Liberty, Legalism, and Love (4)
We’ve come to the fourth question. Here it is.
(4) The fourth question to be addressed is: "What responsibility does the strong brother have toward his weaker brother?" Paul answers this question in vv. 13-23. His main point is that the liberty of the strong must be qualified by love. Two questions must first be answered: Continue reading . . .
We’ve come to the fourth question. Here it is.
(4) The fourth question to be addressed is: "What responsibility does the strong brother have toward his weaker brother?" Paul answers this question in vv. 13-23. His main point is that the liberty of the strong must be qualified by love. Two questions must first be answered:
First, is the exhortation in v. 13a directed to the strong or weak brother, or both? Some say it is the weak brother Paul is addressing because in vv. 1-12 judging was the fault of the weak (cf. vv. 3,4,10). But it is probably the strong Paul has in mind, and for three reasons: (1) in vv. 10-12 both the strong and weak are rebuked for presuming to judge one another; (2) the antithesis of judging is being careful not to put a stumbling-block in a brother's path (v. 13b), something only the strong can do in relating to the weak; and (3) vv. 14-15 are intelligible only if it is the strong who is being addressed.
This leads directly to a second question: "Why does Paul place so much of the burden on the strong brother? Why does he ask the strong brother to curtail his liberty out of love, rather than ask the weak brother to change his convictions about what is permissible for a Christian to do?" The reason is this: the weak brother is bound by his conscience; there is no flexibility or freedom for him to adjust his behavior, for in doing so he would be violating what he sincerely believes is God's will. The strong brother, on the other hand, is at liberty in his conscience either to partake or abstain. He knows it is of secondary importance, whereas the weak brother regards it as of primary moral significance. The former, therefore, is at greater liberty to bend than is the latter.
Our approach in analyzing Paul's advice to the strong will be simply to take each verse in turn.
V. 13 - The hindrance and stumblingblock refer, respectively, to something against which the foot strikes and a trap or snare in which the foot may be caught. Here the terms are used metaphorically and are synonymous. They refer to anything that becomes an occasion for falling into sin. Paul does not mean that the strong deliberately seduces the weak. He is speaking of the strong who, in the exercise of their liberty, fail to take into account the moral scruples of their weaker brethren and thus create an occasion for the latter to fall into sin. How this occurs will be explained later.
Vv. 14-15 - This reiterates 1 Tim. 4:4-5. Paul knows and is convinced, i.e., this conviction has penetrated into his conscience and set him free from all perplexity. In other words, this is not merely Paul's preference. It is a theological reality that admits of no exceptions. The weak argued that certain foods and drink were intrinsically or inherently unclean and therefore were defiling to the believer. This was their justification for abstaining. Paul's response is: unless the Scriptures explicitly say it is unclean, you are wrong! See Mark 7:14ff. and Acts 10:15,28.
The key is the distinction in v. 14 between, on the one hand, what is objectively true and, on the other hand, one's subjective perception of that truth. Objectively, nothing is unclean in itself. But, it may become unclean if you THINK is to be so. See 1 Cor. 8:4,7. The knowledge of or faith in the objective cleanness of all food is not a knowledge or faith that all possess. The strong understand this truth. The weak do not. Paul's point, then, is this: If partaking of what you correctly know to be clean causes your brother to stumble because to him it is unclean, you are not walking according to love.
Paul refers to a stumblingblock and again in v. 15 to grieving and destroying one's brother. What does he mean? Certainly it is more than distress or pain or annoyance that the weak brother feels on seeing a strong brother partake of food or drink which he believes is unclean and forbidden. Rather, Paul envisions a situation in which a strong Christian, in the exercise of his liberty, causes a weak Christian to sin. The weak brother sins when he is influenced by the strong brother's behavior to act contrary to his conscience. Paul envisions the grievous vexation of conscience that afflicts a believer when he violates what for him is the moral will of God. Paul's advice to the strong is simple: when the exercise of your legitimate liberty emboldens the weak to violate his conscience, you must defer to his interests and refrain from what would otherwise be permissible for you to do.
Paul's appeal to the death of Christ is penetrating:
"If Christ loved the weak believer to the extent of laying down his life for his salvation, how alien to the demands of this love is the refusal on the part of the strong to forego the use of a certain article of food when the religious interests of the one for whom Christ died are thereby imperilled! It is the contrast between what the extreme sacrifice of Christ exemplified and the paltry demand devolving upon us that accentuates the meanness of our attitude when we discard the interests of a weak brother. And since the death of Christ as the price of redemption for all believers is the bond uniting them in fellowship, how contradictory is any behaviour that is not patterned after the love which Christ's death exhibited!" (Murray, 191).
If you are convinced that the request that you suspend the exercise of your freedom for the sake of your brother is a great and unjust imposition, think of what Christ did!
Some argue that the destruction here is eternal. But there are several reasons why this cannot be true. First, "are we really to believe that a Christian brother's single act against his own conscience -- which in any case is not his fault but the fault of the strong who have misled him, and which is therefore an unintentional mistake, not a deliberate disobedience -- merits eternal condemnation? No, hell is reserved only for the stubborn, the impenitent, those who willfully persist in wrongdoing" (Stott, 365-66). Second, Paul just affirmed in unequivocal terms the eternal security of the believer (Rom. 8:28-39). If nothing in all creation can separate one from the love of Christ, then surely another believer's callous disregard for a weak brother's religious scruples cannot do so! Third, Paul says in v. 15 that a Christian can "destroy" another Christian. This cannot refer to eternal destruction because Jesus said that God alone destroys body and soul in hell (Mt. 10:28). Fourth, Jesus said explicitly in John 10:28 that his sheep will "never perish". Clearly, then, the "destruction" in Rom. 14:14 must refer to something less than and different from the loss of eternal salvation. Fifth, the context provides a perfectly reasonable explanation of Paul's words. He envisions serious damage to both the conscience of the weak believer (cf. v. 15) and to his growth as a disciple of Jesus. Gundry-Volf identifies two forms of damage incurred by the weak:
"a subjective form consisting in grief and deep self-deprecation, and an objective form consisting in concrete sin, resultant guilt and possible incapacitation to behave consistently with one's beliefs. None of Paul's descriptions of the negative consequences born by the weak when they follow the example of the strong -- stumbling, sinning, sorrow, defiling and wounding of the conscience [cf. 1 Cor. 8:7], self-condemnation -- necessarily entails loss of salvation or complete dissolution of a relationship to God" (Paul and Perseverance: Staying In and Falling Away [Louisville: Westminster, 1990], 95).
The "destruction", therefore, presents an obstacle to one's sanctification, not to one's justification.
V. 16 - Christian liberty is itself a good thing. But when wrongly used, that is, in defiance of love and in disregard for the conscience of a weaker brother, it can bring disgrace on the gospel.
Vv. 17-18 - The word "for" points to v. 17 as support for the advice given in vv. 15-16. The essential character of God's kingdom, that which attests its presence in the heart of the believer, is not eating and drinking whatever you want, nor for that matter not eating and drinking whatever you don't want, but rather righteousness, peace, and joy in the Holy Spirit.
Vv. 19-20 - The peace to which Paul refers is peace with one's fellow Christian, specifically, the weak brother for whose conscience sake you have suspended the exercise of your liberty.
Is the "man" in v. 20b the strong or the weak? If it is the strong brother, Paul is saying the same as he did in v. 15a, namely, that the strong brother who eats what he knows to be clean transforms what is good into evil if his action causes his weaker brother to stumble. If it is the weak brother, then he stumbles when he eats because it is not of faith and with a clear conscience. "He eats with offence because he violates conscience in so doing" (Murray, 195). The former is more likely.
V. 21 - This is an authoritative declaration designed to summarize the principle outlined in vv. 13-20. Paul declares as good the unselfish action of the strong brother who, although possessing liberty, foregoes such out of loving deference to his weaker brother.
Question: "Why were some abstaining from wine?" Perhaps like the meat of 1 Cor. 8-10 it was associated with idolatrous practices. It may have been used as a libation in animal sacrifices. Perhaps its intoxicating nature, when taken in excess, frightened the weak. Or perhaps they opposed drinking wine for purely ascetic reasons. That is to say, they believed that self-denial per se was essential to holiness.
Question: "Does this declaration in v. 21 mean that a Christian should take a vow of total abstinence to be observed throughout one's life?" Certainly if one wants to take such a vow he or she is free to do so. But I do not think this is what Paul is recommending. Three reasons: (1) Paul himself did not take this approach. See 1 Cor. 10:23-33. The exercise of liberty is wholly dependent on the immediate circumstances. See also 1 Cor. 9:19-23. Paul's behavior on matters non-essential to salvation was dependent on those to whom he ministered and their attitude to the issue at hand. See also 1 Tim. 5:23. (2) It would be inconsistent with his emphasis on liberty in vv. 1-12. To endorse liberty so strongly, only to universally and unconditionally wipe out every possibility of its exercise, is inconceivable. (3) Practically speaking, it is beyond reason. If we permanently forsook everything that was offensive to others it is doubtful we could survive long in this world.
It must be remembered that taking a vow of permanent abstinence is not necessarily a sign of weakness. One must determine one's motive for such a vow. An otherwise strong believer may choose to abstain for reasons other than deference to the weak or a personal inability to resist temptation.
V. 22 - This is yet "another exhortation to the strong and means that they are not to parade and protest their rights and liberties to the detriment of the weak" (Murray, 195). The word faith here refers to the firm persuasion and confidence in one's conscience that all things truly are clean in themselves, and the consequent sense of freedom in Christ to enjoy such things with gratitude and to the glory of God.
When Paul says you are to “keep” this faith “between yourself and God,” he means two things: (1) Keep it privately; don't parade it or be ostentatious or make a public point of the fact that you are "above" the scruples of the weak. (2) But neither should you renounce your freedom. Keep it. It is good. Says Cranfield:
"To be free from the sort of scruples which trouble the weak is in itself a precious gift. The inward freedom does not have to be expressed outwardly in order to be enjoyed: one may enjoy it in one's own inner life --- a secret known only to oneself and God. And, if a weak brother is going to be hurt by one's giving outward expression to one's freedom, then one should be content with the inward experience of it, of which God is the only witness" (2:726).
V. 23 - The word doubt implies that a weak brother has qualms and misgivings about the moral propriety of eating or drinking or whatever the decision may be with which he is faced. He is unsure. His conscience lacks confidence. He does not feel free to partake. He does not have the faith that all things are clean.
Paul thus envisions a situation in which this weak brother, perhaps in order to escape the disdain or rejection of a strong brother, eats/drinks contrary to his scruples. His own misguided, but sincere, conscience says: "Do not eat/drink." But under the influence of the example of stronger brethren, he violates the dictates of his conscience and engages in what, to him, is wrong. In such a case, says Paul, both he and the strong brother whose unloving example he followed have sinned.
"Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin", although a principle true enough on its own to be applied to any number of settings, must be seen in the light of its immediate context. Paul's point is that a believer sins when he does what his conscience forbids.
In the final article we’ll bring together our findings from Romans 14 and set forth some practical principles to govern our behavior.