Teaching series from Romans

Relating to the "Weak in Faith"

Romans 14:1-23

Teaching t07950


Last week, we concluded our study of Christian community by studying the importance of Christians accepting one another in spite of differences before they became Christians (EXAMPLES). This week we will return to Romans and look at accepting one another in spite of a certain kind of differences we have after we become Christians.

Read 14:1-5. It's clear that this controversy was threatening the unity of the Christians in Rome. Before we look for the parallels today, we need to first understand what the specific issues were and the terminology Paul uses to describe the two camps.

Polytheistic worship was part of the fabric of Greco-Roman society. Worshippers commonly offered animal sacrifices at the temples. Priests were allowed to keep most of the edible meat, which they sold at the temples (1 Cor. 8:10) or to venders at the city markets (1 Cor. 10:25). Since there was no "USDA" stamp, people had no way of knowing where the meat had come from.

Was it permissible for Christians to eat meat that may have been sacrificed to idols? Two groups disagreed strongly on this.

Some felt the freedom to eat, because everything created by God is good, because their spiritual state was secure through Christ, and because there was nothing in scripture that forbade doing this (about worshipping idols--yes; about eating meat sacrificed to them--no). Paul calls this group the "strong in faith" (15:1). (SOLID OUTER CIRCLE)

Others (probably from Jewish background) disagreed. They were afraid that by eating this meat, they would be participating somehow in idol worship--and therefore would be spiritually contaminated. Therefore, they felt the only spiritually safe course was to eat vegetables only. Paul calls this group the "weak in faith" because their faith was not sufficiently informed by God's Word to practice this freedom. (DOTTED INNER CIRCLE)

The same two groups evidently disagreed over another issue--whether a certain day of the week (probably the Sabbath) was intrinsically spiritual and had to be observed in certain ways. The "weak" believed it was; the "strong" disagreed.

Do you see any parallels today? If you have been a Christian for any time at all, you know that Christians disagree about lots of issues like these.



QUALIFICATION: There are other valid reasons why Christians might restrict themselves in some of these areas: MORAL WEAKNESS (e.g., ex-alcoholic); CULTURAL PREFERENCE (e.g., CLASSIC HYMNS). We should obviously respect their decisions in these matters--but these are not a "weak in faith" issues.

Who was right in this controversy? There is no doubt that the "strong" were correct--and there is no doubt that Paul himself was one of the "strong." He tells us his position on eating this meat in 14:14 (read), and on day-observance in Col. 2:16,17 (read)--and I think he would take the same position on these other current controversies.

Most of you would take the "strong" position in these matters. But you have some brothers and sisters in Christ here that take the other position, and you likely have some in your family, at work, in your neighborhood, etc.

But just because you're "strong" does not mean that you are spiritually mature! The "strong" in Rome and Corinth proved this back then--and I think many of us in this church prove it today. Paul challenges us in this passage to be mature as well as "strong"--and tells us how to demonstrate this by how we relate to the "weak." In this passage and the parallels in 1 Cor. 8,10, Paul gives us four principles . . . 

Welcome them as sincere followers of Christ, rather than judging them as unspiritual.

Read these verses with me and see if you can figure out the first principle (read 14:1,3,6-8,10). It's pretty clear, isn't it? The "strong" should welcome them as sincere followers of Christ, rather than judging them as unspiritual. In fact, Paul says in 14:9-12 that we should the final determination of one another's spirituality to the Lord himself.

Why does Paul stress this? I have never had to look beyond the end of my own nose to know the answer to this question. It's so easy for me to conclude that they know better, and are therefore deliberately legalistic, self-righteous Pharisees (MORE LATER) who are just trying to imprison everyone else. Now, there are such people. We'll talk more about them later, and this passage does not apply to them. But there are also many sincere, committed Christians who for a variety of reasons (spiritual youth; lack of access to good teaching; religious upbringing) are "weak."

Every time I attend Christian conferences, I have to deal with this issue. I go through "culture shock." They often make a big deal about Sunday worship, dressing formally, praying before meals, etc. I can't talk about the latest secular movie I've enjoyed, or invite them to have a beer. It's so easy for me to write them off as Pharisees (and some of them are). But when I get to know many of them, I find that they are as committed (or more) to Christ than I am! We may disagree about some of these things, but we can share our enthusiasm about knowing Christ, reaching others for Christ, helping other Christians grow in Christ, etc.

What does it mean if you can't respect, enjoy fellowship with, and speak well of Christians like this? It means that you are immature, because you have a carnal standard for evaluating other Christians--agreeing with your own personal freedoms rather than common love for Christ and his cause. Therefore, judging "weak" says more about you than it does about them.

Of course, the "weak" should not judge the "strong" (14:3b,10). If you do this, you are also immature, and you can become a Pharisee . . . 

Enjoy your freedom with other "strong" Christians.

Paul's second principle tempers the first. While not judging the "weak," the "strong" should enjoy their freedom--with discretion toward the "weak."

I stress this principle because some Christians misinterpret verses like 14:21 (or 1 Cor. 8:13) as a command to permanently give up these freedoms because there may be some "weak" in the area who will be bothered by them.

But this is not what Paul is saying, as reading these texts in context clearly indicates. 14:22 (the very next verse!) makes it clear that Paul does not want the "strong" to abandon their freedoms. And 1 Cor. 10:25-30 (read) makes it clear that Paul wanted them to curtail their freedom to eat meat sacrificed to idols only in the presence of certain "weak" Christians. Otherwise, they were free to eat it.

Every Friday night, I meet with a half dozen young Christian guys. We sit around a table for a couple hours, studying the Bible and praying together. Afterward, we eat pizza and drink pop or beer. No one has ever gotten close to drunk, and no beer-drinker has ever made fun of a pop drinker. Some of my sweetest fellowship happens in this context, and over the years I have seen dozens of men inspired and equipped to become Christian workers through this setting. I am also aware that there are many Christians in Columbus (both "weak" and Pharisees) who would have trouble believing that I could be an authentic Christian leader and allow (let alone participate) in this activity. Should we stop this fruitful practice because some Christians in Columbus would be offended if they knew about it? Should their weakness deprive us of our freedom in this area? I don’t think so . . . 

The answer is not for the "strong" to become "weak"--but rather just the opposite (as we will soon see). But if you are so fixated on enjoying your freedoms that you can't sacrifice them for the good of a "weaker" brother when necessary, then you have a problem.

Don't "stumble" them by exercising your freedom selfishly.

Read 14:13-15,20-23. The main point of these verses is crystal-clear: Don’t stumble the "weak" by practicing your freedom selfishly. Before we can practice this principle, we have to properly understand what it means to stumble someone.

Not long ago, I heard an older Christian rebuking a younger Christian for going to bars and ordering beer in that setting. He said, "What you are doing stumbles me, and Paul says you shouldn't stumble your brother!" I had to intervene because he was applying this passage wrongly.

To stumble someone means to influence a weaker (and usually younger) Christian to violate his own conscience and join you in your freedom.

That's not what was going with this guy. He was an older Christian, and he wasn't feeling tempted to go to a bar and have a beer. He was misapplying this passage and judging the younger Christian ("WEAK" vs. "PHARISEE").

But there are lots of situations that do qualify. DRAMATIZE ROMAN SITUATION: "Hey, let's stop by the Aphrodite Diner for a roast beef sandwich . . . " DRAMATIZE CURRENT SITUATION: "Hey, let's sleep in tomorrow . . . "

Why is this so wrong, if the freedom you're trying to influence them to exercise is not in fact morally wrong? Why does Paul say this can "hurt," "destroy," "tear down" (14:15,20)? The issue is the role of conscience (read 1 Cor. 8:9-12).

Our conscience is a God-instilled moral warning system that renders verdicts on our behavior by "going off" when we violate its standards. Because we are fallen people, it doesn't work perfectly. The "weak" have an overly sensitive conscience. But since God guides us morally through our consciences, he never wants us to violate its warnings. If we start doing this (even over non-moral issues), we may "sear" our conscience and disregard it over issues that are morally destructive.

Rather, God wants to train our consciences to conform to his moral will for our lives--sensitizing some numb areas and desensitizing other area--and the way he trains our consciences is through learning his Word.

Until a "weak" Christian has his conscience strengthened by biblically informed convictions, our efforts to influence him toward legitimate freedoms will harm his walk with Christ. Instead, Paul argues, we should be willing to "bear the weaknesses of those without strength, and not just please ourselves" (15:1).

This means that we should not shame or ridicule him for restricting himself in these areas, but instead express respect for his conscience (EXAMPLES.

This means that, when necessary, we should even be willing to sacrifice the exercise of our freedom in his presence if we think this will stumble him (EXAMPLE: DRINKING AROUND NEW, IMPRESSIONABLE MUSLIM CONVERTS).

Are you unwilling to make these sacrifices to help your weaker "brethren?" Then you may be "strong," but you are not mature!

When possible, help them become "strong."

There is no value in remaining "weak" in faith. Paul wanted all of his converts to learn and enjoy their freedom in Christ to the fullest responsible extent (Gal. 5: 1), and he defended his "strong" young converts from Pharisees. I conclude from this that, when possible, we have a responsibility to sensitively help "weak" Christians become "strong." Perhaps this is what Paul means in 14:16-19 (read). As we accept "weak" Christians and respect their consciences, we should also help them discover from God's Word the basis for our freedom and theirs.

This is not only because personal freedom in Christ is an intrinsic good. It is also because "strong" Christians are usually more effective in reaching people for Christ. This was clearly Paul's preference for himself and those under his leadership (read 1 Cor. 9:19,21). If we want to win pagans to Christ, we should not impose any needless ethical or cultural obstacles.

This sure made a difference for me (and a lot of you here). It focused the issue where it belonged--not: "Are you willing to give up all recreation and join a sub-culture?" but "Do you want to receive the gift of God's complete forgiveness and a life-changing relationship with Christ?" It's hard enough to bow to Christ and admit your need for this. We shouldn’t make it any harder by adding a bunch of man-made rules and restrictions.

Copyright 2000 Gary DeLashmutt