Who is the Weaker Brother? (Romans 14:1)
Topic: One Body: Love One Another Passage: Romans 14:1
I. When Christians Disagree
When Christians differ, when they disagree with one another about certain beliefs and/or certain practices, when they disagree about ministry issues or cultural concerns, and they simply cannot resolve the difference, what should they do? In one sense, that describes a situation the Apostle Paul addressed in a chapter from Our Bible Reading Plan this past week, Romans 14:1
II. The Passage: “The One Who is Weak in Faith” (14:1)
Consider this instruction, a command given by God himself through the Apostle Paul...
As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions.
Now, even if you are familiar with that verse, it should raise a numbers of questions. For example, “Who is 'the one who is weak in faith'?” What exactly does that mean? And what does it means to “welcome” this person? Similarly, what might it look like to “quarrel over opinions”?
Let's tackle some of these questions by looking at three elements in this verse. Those elements are obvious from the words “weak”, “welcome”, and “quarrel”. Why should we to dig into those ideas? So that, first, we can understand the what and why of Paul's teaching for his original listeners. We need that in order to, second, understand how God wants to instruct us through this portion of his word.
1. “Weak” (v. 1a)
So with that 'road map' in front of us, what does Paul mean when he talks about someone who is “weak in faith”? Well, Paul explains what he means in the very next verse. Romans 14:2...
One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables.
So if this weakness were visualized as an individual who cannot lift a particular barbell, Paul identifies that barbell as the belief that Christians, and especially Jewish Christians, were no longer bound by the dietary restrictions of the OT law. Some Jewish Christians simply couldn't lift that weight, that is, they couldn't accept that such foods were no longer off-limits. But wait, did the OT law prescribe a diet of “only vegetables”? No. But Jews of the Roman era, especially city-dwellers who lived outside of Israel, often struggled to find acceptable meats, cuts that had been butchered correctly and were not associated with idolatry in some way.
It's helpful to note that in verses 5 and 6, Paul expands the conversation to include the observance of Jewish holy days. In all likelihood, this included Sabbath observance as well.
It's hard to stress enough how significant these dietary and holy day distinctive were in shaping Jewish identity in a non-Jewish world. Understandably, for many, adapting to the fullness and freedom that came through the New Covenant took some time.
Now when considering this subject, there a couple of things we need to be crystal clear about: first, this issue regarding food was not a 'gray area' when it comes to what God had revealed. Jesus (according to Mark 7:19) and Peter (in Acts 10) had already made it clear that God really had removed those dietary restrictions. Like so much of the Law of Moses, these regulations had served their purpose, but were now no longer applicable for any follower of Christ. Paul is also clear in this chapter about the lifting of these OT dietary laws. Look at verse 14... “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself...” This is also affirmed in 14:20, “Everything is indeed clean...” So it is important to remember that the “weak in faith” here did not have an equally valid, biblical position.
But second, it's also important to stress that the difference of “opinion” Paul addresses in this chapter is not a difference over essential beliefs. Those who were “weak in faith” were NOT struggling to believe that Jesus was the Son of God, or the Messiah, or that he had redeemed them by his own blood. If some were unable to 'lift' these beliefs (or believed their diet could save them), Paul's counsel here would be very different. No. These believers in Christ were simply disagreeing about what it looks like to live a life, in Christ, that is pleasing to God.
2. “Quarrel” (v. 1c)
What were these believing brothers and sisters supposed to do about these differences? Well, if we skip to the end of verse 1, we find a warning connected to that keyword “quarrel”... do not “quarrel over opinions”. Listen to how he expands on this warning in verse 3...
Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats...
So within this one church, it seems you had brothers and sisters who were despising other brothers and sisters because of their struggles with faith, and on the other side, those who considered themselves more careful/observant were judging those who ate whatever they wanted Notice how Paul addresses these responses again in verse 10. So in all likelihood, one group of Christians at 'Rome Community Church' was labeling one group as 'fundamentalists' or 'legalists', while another group might have been denouncing the rest as “libertines” or “liberals”.
But notice how Paul corrects these temptations to despise or judge. Romans 14:4, 6...
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 upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.... [to the middle of verse 6] The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.
So Paul's corrective here is not simply, “stop despising and stop judging”. No. He reminds them that it is not their place to make such judgments. That right belongs to “the Lord” Jesus, and the fact that each group is sincerely wanting to honor Jesus should be acknowledged by everyone. Look at verse 18: “Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men.” So then, what was the right way to handle these kinds of differences?
3. “Welcome” (v. 1b)
Paul is clear in verse 1: “welcome” (or “receive” or “accept”) the one “who is weak in faith”. From the context, I believe what Paul is urging here is that those 'stronger' in faith should embrace that other person as a true brother or sister in faith, as a (v. 4) fellow “servant” of Christ. And as the Apostle clarifies in verse 1, they shouldn't be received as a brother or sister simply in the sense that they are brother or sister who needs to be corrected. (“Welcome! Now listen up...”)
Paul is clear in verse 13 that truly welcoming or accepting a struggling believer means deciding “never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother”. What does that mean practically? In 14:21, he spells it out... “It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.” As Paul expressed in another passage dealing with food and fellowship and stumbling, “Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.” (I Corinthians 8:13) A right sacrificed! Several verses earlier, Paul explains why those who are stronger in faith should make such sacrifices,
For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. (14:15)(We are called to love not destroy.)
What does Paul mean by “destroy”? He means injuring your brother or sister's faith by disdainful pressuring rather than loving persuasion; that is, tempting them to act against their own conscience. We have to keep in mind what Paul argues in v. 14...
I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.
Now wait. How is what God has said is clean now “unclean” for the one who is weak in faith? It's unclean in the sense that, for that person, crossing that dietary line would an expression of disobedient doubt, rather than submissive faith. Look at the closing phrase of this chapter, v. 23:
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.
Is that the sin of violating a divine dietary restriction? No. it's the sin of doubt-inspired defiance. I think we can all agree that this isn't a mindset we want to encourage. We want to value and feed faith, don't we? Therefore, we need to commit ourselves to Paul's encouragement in 15:1–2...
We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves.  Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up.
III. Don't Be 'Weak' with These Words
So if we switch gears from the past to the present, as far as I know, we don't have any brothers or sisters in our faith family who believe it is sinful to eat certain foods or neglect certain Old Testament holy days. Since that's true, how then is this passage even relevant to us? Maybe we should ask, “Are there still topics on which we disagree?” Of course. So then, in light of that...
1. We need to gauge the biblical importance of the issue over which we differ. I feel confident that most of you know a disagreement over who will win the Super Bowl is different than a disagreement over the character of God or the the significance of Christ's death.
But some topics can be harder to classify. Cultural and political differences can seem biblically important, but in reality, only a handful of such issues are directly addressed by Scripture. What can be even harder is separating what are primary and secondary beliefs in terms of our doctrine, or what we might call essential and non-essential teachings. When I say “essential”, one thing I mean is they are essential for the sake of Christian unity. What Paul is addressing here are secondary matters. So if we stick with those topics, how do we handle disagreements?
2. In secondary matters, we need to consider the relevant conscience issues. Some disagreements over secondary matters have no real conscience implications. Whether you believe Christ will establish a millennial kingdom on the earth after he returns, or you believe we are currently living under his millennial reign, it is difficult to see how we might tempt the other person to sin against their conscience in regard to this topic. But what about the difference between those who baptize infants and those who only baptize confessing believers? Although important, I would classify that as a secondary matter. So could believing parents, for example, find themselves in a church that pressured them one way or another, so that, in doubt-inspired defiance, they acted against their conscience? Absolutely. This brings us to a final point...
3. Above all, we need to “pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.” If there was only one thing you took away from this passage, I pray it would be God's clear guidance in verse 19. Take a look... “So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.” That is the principle driving everything Paul has written in this chapter. Think about it: many believers in Rome were placing these secondary issues over the primary issues of loving one another and unity in Jesus. Despising instead of accepting, passing judgment rather than loving and sacrificing for one another. Brothers and sisters, the number of issues that could (not should, but could) potentially divide us is huge. Just think about the sad reality, both before and during the pandemic, of believers breaking fellowship with one another over things like music or masks, or programming, or personalities, or political affiliation. Better than trying to sort out every issue that could divide us is committing ourselves to pursuing peace in the body of Christ, and to personally building up our brothers and sisters in their faith. When there is such a difference, what do you desire more: for the other person to feel they are wrong... or loved?
This key issue when it comes to such disagreements is not first whether you are right and they are wrong. The issue is whether or not your love and commitment to your brother or sister is bigger than those differences. Though Paul defines the 'weaker' brother in the opening verses of Romans 14, I wonder how he would assess the 'strong' disciple who neglected the love and unity emphasized in this chapter? Wouldn't a “weak” faith in regard to Paul's exhortation here be far more dangerous and destructive than a misplaced belief in dietary restrictions?
Finally, please don't miss the other foundational idea here: what we might call gospel-inspired humility. Did you hear the gospel proclaimed in this chapter? Yes, it's there in Romans 14:8–9...
For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s.  For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.
Why is it not my place to make divisive judgments on secondary matters? Because Jesus is Lord over that brother or sister, not me. And if he is my Lord, then I will 1) leave that matter to him, 2) acknowledge my brother or sister as a fellow servant of Christ, and 3) love that person as God in Christ has loved me. He doesn't despise our weakness. He no longer passes judgment, because he took our judgment. We explicitly find this gospel-inspiration in Rom. 15:7, “Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” Amen!
More in Our Bible Reading Plan (2021-2022)
August 14, 2022It Really is Finished (John 19:28-30)
August 7, 2022Your Survival Kit for a 'Jesus-less' World (John 14:25-27)
July 31, 2022Hearing the Voice of Jesus (John 10:22-27)