Strong, Weak, What!?
Our journey through freedom and the law is coming to a close, for now. I think this is the second to last post on the issue before we turn our attention to Baptism and Communion. The passage that I am interested in today is Romans 14. This is where we find the famous, “Therefore, let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. (Romans 14:13).
This is a section that I think has been done great harm and violence in Christian circles because it is so often read through a grid of legalism. Where do we begin? First, the core issues that Paul raises here are those of food laws. It seems that what we had in Rome was a church comprised of a variety of different people as one would expect in a cosmopolitan city. This caused great tension within the community as they bumped into one another’s understandings of how they were to interact with God and what it meant to live all of life in a way that brings honor to God.
Paul finds that there were two camps, the weak and the strong. The weak only ate vegetables (as these were safe from being offered to idols) and the strong ate anything. Paul in verse 3 argues that neither are despise the other. Pauls says in verse 5 that “Each one should be fully convinced his own mind.” He drives the point home in verse 12, “So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.” It is with this context that we arrive at verse 13.
Many of the commentators argue that 13b (decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother) is pointed at the “strong”. The reasoning comes from the fact that verse 15:1 says, “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak.” I think that this is accurate. The question then becomes what is the scope of the passage? Is Christian freedom to be held to the lowest common denominator across the board?
First, Paul argues on behalf of the strong. He desires for all to become strong and leave weakness behind. The reason for this is that these issues are faith issues. Paul’s desire is for the people of God to fully engage in all that God has made clean in faith. He says, “Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he [God] approves (22).”
Second, Paul changes the issue. He says, “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men (17–18).” Paul is telling them that their focus is off base. These issues of food and festivals are silly compared to the work of the kingdom.
Finally, Paul calls for the strong to “bear” the “failings” of the weak. This is language that drives one to realize that Paul’s desire is for change. The term “bear” is βαστάζω and is understood as “be able to bear up under especially trying or oppressive circumstances (BDAG).” This is insightful. Consider what Paul is saying. The weak are “especially trying” in their “failings”. Paul gets that those who would rob the strong of their freedom are “trying” and even “oppressive”. His desire is for them not to stay that way. He wants them to become strong. But, until that time the strong are love well and not judge.
What is the take home then? It means that those who see Christians exerting their freedom ought not pass judgment (14:3) and realize that they are weak (14:2) and ask the strong for help that they might not stay in that state. It also means that the strong must hang in there in the midst of the frustrations that come from the weak and love well. They must not flaunt their freedom or force the weak into living freely until they can do so in faith.
Paul says it well, “Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. (Romans 15:7)”