Who Are the "Weak in Faith?" (Part 3)

Pompeii relief depicting a bull, ram, & boar prepared for sacrifice. (Project Gutenberg)

(Read the series so far)

Weakness is How Jesus Exercises Lordship.

Romans 14:4-13—The Servant and His Master

In Romans 14:4 Paul explains why the weak shouldn’t judge the strong: “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand”1 (ESV). Only the master may give orders and judge whether his servant is in good standing. By this analogy, the weak and strong are servants of a Master who chooses to give different orders to different servants. Some clean the house; some cook. Therefore, the cook gets orders that apply to him but not to the maid.

The common view of the weak brother implies that there is one correct set of orders about which the weak and strong have different levels of maturity, understanding, and confidence. But this passage says that neither servant can be sure that his brother has the same requirements for good standing as he himself does.

In 14:4 Paul reassures the weak, “And he will be be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” They are concerned that their meat-eating brothers are sinning and thereby losing their good standing with God. Paul assures them that if God does want the strong to stop eating meat, then He is able to convict them and thereby, “make them stand.”

Two things should be noted concerning this reassurance:

1. The way that Paul reassures the weak is by pointing out the possibility of “weakening” of the strong. The weak is worried that his brother is sinning. His brother seems to be losing his standing before God. That is why he wants to judge. “Good standing” to the judging weak brother is not eating meat. The statement that God is able to make them stand is meant to reassure the weak. Paul says that his brother’s standing is God’s business and if God wants him to stop eating meat, He is able to put him in good standing.

2. Paul does not reassure the strong about the standing of the weak and God’s ability to put him in good standing. If their faith is weak, doesn’t Paul need to reassure the strong that the weak will grow stronger? If one has weak faith and the other has strong faith, then surely those with strong faith would be concerned about the spiritual standing of the weak. Surely it would be the strong who need to be reassured that God is able to bring the weak to a fuller understanding and confidence. It seems like Paul was not thinking this way, because he directs reassurances only to the weak.

Romans 14:5-7—Weak Convictions and Service, Strong Convictions and Service

Paul explains, “each one should be fully convinced in his own mind.” Why? Because the eater eats for the Lord and the abstainer abstains for the Lord. Paul encourages both the weak and the strong to be fully convinced (“satisfied”) with his conviction because living out those convictions is how each brother serves the Lord.

The weak is often seen as having a poor understanding of some new ideas of Christianity. If so, he should be expected to grow and change in his beliefs as his faith strengthens. But that is not what Paul depicts here. Paul tells each brother to be fully convinced in his own mind. The idea that Paul hopes the weak will strengthen is not found in Romans 14-15. In fact, Paul does the opposite. He encourages each to be confirmed in his position.

It is conceivable that the encouragement to strengthen was avoided because the overall thrust of the passage is to promote peace and understanding. Perhaps Paul was afraid encouragement to “strengthen” could be seized upon by the strong. They might push the “weak” to act too soon and against their conscience. But Paul doesn’t just avoid asking the weak to strengthen. He encourages him to be fully satisfied in his conviction. And he does more than that. He gives the reason why he should be fully convinced. Living out his weak conviction is how he must serve his Lord. Paul is not simply tolerating the temporary conviction of the weak brother. He encourages the weak to keep it and tells him his service depends on it.

As the weak lives by his weak convictions and the strong lives by his strong convictions, both honor the Lord. But, more than that, both convictions are the result of the Lordship of Christ. Romans 14:9 has one of very few instances of “Lord” as a verb: “For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.” This could be translated, “that he might rule [or command] the dead and the living.” Jesus is ruling. He is active and real in the conscience of his people, choosing different convictions for each.

1 Corinthians 7

This passage deals with a few issues, including marriage and celibacy. Paul used the term liberty for both idol-meat and marriage. This term comes the Greek word ἐξουσία (exousia), which means right, liberty, or power. It occurs several times in 1 Corinthians 8-10, but not in Romans 14. It is used for issues like idol-meat (1 Cor. 8:9), eating and drinking (1 Cor. 9:4), marriage (1 Cor. 9:5), and taking money for spiritual work (1 Cor. 9:6,12). 1 Corinthians 6b-10 is one long section about ethics on debatable things. 1 Corinthians 6:12 (“All things are lawful for me, but not all things are helpful”) and 1 Corinthians 10:23 (“All things are lawful, but not all things are helpful”) form an inclusion. All the matters in this section fit under the lawful, helpful, enslaving tests.

In 1 Timothy 4:1-6, the issues of marriage and eating meat are again juxtaposed as issues of “conscience.” Being able to give thanks2 for something is the test of holiness. Compare with Romans 14:6 “The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God,” and 1 Corinthians 10:30 “If I partake with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of that for which I give thanks?”

Paul’s discussion of marriage and celibacy involves logical and biblical arguments for each conviction.

  • Marriage: (1 Corinthians 7:1-5) in order to avoid temptation to fornication, one should marry.
  • Celibacy: (1 Corinthians 7:32-35) in order to be free from worldly anxieties, one should remain celibate.

The conviction Paul holds for himself (celibacy) seems to us to have the least foundation as a conviction. Jesus said not to be anxious. But should we really take that so far as to avoid marriage, which is stated to be a gift of God3? If it wasn’t an apostle, we would say this person has taken that principle too far and isn’t applying Jesus’ principle correctly. But it was Paul. History has shown that too many took his conviction inappropriately and should have instead applied the principle of avoiding temptation to fornication.

In 1 Corinthians 7:6-7, Paul says, “Now as a concession, not a command, I say this. I wish that all were as I myself am. But each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.” Why, “as a concession”? And why in v. 10 and 12, does he say, “I give this charge (not I, but the Lord),” and “I say (I, not the Lord)”? “Concession” is from the Greek word συγγνώμη (suggnome), which is used just this one time in the New Testament. It is a compound of σύν (“with”) and γινώσκω4 (“to know”), which is one of the keywords of 1 Corinthians 8. Josephus uses this word for “to be aware (in conscience).”5 Paul is giving a conviction of his own conscience. And while he is explaining and in a sense advocating it, he wants to make it clear that it is his conviction and not a universal command. Understood this way, vv. 6-7 reads, “Now I speak from conscience, not from commandment: I wish that all were as I myself am. [For6] each has his own gift from God, one of one kind and one of another.”

We should use logic to get our convictions of conscience, as Paul demonstrates with marriage and celibacy. But note that once we have them, they are “gifts from God.” Each brother has logical, biblical reasons for his conviction and should be treated as right. This idea, that God gives differing convictions as we apply His principles, fits perfectly with the idea of Romans 14:1-9, where the Lordship of Christ is worked out when his servants use their minds to get different convictions.

On the issues of marriage and on taking pay for spiritual work, Paul takes the restrictive position. Paul’s conscience did not allow him to marry, though he has the right7. It would seem, then, that Paul takes the weak8 position. But it is difficult to think Paul was “weak in faith.” These passages give us more dissonance between the term “weak” and what it seems to mean to be in that category.

The picture Paul paints of those able to marry and not able to marry has both of them obeying their conscience and honoring their Lord. And in Romans 14, the weak and the strong are each obeying their Lord-given convictions. Other than the terms “weak” and “strong” nothing indicates either of these brothers is more “right” or more faithful than the other. Again, we see a picture suggesting we need to re-think how we read “weak in faith” because the weak position can be just as faithful, knowledgeable, and right as the “strong.”

Notes

1 Ideas of standing (ἵστημι) and falling (piptō) show up together in Romans 14:4, “It is before his own master that he stands or falls,” and 1 Corinthians 10:12, “Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” These words are used for physical standing and falling, but in these passages they are used in the sense of “being in good standing” and “falling out of favor.” Related to these are the ideas of stumbling (προσκόπτω, Romans 14:13,20, 1 Corinthians 8:9) and falling (σκανδαλίζω, Romans 14:21, 1 Corinthians 8:13). Ultimate falling, or destruction (ἀπόλλυμι) is used in both passages. Romans 14:15 and 1 Corinthians 8:11 both warm of this danger for the weak. These are another evidence that these passages are somewhat parallel.

2 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.”

3 Proverbs 18:22 “He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the Lord.”

4 http://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?strongs=G4774 γινώσκω and εἴδω are both used for “I know” in 1 Cor 8. συγ- is added to the noun form of εἴδω to make συνείδησις (conscience). συγ- is added to γινώσκωto make συνείδησις (concession, …or conscience).

5 Kittel, Gerhard, Ed., TDNT, Vol. 1, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, 2006, p. 716.

6 Textus Receptus says “for.”

7 1 Corinthians 9:5

8 This idea might surprise some readers, who see the weak as unbelieving and unknowing. Recall from the previous paper that the weak position can be more Biblical and wise than the strong. Can Paul be the weaker brother? Other than the word “weak,” there is nothing in these passages that suggests it is a condition he would avoid. Many times, it is a condition that he embraces (e.g., idol-meat in the temple), and without a lot of context, it is a term he applies to himself a few times.

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 13 Comments

JNoël's picture

Is it only me, or does Dan come a little too close to making Paul's letters seem uninspired? This paragraph struck me the most:

 

"It is conceivable that the encouragement to strengthen was avoided because the overall thrust of the passage is to promote peace and understanding. Perhaps Paul was afraid encouragement to “strengthen” could be seized upon by the strong. They might push the “weak” to act too soon and against their conscience. But Paul doesn’t just avoid asking the weak to strengthen. He encourages him to be fully satisfied in his conviction. And he does more than that. He gives the reason why he should be fully convinced. Living out his weak conviction is how he must serve his Lord. Paul is not simply tolerating the temporary conviction of the weak brother. He encourages the weak to keep it and tells him his service depends on it."

 

 

Ashamed of Jesus! of that Friend On whom for heaven my hopes depend! It must not be! be this my shame, That I no more revere His name. -Joseph Grigg (1720-1768)

Dan Miller's picture

JNoël wrote:

"It is conceivable that the encouragement to strengthen was avoided because the overall thrust of the passage is to promote peace and understanding. Perhaps Paul was afraid encouragement to “strengthen” could be seized upon by the strong. They might push the “weak” to act too soon and against their conscience. But Paul doesn’t just avoid asking the weak to strengthen. He encourages him to be fully satisfied in his conviction. And he does more than that. He gives the reason why he should be fully convinced. Living out his weak conviction is how he must serve his Lord. Paul is not simply tolerating the temporary conviction of the weak brother. He encourages the weak to keep it and tells him his service depends on it."

Just to clarify, that "but" is important. What comes before it is what is often said about Paul's not asking the weak to strengthen. See Moo, p. 836. It's not what I believe. The "but" is the transition.
Still, I don't see how even those views can be said to discount inspiration.

JNoël's picture

Forgive me, brother! I recognize my post was not only critical, but even judgmental - just what Paul instructed the weak in faith not to do.

We both agree unequivocally in the doctrine of God-Breathed/Man-Penned; my tendency is to see your style of wording and think it is taking away from the face that God said all of those things through Paul.

So I think we may have a real-time example of an application of the concept of weak in faith; you are the strong (not a criticism) in that you have no problem referencing these passages in the manner of making it sound like the way it is written was Paul's choice, rather than God's; I am the weak (also not a criticism) in that it makes me a little uncomfortable to approach it in that manner.

Am I on the right track?  Smile

 

Ashamed of Jesus! of that Friend On whom for heaven my hopes depend! It must not be! be this my shame, That I no more revere His name. -Joseph Grigg (1720-1768)

Dan Miller's picture

JNoël wrote:
... you are the strong (not a criticism) in that you have no problem referencing these passages in the manner of making it sound like the way it is written was Paul's choice, rather than God's; I am the weak (also not a criticism) in that it makes me a little uncomfortable to approach it in that manner. ...
I have no problem with the way you use "weak" and "strong" there. However, the point you bring up pushes us to examine why someone is weak. Then, once we know that, we must examine the question of whether there are good and bad reasons to be weak. Either way, yes, if you believe that saying what I have said would make you feel disrespectful towards God and His Word, then you should not speak that way.

But then we would ask, is there a good logical Biblical reason for thinking that it is disrespectful?

"...you have no problem ... making it sound like the way it is written was Paul's choice, rather than God's.."

I would say it was Paul's choice and God's choice. Theologically, I don't think it would be right to say that it was God's choice instead of Paul's choice. Most of us (I think) would call that the "dictation theory" of inspiration, rather than the verbal plenary view of inspiration. 

If a conviction is based on an unbiblical view of inspiration, is it an appropriate conviction? Should we honor it as a legitimate conviction? Should we help such a person out of their conviction? If so, how?  ((( I don't really want to discuss all these questions - I am working on Parts 6-8, in which I will try to answer those questions and more practical questions about what this all means for us. )))

Dan Miller's picture

Andrew: Paul does not talk about weakening the strong, he said that “for the Lord is able to make him stand” (Romans 14:4). You assumed, but did not demonstrate, that Paul is saying that God can weaken the strong and convict him to stop eating meat. In fact, you made the opposite conclusion in reference to the weak concerning the next verse. “Each one must be fully convinced in his own mind” (Rom 14:5). You have stated that this verse does not mean that the weak should become strong, but that he should be sure of his convictions in weakness. How can you make the opposite conclusion about the strong? Does vs. 5 mean that the strong should become weak, or that he should be sure of his convictions in strength? Consistency please!

What Paul actually says concerning the strong is, “Now we who are strong have an obligation to bear the weaknesses of those without strength, and not to please ourselves. Each one of us must please his neighbor for his good, in order to build him up” (Romans 15:1-2).

You don’t bring this up until part 4 when you’ve already a-contextually defined your terms. Wouldn’t that be a good verse to bring up when defining Paul’s use of the term “weak” in ch. 14? I think that is one good example of ignoring the contextual definition of terms and imposing a foreign definition.

Paul clearly identifies himself with the strong, not the weak, yet you imply that Paul argues against the logic of the strong? Is Paul arguing against his own logic? By what logic does Paul eat meat if it is not the logic he presents on behalf of the strong? You bring this up in part 4, but simply dismiss it without explanation. You seem to imply that this doesn’t matter because Paul identifies himself with the weak in I Cor. 8-10. Where is that exactly? You did not demonstrate that from I Cor. 8-10. On the contrary, Paul puts himself on the side of those who have the knowledge and liberty rather than the weak. He says in I Corinthians 9:19, 22, “For although I am free from all people, I have made myself a slave to all, in order to win more people… To the weak I became weak, in order to win the weak. I have become all things to all people, so that I may by all means save some.” It is clear from 8-10 that Paul has knowledge, but instead of being prideful about it, he chooses not to use it. Likewise, Paul has liberty, but instead of being prideful, he chooses not to use it. Cleary that is the side of the “strong” or “able” as you define it.

I believe Romans 15:1 also shows that you make a mistake when you say,

Paul does not reassure the strong about the standing of the weak and God’s ability to put him in good standing. If their faith is weak, doesn’t Paul need to reassure the strong that the weak will grow stronger? If one has weak faith and the other has strong faith, then surely those with strong faith would be concerned about the spiritual standing of the weak. Surely it would be the strong who need to be reassured that God is able to bring the weak to a fuller understanding and confidence. It seems like Paul was not thinking this way, because he directs reassurances only to the weak.

Paul says that the strong are to build up the weak! We “have an obligation to bear the weaknesses of those without strength!”

Now when you address these terms in Part 5 you don’t show how they apply, define, or explain chapter 14! You point out that “those without strength” are (the simple negation of “we who are strong.”  You point out that this is a contrast between “those who are able” and “those who are not able.” I agree with you. So then my question is, what exactly are they not able to do? Your response is that they are not able to eat meat. But that’s not what this verse says, is it? The “strong” in 15:1 bear the weaknesses of those who are not able. The thing that the weak are not able to do it to bear their weaknesses. That is to say, they cannot bear the weight of their conscience. That is the conclusion based on the text and the context, not an imposition of assumptions from other conclusions.

Let's read the Scriptures you bring up:

Romans 14:5 “Each one must be fully convinced in his own mind” 

There is an emphasis issue here, not real disagreement. When I said in Part 2, “The ‘strong’ is gradually encouraged to become ‘weak.’” I did NOT mean that the strong is always to become weak. I’m sorry for that confusion. Here, in Romans 14, Paul is indeed telling BOTH the weak and the strong to make sure they are each fully convinced in their own mind. The title of Part 2 is, "Sometimes the Weak Brother is Right.” Perhaps I should have emphasized more the “sometimes” part.
Romans 15:1-2 “Now we who are strong have an obligation to bear the weaknesses of those without strength, and not to please ourselves. Each one of us must please his neighbor for his good, in order to build him up.”
Andrew, you and I have some different pre-suppositions about the meaning of some words and phrases.
“bear the weakness”
The word bear in English can mean either “carry” or “tolerate.” I think if you examine the Greek word βαστάζω means “to take up and carry.” What is being asked of the strong? He is to pick up, to take on, the inability of the weak. In terms of meat: "the weak”=vegetarian, “the strong”=eater, “weakness”=vegetariansim (or inability to eat).
So, 15:1:
The strong ought to take on     the weakness         of the weak.
The eater ought to take on     the vegetarianism     of the vegetarian.

Andrew: Paul says that the strong are to build up the weak! We “have an obligation to bear the weaknesses of those without strength!”

You seem to be saying that “bear the weaknesses of…” means “build up the weak to be strong.” Most of the last couple paragraphs I quoted depend on that idea. I think that the context is far more consistent with my understanding. If I am strong, and want to be able to buy market-meat in Rome and my weak brother will be hurt by my doing that, then I don't. I refrain from meat if it helps him, even if it means I can't do what I please. Indeed, Paul ends Rom15:1, "and not to please ourselves." That ending to 15:1 only makes sense if Paul is telling the strong to lay aside their weaknesses by refraining from eating meat. 

I know Andrew thinks that the title "weak" means that he is someone who should be "built up." And Paul does speak that way about "weak" in other contexts. But not once in these passages does Paul hint that the progression from weak to strong is any more desirable than the strong becoming weak. Assuming that "weak" is a bad or immature or uneducated position is an assumption.

apward's picture

Please see the next verse:
Romans 15:1-2  "Now we who are strong have an obligation to bear the weaknesses of those without strength, and not to please ourselves. Each one of us must please his neighbor for his good, in order to build him up."

We who are strong should be bearing the weaknesses of those without strength in order to build him up (as everyone should) . 

I think that is consistent with the traditional interpretation that the strong are to lay aside their strength, liberty, knowledge (terms from I Cor.) so that the weak would not be encouraged to sin by violating their conscience, and that their faith would be strengthened. Not that the strong are to amend their conscience and become unable to eat by their own conscience sake.
 

 

Dan Miller's picture

I see where you get "built up" in this context. 

And I agree that 15:1 is NOT calling the strong to "amend their consciences."  Rather it calls them to amend their actions so as to promote fellowship.

 

However, I don't think the text says that the "building up" means "strengthening" in the sense that the conscience of the weak is amended. 

Could it mean that? Maybe. And it wouldn't be particularly bothersome to my thesis. But to say so is to go beyond the text. 

apward's picture

I'm glad we agree on the following:

And I agree that 15:1 is NOT calling the strong to "amend their consciences."  Rather it calls them to amend their actions so as to promote fellowship.

But that seems to go against your argument that the strong are to weaken, if by "weak" you mean "unable by his faith" does it not? It would not imply "inability" as you suggest, but the voluntary laying aside of a liberty.

On the other point, if you disagree with me then could you please provide your understanding of "build him up" from the context?
 

Dan Miller's picture

Ok. This is the type of thing I'm thinking of. Suppose you're on the mission field. There's a local witch doctor who claims food cooked in her blessed pot will prevent Ebola. A woman bought one last year and has now been convinced of the power of the gospel.  As she considered the claim of Christ, others told her that it was totally opposed to the power of the witch doctor and she knew accepting Christ meant rejecting pagan powers. So she destroyed her pot with dedication and thankfulness. 

But, as she committed to discipleship, she found that her friend hadn't destroyed her pot. She still used it, not for its spiritual claims, for she no longer had any faith in the witch doctor. 

Now, I know you and I have different ideas of exactly what is "weak" or "strong" about each of these women. 

I locate these ideas entirely in ability. So the one is weak (unable) to use her pot; the other is strong (able) to use hers. You might already think one of these is wiser. Let's leave that for now and assume it's ok to use the pot  

Mid the second tries to welcome the first by offering food cooked in her pot, fellowship and discipleship may be impossible. And this new believer has so much to learn in every area of her life. Whether she accepts use of the pot is nowhere near step one in her discipleship. 

apward's picture

As God has permitted, I am at this moment on the mission field in Togo, West Africa. It is common for new believers to destroy all of their fetish (from the witch doctor) items after trusting in Christ, and there is a great temptation for people to hold onto 1 or 2 "just in case."

I don't see your explanation of Romans 15:1-2 in this example, but I will use the same example to give my application.

To the "able" woman I would definitely encourage her to publicly destroy her pot also. AND during the ceremony of destruction I would encourage her to explain that the pot is nothing but a piece of clay, that she would have no problem using it to cook with because she knows it has no power in itself, but that she is destroying so as not to tempt another believer to hide their own fetish items.

I think that is an reasonable application of the whole passage concerning accepting the weaker in faith and to bear their weaknesses in order to build them up. 

 

You said, "Whether she accepts use of the pot is nowhere near step one in her discipleship." I agree, and no one I know is advocating that position. It is nowhere near step one, but it is an important step to take when it is appropriate.
 

Dan Miller's picture

To the "able" woman I would definitely encourage her to publicly destroy her pot also. AND during the ceremony of destruction I would encourage her to explain that the pot is nothing but a piece of clay, that she would have no problem using it to cook with because she knows it has no power in itself, but that she is destroying so as not to tempt another believer to hide their own fetish items.

Let me comment, trying to clarify to my understanding of these passages...

"To the "able" woman" - There are different theories concerning what about her is "strong." 

  1. Her thinking/maturity is strong - this would mean that she has grown to understand and accept the conviction that she can use the pot because it means nothing.
  2. She is "able" - she has ability to use the pot without self-condemnation. 
  3. She isn't close to falling into sin - as opposed to the "weak" woman for whom holding onto the pot would be sin. There are two aspects to this:
    • A. She beholds an action which she knows would be sin.
    • B. She is tempted and close to falling into that sin.

Those ideas are "out there." But, in my understanding of Paul's use of "weak/strong" with regard to these things, ONLY #2 and #3A are part of the meaning of "weak." 

 

Next, "encourage her to explain that the pot is nothing but a piece of clay, that she would have no problem using it"

 

Do you believe that it must be accepted that a demon cannot attend a physical object like this?

apward's picture

"Do you believe that it must be accepted that a demon cannot attend a physical object like this?"

I'll answer this question first and it will shed light on the meaning of "strong." 

It is absolutely vital for the Christian to understand that the witch doctor and his objects have no power or control over them. God is in control, not spirits, demons, witch doctors, or so-called magical pots. That is because God has rescued us from the the domain of darkness and transferred us into the Kingdom of the Son, and all things are created through Him and for Him whether visible or invisible (Col 1:13-16).

The "strong" Christian both knows and applies this truth to his/her life. He knows that an idol is nothing but a piece of wood and a pot is nothing but a piece of clay. But he should not be prideful in this knowledge, he should gently accept the believer who is still weak in this area. So he should lay a side his liberties and bear the weaknesses of others in order to build them up.

Dan Miller's picture

You're the expert on the witch doctor and his fetish items here.

But I want to point you back to 1 Cor 10:19-21.

19 What do I imply then? That food offered to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? 20 No, I imply that what pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons. 21 You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons. You cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.

Paul is concerned that the Corinthian believers not participate with demons by drinking and eating with them.

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