The Weak and the Strong

 

 

The “Weak” and the “Strong”

What is being said in Romans 14?

Richard Hollerman

Maybe you have been like me in reading through the fourteenth chapter of Romans and wondering how we are to apply Paul’s teaching to our own situation in life. We try to understand the original context and what the apostle is saying, but this may not solve the whole problem of application to our present life circumstances, particularly in our relationship with others who name the name of Christ Jesus.

I’ve been in a project to read through this most significant book of Romans each day of the month. For a month, I read Romans 1-8. Now, I am nearly through reading Romans 9-16 each day for another thirty days. As I have read over chapter 14 each day, I’ve tried to keep in mind those saints to whom Paul is addressing the letter. Just who are the readers?

It is vital that we keep in mind that Paul has both Jews and Gentiles (non-Jews) in mind.  Both of these groups composed the Roman assembly (or assemblies). For instance, many (probably most) of Paul readers were Gentiles (cf. 1:13; 11:13; 15:15-16). For instance, Paul writes, “I am speaking to you who are Gentiles. Inasmuch then as I am an apostle of Gentiles, I magnify by ministry” (11:13). Yet Paul sometimes makes reference to both Jews and Gentiles and his relationship to both of these classifications of people (cf. 1:16; 2:9; 3:9, 30).

Although this may be doubted by a few, it would appear that Paul has both Jews and Gentiles in mind when he writes the fourteenth chapter, even though he doesn’t specifically mention either of these groups. Apparently there was some conflict or at least unrest between these two groups because of certain convictions that each had. Because they both had strong beliefs about what foods were acceptable and what days should be kept, these differences brought concerns to both groups. These issues were disturbing the peace and unity of the believing community in Rome. What could be done?

Paul had certain convictions himself and continued to hold to some of his pre-conversion beliefs and practices. However, he had the ability and maturity to discern the will of God in these matters. He recognized that what he continued to observe was no longer necessary as part of the new covenant of Christ. They were customs or traditions that God no longer required since all Mosaic instructions were fulfilled by Christ (cf. Matthew 5:17-20; Romans 10:1-4; Colossians 2:15-17; Hebrews 8). But God permitted the Jews to continue to hold to certain customs, providing that they didn’t think they were being saved through them (see Acts 15:1-5; Galatians 1:7-9).

Apparently a segment of the Roman assembly was composed of Jews who had come to Christ Jesus as their Messiah and they continued to observe certain Mosaic practices, such as observance of days and only eating “clean” foods.  Much was said in the Law of Moses about the importance of observing special days (cf. Exodus 20:8-11; 23:14-17; 31:12-17; 34:21-23; Deuteronomy 16:1-17). These had special significance to the people of Israel: “You shall surely observe My Sabbaths; for this is a sign between Me and you throughout your generations, that you may know that I am the LORD who sanctifies you” (Exodus 31:13).

God also clearly specified that only certain foods were to be eaten. “Clean” animals were permitted, while “unclean” animals were forbidden (cf. Leviticus 11:1-47). Moses stated, “This is the law regarding the animal and the bird, and every living thing that moves in the waters and everything that swarms on the earth, to make a distinction between the unclean and the clean, and between the edible creature and the creature which is not to be eaten” (vv. 46-47). While there may have been various reasons for these detailed regulations, the “kosher” laws served to distinguish the Israelites from the surrounding pagan nations.

In the new covenant writings (the New Testament), we read that Jesus “declared all foods clean” (Mark 7:19). Some years later, Peter was given a vision by the Lord when he was dwelling in Joppa which involved a sheet that came down from heaven and included all kinds of animals. The voice of the Lord said, “Get up, Peter, kill and eat” (Acts 10:13). Peter naturally objected, but the voice responded, “What God has cleansed, no longer consider unholy” (v. 15). While this meant that “unclean” Gentiles were to be accepted (vv. 34-35), it also indicated that the Mosaic food regulations were no longer required.  Later, Paul revealed to Peter who was visiting Antioch in Syria that his practice of only eating with fellow-Jews was wrong (and probably those Jews had observed the kosher regulations) and violated God’s present will (cf. Galatians 2:11-14). 

Paul had to deal with regulations about special days again and again. When he wrote to the Galatian Christians, he reprimanded them, “You observe days and months and seasons and years. I fear for you, that perhaps I have labored over you in vain” (4:10-11). The apostle was concerned that these Christians had reverted to Jewish regulations; if this referred to Gentiles accepting Mosaic practices of days, this would be especially bad.  Apparently, the false teaching Paul deals with at Colossae had a Jewish element connected with it (and some believe an incipient Gnosticism was also present). He assures the believers, “No one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day—things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ” (Colossians 2:16-17; cf. Hebrews 10:1). Food regulations and special Mosaic days were only “shadows” of the coming reality—Jesus Christ.

We don’t know exactly the background of the controversy that must have existed at Rome and that Paul addresses in chapter 14. Some think that the issue of food related to food offered to idols rather than Mosaic food laws (cf. Acts 15:20, 29; 1 Corinthians 8:7-13; 10:14-33; Revelation 2:14, 20; cf. Exodus 34:15-17; Daniel 1:8). Whether the issue of food in Romans 14 pertained to foods offered to idols or foods forbidden by Moses, we are not entirely clear. And whether the days mentioned refer to Mosaic special days or pagan days, we are not sure; however, the former is more in keeping with the context.  We must remember that both Jews and Gentiles (that composed the Roman assembly) were opposed to paganism, but they may have had some differences regarding the place of Mosaic regulations concerning days and concerning what might be eaten and what should be forbidden.

Let’s now read through chapter 14 and get the gist of what Paul is saying and how he seeks to reconcile both Jews and Gentiles and bring unity and harmony out of some strong disagreements. We’ll not comment in depth on the meaning of much in this chapter, but we merely want to address this matter of differences and how both groups of believers were to respond to each other.

Romans 14

New American Standard Bible (NASB)

14 Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions.

We’ll see that the one who is “weak in faith” is the person whose faith is defective and immature. He is one whose faith will not permit him to eat anything “unclean” or will not allow him to cease observing special (Jewish) days.

(It would be good to mention here that the issue seems to be Jewish kosher laws and Jewish special days. Paul is not speaking about matters of nutrition in the foods that we consume, nor is he dealing with whether the first day of the week is special in some way, as the day that the believers met for edification and worship.)

2 One person has faith that he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats vegetables only.

Notice that the one with “faith” is able to leave the Jewish regulations of his past, whereas the one who is “weak” (in faith) is still bound to such regulations.  (As mentioned above, Paul is not speaking of those who would confine themselves to plant-based foods for nutritional reasons.)

3 The one who eats is not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat, and the one who does not eat is not to judge the one who eats, for God has accepted him.

It might be easy for the mature Christian who is not bound by Mosaic regulations to “regard with contempt” those who are weak—those whose conscience will not allow them to forsake such regulations. On the other hand, the “weak” who observes kosher food laws not to “judge” or condemn the one who is not restricted by the Mosaic code.

4 Who are you to judge the [a]servant of another? To his own [b]master he stands or falls; and he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.

This is directed to the “weak” brother who continues to keep Jewish food restrictions. He is not to “judge” or condemn his brothers who can eat non-kosher foods without scruples. Paul reminds them that the brother who doesn’t observe the Mosaic food restrictions will spiritually “stand” since God is able to sustain him.

5 One person [c]regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind.

Paul now leaves the matter of foods and goes to the equally-divisive issue of days. The “weak” brother regards certain days as special and required by God. Perhaps he is speaking of the Jewish Sabbath, or new moons, or the yearly feast days. Paul says that each person has the responsibility to make a decision on whether to keep certain days or not to keep certain days. He is not to force his opinion on another person.  (We would do well to remind ourselves that he is not speaking about matters of sin and righteousness here. Millions have missed Paul’s point and assume that he is allowing certain people to sin while others must keep from sinning in a certain way. No, the apostle is not dealing with matters that are part of God’s will under the new covenant, but he is treating matters that once were God’s will—under the old Mosaic covenant—but are now not to be bound.)

6 He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, [d]does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God.

He deals with three issues here: (1) the one who keeps a Jewish special day, does so in commitment to the Lord; (2) the one whose conscience permits him to eat non-kosher foods also does this for the Lord; (3) the weak in faith who doesn’t eat such foods does so for the Lord.  (Notice that the “weak” in faith apparently refused to eat any meat and not just “unclean” meat. This has led some to think that Paul is dealing with foods offered to idols. Some have suggested that Paul is speaking of vegetarianism and meat-eating in general, without a Jewish conext.) Paul is saying that both the weak in faith and the strong in faith are acceptable to God—providing they have the right attitude toward the issues and also have a good attitude toward their brothers who have a different perspective.

7 For not one of us lives for himself, and not one dies for himself;

We are interdependent. We are not merely to be concerned about what we want but what is for the good of the others.

8 for if we live, we live for the Lord, or if we die, we die for the Lord; therefore whether we live or die, we are the Lord’s.

Both the weak and the strong in faith or conscience belong to the Lord; He is the chief consideration here and our lives should be directed toward Him and His will.

9 For to this end Christ died and lived again, that He might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.

Jesus Christ is Lord of both the weak and the strong. (Therefore, they must not “judge” the strong in faith nor “condemn” or “despise” the weak in faith.)

10 But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.

Paul deals with both perspectives in this verse. First, the one who is weak in faith (who observes days and/or refuses to eat certain meats) is not to “judge” his brother (who is strong in faith and not bound by such limitations). Second, the strong in faith is not to treat with “contempt” his weak brother who continues to be bound by the Jewish regulations (if, in fact, they were Jewish limitations). Both groups will stand before God in judgment (see also 2 Corinthians 5:10).

11 For it is written,

“As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to Me,
And every tongue shall [e]give praise to God.”

Each person is responsible before God and will be required to give an account in judgment.

12 So then each one of us will give an account of himself to God.

We need not either “judge” or “despise” another Christian who has a different view on days or foods.  (However, we do know that Paul was deeply concerned about certain ones who were falling into Jewish restrictions—Colossians 2:16-17 and Galatians 4:10-11.  Here, in Romans, he seems to say that a degree of liberty is granted if this is something that pertains to individual, personal convictions. Probably he would be greatly concerned even in writing to the Romans if Gentiles—who had never been bound to observe certain days or who had not been restricted in the meats they ate—began to succumb to Judaizers, such as he dealt with in the letter to the Galatians.)

13 Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this—not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way.

The “weak” in faith is not to judge the “strong” in faith who is not bound by Jewish regulations. On the other hand, the apostle seems to immediately address the “strong” and says that they are not to do or say anything that would force the weak to bend to the wishes of the strong and thus offend their conscience. The conscience is a precious endowment of the Lord and must not be violated. Even when the conscience is ignorant and mistaken, the person must not violate the conscience and do what he assumes is sinful (see also verse 23).

14 I know and am convinced [f]in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but to him who thinks anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean.

Paul is aware that meats are no longer to be considered “unclean” and wrong before the Lord since God has “cleansed” such foods (Mark 7:19) and the Law of Moses has been fulfilled (cf. Romans 10:1-4; Hebrews 8:6-13). However, Paul quite realistically is aware that if someone considers a food to be unclean, he then must regard the food to be unclean. Although his conception is wrong, he still must abide by his mistaken conscience.

15 For if because of food your brother is hurt, you are no longer walking according to love. Do not destroy with your food him for whom Christ died.

The “strong” brother (who can eat non-kosher foods) is to realize that if he goes ahead and eats something that “hurts” his “weak” brother, he is not expressing brotherly love that seeks the highest good of the other.  If he eats food that the weak brother thinks is wrong, he may “destroy” or ruin a brother who is the recipient of Christ’s atoning sacrifice.  Presumably, he would destroy the brother if his example of eating a certain food would put pressure of the weak brother to follow his example when the weak brother still had a conscience against eating certain foods. We must never pressure another to do what he or she thinks is sinful!

16 Therefore do not let what is for you a good thing be [g]spoken of as evil;

Eating anything may be “good” for the “strong” brother, but if the weak person observes this, he would consider such liberty to be “evil” and sinful.

17 for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.

We must not think that insisting on our liberty to eat anything is our right for it may, in fact, harm the weak brother.  The kingdom of God doesn’t consist of insisting on our own way in such matters. Instead, we are to focus on such positive blessings as righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit. If we focus on such matters, we won’t hurt or destroy the weak nor will we condemn the strong.

18 For he who in this way serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men.

If we do focus on the positive elements of righteousness, peace, and joy in the Spirit in our service to the Lord, we will be acceptable to God and even other people will approve of our focus and behavior.

 19 So then [h]we pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another.

Perhaps this continues to be directed toward the “strong” in faith. Instead of insisting on his way, the strong is to pursue peace and must seek to build up the other person (the weak person).

20 Do not tear down the work of God for the sake of food. All things indeed are clean, but they are evil for the man who eats [i]and gives offense.

The “strong” must not so insist on eating everything (particularly when in the presence of the weak brother) that he “tears down” God’s work in the other person. Paul is emphasizing the practical expression of love for God and for the weak brother in the body of Christ.  Here Paul says that “all things indeed are clean,” something that he has already stated (“nothing is unclean in itself”—v. 14).  However, he emphasizes that meats are “evil” if the strong eats something and gives offense to the “weak” by doing so.

21 It is good not to eat meat or to drink wine, or to do anything by which your brother stumbles.

Our loving concern for others (such as the weak) is so vital in the body of Christ, that the “strong” must refrain from anything (whether eating meat or drinking wine) that would encourage the weak brother to “stumble.” Evidently, this is speaking of doing something that would pressure the weak to “stumble” into sin when the weak is encouraged to do something that he is not convinced is right and pleasing to God.  To him, his action would be sinful—even though, objectively, it would not be against the will of God.

22 The faith which you have, have [j]as your own conviction before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves.

If this is directed to the “strong” in faith, such a brother is to keep this conviction to himself (and to God).  He must do nothing that would bring condemnation on himself by approving something that is right in itself but which brings pressure on the weak to do something that his conscience disapproves.  The conscience must be patiently educated before a person is prepared to alter his actions.  (If this is directed to the weak, his faith also must be directed to God and he must be careful not to violate his conscience, even when objectively we know that his conscience is weak and incorrect.)

23 But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and whatever is not from faith is sin.

If a weak Christian proceeds to eat something that his conscience is not convinced is permissible, he sins. His eating doesn’t proceed from a faith that this is the correct and right thing to do, and this means that he thinks (incorrectly) that this is sinful and an offense to God. We must not violate our conscience (even when this objectively wrong or mistaken).

After the notes below, we’ll comment briefly on a few of the following verses in Romans 15.

Footnotes

a.        Romans 14:4 Or house-servant

b.       Romans 14:4 Lit lord

c.        Romans 14:5 Lit judges

d.       Romans 14:6 Lit eats

e.        Romans 14:11 Or confess

f.        Romans 14:14 Lit through

g.       Romans 14:16 Lit blasphemed

h.       Romans 14:19 Later mss read let us pursue

i.        Romans 14:20 Lit with offense

j.        Romans 14:22 Lit according to yourself

 

Romans 15

New American Standard Bible (NASB)

Now we who are strong ought to bear the weaknesses of those without strength and not just please ourselves.

If the strong Christian has a love for his weak brother (who continues to keep Jewish days or still restricts himself to “clean” foods), he will bear with these mistakes or incorrect convictions.  He will not insist on being pleased himself (by insisting that the weak brother “grow up” and throw off the Mosaic restrictions).

2 Each of us is to please his neighbor [a]for his good, to his edification.

The strong Christian is to lovingly please the weak brother so that the good of the brother is more important that insisting on his own way. (Hopefully, in time, the weak brother will learn and outgrow his incorrect views.)

3 For even Christ did not please Himself; but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached You fell on Me.”

We are to follow the example of Jesus who didn’t please Himself, but was more interested in pleasing God (cf. John 8:29) and in pleasing other people for their good.

4 For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, so that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.

Perhaps Paul means that the Hebrew Scriptures testify to the perspective that he has in this and that he is encouraging the strong brother to adopt.

5 Now may the God [b]who gives perseverance and encouragement grant you to be of the same mind with one another according to Christ Jesus,

Paul insists on unity and togetherness within the family of God.  In Christ, this sweet accord is far more important than insisting on one’s own way or insisting on the exercise of one’s liberty to eat anything.

6 so that with one accord you may with one [c]voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul gives another encouragement to pursue unity within the body of Christ and not allow the issues of chapter 14 to disrupt such unity.

7 Therefore, accept one another, just as Christ also accepted [d]us to the glory of God.

The “strong” in faith definitely is to accept the “weak” in faith and not despise such a person. On the other hand, the weak person is not to judge and reject the strong. As Christ has accepted the weak and the strong, so they are to accept each other—with the goal that God will be glorified with such unity and accord.

How Should We Apply this Today?

We have said much about the issue of foods (kosher foods) and days (Jewish “holy” days), but what relevance does this have for today?  It does have some application in our dealing with those who do keep Jewish holy days and refrain from non-kosher foods (e.g. newly-converted Jews, Adventists, and certain other religionists). But do these principles of Romans 14 go further?

Some professing Christians have used this chapter to support the idea that almost any religious conviction and practice is permissible if someone has convictions that the practice is permissible.  These people would also say that we cannot condemn or warn a person who believes and does something that he thinks is God’s will.

These professing Christians would place every issue that is not directly mentioned in Scripture into this chapter. Thus, they would say that the Bible is “silent” about such things as the use of tobacco, drugs, or junk foods. They would say that such things as TVs, radios, modern music, styles of clothing, hair styles, education, occupations and jobs, vehicles, houses, video games, and a hundred other matters should be left to others’ conscience. If God has not specifically dealt with them, they one may safely indulge. Such people would consider themselves the “strong” and those who oppose certain supposed “sins” are considered the “weak” who are ignorant and overly-scrupulous. They would say that the “weak” who oppose certain practices are wrong since Paul says they are not to “judge” others who freely indulge in those things that the weak consider to be sinful. But is this interpretation correct?

Suppose that we take smoking as an example here. Everyone agrees that there is not one verse in Scripture that specifically mentions smoking. We can hunt for the word “tobacco” or “cigarette” or “cigar” in an exhaustive concordance and we can’t find even one reference to the terms. Thus, some who consider themselves the “strong” would say that “if the Bible doesn’t mention it, it must be in the realm of opinion and we can’t legislate on it.” Is this true?

Consider with me the issue of using tobacco. Probably most professing evangelical Christians would agree that smoking is sinful.  In our own writing on this subject, we have found a couple dozen different reasons why it is sinful in God’s sight for a person to use tobacco. Thus, this practice would be objectively (not merely subjectively) wrong and sinful.

Yet some people would want to place an objection to tobacco into Romans 14 as an example of what the weak Christian thinks. They would suggest that the weak Christian is the one who has scruples against using tobacco. The “weak” is the one who thinks that it is wrong to smoke (whereas the “strong” would consider it acceptable especially since the Bible makes no explicit reference to tobacco or smoking).

They would go on to say that the strong brother who smokes has the liberty before the Lord to use tobacco. But, in this context, the strong brother should limit this freedom when around the weak brother lest his freedom cause the weak brother to also smoke when his conscience will not allow him to do this freely, without guilt.  The only reason why the strong Christian who smokes should limit his smoking in the presence of the weak Christian is to keep from hurting the weak or causing the weak to “stumble” by falling into smoking that the weak thinks (wrongly) is sinful.

However, this is the wrong way to think of Romans 14. Since we can see that smoking is objectively (not merely subjectively) wrong and sinful, it is not to be considered in the same class as days and foods that were once a restriction under the Law of Moses. There is a great distinction between these two sorts of practices.  Paul is not dealing with matters that are clearly wrong and sinful according to the principles of God’s word (even when such practices are not specified in the Bible).  Thus, even though abortion, marijuana, heroin, airplane hijacking, flying a fighter bomber, evolution, and a myriad of other issues that are not specifically addressed in Scripture, they are clearly wrong and sinful according to the principles of Scripture. Paul is not dealing with such matters.  He isn’t dealing with sinful activities and relationships that aren’t specifically condemned in the Bible.

Do we see the distinction between these two views? They definitely need to be kept in mind when we approach this chapter and seek to apply it to our own life circumstances.  Just because we are not troubled with the Day of Atonement, the Sabbath, fish without scales, or other matters addressed in the Law of Moses, this chapter has some relevance to us only if we are speaking about differences and conflicts about doctrines and practices that are objectively right in themselves but that the weak think are wrong. In that case, what Paul writes to the matter is of great importance.

Thus, when professing “Christians” seek to prove it is right to kill the Taliban, or use heroine, or view pornography, or dress in a swim/bathing suit, or accept evolution, because the Bible never mentions these matters, and they want to accuse you of being a “weak” Christian because you view these things as rightfully sinful, you need to be able to see the distinction between what Paul is addressing and what these liberal professing Christians are promoting. Read over these pages again to make sure you see the difference between what Paul the apostle is saying are allowable differences and what must be excluded from the believing body of Christ.

 

 

Comments are closed.