Are We All Headed in the Same Direction? (Part 7)

(Read the series so far.)

We have seen that the “weak” brother is sometimes right and the “strong” is sometimes right. Significantly, there are times when we ought to be weak—when God wants us to consider ourselves unable to do something. But is that issue-specific or believer-specific1?

“Issue-specific” means that the correct stance is specific to each issue. For example, for temple-idol-meat the correct stance is “weak,” and for market-idol-meat the correct stance is “strong (with exceptions).” Issue-specific means that every issue has a right answer that God desires for every believer.

“Believer-specific” means that the correct stance is specific to each believer. So instead of having one right answer for each issue, God may lead different servants to different conclusions. If the situation is is “by issue,” there are some issues for which “I can’t do it” (weakness) is the right answer for every believer, and other issues which are acceptable for every believer. But if these matters are believer-specific, God should be seen as using His Word and Spirit to bring each believer to his own conviction. In this case, for each issue, some are strong and some are weak, both by God’s leading.

This distinction might seem academic. Even if there is one set of convictions that we all should arrive at, God hasn’t told us what they are. So we each must have the same approach either way, evaluating issues according to God’s Word while considering the conclusions of our brothers as possibly right.

But the matter isn’t entirely academic. If the variations are believer-specific, meaning God directs our consciences to be variously oriented, then the possibility that my brother is right is independent from the possibility that I am right.

But if the variations are issue-specific, then the possibility my brother is right is equal to the possibility that I am wrong. If one brother is convinced he is right, he should have little room for tolerating that his brother’s different conclusion can also be right. If this is the case, then Paul’s encouragement on these issues should be to pursue God’s will in our convictions because for each issue, one conviction is the right one.

But he didn’t write that way.

Paul encouraged both the weak and the strong to be confident in their minds. Each is to be fully persuaded in his own mind (v. 5). Each brother lives out his conviction in honor of the Lord (v.6). Nothing is unclean of itself (the strong should gain confidence here), but for the one who thinks it unclean, it is unclean (the weak should gain confidence here) (v. 14).

Paul treats confidence of both the weak and strong brothers as compatible with one another as a proper state of being. Their different convictions properly lead to different service to the Master. And these different patterns of service actually honor the Lord and fulfill part of the purpose of His living and dying to gain His position of Lord.

Paul connects the lordship of Christ to the different beliefs on each issue. The lordship discussion begins in Romans 14:4 and continues until v. 12. In the midst of this discussion, Paul explains that each brother, weak and strong, lives his conviction for the Lord. Paul is depicting a framework in which each brother serves his Lord with his own conviction. And the lordship of Christ is depicted here as active. In v. 9, we see that “Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord2 both of the dead and of the living.” The Lord is at work in the differences of service from each of His servants.

The alternative view is that we’re all making mud-pies for Jesus. So the meat-abstainer honors the Lord not because he abstains where Jesus wants him to, but because he has a heart that seeks to obey. In this view, God cares about the heart, but as far as the issues themselves, He doesn’t care. However, this means that once understood as Romans 14 issues, the obedience of these actions and abstentions would be hollow. No—God has given us commands, principles, and examples, all of which tells us ways in which He does care about how we live.3

The picture Paul painted of the proper result of “each be fully persuaded” was of Christ-honoring differences within each issue. Romans 14:5-6 specify that for both issues (days and meat), Christ is honored by either action, so long as it comes out of the conviction of the mind.

If the variations between weakness and strength are issue-specific, then there are issues about which we should be strong. In this case, there is little harm in the lives of the weak. They abstain from something that isn’t required. But there also would be issues in which we should be weak. Here is where the issue-specific framework is inconsistent with Paul. What should we think about the strong in such a case? For an issue in which we ought to be weak, we ought to realize that we should not do it—all of us. The “strong” in this case are missing God’s will and doing what He forbids. Yet Paul says that each brother serves his Lord by living out his conscience.

One might object that these are issues of indifference. Thus, these issues don’t matter. But that would logically mean there are no issues on which anyone has an obligation to be weak. In other words, then there would be no weak/strong issues in which “weak” was the right decision. But as seen in Part 2, sometimes the weak brother is right. Therefore, these issues are generally indifferent, but individually important.

Paul’s treatment of the weak and the strong in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8-10 indicate that on each issue, he wishes to encourage weak to hold a weak conviction, live it and call it submission to Christ because it is submission to Christ. And he wishes the strong to hold a strong conviction and live it and call it submission to Christ because it is submission to Christ.

This is also consistent with Paul’s discussion of celibacy and marriage. Celibacy/marriage should be thought of an issue of conscience. First, because Paul listed marriage together with other examples of conscience issues. In 1 Corinthians 7-10, Paul wrote about marriage extensively in 1 Corinthians 7. Then in chapter 8 he brings up another conscience issue, idol-meat. Then, while discussing how to live with differences of idol-meat convictions in chapter 9, he lists several liberties, including food and marriage. In 1 Timothy 4:1-5, Paul lists food and marriage as conscience issues, both of which4 are gifts of God, to be received if made holy by the Word of God and thanksgiving.

Second, because Paul used certain terms in connection with marriage show he intended it as a conscience issue. In 1 Timothy 4:2-3, Paul says that those with “seared consciences” deny marriage and eating certain foods. Paul uses liberty (ἐξουσία) for the “right” to eat (1 Corinthians 8:9, 9:4) and “right” to marry (1 Corinthians 9:5). Ridderbos devotes a section of his Christian liberty discussion to marriage. He says, “Christian Liberty and the life of the Christian … are linked in a singular way in Paul’s pronouncements on marriage.”5 And, “Paul values marriage as an institution of God, protected by the express commandment of Christ, to be accepted and experienced in Christian liberty.”6

For Paul, whether one was unable to marry or able to marry, each conviction was an application of right principles. We look at God’s Word and apply it to our hearts with our minds. But once the conclusion thus made by our mind, a conviction is held and it is a gift of God.7 Each brother should regard his conviction as both from the persuasion of his own mind and as God’s gift to him.

Therefore, it is not appropriate to think of convictions in terms of “Believer #1’s convictions,” Believer #2’s convictions,” and “God’s standards.” Instead, at least for some issues, we must expand how we think and consider “Believer #1’s convictions,” which ought to correspond with “God’s standards for Believer #1” and “Believer #2’s convictions,” which ought to correspond with “God’s standards for Believer #2.”

When we seek to apply God’s Word, we are seeking God’s will for us. We can’t rest in the application of others because each must be fully persuaded in his own mind. In these matters of applying general principles, each of us is on our own8 before Christ. He has written his Word so we can know His will and we must study and apply it.

The judgments of our brother should not bother us because we should be in awe of our Lord Jesus—neither should our brother’s “What? Don’t worry about that! That’s not wrong!” We should rest in honoring Christ. We may encourage one another to reconsider convictions, whether we think they should weaken or strengthen. But we must do this with a sense that they should be seeking God’s will for themselves, not God’s will for us, and not our will for them.

Notes

1 As we go, some will ask if we shouldn’t view these as mixed, with some issues properly having different conclusions for each believer (e.g., meat, days) and others having one conclusion that all should come to (e.g. temple-idol-meat). We’ll discuss this in Part 13.

2 “Lord,” here is a verb.

3 Doran, David, Why Do Believers Have Different Convictions? I, Pastor, Inner City Baptist Church, 2007. The pertinent part starts at 12 minutes.

4 There is debate about “both.” This passage, and the idea of thanksgiving, will be discussed in Part 12.

5 Ridderbos, Herman, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, 1977, p. 306.

6 Ridderbos, p. 312.

7 See Part 3.

8 Later, we’ll learn that we’re not alone when we act.

Dan Miller Bio


Dan Miller is an ophthalmologist in Cedar Falls, Iowa. He is a husband, father, and part-time student.

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There are 5 Comments

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

"The alternative view is that we’re all making mud-pies for Jesus. So the meat-abstainer honors the Lord not because he abstains where Jesus wants him to, but because he has a heart that seeks to obey. In this view, God cares about the heart, but as far as the issues themselves, He doesn’t care. However, this means that once understood as Romans 14 issues, the obedience of these actions and abstentions would be hollow."

I think there's another option. Rom. 14 issues could be matters that are, to use your term, "issue specific," but are of a nature that God wants believers to find their own way to the right answer in a climate of mutual respect and gentle encouragement rather than passing judgment, despising, and other attitudes we find rejected in Rom. 14.

So the point could be to use matters in which there is indeed a right and wrong answer as an opportunity to be patient with one another and supportive of one another, even while disagreeing.

Dan Miller's picture

I like what you're saying, Aaron, and maybe I was a bit too argumentative in a couple paragraphs there. And I do think that Paul models something very close to what you're proposing in 1 Cor 10, when he [quasi-]prohibits eating in the temple.

"Rom. 14 issues could be matters that... are of a nature that God wants believers to find their own way to the right answer in a climate of mutual respect and gentle encouragement rather than passing judgment, despising, and other attitudes we find rejected in Rom. 14."

Certainly this is a good expression of the attitudes Paul is demanding. But...

Keep in mind that what I'm doing here is giving practical application of the understanding the understanding of the weak gained from Parts 1-5. 

One of those understandings is that there is no automatic "rightness" inherent in the designation "strong." Nor is there automatic "wrongness" or immaturity" or "ignorance" about being "weak." So if you apply scripture to a Romans 14 issue and conclude that you can't do it, you're weak. And if you can do it, then you're strong.

Along with that is the understanding that "sometimes the weak brother is right" (see Part 2). In the case of Romans 14, the weak and the strong should treat one another with mutual respect, as you say. And gentle encouragement, also as you say. But why should they? That's the point I'm trying to point to in Paul. In Romans 14, they respect one another because they both are thinking, applying Scripture, making convictions, and serving the Lord with their differing convictions. Romans 14 makes it clear that each brother should treat the other in these ways because Jesus is lording your brother. Each thinks and be fully persuaded. And then each serves his Lord by living out his own conviction. The Lordship of Jesus is at the basis of proper convictions, whether eating or abstaining and whether observing days or treating all days alike. In other words, in Romans 14, Jesus is at the basis of the differences.

Similarly (and more explicitly), God is the giver of the conviction of celibacy and marriage. Even though both convictions are thoughtful applications of Bible principles.

Now, the question comes up: What about OBVIOUS applications? What if the application is really clear and it is obvious that there is a "right" side? Surely there are issues that have a right conclusion and in these issues, one side is right and the other wrong...

Jim's picture

These days we have many meatless meals (I had no meat at all today: cereal for breakfast, P/B sand for lunch, and a waffle for dinner). 35 years ago every dinner was a meat dinner of some kind and it mostly was beef (it was cheap back then).

I was a pastor and we lived close to the ABWE home office then in Cherry Hill NJ

One afternoon, ABWE called me to see if we would host an Indian pastor for dinner. With little hesitation, I said yes. ABWE informed me that "oh by the way, he's a vegetarian". My wife then had very little experience making a vegetarian meal. 

I wasn't too happy but we went with this.

In my mind this is a perfect example of strong & weaker. 

I surrendered my right to eat meat so this guy would have his meal.

I'd do it again if asked.

Aaron Blumer's picture

EditorAdmin

Dan, it's definitely provoked some thought for me and I'll keep chewing on it.

I think basically agree that "weak" and "strong" do not automatically correlate to "wrong" and "right" .. or vice versa either.

I wonder if Paul's use of the terms isn't along the lines of arguendo (though I'm positive I've seen another term for this that I can't recall now). That is, perhaps he employs terms that provisionally accept-for-the-sake-of-argument how the primary audience sees the parties involved. The "strong" are those who see themselves that way and the 'weak' are those the "strong" sees that way. In Rom 14 especially, he does not seem to be talking to the "weak" primarily.

Parts of your argument in 1-5 have been a bit difficult for me to follow so there are loose ends in what I understand your view to be.

Dan Miller's picture

Jim, that's an interesting story that fills my mind with questions. 

With regard to your role in that story, the question is, How do I welcome this brother from India? That is a question that, while very important, isn't the focus of this part. Your question of how you and your wife should welcome him will fit with Part 9. 

To give you an idea, here's the outline:

Part 6 - Persuasion In Your Mind
Part 7 - Are We All Headed In the Same Direction?
Part 8 - Aside: Conscience as Heart-Issues
Part 9 - Welcoming Your Brother
Part 10 - Adjusting the Conscience
Part 11 - Adjusting - The Grand Reversal
Part 12 - Adjusting with the Word and Prayer
Part 13 - Good and Necessary Consequences (this one might need to split, it's ~3,000 words and not done)
Part 14 - Individualism and Community
Part 15 - Influence of Others - Culture
Part 16 - Human Authority in Church and Home

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