Who Are the "Weak in Faith?" (Part 1)

The goddess Diana (2nd Century Roman depiction)

How Weak Are the Weak?

Paul addressed some ethical controversies in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8. The “weak in faith” ate no meat. The one whose “conscience is weak” could not eat idol-meat. What does Paul mean by “weak”?

For many, it is a foregone conclusion that the weak brother is a doubting believer who lacks knowledge. In this series we will take a closer look at the weak brother. He is deserving of much more respect than he has been afforded.

A word of caution. The weak brother presented here is very different from what you might have previously learned. Most readers will find it new and unusual. Don’t try to fit it into your previous understanding of the “weak.” It might help to assume that you are being asked to understand that the “weak” brother is the good guy.

Several passages have uncertain meaning. Different people will read them in different ways. If we agree, then we’re “interpreting Scripture with Scripture.” If we don’t agree, then it’s bias. In general, we read such passages through the lens of previous assumptions, and over and over we see an obvious meaning1. Some of these can be read in such a way that the “weak” is doubting and ignorant, or so that he is noble, logical, and biblical.

In addition to uncertain passages, Paul sometimes depicted the “weak” as ethically equal or superior to the “strong.” And yet, Paul does call him “weak in faith.” In the last paper, we will see another way to translate “weak in faith” that is consistent with the picture Paul paints of this weak brother.

What were the issues of “weakness”?

What were the Romans were fighting about? Outdated scruples, or reasonable applications of Scriptural principles still in effect? The issues were Jewish, but not necessarily just pork. Paul uses the term “κοινὸν” in the sense of forbidden. Jews used “common” in that sense; Hellenists did not2. Also, the whole of Romans deals with controversies between Jews and gentiles. In Romans 15:3-8, Paul is discussing the fellowship he hopes comes from chapter 14. He is clearly speaking of Jewish and gentile fellowship. But the weak “eats only vegetables” (not “eats only lamb”) and vegetarianism was not required in Jewish Law. Meat could be unclean because of improper preparation or idolatry. Hodge says,

“…they abstained from all meat, … which, after having been presented in sacrifice, was sold in the market-place, or which had in some other way been rendered unclean. (Josephus states in his Life (sect 3), that certain Jewish priests, while at Rome, lived entirely upon fruit, from the dread of eating any thing unclean.)”3

Is abstinence from market-meat a legitimate application of avoiding idolatry or were the weak making an unnecessary application?

How would the weak brother in Rome answer that question? Because of their connection with idolatry, meat and wine4 were to be refused. The prohibition of idolatry had been applied for centuries to mean that one must not eat meat in a foreign land. What in the new era should have told the Romans that the established and Scripture-sanctioned ways to apply the Shema5 were no longer correct? Some said, “Just realize that the idol isn’t really a god,” or, “It’s ok to eat what you’re ignorant of—just don’t ask.” But those were never good enough in the past.

The issue of meat can be understood in ways that make the position of the weak ridiculous. We could imagine that the weak refuses to accept Peter’s Vision and Jesus’s teaching that all foods are clean6 and balks over non kosher foods. We don’t need to, though. It is possible to see the weak conviction over meat as logical and biblical.

The second issue was also Jewish: treating some days as special. These “days” were either Jewish holy days or Sabbath days. The strong group treated “all days alike.” If Paul really meant “all,” holy days and Sabbath days were all included. Some argue that since they are based on creation, Sabbath days are of perpetual obligation7, 8.

1 Corinthians 8 depicts even closer involvement with idolatry. The “strong” were eating meat in the idol’s temple9. It is even easier here to see the weak as making a God-honoring conclusion. We’ll discuss this case in a later paper. For now, it is enough to say we do not have to see the weak as stubbornly applying abrogated Jewish Laws.

Paul’s Thoughts About the Discernment of the Weak

In v. 3, Paul tells the weak not to judge the strong. That sounds simple. Don’t confront your brother. But it is not so easy. Unless he wants the weak to stop confronting their brother for all sins, Paul expects the weak to make a challenging distinction. Some of the things he believes are sinful are actually sinful and others actually are not. But if he knows something isn’t sinful, how does he still think it is sinful? In order to know which issues are weak/strong issues (and thus be able to obey Paul), the weak must be mature and discerning enough to understand the fact that the position of the strong is right.

Paul’s Thoughts About the Thoughts of the Weak and the Strong

Romans 14:5 says that each (the weak and the strong) should be fully persuaded in his mind. The weak is encouraged to use his mind to become fully satisfied with his weak position. Understood in the context of the following verses, Paul wanted the thinking of the weak to confirm his position not to “strengthen him” by making him take the conviction of the strong.

In Romans 14:14, the weak gets his conviction about meat when he thinks it is unclean. Nothing is unclean of itself, but it is unclean if someone “thinks” it is unclean. What does thinks mean? Before we examine the Greek word for “thinks,” consider what you expect the word to mean. Do you expect a word that describes rational, proper thinking, or mistaken but perhaps well intentioned thinking?

Was the weak “thinking”10 and believing11 improperly? Was his thinking supposition and “mistaken”12, 13, 14 and his conscience “imperfect”15, with “scruples that were unnecessary”16?

“Think” in Romans 14:14 is λογιζομένῳ. It refers to calculating, logical thought. Kittel (TDNT, Vol 8) says, “λογίζομαι means to deliberate, to conclude. Esp. in Plato it is the typical term for the non-emotional thinking of the philosopher seeking supra-personal knowledge, in this case, the receptive apprehension of something objectively present.”

A.T. Robertson says of λογίζομαι:

It is not the mere flash of thought like the flitting of a sparrow but deliberate and prolonged contemplation as if one is weighing a mathematical problem. Reckon up the pros and cons of the moral values in life… Make your mind move in the realm of elevated thoughts. High thinking is essential to holy living.17

Lightfoot calls it meditation18. Moule says of λογίζομαι,

Such was to be the condition for the true play of the inner life. … These ‘hearts and thoughts’ are to be active, discursive, reflective; ‘reckoning,’ ‘calculating,’ ‘reasoning out’ (λογίζεσθε)… these things think out, reckon, reason on… Let right in all its practical, all its noble forms, be the subject-matter of your considering and designing activities within…19

Fawcett says, “Have a continual regard to, so as to ‘do’ these things whenever the occasion arises.”20 Barnes says, “Careful attention and study. Think…”21 Melick says, “… [Think] means far more than simple thought. The church was to count on these things and to chart its course according to them.”22

Those are from commentaries on Philippians 4:8 (“Whatsoever things are true, [etc.]… think on these things”). Commentators are unified in saying λογίζομαι means “to calculate,” “reason,” “meditate on.” It is the proper means of thinking about how we should live.

One might ask, why quote Philippians commentaries? Why not use what commentators say about λογίζομαι in Romans 14:14? Because commentators don’t discuss the meaning of λογίζομαι in Romans 1423. Most say “think” means “erroneously suppose” without seeking a basis in the text. They pay no attention to the word λογίζομαι and little attention to the whole of v. 14b24. If you’re convinced already that the thoughts of the weak are erring supposition, then discussing the meaning of λογίζομαι will not help you explain your belief. Writing about Philippians 4:8, they discuss the word in detail, explaining that it is deep and ethically binding thought. In Romans 14:14, they ignore it25.

If Paul wanted to say “suppose” or “erroneously thinks,” there was a Greek word for that. δοκέω: “Jesus had spoken of his death, but they thought that he meant…” (John 11:13) “whoever kills you will think he is offering service to God.” (John 16:2) “Supposing him to be the gardener, she said to him, “Sir, if you have carried him away…” (John 20:15) “If anyone imagines that he knows something, he does not…” (1 Corinthians 8:2) “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12). The last two are warnings to the strong. Paul calls their thoughts supposition; the thoughts of the weak are λογίζομαι.

The principles behind the issues of “weakness” might continue even today (idolatry and Sabbath). Paul expected the weak to understand along with the strong how the laws changed in the New Testament. He wanted the weak to use their minds to confirm their position and he used very respectful word for their thinking.

In the next papers, we will see that weakness can be a godly position and that weakness is part of the purpose of God in directing His servants. We will also examine various sections of Paul’s writings that might seem to indicate an immature weak brother. Finally, I’ll present and defend a translation of “weak in faith” that is more consistent with the picture of this brother as a noble, logical, biblical brother.


1 Part 3 will discuss several of these passages: Romans 14:14, Romans 14:23, Romans 15:1, and Acts 10

2 Douglas Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, NICNT, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, 829-30.

3 Hodge, Charles, Commentary on The Epistle to the Romans, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, 1836, 1950, p. 418 (the footnote concerning Josephus only occurs in the 1836 ed.)

4 Daniel 1:8-16 - Whether Babylon or Rome, we cannot be sure that idolatrous contamination was the issue in the case of meat because there were other reasons to reject meat (animal type, method of killing, etc.). But the Old Testament says nothing about Kosher laws for wine. Regarding meat, when asked if he was abstaining because of non-Kosher preparation or idolatry, the weak surely would have answered either “idolatry” (if he understands that the OT food prep laws are abrogated) or “both” (meaning he tacks on the preparation as as second reason as people tend to do when they consider something wrong).

5 “Shema” is the first word of Deuteronomy 6:4 “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. “

6 Mark 7, while not perhaps written, would have been taught in Rome.

9 see 1 Corinthians 8:9-10 - “But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple…”

10 Haldane, Romans, Geneva Series of Commentaries, The Bath Press, Bath, 1996, p. 602-3. “Persons in ignorance ought to be instructed, but they ought never to be encouraged to do what they themselves judge to be contrary to the will of God.” Note that this not consistent with the way God responds in Peter’s vision when Peter says, “No.”

11 John Murray, The Epistle to the Romans, Vol. 2, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, 1997, p. 189. “There is nothing unclean of itself”; this is a proposition that is absolutely and universally true and there is no exception. But it is also true that not all have sufficient faith to know this.”

12 R.C.H. Lenski, The Interpretation of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, Wartburg Press, Columbus, Ohio, 1945, p. 834. “ ‘To that one,’ meaning to that one alone, brings out two things: only in his mind—only by a mistake of his mind.”

13 Henry, Matthew, http://www.blueletterbible.org/Comm/mhc/Rom/Rom_014.cfm “Of a mistaken conscience, v. 14. If a thing be indifferent, so that it is not in itself a sin not to do it, if we really think it a sin to do it it is to us a sin, though not to others, because we act against our consciences, though mistaken and misinformed.”

14 Stott, John R. W., The Message of Romans, Inter-Varsity Press, Downers Grove, IL, 1994, p.364-5. “Although the Strong are correct,… they must not ride roughshod over the scruples of the weak by imposing their view on them. On the contrary, they must defer to the weaker brother’s conscience (even though it is mistaken) and not violate it or cause him to violate it.”

15 Wuest, Kenneth S., Romans in the Greek New Testament for the English Reader, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, 1967, p. 236-7. “Though there is nothing which in itself has [unholiness], some things may have it subjectively, i. e., in the judgment of a particular person who cannot help (from some imperfection of conscience) regarding them so, to him they are what his conscience makes them; and his conscience (unenlightened as it is) is entitled to respect.”

16 Clarke, Adam, Commentary on the Bible, 1831, p. 366. “the erroneous though well-intentioned dictates of his conscience.”

17 Robertson, A.T., Paul’s Joy in Christ, Broadman Press, Nashville, Tennessee,1959, p. 135.

18 Lightfoot, J.B., Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians, Hendrickson Publishers, 1999, p. 162.

19 Moule, H.C.G., Philippian Studies: Lessons in Faith and Love from St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians, Christian Literature Crusade, Fort Washington, PA, 1927, p. 229-30.

21 Barnes, Albert, Notes on the New Testament, Ephesians, Philippians, and Colossians, Baker Books, Grand Rapids, 1950, p.217.

22 Richard R. Melick, Jr., The New American Commentary – Vol. 32 - Philippians, Colossians, Philemon, Broadman Press, Nashville, Tennessee, 1991, p. 150.

23 Barnett, Paul; Barrett, C.K.; Beet, Agar; Boice, James Montgomery; Briscoe, D. Stuart; Brown, David; Calvin, John; Chrysostom, John; Cranfield, C.E.B.; Karl P. Donfried; Esler Philip Francis; Haldane, Robert; Henry, Matthew; Hodge, Charles; Lenski, R. C. H.; Lloyd-Jones, D.M.; Luther, Martin; Minear, Paul S.; Moo, Douglass; Murray, John; Nanos, Mark; Robertson, A.T.; Sanday, William; Stifler, James; Stott, John R. W.; Spence, H.D.M.; Wuest, Kenneth S.

24 The context of v. 14, before and after, is the importance of taking seriously the convictions of the weak and not causing him to disobey them. Logically, the point of v. 14 as a whole in its context is to express why these things are sinful to the weak. The emphasis should be on 14b, since that is Paul’s point in context.

25 Along with inattention to λογίζομαι in v. 14b, there is a lack of interest in discussing v. 14b, which averages less than three lines for every 10 devoted to 14a through these sources: Barrett, C.K.; Boice, James Montgomery; Briscoe, D. Stuart; Ogilvie, Ed. Brown, David; Calvin, John; Chrysostom, John; Cranfield, C.E.B.; Haldane, Robert; Henry, Matthew; Hodge, Charles; Lenski, R. C. H.; Lloyd-Jones, D.M.; Luther, Martin; Moo, Douglas; Murray, John; Robertson, A.T.; Stott, John R. W.; Wuest, Kenneth S.

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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Dan Miller's picture

These will be in five parts, eventually discussing Acts 10, 15, Romans 14-15, 1 Corinthians 7-10, 1 Timothy 4:1-6, etc. 

Bert Perry's picture

Looking forward to more....thanks!

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Don Johnson's picture

In working on these passages the other day, I noticed that the word 'strong' is only used once, in Rm 15. It is never used in the 1 Cor passage. One of the differences between the passages is the apostles attitudes to "those with knowledge" (1Cor) and "the strong" (Rm). The first set are mostly rebuked, the second set are counseled and exhorted.

Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Dan Miller's picture

I see "strong" as the only alternative to "weak." Especially see how the Greek words for weak, un-strong, weaknesses are used in Romans 15:1. 

I also see "strong" as sort of the default mode of life. What I mean is that if God didn't tell us not to do something (even through our conscience), then we would be free to do it. It would simply be normal life to be able to eat whatever. So it makes sense that Paul uses "weak" but less often "strong" in both these passages. Anyone who isn't "weak" in a particular sense, is "strong" in that sense.

Regarding "knowledge," that is a major theme of Part 2 - so I'll wait until ?tomorrow? to address that.

Dan Miller's picture

Almost every sermon or introduction to Romans 14 begins with something like:

Jesus in Mark 7 and Peter's Vision in Acts 10 teach the church that the Old Testament Laws had been done away with. All foods were clean. But there were in Rome Jewish believers who did not yet know that - or who may have heard it, but had not internalized it into their conscience. So they still felt in their consciences that pork, for instance, was unclean - sinful. It was to this situation that Paul wrote Romans 14.

Is it reasonable to think that such people could have existed? 20 years after the resurrection, these Jews came to believe that the man Jesus was God (when such a claim was te height of blasphemy to all their ancestors). And they came to believe that His sacrifice finally and totally accomplished what all the sacrifices of all their ancestors only pointed to. And that He rose from the dead (when such a feat was clearly impossible). And yet, when it comes to a change in the types of meat they can eat, No - that is too much to accept

A more plausible alternative is that such Christian Jews could have fully accepted Peter's Vision and Jesus's teaching that all foods are clean and still objected to meat in Rome on the basis of possible tainting by idolatry. And the prohibition of idolatry is still in force. Think of this in terms of principles and applications.

...the command to love our neighbor is general enough to apply directly to today. A demand to build a railing on the roof is a particular application for a specific culture of the more general command to love one’s neighbor. We should not take the specific command to mean that we must have houses with flat roofs and build a railing around them. However, the specific command rests on an underlying principle that loving one’s neighbor means taking measures for his protection. That underlying, more general principle is applicable to our day. A legitimate application of it today would be to ensure that our friend wears a seat belt while riding in our car (an application totally irrelevant to Moses’ day).

Feinberg, John S.; Feinberg, Paul D. (2010-11-04). Ethics for a Brave New World, Second Edition (Updated and Expanded) (p. 41). Crossway. Kindle Edition. 

I'm confident that all of us here at SI have this sort of view of the continuity of the Old and New Testament commands. These questions can be used:

  1. Is there an eternal principle behind the OT command?
  2. The conditions that made that command fulfill that principle in the OT - do those conditions still exist in our cultural setting?
  3. If not, are there other ways that we should apply this eternal principle of God?

Answering those questions about OT-NT continuity on avoiding idolatry by avoiding meat and wine in a foreign pagan land,

  1. The principle of avoiding idolatry is eternal. It was reinforced to 1st century Christians by the Jerusalem Council (Acts 15) and to us by Jesus's letters to the churches (Rev 2).
  2. The conditions that made Daniel avoid the king's - tainting with idolatry did still exist in Rome.
  3. (unneeded)

There is no reason to think that the weak were not totally reasonable to abstain from meat.

Here's what hasn't been asked (and I expected it): How do you know that the meat-objection was related to idolatry and not abrogated things like pork or improper handling?

It wasn't pork - but I can't prove it wasn't improper handling issues. I would only warn that if you say: He's called "weak," therefore we should expect him to be immature and wrong in his view. And you say: He's immature and wrong in his view, therefore we should read "weak" as immature and wrong. In that case, you're engaging in circular reasoning.

It's enough for me now to argue that the circle can turn either way. I think that the weak is described as a pretty respectable guy. And the term is a pretty respectable term (that we've often misunderstood). I also think that fits better with Jews who have looked at the claims of Christ and have been wise enough to accept him and call him Lord.

Part 2 goes up soon...

G. N. Barkman's picture


Thanks for the article, and all the good discussion it has prompted.  I'm looking forward to Part 2.  However, I must insert that anyone who thinks that Jews who trusted Christ would have no lingering scruples regarding OT dietary laws twenty years later hasn't labored where I live.  Believe me, some cultural traditions are harder to change than doctrinal issues.

G. N. Barkman

Bert Perry's picture

Loved Greg's comment, and I think a reason that the cultural sticks with us so hard is that if we decide our cultural habits aren't Biblical, we have to change something every day or at least every week.  We need to sing something with (or without) a beat in church, or hymns we're not used to, or God forbid the metric Psalms!   Or look at any thread on this forum involving CH3CH2OH, or Strong's # 4234.

Doctrinal issues, on the other hand....well, we can hide those away in our hearts and not do anything with it, or at least so we think.  And that's another reason we get so worked up about cultural issues; we all too often haven't learned that various portions of doctrine do in fact have an indirect way of affecting our culture--and we therefore resist it because doctrine hasn't penetrated our hearts.  There are a number of times where I've had to simply ask someone who was sticking with a cultural norm "do you believe the Scripture on this matter, or do you not?"  It is a hard nut to crack at times.

But that said, I do think I've gone a bit off topic, so my apologies, and looking forward to part #2. 

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Dan Miller's picture

G. N. Barkman wrote:
...However, I must insert that anyone who thinks that Jews who trusted Christ would have no lingering scruples regarding OT dietary laws twenty years later hasn't labored where I live.  Believe me, some cultural traditions are harder to change than doctrinal issues.
Yes, practically, I would have to agree. The question I will ask in the end, though, is "Why?" Is it because of human nature; do we just resist these changes? Or is it because we have lived in a Christian culture that teaches a wrong view of ethics and how to think about these things? I think it's both.

Dan Miller's picture

Andrew: I believe that one example of ignoring the context and using eisegesis is found in your examination of the word “think” in Romans 14:14. You performed an excellent word study of its usage in the NT, but did not explain its relationship to the introductory phrase.

“I know and am persuaded by the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself. Still, to someone who considers a thing to be unclean, to that one it is unclean” (Romans 14:14).

You did talk a little about 14a in part 4, but not in relation to defining the term in 14b. You said that other commentators made an error because, “They pay no attention to the word λογίζομαι and little attention to the whole of v. 14b.” But did you consider the relevance of 14a in defining the term? You went to great lengths to point out that the word does not mean “to erroneously think,” but did you examine the word’s relationship to the previous sentence? Paul seems to be indicating quite clearly that the meat is not unclean, but because the weak consider it to be unclean it would be a violation of their conscience to eat it.

I think this is an emphasis issue.

Andrew says, “Paul seems to be indicating quite clearly that the meat is not unclean.” To be precise, Paul says the meat is not unclean of itself. Yes - I agree. I say less about v.14a for three reasons:

  1. I was writing at that point about Paul’s statements about the thoughts of the weak. The thoughts of the strong are in v.14a; the thoughts of the weak are in 14b. My point was to survey Paul’s choice of words for the weak brother’s thoughts.
  2. I agree with commentators (and Andrew, I expect) on the meaning of v.14a.
  3. I believe that Paul’s emphasis is on 14b.

To express both parts of v. 14, Paul is saying (clearly and emphatically) that nothing is unclean of itself. But, there is still a way (besides “of itself”) for something to be unclean. If a person reasons that it is unclean, then it is unclean.

Why do I say Paul’s emphasis is 14b? Because 14b fits within the flow of thought of the context. Here’s the flow

v. 6-12 ~ differing individual consciences serve the Lord. So don’t judge (Jesus is Lord/judge).

v. 13 ~ Resolve not to put a stumbling block before the the weak.

v. 14 ~ nothing unclean; If one reasons unclean, then unclean.

v. 15-15:3 ~ Lay aside the use of your strength; Don’t cause the weak to blaspheme; Don’t cause the weak to stumble.

Part of the basis of why the strong must take care is that the weak can really fall and really stumble because the meat really is unclean for him. Paul’s statement in 14b underlies the cautions to the strong. But Paul had to be careful when he said, “For this one, it is unclean.” He put caveats on it. First, it is ontologically clean. The reasoning of the weak doesn't change that of itself, nothing is unclean. Second, it is the thinking of the weak that causes it to be unclean.
14b is “the point” Paul is making in v. 14. It is that point that makes all the cautions of the rest of the passage so important. It’s like Paul is saying, “Look, you really have to be careful with this guy, because eating REALLY IS sin for him.” But Paul knows that would be confusing by itself. So he says, “Everything is clean of itself (I’m not saying it isn’t), but for the one who reasons that something is unclean, it really is unclean for him.”

I would guess that most readers (and Andrew) already think all that. But, which of these better fits with Paul's words?

  1. ~"Nothing unclean of itself; but if someone supposes (even erroneously) that it's unclean, then for him it's unclean.
  2. ~"Nothing unclean of itself; but if someone thinks (reasons, concludes) that it's unclean, then for him it's unclean.

I think that most would say #1. Most commentators do. But they don't explore the Text when they say that. And the word Paul chose should lead us to #2. That was my point.

Could it be #1 and Paul simply chose an odd word? Sure. Should we base a whole teaching on one word? Probably not. But we should be open, at least, to #2. We should, at the end of Part 1, be able to say that perhaps Paul considered the thinking of the weak to be reasonable. 

apward's picture

Again, it's not about the word, it's about the context. Like I said, you did an excellent word study, so I agree with you on #2

~"Nothing unclean of itself; but if someone thinks (reasons, concludes) that it's unclean, then for him it's unclean.

I have no problem with that understanding of the word in this phrase. But the thinking, reasoning, and concluding is shown to be mistaken, not by the word itself, but by the previous phrase. The context controls the meaning.

Dan Miller's picture

nevermind - I wrote a response here, but I deleted it.

We really need to focus on what is in 1 Cor 8.

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