The Strong and the Weak (Romans 14)
A man consulted a doctor. “I’ve been misbehaving, Doc, and my conscience is troubling me,” he complained.
“And you want something that will strengthen your willpower?” asked the doctor.
“Well, no,” said the fellow. “I was thinking of something that would weaken my conscience.”113
In Romans 14 the apostle Paul is dealing with matters of Christian conscience and personal convictions, especially as they relate to the relationships of the strong and the weak. Paul’s prescription in this chapter is far from that sought by the fellow just mentioned. He does not praise the overly sensitive conscience of the weak, nor does he condemn it. He accepts Christians where they are in their pilgrimage of faith and pleads with us to do the same.
Ray Stedman has said that the favorite indoor sport of Christians is trying to change each other. In Romans 14 Paul says we should not endeavor to change one another to suit our preferences, but instead we should change our conduct so as not to offend the weaker brother. Verses 1-12 deal with our responsibility to respect the convictions of one another rather than to revise them. Verses 13-23 instruct us to refrain from exercising our own liberties when they will harm another Christian.
Personal Convictions Should Not Inhibit Harmony Among Christians
The Issue at Hand. It is vitally important to our understanding of chapter 14 to be absolutely clear as to the issue at hand. The issue to which Paul speaks is the matter of personal convictions. Individual Christians will often differ over matters of conscience and of liberties. The differences of which Paul speaks are not over absolutes or fundamental doctrines of the faith. Specifically, Paul mentions the matter of eating meat or only vegetables (v. 2), of observing certain holy days (v. 5), and of drinking wine (v. 21).
While two Christians may disagree over whether or not a Christian should drink wine or eat only vegetables, no Christian should dispute the fact that lying, stealing, and immorality are sin. These are biblical and moral absolutes. No two Christians should differ over the virgin birth or the deity of Christ, the physical resurrection of our Lord or the substitutionary atonement. These are doctrinal certainties.
When we understand that Paul is speaking with regard to individual liberties, Christian rights, and personal convictions, then it is easy to see the difference in Paul’s attitude in Romans 14 as compared with Galatians 5 and Colossians 2. There were those who taught that it was impossible to be saved apart from the keeping of the Law. “And some men came down from Judea and began teaching the brethren, ‘Unless you are circumcised according to the custom of Moses, you cannot be saved’” (Acts 15:1).
With these Judaizers, Paul was very severe, for their doctrine was false. Those in Rome of whom Paul spoke were not of this sort. They were not saying that they had to avoid meat in order to be saved; they simply felt it was wrong for the Christian to eat meat, just as it is wrong to lie or steal.
The difference between Paul’s response to the weakness of Romans 14 and the heresy of Galatians can be best illustrated by his actions with regard to the circumcision of Timothy and Titus. In Acts 16:3, Paul had Timothy circumcised so as not to offend the scruples and custom (and perhaps prejudices) of those who knew his father was a Greek. But in Galatians 2:3-5, Paul refused to circumcise Titus because there the heretics were insisting that circumcision was essential to salvation.
Paul is particularly gracious and gentle in his instructions concerning the weak brethren in Romans 14, and it is because there was no heresy here, only a difference of understanding in the matter of Christian convictions and Christian liberties. Although Paul deals decisively with moral sin and doctrinal deviation in the New Testament he pleads for understanding and love when it comes also to immaturity in the matter of Christian liberties.
Who’s Who? The Strong and the Weak
The story has often been told of the culprits who entered a department store at night and stole nothing—they simply switched the price tags. Refrigerators sold for $9.95 while candy bars were $500.
While I was attending seminary several years ago, the most amazing realization of my study of the New Testament was that someone had switched the labels on the strong and the weak. I had always been taught that the strong Christian was the one who knew he couldn’t. He couldn’t smoke, drink, dance or go to movies. And she couldn’t wear lipstick or make-up. The strong Christian is “… someone who lives in mortal terror that someone, somewhere, is enjoying himself.”114 The weak Christian was the one who spoke of liberty.
If this has been your understanding of the ‘strong’ and the ‘weak,’ then you had better take a closer look at this chapter. The weak brother thinks it is wrong to eat meat, and so he eats only vegetables. The strong knows there is nothing intrinsically sinful about meat-eating (verse 2). The weak (we would assume) regards some days as more sacred, while the strong regards every day alike (verse 5). When I was a youngster, I can remember Christian friends whose parents thought it wrong to swim or water ski (or do anything fun) on Sunday. The strong knows he is free to drink wine in moderation (verse 21, cf. I Timothy 5:23), while the weak feels he must be a tee-totaler.115
I must go on to say that the weak Christian is not just the one who believes something which in fact is a Christian liberty is prohibited, but he is one who is inclined to go ahead and follow the example of the strong in spite of his scruples. The weak Christian, then, is not just the one who heartily condemns drinking wine, but who also might drink wine against his conscience because you or I do it. In my estimation, those who preach on the evils of wine so vehemently are not weaker brethren.116
The ‘weak’ and the ‘strong’ have several distinct characteristics.
(1) They are weak in faith. Literally, they are weak ‘in the faith’ or ‘in their faith. I suspect that both elements are true. That is, the weak are those who have not yet come to the full realization of the freedom and the liberty which is a part of the faith. “And you shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free” (John 8:32).
(2) They are correspondingly weak in their personal faith. A limited understanding of the nature and extent of grace limits subjective faith.
(3) The weak are prone to condemn the actions of the strong. As they have not yet come to understand Christian liberty, they do not accept it in others. The weak can be immediately recognized by the frown of contempt on their faces, and the “Oh, no!” look in their eyes.
(4) The strong are those who are more fully aware of the nature of grace and of the teachings of the word of God. They have a greater grasp of the faith (objective-doctrine) and so their faith (subjective-personal) is stronger.
(5) The strong are susceptible to the sin of smugness and arrogance. They can easily find contempt and disdain for those who cannot fully grasp grace. On their face can be seen the lofty, yet condescending, smile of contempt. Their eyes betray an expression of “Oh, really.”
A Word of Warning. To each of these groups, the strong and the weak, Paul has a word of warning and instruction. The instruction is to stop passing judgment on the convictions of the other, and to welcome them into warm fellowship and acceptance. “Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions” (Romans 14:1).
In verses 1-12, Paul gives us several good reasons why it is wrong for Christians to attempt to correct the convictions of other believers.
(1) Personal convictions are private property. Paul wrote in verse 5: “Let each man be fully convinced in his own mind.” Again in verse 22 we are told: “The faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God …” Paul’s point is uncomfortably clear. Mind your own business! Christian convictions are private property. We are responsible for our own convictions, but not those of our brother.
(2) Our acceptance of men into fellowship should be no more restrictive than God’s. The strong were apparently guilty of getting together with the weak only to ‘straighten them out.’ The effect of the matter was that strong and weak Christians were not associating with one another, or accepting them. We cannot demand the other brother to conform to our convictions before we will fellowship with him simply because this would be inconsistent with the acceptance shown by God. “Let not him who eats regard with contempt him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats, for God has accepted him” (Romans 14:3). If God has accepted our brother, as he is, then we must do no less. We should not try to change the one God has accepted as is.
(3) A servant is accountable only to his master. Some time ago, I was asked to preach at a Bible church in Washington State. Perhaps unwisely, I selected a topic that I knew could prove difficult for some to accept. I told the pastor before the sermon that my message might prove a little difficult. I’ll never forget the response of that man of God. “You’re the Lord’s servant, brother, not mine.”
That is precisely what Paul is trying to get across to us in verse 4: “Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls, and stand he will, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” (Romans 14:4). If we busy ourselves in judging our brothers, we are taking upon ourselves the prerogatives of God, for He alone is their master.
In verses 6-12, the emphasis of Paul’s words is that the life we live, we live before God. When Paul says in verse 7, “For not one of us lives for himself, and not one dies for himself,” he does not refer (here) to the impact we have on other men by our actions. Rather he stresses that nothing we do is done independently of God, that whether we live or die, we do so as to the Lord.
He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, 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. … 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 (Romans 14:6, 8).
If we wish to busy ourselves with the work of passing judgment, let us concentrate upon ourselves, rather than upon our neighbor, for at the judgment seat of God we will be judged for our own actions: “But you, why do you judge your brother? Or you again, why do you regard your brother with contempt? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of God” (Romans 14:10).
The force of Paul’s argumentation is irresistible. The Christian has no business trying to conform his brother to his own personal convictions, since convictions are private property, since God has accepted him as he is, and since every servant is accountable only to his own master.
The Exercise of Personal
Convictions Should Not Inflict Injury to a Brother
Paul’s words to this point have been painful, but he is not done with us yet. It is insufficient merely to cease in our efforts to mold our brother after our own image and convert his convictions to our own. We must go beyond this to a positive course of action which seeks to build up the weaker brother in his faith. What Paul is going to say is that we do not build up our brother by forcing him to come to our convictions, but by forfeiting our liberties for the sake of our brother.
The Right Verdict. Paul’s instruction to us is found in verse 13, where he writes, “Therefore let us not judge one another any more, but rather determine this—not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way” (Romans 14:13).
It is hard to spot the word play of the apostle in verse 13, but in the Greek text, the words ‘judge’ and ‘determine’ are the same Greek word. We might render it something like this: “Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any more, but let us come to this verdict—not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in our brother’s way.”
The Ultimate Issue Is Not One of Right or Wrong. The basis for Paul’s exhortation in verses 13-23 is that neither the exercise of Christian liberties nor the abstinence from them is intrinsically good or evil. The rightness or wrongness of these liberties is determined by our attitude toward them: “I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but to him who thinks anything to be unclean to him it is unclean” (Romans 14:14).
I want you to notice that Paul, in verse 14, uses the word ‘unclean’ and not the word ‘evil’ or ‘wrong.’ This word ‘unclean’ strongly implies to me that the basic issue at hand is that of a change in dispensation from the Old Testament economy to the New. A Jew could not eat a bacon and tomato sandwich under the Old dispensation, but could under the New. To the Christian Jew, not fully liberated from the observance of Old Testament food laws, eating ham and eggs was unthinkable, and, in his eyes, a sin. Ceremonial laws and traditions, those were issues which brought about cracks in the unity of the body at Rome.
Judaism tended to associate holiness or uncleanness with the object rather than with the person. A certain day was ‘holy’ while another was common. A certain food was clean while another was unclean. But our Lord taught that it is not the object which defiles or purifies the man; it is what he is within that matters (Mark 7:1-15, esp. v. 15).
I must tarry a moment to clarify a very important point. For it is here that I must part ways with the situationalist. Situation ethics maintains that it is purely the attitude that counts. If you think that it’s right, it’s right. If you practice immorality in a loving way, then it is right. The question becomes: Is it the loving thing to do? Do you feel right about it?
There are two major differences immediately apparent between situation ethics and Christian ethics. First, situational ethics is applied to all areas of conduct. Situational ethics applies even where the Scriptures have spoken authoritatively. The Bible calls premarital sex sin (Hebrews 13:4), but situationalists often call it pure and wholesome. No matter how we feel about something that the Bible calls sin, it is still sin. Thus, situational ethics applies across the board, while Christian ethics applies to those things which are liberties for the Christian. While situational ethics takes the whole spectrum of human conduct and applies relative standards, Paul takes only the segment of things acceptable before God, but questionable in the eyes of some immature Christians.
Second, situational ethics works both sides of the street, while Christian ethics doesn’t. Situational ethics say, if you think it’s right for you, it’s right. They also say, if you think it’s wrong, then for you it is wrong. Paul never says that drinking wine is right because we think it is. Drinking wine is right because God says it is. The only situationalism present in Romans 14 is that something which is really a liberty for us is wrong whenever we think it to be wrong. If we sincerely believe eating ice cream is sinful for the Christian, it is wrong, not because God said so, but because we suppose so. Paul, in 1 Corinthians 9:22 says, “I have become all things to all men.”
A Matter of Low Priority. If the exercise of Christian liberties is not a matter of absolute right and wrong, neither is it a matter of great importance. Paul is pressing us in verse 17 to get the matter of our priorities straight: “for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14:17). The heart of Christianity is not whether or not to drink wine or whether to eat meat or to abstain. The heart of the gospel is not eating and drinking, but righteousness, peace, and joy.
If righteousness, peace, joy and Christian unity (cf. v. 19; Romans 15:5, 6) is the essence of the Kingdom of light into which were called, then eating meat or not eating it is such a low priority it can be dispensed with without any real sacrifice, other than our own appetites and desires and preferences.
It’s Not a Matter of Right and Wrong—It’s a Matter of Love. Now let us return to Paul’s point. Since the activities in question are not in any way evil in and of themselves, there is no great benefit in either enjoying them or abstaining from them. The real issue is one of love. Love seeks to build up, never to tear down or to destroy. “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” (Romans 14:15). We are not to be preoccupied with our Christian liberties, but rather with love. Love never causes a brother to stumble, but seeks to strengthen the weak.
Words for the Strong (vv. 21-22). Paul’s admonition for the strong is expressed in verses 21 and 22: “It is good not to eat meat or to drink wine, or to do anything by which your brother stumbles. The faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves” (Romans 14:21, 22). The strong Christian should never practice matters of Christian liberty (such as eating meat or drinking wine) and thereby cause another, weaker brother, to follow in his footsteps and fall into sin. The weaker brother who drinks wine, not because he is convinced it is his liberty, but in doubt and only because another Christian is doing so, is thereby sinning against his conscience and his God.
The strong Christian is obligated not only to abstain from the exercise of his liberties, but also from his efforts to convert the weaker brother to his point of view. If you have convictions, they are personal, so keep them to yourself (v. 22a). And be careful that what you claim as a liberty is just that (v. 22b).
Words for the Weak (v. 23). The weak is warned never to act out of doubt, simply because another Christian is doing it. “But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and whatever is not from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23). To act apart from faith, that is, to act apart from sincere conviction and the confidence that you are doing so acceptably before God, is to act in sin.
Clarifications and Applications
Points of Clarification
Several things should be stated very clearly in order to avoid any misunderstanding of Paul’s teaching in this 14th chapter of Romans. The main point of Paul’s teaching is that every Christian should be free to hold his own convictions on matters of Christian liberty, but that no Christian is free to exercise these liberties at the expense of his brother’s spiritual welfare.
The devastating consequence for the weaker Christian of which Paul speaks is not the loss of his personal salvation, for that is eternally secure. The loss is that of the separation or alienation from God experienced as the result of sin. When the weaker brother drinks wine with a troubled conscience and only because his more mature brother does so, he is acting in doubt and thus sinning (v. 23). The grief or hurt (v. 15) of the weaker brother is the pangs of conscience with which he is inflicted due to violating his conscience and thereby sinning.
Paul’s teaching is that there is nothing categorically wrong with matters of Christian liberty and freedom. To take a specific illustration there is nothing intrinsically wrong with going to a theater to view a motion picture (i.e. going to movies). The mere act of going to a movie is not, in and of itself, wrong. Now going to an ‘X-rated’ movie is a horse of a different color. It is not the fact that it is a movie which makes viewing it wrong, but the fact that this movie entices one to think and commit immoral thoughts. Whereas movie-going per se is not wrong, going to certain movies is no question of liberty; it is a matter clearly dealt with on the basis of biblical principles.
It is not wrong to enjoy a good meal, but it is wrong to destroy our physical bodies by over-eating. It is not wrong to drink a glass of wine (except for an alcoholic, for whom this would inevitably lead to sin), but it is wrong to get drunk. It may not be wrong to enjoy a good smoke, but it is wrong to endanger the longevity of life due to cancer, or to allow our bodies to become the slave of food, or drink, or nicotine, or aspirin, or whatever. What may not be wrong categorically may be wrong on the basis of one or more clear biblical principles.
First of all, let me speak to any who may have delighted in what I have said because they view one’s spiritual relationship with God as a personal matter. “My relationship with God is a very personal, very private matter,” they tell us. All of which is a polite way of saying, “I don’t want to talk about it, and furthermore, it’s none of your business!”
You will get to heaven only if you do so God’s way, by personal faith in Jesus Christ as God’s Substitute Who bore the penalty of your sin, and Who is God’s provision of the righteousness which you lack for eternal life. And if you do not want to talk about it, there is surely something wrong, for Paul wrote in Romans 10:9-10, “that if you confess with your mouth Jesus as Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you shall be saved; for with the heart man believes, resulting in righteousness, and with the mouth he confesses, resulting in salvation.”
The privacy of which Paul writes is the privacy of one’s convictions concerning personal liberties, not a privacy which excuses you from discussing God’s way of salvation, or your acceptance of Him.
Second, I see from this text that there is a desperate need among Christians for solid convictions. When Paul said in verse 5, “Let each man be fully convinced in his own mind,” he instructed every Christian to have his own personal convictions. All too often in Christianity the new Christian is not encouraged to think for himself as the Bible directs him, but to simply stop conforming to the world and start conforming to the codes and values of the church and the Christian community. We need men and women of conviction!
Lest I have not said it enough, these convictions are not feelings (“I feel right about it.”) but convictions rooted in the mind, not in the emotions. “Let each man be fully convinced in his own mind.”
Third, we find a guideline for conduct in questionable areas: If it’s doubtful, it’s dirty. Frequently, young people ask if God will let them do this or that, desiring to walk as closely along the border of sin without exacting its consequences. To doubtful acts Paul cries out, “whatever is not of faith is sin” (verse 23).
Fourth, we should expect Christians to differ. Or, to put it differently, Christian unity is not uniformity. Some seem to think that the unity of the body of Christ is to be expressed by unanimity. Paul says that true Christian unity is derived from unanimity on the fundamentals and loving acceptance where non-essentials are concerned.
It is my personal conviction that there has been far too much division among Christians on matters that are not fundamental to the Christian faith. Doctrinal differences that are not over fundamentals of the faith should not divide the Church of Jesus Christ. It was the apostle Paul himself, a man of great convictions, who wrote: “Let us therefore, as many as are perfect, have this attitude; and if in anything you have a different attitude, God will reveal that also to you” (Philippians 3:15). How often we have confused “contend for the faith” (Jude 3) with contending with the faithful.
Fifth, the principle of faith should be as readily applied to others as it is to our own lives. What we really doubt when we endeavor to forcibly convert others to our own convictions is God’s ability to work in the lives of others. But Paul wrote, “‘Who are you to judge the servant of another? To his own master he stands or falls; and stand he will, for the Lord is able to make him stand” (Romans 14:4).
Christian wife, can you trust God to work in your husband’s life in such a way as to give him the maturity and insight you have? Christian husband, can you do the same? The faith of the Christian is the faith which trusts God to enlighten other Christians according to His time frame and in accordance with His game plan for each individual.
May God give us a measure of His grace in dealing with the saints.
115 “If this theory be correct, then our interpretation of the passage is somewhat different from that which has usually been accepted, and is, we venture to think, more natural. When St. Paul says in ver. 2 ‘the weak man eateth vegetables,’ he does not mean that there is a special sect of vegetarians in Rome; but he takes a typical instance of excessive scrupulousness. When again he says ‘one man considers one day better than another,’ he does not mean that this sect of vegetarians were also strict sabbatarians, but that the same scrupulousness may prevail in other matters. When he speaks of oJ qronw'n thVn hJmevran, oJ mhV ejoqivwn he is not thinking of any special body of people but rather of special types. When again in ver. 21 he says: ‘It is good not to eat flesh, or drink wine, or do anything in which thy brother is offended,’ he does not mean that these vegetarians and sabbatarians are also total abstainers; he merely means ‘even the most extreme act of self-denial is better than injuring the conscience of a brother.’ He had spoken very similarly in writing to the Corinthians: ‘Wherefore, if meat maketh my brother to stumble, I will eat no flesh for evermore, that I make not my brother to stumble’ (I Cor. viii. 13). It is not considered necessary to argue from these words that abstinence from flesh was one of the characteristics of the Corinthian sectaries; nor is it necessary to argue in a similar manner here.” William Sanday and Arthur Headlam, The Epistle to the Romans (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1902), pp. 401-402.
116 Some would endeavor to use the word ‘grieve’ or ‘hurt’ in verse 15 to support their contention that if any brother is offended (upset) by our liberties, we should give it up. The word hurt here can not have such a meaning as Murray indicates (Vol. II, pp. 190-191). Murray concludes: “Hence a weak believer ‘is grieved’ when he has violated his religious convictions and is afflicted with the vexation of conscience which the consequent sense of quilt involves. It is this tragic result for the weak believer that the strong believer must take into account. When the exercise of his liberty emboldens the weak to violate his conscience, then, out of deference to the religious interests of the weak, he is to refrain from the exercise of what are intrinsically his rights. No charge could be weighted with greater appeal than ‘Destroy not by thy food that one on whose behalf Christ died’ (cf. I Cor. 8:11).” John W. Murray, The Epistle to the Romans (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1968), II, p. 191.
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