Who Are the "Weak in Faith?" (Part 4)

(Read the series so far.)

We need to examine a few miscellaneous verses. Some of them seem to suggest Paul is on the side of the strong. These need explanation. Paul isn’t “on” either side. Others, on closer examination, suggest that he is on the side of the weak.

Romans 14:14 begins, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself.” Some take this to mean that Paul “knows” the weak brother is wrong. But Paul is not saying that. He says nothing is unclean “of itself.” In other words, things are not intrinsically sinful. But our applications of God’s principles and our motives can still make them unclean. 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. Therefore, contextually, the point of v. 14 as a whole is to express why these things are sinful to the weak.

Romans 14:23 says, “But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith. For whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” This does not mean that the weak brother lacks faith except in the sense that he lacks confidence to eat. The word for “doubt” is translated with the sense of “judge” and “discern” just as often as “doubt.” And we’ve already seen that if he has a weak conviction, then of course he doesn’t believe he can eat—it is sin for him. He serves his Lord by abstaining.

In Romans 15:1, Paul says, “We who are strong have…” Some take this to mean that Paul is declaring himself on the side of the strong. We shouldn’t view people as categorically “weak,” meaning such a man will have weak convictions on every issue he comes across. On the issues mentioned here in Romans 14, Paul may indeed be on the side of the strong. But remember that in 1 Corinthians 8-10, he put himself clearly on the “weak” side concerning idol-meat in the temple.

Romans 15:1 finishes, “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves.” The ESV translates “ἀσθενήματα” as “failings,” which is the most severe translation. Other versions translate it, “infirmities,” “scruples,” “failings,” and “weaknesses.” Of these, “weaknesses” is most literal. The word is the noun form of the verb used for the “weak” in Romans 14:1. Whatever “ἀσθενέω” means, “ἀσθενήματα” is related.

Acts 10

Peter was confronted by God in a vision and told to “kill and eat” previously unclean animals. He refused. “By no means, Lord,” he says, “for I have never eaten anything that is common or unclean.”

Many believe that Romans 14 exists because the strong Christians need to know how to treat weak Christians who have consciences limited by outdated or simply wrong convictions. They must follow those outdated convictions in order to protect their conscience, even though they are wrong. But God doesn’t treat Peter that way. When Peter is slow to accept new teaching concerning formerly unclean animals, God does not say, “Oh, well, then, you must not do what you think is wrong, even though it truly isn’t. It is vital to you to follow your weak conscience.” No, God says, “What God has made clean, do not call common.” This exchange is repeated three times, as Peter tries to remain firm in his refusal and God is firm in his demand for Peter to eat.

If the weak conscience, though wrong, must be obeyed for the safety of the soul, why does God keep telling Peter to kill and eat? Perhaps Peter, as a pillar of the church, needs to strengthen right away for the health of the church. The text tells us how Peter applied the vision (v. 28), “God has shown me that I should not call any person common or unclean.” According to Peter’s interpretation of the vision, it concerned God’s will regarding gentiles. There were no idols in the dream, with sacrificed meat that Peter was to eat. Peter’s vision would have done little to change the mind of the weak in Romans. It was about what sort of animals are clean.

Acts 15:29 and Revelation 2:14, 20

The Jerusalem Council, while not requiring circumcision, dictated that εἰδωλόθυτα (idol-meat eaten in the temple) should be avoided. Jesus repeated the prohibition of εἰδωλόθυτα in His letters to the churches. This further reinforces the idea that the position of the “strong” in 1 Corinthians 8-10 is a very dangerous position.

The Effectiveness of Paul’s Ethical Writings

Gordon Fee concluded his discussion of 1 Corinthians 8-10 with this (emphasis mine):

Unfortunately, and despite this passage, the issue of personal freedom in matters that are adiaphora, as well as the limitation of freedom for the sake of others, continues to haunt many sectors of the church. Usually the battle rages over what constitutes adiaphora. Conservatives on these issues simply fail to reckon with how “liberal” Paul’s own view really is. Hence Paul is seldom heard for the sake of traditional regulations.

While the term adiaphora might not be the best,1 Fee is right that very few who have tried to bring peace to a debate by using these passages have found them helpful. Why?

(1) There is no guidance written into these passages about how to know which issues are weak/strong issues. Therefore, the teetotaller,2 for example (if indeed that is a weak/strong issue), who is sure his conviction is biblical, will assert that these passages are about “doubtful things,” not about alcohol. Modern alcohol, they argue, is simply wrong and is not the type of issue about which Christians can legitimately disagree. It, they say, is not adiaphora.

(2) When we think of “weak” as meaning weak faith (immature, lacking knowledge), no one will admit to it.

The assertion that Romans 14 applies to an issue is unprovable and undesirable to one with scruples. The “weak” always find it desirable and easy to argue that this passage doesn’t apply.

When someone conscientiously applies the Word of God and forms a conviction, he expects that others should share it. It is a biblical issue and of course he should warn and teach his brothers to prevent them from sinning, especially if he is called to leadership. And he certainly should not be called “weak” for reading and applying God’s Word.

A weak brother will refuse his identity of “weak.” God’s commands for the weak could not be for him. Warning and judging are not just his right, but his obligation. The battle rages on while Romans 14 sits silently applying to nothing.

“Nothing?” One might think that’s going too far. This passage can’t be applied to any issue that isn’t actually named in the passage for the reasons above. It also can’t be applied to the issues that are in the passage. Those are officially cleared up: “I am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean…”(v.14). As normally understood (weak = without knowledge or faith), this passage should have long cleared up the issues it describes. On those issues, who now could be without knowledge?3 Romans 14, then, is impotent for issues not named in it and for issues that are named in it.

Those aspects that make it unfruitful are built right into the text. As Fee put it, it is “seldom heard.” Not only that, if the common understanding is correct, it was never possible that it could have been.

The point is not to grade Paul poorly on his effort at peacemaking. We know Paul was inspired. The point is to say that if we understand Paul’s message to be pointless, perhaps we have read him wrong. We should read him in a way that assumes he makes sense and is writing in a way that will fulfill his purpose.

In these first four papers, I have argued that everything in these passages views the “weak” as just as honorable, logical, faithful, and biblical as the strong (sometimes more so). The one apparent exception is how we understand the word “weak.” In the last paper, I will present an alternative way to translate “weak in faith” and “whose conscience is weak.”

Notes

1 Many use the term adiaphora for weak/strong issues. They are “indifferent” in the sense that each Christian must form his own conviction on them. But these convictions do matter, and we must logically apply God’s Word to form them. 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. It might be better to call them diaphora.

2 If you are a teetotaller by conviction, please remember at this point that the weak brother has been consistently portrayed as a logical, faithful, biblical Christian.

3 One might argue that οἶνος (wine) is mentioned, and that hasn’t been “cleared up.” But my point still stands. One side says that is cleared up and is “clean.” While the other side claims that οἶνος doesn’t mean οἶνος and that wine isn’t a Romans 14 issue.

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

Bert Perry's picture

It strikes me that a key to the issue is that the weak brother does not identify himself as such--I've seen it a few times, but I would agree that by and large, those who choose not to exercise liberty in various areas do not refer to their own weakness.  We'll refer to Romans 14 as a trump card, but fessing up that we've got a weak conscience and justifying that according to the text is a lot of work, and requires a touch of humility.

My examples of weak conscience from my own life include not saying the Pledge of Allegiance and not taking part in a lot of our hyper-patriotic festivities this time of year--it is too close to idolatry to the state for my taste.  One can rightly argue that it's not specifically idolatry, and I will agree, but it's close enough that I just don't want to mess with it.  Another might decide to avoid Catholic churches because of the statuary.  

Looking forward to the next edition.  One side note is that you're (if I read you right) making very clear that we don't do much that truly fits Romans 14.....that would indicate that there's a lot of room for ethics derived from other Biblical principles.  

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Donn R Arms's picture

Quote:

We know Paul was inspired.

I hesitate to weigh in somewhat off topic here, especially knowing how wise and insightful folk from Black Hawk County are but---the writers of Scripture, including Paul, were not inspired. The Scripture they wrote was. God did not breathe out Apostles, He breathed out words.

Donn R Arms

Don Johnson's picture

If the weak conscience, though wrong, must be obeyed for the safety of the soul, why does God keep telling Peter to kill and eat? 

This is an interesting and important observation.

I think you are providing some helpful things. I still contend that the weak of Rm 14 are different from the weak of 1 Cor 8-10.

And, on a side issue, you say in footnote 3:

One might argue that οἶνος (wine) is mentioned, and that hasn’t been “cleared up.” But my point still stands. One side says that is cleared up and is “clean.” While the other side claims that οἶνος doesn’t mean οἶνος and that wine isn’t a Romans 14 issue.

I think that some fiddle around with the meaning of οἶνος, but not all. My own take is that Paul is speaking with exaggeration for effect in v. 21. A comment from Sanday & Headlam: The point here is not to suggest that “there was a sect of vegetarians and total abstainers in Rome. St. Paul merely takes extreme forms of self-deprivation, which he uses as instances. ‘I would live like an Essene rather than do anything to offend my brother.’” (p. 393). Paul is teaching that it is good to refrain from anything that causes stumbling, so he makes a very strong statement here. He is not adding to the list of scruples under discussion.

However, let's not get into that one at this point. I just wanted to let you know that the interpretation isn't binary!

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Dan Miller's picture

Bert Perry wrote:

It strikes me that a key to the issue is that the weak brother does not identify himself as such--I've seen it a few times, but I would agree that by and large, those who choose not to exercise liberty in various areas do not refer to their own weakness. We'll refer to Romans 14 as a trump card, but fessing up that we've got a weak conscience and justifying that according to the text is a lot of work, and requires a touch of humility.

My examples of weak conscience from my own life include ...

Looking forward to the next edition. One side note is that you're (if I read you right) making very clear that we don't do much that truly fits Romans 14.....that would indicate that there's a lot of room for ethics derived from other Biblical principles.


The fact that no one "owns" weakness is evidence that we are not reading Paul correctly. Because clearly Paul expected the first hearers to own it.

On the contrary to your last paragraph, we do a ton that fits Romans 14. I see it as accompanying all our applications of Bible principles. Your examples are good ones.

Dan Miller's picture

Don Johnson wrote:
... I still contend that the weak of Rm 14 are different from the weak of 1 Cor 8-10.

...

Well, the Rom14-weak and the 1Cor8-weak have differences and similarities, right? 

I agree that the issues are different. Paul very much objects to the meat-eating of 1Cor8, but takes an either-way-is-fine attitude to the meat of Rom14. 

What makes the 1Cor8 passage so vital to properly understanding "weak" is that even when Paul "takes the side" that the abstainers are right, he still calls them "weak." If the strength-weakness spectrum concerned how well one knew and applied God's Word, then the temple-idol-meat abstainers would have been the "strong."    (But that really relates to Part 2)

-----

Re: wine, 

I didn't want to bring up alcohol. I only included it to show how Rom14 can't apply to anything. 

-----

Bert Perry wrote:

It strikes me that a key to the issue is that the weak brother does not identify himself as such--I've seen it a few times, but I would agree that by and large, those who choose not to exercise liberty in various areas do not refer to their own weakness...

Are you saying that you have known someone who had a conviction about something and said about himself that he is "weak?"

Dan Miller's picture

Re: inspiration 

Donn, that's a fair point. 

Are are you an Iowan?

Don Johnson's picture

Just wanted to be sure you know that! I'm thinking a lot about these passages, your thoughts are a big help. 

I'm not objecting to what you are saying, just thinking through points

Maranatha!
Don Johnson
Jer 33.3

Bert Perry's picture

Dan Miller wrote:

 

Bert Perry wrote:

It strikes me that a key to the issue is that the weak brother does not identify himself as such--I've seen it a few times, but I would agree that by and large, those who choose not to exercise liberty in various areas do not refer to their own weakness...

Are you saying that you have known someone who had a conviction about something and said about himself that he is "weak?"

 

Believe it or not, yes.  I had a coworker back in Colorado who actually wrote a bit called "Jackelope Logic" where he lamented the unwillingness of many to cope with the weakness of many--he even claimed that among believers, the weak went to the fundamental side and the strong to the evangelical side.  (another fun hot point of debate I'm sure--I didn't entirely agree)  And for that matter, the examples I gave from my own life are not abstractions, if you catch my drift.

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Dan Miller's picture

Haha. Yes! Dan C! He was a member at SI years ago. We had many discussions concerning Romans 14. 

He and were in agreement that the traditional understanding of Romans 14 was not consistent with the passage. But we didn't agree on how it ought to be read. 

Since Dan C takes a non traditional view of Romans 14, I wouldn't "count" him. I would still say that people who have a traditional understanding of Romans 14 never call themselves "weak."

Bert Perry's picture

Actually,  probably a different guy--here's a link to the guy I'm talking about.  Maybe shared ideas....?

And being a bit dense here, can you give your definition of traditional view?  Although I think perhaps I ought to be (in)famous for arguing against it. for the sake of discussion and all....

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

Dan Miller's picture

Bert Perry wrote:
...

 can you give your definition of traditional view?  Although I think perhaps I ought to be (in)famous for arguing against it. for the sake of discussion and all....

  • "Weak" means lacking knowledge, faith, or a combination.
  • The conscience of the weak is incorrect, but still must be followed. 
  • This is mainly about the transition from the full Mosaic Law to the New Testament period. So there are few modern applications. 
  • The weak ought to strengthen in time, but the strong shouldn't push them to do so. 

 

Bert Perry's picture

Got it.  I'd agree that Dave doesn't follow that definition (on multiple counts), and if you've got to admit you're not just weak regarding a behavior, but also ignorant, I would guess I'd find few takers for "owning" that.  Now I'm not capable of telling right now whether that definition is totally fair towards those who in your (our) opinion are proceeding from it, but two things strike me as interesting:

1.  That not too many people pointed out that their interpretation of the passage sets up a logically improbable boogeyman of the weaker Christian, or if they did, they didn't make the point clearly enough to resign it to the dustbin.

2.  That you and I were both interacting with the same guy 1000 miles away.

(last I knew, he was doing well, BTW.....his daughter-in-law used to teach piano to my wife and oldest daughter when we lived in Longmont....his son being a "victim" of an unaccredited PCC "degree" that got him bupkus in the job market....yes, this has something to do with my views on some of these schools, along with numerous other examples....)

Aspiring to be a stick in the mud.

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