who our fellow Christians are, especially that they are our sisters and brothers for whom Christ died, so that we honor, not despise, them; serve, not harm, them; and especially respect their consciences. One area in which this distinction between faith and love should operate is in the difference between essentials and non-essentials in Christian doctrine and practice. In the essentials, faith is primary, and we may not appeal to love as an excuse to deny essential doctrine. In non-essentials, however, love is primary, and we may not appeal to zeal for the faith as an excuse for failures in love. Faith instructs our own conscience; love respects the conscience of others. Faith gives liberty; love limits its exercise.  

In essentials unity, in non-essentials liberty, in all things charity. Amen.