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