On the Weakness of Faith and the Strength of Hickory

I have not ventured into the turbulent stream of Romans 14 before, at least not for more than to dip a toe into it.  But for some reason, there are concepts from that chapter that keep revisiting my consciousness, and will not let me rest until I more fully explore them. 

It is no mystery why this reading is troublesome.  It specifically focuses on an issue of eating meats.  If we connect this to the discussion in I Corinthians 8, it may be that the meat in question had been offered to an idol in a temple, and then sold in a market.  A converted pagan may have been sensitive to this, and may have been offended by it.  Paul says as a general rule, meat is meat: eat it with thanksgiving for what it can do for you physically, not what it was falsely purported to do as an idolatrous offering. 

Some scholars pictured a Christian vegetarian sect as having emerged in Rome, which is largely speculative, but not out of the question, given the track record of humanity in distorting simple things to require far more than necessary.

Throughout the text, the theme is that we should not quarrel over matters of opinion.  This does not include core doctrinal issues, but that opens a completely different set of controversies regarding what is a core doctrinal issue.  Paul builds his argument on the dichotomy of weak vs. strong.  I have always found this curious, since no one ever pictures himself arguing from the position of weakness.  Was this by design, so that we all could see ourselves as the bigger person, demonstrating the magnanimity of enlightenment to the “weaker” party?  That idea keeps returning to me.

The strong brother believes he can eat meat.  The weak brother is offended.  Paul says to both 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, for God has welcomed him.”   Paul acknowledges that there are indeed differences.  To deny them would be dishonest.  The key is finding balance, but he entreats that the balance must come from within each brother.

How do we know this?  He says beginning in verse 22, “The faith that you have, keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves.  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.”  The brother that violates his conscience and understanding has sinned largely against himself. 

Paul suggests that there may be those situations where continuing to consume the meat may cause a brother to violate his conscience, as shown above, that this would be a hindrance to that weaker brother.  Beginning in verse 13,  he says “Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.  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.  15  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.”

But then he turns around and says in verse 16, “So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil.”  The weaker brother considers the meat eater to be engaging in evil.  The one who eats know the truth is to the contrary.  Is that not contradictory to the teaching that we should abstain from something to prevent a weaker brother’s offense? 

Perhaps Paul is saying that there is a responsibility to help the weak become strong.  You cannot win over a heart by causing offense.  But to allow that to remain a constant source of offense is to fail to grow.  As the weak become stronger, the offense should diminish with greater understanding.      

The crux of the issue is not to judge.  He pointedly asks in verse 4, “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.” 

 He further condemns this judgmental attitude in verses 10-13, where he says, “Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God;  11 for it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.” 12 So then each of us will give an account of himself to God. 13 Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.”

Paul summarizes his argument with a declaration that mundane things like eating or drinking are not really germane to citizenship in the kingdom of God.  In verse 17ff, “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. 18 Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. 19 So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.”  Eating meat, the direct antecedent of the argument, and by extension, drinking wine (v.21) have little to do with the actual conduct of life in the kingdom.  Whether one eats or drinks is irrelevant compared to the truly important aspects of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.  Can one eat meat, even offered to an idol and be acceptable to God?  Yes, if he demonstrates qualities like righteousness, peace and joy.  Can one abstain from such meat and still be acceptable to God?  Absolutely, since to do otherwise would not be acting on faith (v. 23), thus violating the conscience and sinning against one’s self.  Can we hold differing opinions on any number of matters that do not pertain directly to the life, teaching, sacrifice and resurrection of Jesus?  The application appears to be obvious.  But liberty must be exercised with sensitivity to others so that peace and “mutual upbuilding” can continue.  

 Paul uses the observance of feast days as another example of the same principle.  No feast days of religious obligation are enjoined upon the Christian believer.  However, it is likely that Jewish converts maintained observance of Jewish festivals.  They must not condemn those who do not keep the festival, and those who do not keep the festival must not condemn those who observe the day as unto the Lord.  Whether concerning meat eating or observing holy days, the principle is the same.

 Now among those of my faith heritage, there has been a great deal of controversy regarding this chapter.  I am convinced that some people would prefer that it wasn’t even included.  But if we accept that scripture is indeed inspired and preserved for our learning, then the chapter stands. 

 But isn’t it interesting that there are such wide opinions about how to apply these teachings?  According to the strict constructionists, this applies only to meat, although a companion argument was made with respect to holy days, which logically was meant to demonstrate a broader scope to the concept.  However, many of these same people will take a passage that addresses a specific concern and make that passage apply to all things.  For example,  in I Corinthians 16, Paul instructs the Corinthians as he had the Galatians to set aside a sum each week to make ready for his arrival to collect the funds and forward them to Jerusalem specifically to aid the saints who were in need there.  If anything, this is even more restrictive in scope, since Paul himself was to collect it and see to its disposition. 

 The inconsistency with application borders on the hypocritical.  What was meant to show a general principle by arguing from multiple specific examples is disregarded, while a specific example recorded as history is elevated to universal command.    Now, I am not suggesting that there be no collection.  Jesus and his disciples had a common treasury, and his example is good enough for me without wresting a non-existent universal command from the instruction to a specific group to meet a specific need.

 The point I am trying to make is this: within the faith heritage to which I belong, there has been so much division that could have been avoided if we had but applied the principles found in Romans 14.  Instead of withholding judgment, we have judged to the finest of minutiae, and shattered the unity that Jesus prayed for to our own dishonor and disgrace. 

 And the sad thing is that we are not finished.  There are those among us who would continue to split and divide us over matters of opinion, as Paul condemned in Romans 14.1.  There are too many churches where there should be one church.  When churches of Christ plant buildings within earshot of each other and refuse to acknowledge each other as brothers, we are judging another man’s servants.  When we fail to extend a hand of fellowship to a person who has accepted the same Savior and been baptized into his body, we are judging another man’s servant.

 In truth, there is none so strong that he does not become weak when lit with the brightness of the Son of God.  Paul himself discussed his own weakness in II Corinthians 12.9,10 as he discussed his pleas to be relieved of the thorn in the flesh.  “9 But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.”

 Returning to Romans 14, no matter our true level of attainment, we would all like to believe ourselves to be strong.  The true test of wood’s strength is not purely density, however.  Oak is dense, hard and strong.  But hickory has the added strength of being strong enough to bend.  That is the strength that Paul is commending.  The strong brother is able to bend to support the weak brother.  But he holds him up and helps him to grow and shares his strength.  The strong sister bends to seek forgiveness for (or to forgive) some perceived offense, understanding that the source is from weakness, but as she resumes her proud height, she brings the weak sister along with her. 

 Romans 14 describes the reality of community, whether in families of flesh or of faith.  There will always be those of varying levels of maturity.  The task is not to seek our own interests, but to be gracious enough to accept and honor genuine—if ultimately insignificant—differences among us.  We each can learn from the other.  For this grand endeavor to succeed, we must be willing to listen as well as to speak, to learn as well as to teach. Like a shepherd, a good leader knows when to stand before his followers and when to walk beside them.  We could learn a lot from a shepherd.  Maybe that’s why Jesus claimed to be the good one.      

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