Strong and Weak in One Body
January 29, 2020

Romans 14-15 overlaps in several ways with 1 Corinthians 8—10. Both deal with problems about food. In both, Paul talks about the “weak” and the “strong,” and encourages the strong to defer to the weak.

The overlap isn’t total. Romans 14-15 isn’t dealing specifically with meat sacrificed to idols, but with food and eating in a more general sense. In Romans, Paul links the discussion of food with the observance of days, and in Romans the discussion is more christologically focused.

Paul lays out three principles to guide the Corinthians. He forbids them to participate in sacrificial rituals to idols, since that would put them in communion with demons. Christians are, however, free to purchase meat that was butchered in a pagan sacrifice.

Finally, the freedom to eat such meat is limited by the demand for love. The strong who have no qualms of conscience about eating meat from a sacrifice should limit their freedom for the sake of their brothers.

In Rome, the situation is somewhat different. Paul’s reference to both food rules and the observance of days (14:5-6) suggests the threat in Rome isn’t paganism but a division between Jews and Gentiles.

Perhaps we can be more specific. During the reign of Claudius, Jews were expelled from Rome. Paul seems to be writing Romans at a time when Jews are returning. Jewish Christians in particular are returning to what has become a largely Gentile church.

Paul’s practical advice rests on his distinction between weak and strong, which pertains to judgment and evaluation of things. For the strong, nothing is unclean, but the weak still have the old scruples.

Every church will include both strong and weak. It’s not a community of the strong. Both strong and weak are called to live in harmony by accepting, watching for, and deferring to one another. For the one who gives offense, even his eating of clean food is defiled by his lack of love (14:20).

This might seem to put the weak in the driver’s seat, able to manipulate the church’s leaders and effectively control the church. That’s not what Paul has in mind. The weak are called to defer as much as the strong. Both must embody the love of Christ in the body of Christ.

In making this argument, Paul subjectivizes purity concerns in a remarkable way. Paul is convinced nothing is unclean, but “to him who thinks anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean” (14:14). What we think we’re doing affects the moral character of the act. If we think we’re sinning, we sin even if the act itself isn’t.

Paul’s entire discussion is rooted in the gospel. Paul warns the Romans not to judge because God is judge (14:1-4, 10-12). If God accepts a brother, so must we. Since we’re servants of the same Master, we don’t evaluate one another’s performance. Our Master assesses. The strong as well as the weak will stand for judgment.

Because God is Master, we don’t belong to ourselves. We belong to Him, whether in life or in death (14:7-8). By dying and living again, Jesus has become Lord of the dead and the living. When we deal with our brothers, we deal with God’s servant.

In chapter 15, Paul makes the Christological dimension of his argument even more explicit. Christ didn’t please Himself but His Father. He bore the reproaches directed toward the Father. In the church, the way of Jesus is to take corporate form, as each of uses pleases his neighbor for his edification (15:2). A lot of Reformed men today enjoy their liberty to drink alcohol and smoke tobacco. Those are good things. But we need to feel the full force of Romans 14-15. Are we willing to destroy our brothers for the sake of a few puffs? Are we willing to give up beer for a brother? Paul poses the simple question: WWJD?

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