The previous 5 papers in this series, we have focused on the “weak” brother. If you are just now joining the series, it would be wise to start with Parts 1-5. We’ve seen him to be weak in the sense that he is not capable of doing some action without self-condemnation. We have seen his weakness as a gift of God and a conviction from God. We’ve seen Paul take his side and discuss issues in which he himself was unable to act. All of this means that the “weak” brother should not be thought of as immature or lacking in knowledge. For many readers, this is a new way of understanding the weak brother. So, having seen him anew in the light of Paul’s writing, what does this mean for us today?
Applications, Not Principles
We are talking about applications, not Bible principles. Principles are truths from God’s Word. No part of Scripture means something different to one person than another.1 But we apply Bible principles differently.
The fully persuaded weak brother is one who has thought logically about God’s Word. If someone claims to have a conviction, but has not done that, he is still “weak,” but he is not “fully persuaded in his mind.” Persuasion in one’s mind is done by applying God’s Word, because we seek to obey the Master, who has spoken to us in His Word. Luther’s “Here I stand” speech is often thought of as the culmination of a free conscience. But the statement itself clarifies that it was not:
Unless I am convicted by Scripture and plain reason—I do not accept the authority of popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other—my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot recant and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I can do no other. God help me.2
The Conscience and the Mind
The persuasion of your conscience should occur in your mind—your νοῦς. In the Septuagint, νοῦς was used for “heart” and “soul”3. For Plato, the νοῦς was the most excellent part of the soul of man, capable of reason. He used it in a similar way to λογίστικόν (“able to λογίζομαι,” which we will connect with Romans 14:14 and Philippians 4:8). It includes “knowledge of virtue” and controls moral action.4
Paul used it for the mind, the seat of moral understanding. In unbelievers, it is darkened and in believers, it must be renewed. “You must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds… be renewed in the spirit of your minds” (Ephesians 4:17,23). Rather than being “conformed to this world,” we must be transformed by the renewing of our mind, so that we might discern what is the will of god, what is good and acceptable and perfect (Romans 12:2). This verse suggests that mental work is required to discern God’s will. The mind is that in us which can serve the “law of God” Romans 7:25. It can be deceived (2 Thessalonians 2:1-3). Paul connects the νοῦς (mind) with the συνείδησις (conscience) in Titus 1:15. When Paul calls us to “be fully persuaded in our own minds,” he is calling us to think in a way that governs our moral positions. The basis of our conscience is to be our thinking about God’s Word. 1 Timothy 4:4-5, “For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, for it is made holy by the word of God and prayer.” The Word of God is a vital instrument for discerning what is good. Romans 14:14 affirms this use of the mind by telling us that the weak brother got that weakness by thinking (λογίζομαι).
The process of thinking about Scripture and arriving at one’s own conviction is not like hearing God speak into your ear. It is not revelation. It is the application of Scripture to our hearts5.
Romans 14 can be abused by those who want to be left alone to do whatever they please. The solution for this is to see that the basis for the different convictions is for each to think logically and to be fully persuaded in his own mind. The mind of the Christian must be renewed and transformed. And Paul tells us how to think. So this isn’t about unbridled individualism. It isn’t simply your mind that matters. It is the mind of Christ in you. This is not, “Each should do what is right in his own eyes.” Rather, Paul’s message is renew your mind, transform your mind, and then use your mind to discern what is right in God’s eyes.
Even though we accept our salvation as an unearned free gift, some things are right and others are wrong. Paul taught the Philippians that they must work out our salvation with fear and trembling.6 And some moral questions are not easy to discern. Paul prayed for them: “And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ.”7 Paul hoped that with maturity they can approve what is diaphero8. Some issues matter. Discernment in these issues comes with maturity in love and knowledge. Paul wants us to get there because it is important for purity and blamelessness in the day of Christ. In Romans 14, the judgment of Christ compels us to train our conscience (v. 5) and live by it for the honor of the Lord (vv. 6-9). Regarding Paul’s clean conscience in 1 Corinthians 4:1-7, Ridderbos says, “The words ‘But I am not thereby justified’ therefore point away toward the judgment of the Lord as the only authority competent to justify Paul, also before men.”9
Therefore, even though we don’t earn our salvation, right and wrong still exist and we must strive for what is right. So we apply our knowledge of Scripture and arrive at convictions.
Dr. Andy Naselli recently preached and wrote about Romans 14: How to Disagree with Other Christians about Disputable Matters. He named many issues that fit within the weak/strong framework, beginning at 6:10 in the linked sermon10.
That is a long list. Each of us surely finds issues in that list about which he believes God’s Word directs a more restricted position, meaning that he is unable to do something. On other issues he will feel God’s Word gives freedom to act, both for enjoyment of God’s gifts and for ministry. Even after reading Parts 1-5, some readers might have some habits of thought and a low view of the “weak” brother. Meditating on that list should dispel that notion. Consider those issues in which you are unable to do something (in which you are “weak”). Are those restrictions a result of immaturity and lack of faith? No. It is God’s work in your life through His Word, His church, and His Spirit. Weakness is good. It should be sought. As we take God’s Word and apply it to our lives, we will find many things that we become unable (weak) to do.
If you start with with the view that the notion that “weakness” is something one ought to always grow out of and never into, and you accept Andy Naselli’s list, then you must conclude that the more permissive (strong) view is right on every single issue. But it’s not that easy. We should study and think about the Word, applying Bible principles, appreciating our convictions, and embracing our “weaknesses.”
A Further Note about the Meaning of “Weak in Faith”:
Part 5 argued that “weak in faith” should be translated “unable by means of faith.” There is another possibility for “in faith” that is also consistent with the honorable way Paul treats the weak brother. “Faith” in Romans 14:1 (and throughout the passage) could simply refer to confidence to do something without self-condemnation. As J. D. Crowley puts it, “A person who is ‘weak in faith’ is someone whose conscience does not believe that it is okay to do a particular thing”11. While either view could be correct, as I go forward I will use J. D. Crowley’s view rather than what I suggested in Part 5 because it is more familiar to most readers and fits well with Paul.
These next five papers will examine how we should be practically living with our consciences and with one another as we have these convictions. Sometimes we will consider a weak brother and strong brother as theoretical brothers without naming their difference. Other times we will use convictions as examples. We’ll look at our tendencies, temptations, and principles from God’s Word that can help us as we pursue purity, blamelessness, peace, love, and ministry.
1 The Westminster Confession of Faith (1646), Chapter 1, IX. “The infallible rule of interpretation of Scripture is the Scripture itself: and therefore, when there is a question about the true and full sense of any Scripture (which is not manifold, but one), it must be searched and known by other places that speak more clearly.”
2 Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1990, p. 144.
3 Kittel, Gerhard, Ed., TDNT, Vol IV, p. 953.
4 Kittel, Gerhard, Ed., TDNT, Vol IV, p. 954.
5 We’ll discuss the mechanics of heart-issues and the conscience in Part 8.
6 Philippians 2:12
7 Philippians 1:9-10
8 As noted in Part 4, Many use the term “adiaphora” for weak/strong issues. They are “indifferent” in the sense that different Christians can go either way. But in another sense, they are not indifferent because they do matter; we must logically apply God’s Word to these issues. Adiaphora isn’t a biblical word. But in Philippians 1:9-11, Paul says, “And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.” “What is excellent” is “διαφέρω.” Negated and in the form of a noun, it is adiaphora. Paul isn’t talking about discerning what doesn’t matter, but what does matter.
9 Ridderbos, Herman, Paul: An Outline of His Theology, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, 1977, p. 292.
10 “I’m going to suggest 75 disputable matters… Sabbath 1-how should Christians treat Sunday? 2-is it ok to go to a public restaurant? 3-or shop at a grocery store? 4-or watch a football game? 5-or play a football game? 6-or do yard work? 7-or work for pay? Entertainment—8-should we play video games? 9-or go to movie theaters? 10-or watch movies? 11-or tv? 12-or read novels like the Harry Potter series? Language 13-what kind of language is wrong—what is inappropriate? 14-is it ok to say words like shoot or darn or gosh or other euphemisms? 15-is it wrong to watch a film or read a book that uses a curse word? Dress 16-what’s appropriate and what is modest? 17-how dressed up should we be for a Sunday morning service? 18-how should we dress throughout the week? 19-should men wear hats inside a building? 20-or [men wear hats] while praying? 21-may ladies wear make-up? 22-and jewelry? 23-If so, what kind and how much? 24-may men have facial hair? 25-may ladies wear pants? 26-shorts? 27-sleeveless? 28-how tight is too tight? 29-how short is too short? 30-may guys and girls swim together? 31-what should wear if we go swimming? 32-what about body piercing? 33-and tattoos? Smoking and Drinking 34-may we occasionally smoke cigars? 35-or drink alcohol in moderation? Money 36-should Christians give more than 10% of their gross income to their church? 37-is it ever ok to be in debt? 38-should christians live as frugally as possible so that they can give away the rest to advance the gospel throughout the world? 39-what size home should we live in? 40-how much money should we put in savings now? 41-and how much should we give away immediately?
Holidays 42-should we celebrate halloween? 43-should we go trick or treating and give out candy in our neighborhood? 44-should we participate in Easter egg hunts? 45-should we open presents on Christmas day? 46-should we have a Christmas tree? 47-should parents perpetuate the Santa Claus myth and not get credit for presents that they selected, paid for, and wrapped? …
Having Children 48-when should married couples start having children? 49-how many children should they have? 50-may they use non-abortive forms of birth-control? 51-should they have a homebirth or hospital birth? 52-Doula or doctor? 53-Epidural or natural?
Parenting 54-is attachment parenting ok? 55-should we follow the book Growing Kids God’s Way and immediately put kids on a strict schedule? 56-when should parents start disciplining their children? 57-exactly how should they discipline their children? 58-should they feed their children only organic food? 59-is it ok to eat fast food? 60-Chick-fil-a (Christian fast food)? 61-should parents give their children primarily homeopathic medicine? 62-is it ok to use antibiotics?
Education 63-homeschool? 64-public school? 65-private school? 66-private Christian school?
Guy-Girl relationships 67-dating or courtship? 68-when may such relationships begin? 69-how much parental involvement should there be? 70-how far is too far in a physical relationship prior to marriage?
Church meetings 71-how often should a church meet? only Sunday AMs? is saturday night ok? should it be Sunday AM, PM and Wed PM? 72-are multiple services with the same sermon ok? 73-may a church have more than one campus and display the preaching on a screen by a video? 74-should churches have small groups? 75-Sunday School? 76-or organized programs for evangelism?
Teaching about the end times 77-are the Left Behind novels theologically accurate? 78-must we embrace a pretribulational rapture?
Music 79-should we avoid certain music because of its associations? and/or its morality? 80-is a rock beat bad? 81-what about some forms of Christian hip-hop? 82-what forms of dancing are acceptable? 83-what instruments should a church use in their services? 84-what songs should they sing—primarily psalms and old hymns? 85-should the singing be only congregational? 86-or may it include prepared music such as vocal solos? 87-when Christians worship God through singing is it a good thing to express themselves physically such as lifting up their hands or clapping?
Bible Translations 88-should we use only the KJV? or ESV? is the NIV ok? or the NLT?
Politics 89-should we vote for only republican or democratic candidates? 90-is abortion such a paramount evil that we should be single-issue voters? is a democratic republic the least worst system of government? 91-is capitalism better than socialism? 92-how should we think about immigration? or gun control? or Fox News? or Rush Limbaugh? or Rachel Maddow?
Environment—93-how should we care for God’s world? should we recycle? 94-how should we think about global warming? is it ok to have an SUV?
I’m sure that some of you are thinking, “THAT shouldn’t have been on the list. That’s a First Level or Second Level issue…” Glad you’re here… Many of those issues are very important and I have an opinion on every one. And I wouldn’t have that opinion if I didn’t think I was right on them.
11 Crowley, JD (2014-02-23). Commentary on Romans for Cambodia and Asia (ASEAN Bible Commentary Series) Fount of Wisdom Publishing House, Phnom Penh. Kindle Edition (Kindle Locations 9276-9278), emphasis his.