Liberty, Legalism, and Love (2)1
As I said in the previous post, our approach will be to ask and then answer four questions. Continue reading . . .
As I said in the previous post, our approach will be to ask and then answer four questions.
(1) The first question to be addressed is: "Who is the weak brother?" Or again, "What constitutes weakness and strength?" Paul tells us three things about the "weak" brother or sister. First, he is a vegetarian (vv. 2,21). Second, he regards some days as having special importance (v. 5). Third, he does not drink wine (vv. 17,21).
The weak brother, then, is the one who entertains scruples on secondary matters. He has misgivings about the moral and spiritual propriety of such practices. The weak brother or sister is the one who has not sufficiently understood the truth of 1 Tim. 4:4-5; 1 Cor. 10:25-26; Rom. 14:14a. Weakness in faith, therefore, is not a failure to believe the fundamental doctrines of Christianity. It is, rather, a failure to understand the implications of such doctrine in the area of practical freedom. They had failed to grasp the truth of 1 Cor. 8:8 - "Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do" (cf. Mark 7:14-15). Douglas Moo elaborates:
"Paul is not . . . simply criticizing these people for having a 'weak' or inadequate trust in Christ as their Savior and Lord. Rather, he is criticizing them for lack of insight into some of the implications of their faith in Christ. These are Christians who are not able to accept for themselves the truth that their faith in Christ implies liberation from certain OT/Jewish ritual requirements. The 'faith' with respect to which these people are 'weak', therefore, is related to their basic faith in Christ but one step removed from it. It involves their individual outworking of Christian faith, their convictions about what that faith allows and prohibits" (Romans, 836).
Paul spoke of such believers as weak for other reasons as well:
1) They feared that by partaking of certain foods and drink or participating in certain practices they would be spiritually infected in some way.
2) They believed that partaking would weaken them in their walk and perhaps expose them to even greater evils.
3) They believed that there was spiritual value or moral virtue in abstinence per se. To deny oneself is inherently good and to indulge oneself is inherently bad.
4) Cranfield suggests that the weak were people who, "though prone to indulge in censoriousness with regard to their fellow-Christians, were fundamentally timid [emphasis mine]. They were liable to yield to social pressure, succumbing to contempt and ridicule and falling in with the practices of their fellow-Christians, in spite of their scruples and misgivings. Their integrity as persons was at risk" (2:691).
It is important to note a major misconception about the nature of weakness, as Paul conceives it. Many have understood weakness to be synonymous with excess. The weak brother, so some have thought, is the one who can't restrain himself and is given to over-indulgence in such matters as eating and drinking. The strong are those who have the will-power to abstain and should be careful not to place before their weaker brethren an inducement to indulge their vices. NO.
"The weak of Romans 14," explains John Murray, "are not those given to excess. They are the opposite; they are total abstainers from certain articles of food. The weak addicted to excess do not abstain; they take too much" (260). Those who have a "weakness" that leads to excess or over-indulgence are dealt with in completely other terms. Paul refers to such behavior as sin. Drunkards, for example, certainly have a weakness. But it is the sort of weakness that Paul condemns (1 Cor. 6:10). But here in Rom. 14 he tells us to "welcome” the one who is weak (v. 1). Weakness in Rom. 14 is not intemperate overindulgence but overly scrupulous abstinence. Stott concludes: "So if we are trying to picture a weaker brother or sister, we must not envisage a vulnerable Christian easily overcome by temptation, but a sensitive Christian full of indecision and scruples. What the weak lack is not strength of self-control but liberty of conscience" (355).
The weak in Rome may well have been Jewish Christians whose weakness "consisted in their continuing conscientious commitment to Jewish regulations regarding diet and days" (Stott, 356). Support for this is found in Paul's use of the term koinos (v. 14) which means "common" or "unclean". This term "had become a semi-technical way of describing food prohibited under the Mosaic law (see Mark 7:2,5; Acts 10:14)" (Moo, 829-30).
We must remember that abstinence per se is not weakness. The decisive factor is one's motive for abstention. To abstain for non-religious reasons does NOT make one weak.
What, then, constitutes strength? The strong, quite simply, are those who correctly perceive the truth of 1 Tim. 4:4-5 and Rom. 14:14a. Paul was strong (cf. 15:1). The strong are those who, by reason of their knowledge of God and grace, enjoy the full range of Christian liberty without being condemned in their conscience.
In the next article we’ll take up the second and third of our four questions.