Whatever we might think about Romans chapter 14, it’s clear that Paul has written a masterpiece. He delicately treads the treacherous middle ground, doggedly flanked on the one hand by “the weak”, and carefully watched by “the strong” from the other side. You could scarcely imagine two more polarised groups, and yet there was one important thing they held in common all were brethren and sisters of Christ.

All too often this chapter is used to defend some position. Sometimes it is wielded as a withering condemnation on those who are ‘narrow minded’ or ‘legalistic’ or ‘blind’. On other occasions it is used as a demand to submit to some who feel strongly about a particular ‘conscience issue’. However, the full impact of its searching power and wisdom is not always correctly appreciated.

Paul was writing to address two different mindsets that co-existed within the ecclesia in Rome; wisely and delicately correcting the faults of both sides. While the chapter addresses issues such as eating anything versus eating only vegetables (v2), and observing festivals and feast days versus treating all days alike (v5), beneath the surface Paul is driving towards something much more inspiring and powerful.

Paul draws the reader beyond these mundane issues and towards a kind of ecclesial utopia that can and should exist if we listen to his advice. The message of Romans 14 can help us get there, but we cannot stubbornly insist that everyone else conform to our way of thinking. We have to acknowledge this message, and concede Paul’s observations if we wish to progress, otherwise there will be a spiritual stalemate within our ecclesias; an illusion of unity and cooperation on the surface, with conflict, judgmental opinions and the despising of brethren and sisters, and all over issues that don’t really matter in the end! Paul’s message paints an optimistic picture of a vibrant ecclesia full of true love and unity, that thrives because of (not despite) the different perspectives of brethren and sisters.

Deep divisions

We are introduced to a certain person ‘weak in faith’ (v1–2, 21, related word 15:1). The word means ‘feeble’ and is used throughout the gospels of ‘sick’, ‘impotent’ or ‘diseased’ people in need of healing. Paul carefully chose this word to highlight that something was wrong; to prompt such a person to act! The weak ate only vegetables (v2), and esteemed one day above another (v5). Yet these practices were not done for outward show, but “in honour of the Lord” (v6). We are also introduced to another person with a completely different mindset, termed ‘the strong’ by Paul (15:1). The strong ate anything they felt like (v2), saw all days as the same and therefore would ignore the very feast days the weak devoutly observed (v5). Again, all was done in good conscience before God “in honour of the Lord” (v6).

It is easy to see the cold standoff that must have existed between such diametrically opposed groups. Paul’s searching insight reveals even their innermost thoughts; the strong ‘despised’ the weak for their abstinence (v3, 10), while the weak ‘judged’ the strong for their apparent indulgence (v3–4, 10, 13). This view into the internal workings of the minds of the weak and strong highlights a superficial facade of fellowship within the ecclesia that was nearing collapse. Such attitudes towards fellow brothers and sisters should never exist! When the strong despised, they had concluded the weak were either narrow minded, unintelligent, blind or legalistic. When the weak judged, they had decided the strong were deliberately doing the wrong thing, and fl outing the law of God!

It is clear that as it was, the situation was unresolvable; a devastating ecclesial standoff that could only get worse. Our ecclesias today contain the same mixture of these two mindsets, with the same potential unrest and division. While the particular issues Paul mentions in this chapter have largely faded into irrelevance, new vexing issues with the same underlying symptoms have taken their place. The solution Paul presents is as relevant today as it was to the ecclesia this letter was first delivered to, because it gets to the root of the issue.

The weak-strong continuum

It is natural when reading Paul’s message to try to gauge where we sit on the weak-strong continuum. However, when we compare this chapter to another letter of Paul’s which addresses a similar situation, we notice that things are not always so clear cut.

Chapter 8 of Paul’s 1st letter to the Corinthians was written to address similar issues, but there is an interesting difference worth noting. The same word translated weak from Romans 14 occurs liberally here also, and therefore these two chapters are unquestionably related. But on careful examination, 1 Corinthians 8 was written to address a difficulty most applicable to former idolaters (non-Jews) who had been baptised into Christ (see v7), concerning meat offered to idols (with no mention of feast days). However, the avoidance of foods and observation of feast days mentioned in Romans 14 (with no mention of idols) would be more relevant for disciples with a formerly Jewish mindset. It would appear therefore that these two chapters were written for different people with different backgrounds or ‘world views’.

In 1 Corinthians 8, the former idolater (also termed weak by Paul in v7, 9–12) avoided meat offered to idols because he still struggled with the identity of the idol and refused to show it honour by eating of its food. In contrast, the weak Jewish convert addressed in Romans 14 would avoid eating certain kinds of meat, probably in case it had not been slaughtered in accordance with the requirements of the Law of Moses, out of respect for God’s commandments. However, whereas the ‘Jewish weak’ would diligently observe the Jewish feast days out of respect for the Law of Moses, the weak Gentile convert would side with the strong of Romans 14 on this issue and ignore them; Jewish festivals had little relevance to his life in Christ. Therefore on the issue of meats, both the Jewish and Gentile converts were weak, abstaining from eating meat, albeit for different reasons. But on the issue of feast days, while the Jewish convert was weak, the Gentile convert was strong!

When we put the two chapters together, an important principle is brought to light; different world views can contribute to our weakness in some issues, and give us strength in others. All of us understand that we have different strengths and weaknesses in our physical and mental abilities. Most of us also comprehend we lack resilience to certain temptations that others are not troubled by. Paul’s writings reveal that this weakness and strength also applies to our spiritual discernment when it encounters different issues. So if one is weak in faith regarding one issue, it does not necessarily follow that they are weak in all issues.

Unique world views

As Paul has shown through these two chapters, the reason for strength or weakness in certain aspects of our faith can be dramatically affected by our world view; the prism through which we see the world, formed through each individual’s unique combination of life experiences. A Jewish world view was formed through intimate familiarity with the Law of Moses. Until they accepted Jesus as their Messiah, they had religiously observed rituals, sacrifices, offerings, cleansings and tithes. The Law of Moses was their previous life; they had been totally immersed in its culture. With a Gentile convert, their world view had been shaped by the diverse cultures they had been drawn from. Each culture had its associated traditions, idolatrous practices and prejudices. These previous experiences coloured the way they saw everything. Both Jew and Gentile brought their ‘world view’ with them when they came to Christ.

The Jew and the Gentile viewed Christ from different perspectives. Both worshipped the same Lord, but the subtle interplay of the light of Christ shining through the prism of their world views illuminated some of his features, and obscured others. Both had their deficiencies; in different areas, they were distorted, warped and weak. In both chapters, Paul sets these deficiencies straight (see Rom 14:14; 1 Cor 8:4).

Every disciple has a unique world view, shaped by many factors, with distortions in different areas. The weaknesses we possess today may exhibit themselves through entirely different issues, but the underlying cause remains the same: a weakness of faith that should be encouraged to grow and develop. None of us have 20/20 vision when our faith is concerned, so all of us need to take heed to Paul’s advice.

Some stern warnings and gentle Encouragement

Paul’s message in Romans 14 does not end here. The weak needed to grow, but the strong also had some powerful lessons to learn. Although Paul corrected the misunderstandings of the weak, he also accommodated their distorted perspective; as Romans 14:5 says “each should be fully convinced in his own mind”. Abstinence for the Lord would be accepted by the Lord as a pleasing sacrifice (v6), although based on an imperfect comprehension of Christ. The strong are exhorted by Paul to remember that being ‘right’ should never take precedence over the love due to our brothers and sisters. If the strong thought themselves higher and mightier than the weak, the words of Paul bring things starkly into perspective. Above and beyond the petty dividing issues they were entangled in, the weak brother was “a work of God” (v20) “for whom Christ died” (v15), and “God has welcomed him” (v3). May we never forget this in our dealings with others! For the strong, this chapter cautions against ‘proving a point’ or ‘taking someone to task’, and warns of ‘despising’ others whose perspective is distorted in some issue. For the weak, this chapter gives gentle correction and encouragement to develop the more perfect understanding that “nothing is unclean in itself ” (v14). But there are stern warnings against ‘judging’ others on issues they choose to abstain from, and not to be swayed by anyone to participate in things they still saw as ‘wrong’. This profound teaching of Paul deserves further consideration.

Relative right and wrong

Paul encouraged each reader to “be fully convinced in his own mind” (v5), and that although nothing is unclean in itself, “it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean” (v14). On these kinds of issues then, right and wrong is relative to the comprehension of each disciple! However, this is not true of every issue (e.g. Rom 1:22–32; 13:13–14; 2Tim 3:1–7)! Th e folly of passing judgment on such issues is thus exposed, since each walks with his own understanding, and will be held accountable to it when standing before the judgment seat of Christ (v10). At times this chapter is used to justify ‘conscience issues’, with the added demand that others ‘submit’, lest they ‘off end’. However, Paul’s estimation of such a position as weak (sickly, diseased or impotent) is an encouragement to grow, not justification for ‘digging in the heels’. Paul’s message was a two edged sword. Paul’s acceptance of the weak must prevent the strong from despising them. But he was not condoning stagnation and a stubborn resistance to spiritual growth for the weak! Clearly Paul expected change to take place with the weak, by sowing seeds of thought he hoped would later germinate and grow. Th ere can be no winners in this battle, unless both sides lay down their arms! We must acknowledge that others can hold different (and valid) views on issues we deem ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.

The quest for growth

Developing a greater understanding on any subject happens by the slow and steady progress of growth. In some issues we may see things more clearly, but once we were all without understanding, so we cannot despise others who do not yet see the clearer picture. They might get there one day, and Paul’s words show it doesn’t matter if they don’t! God welcomes all of us despite these deficiencies. Maybe on other issues, a brother or sister we might classify as ‘weak’ actually sees more clearly than ourselves! Paul calls the weak “a work of God” (v20). Th is is great comfort for all of us; we are a work in progress, still growing, yet still acceptable to God (v18). But if we ‘despise’ and do that which our brother or sister abstains from without regard for their weak conscience, we may be putting a stumbling block in their way (v13), or even contributing to their destruction (v20)!

We each carry our own version of right and wrong with us on these particular issues, but if we do things we regard as ‘right’ without consideration for the conscience of others, we are ‘wrong’! Such a proud position, which may even be ‘right’, will not stand before the Judge (v10–12)! Rather than despising or even trying to teach, Paul counsels us to keep our faith between us and God. Living in all good conscience should always be our aim, whether weak or strong, for “blessed is the one who has no reason to pass judgment on himself for what he approves” (v22 ESV). Therefore where we encounter another with a weaker perspective, we should take the opportunity to swallow our pride and submit to them in love.

The wonder of diversity

Our ecclesias contain a wonderful collection of diverse brothers and sisters who are each a work of God’. It has been commanded by Christ that we meet regularly and share fellowship with one another, thus shaping us by bringing us into contact with others who see things differently. Our spirit should be one of seeking to understand, and appreciate why, rather than judging or despising because others don’t see things the same way. If we adopt this spirit, the limited world view of another can help to furnish ours; and on another issue, where our view might be distorted, they may be able to off er a strong perspective to help us grow. A strong and a weak brother stand stronger when united than if they stubbornly resist and criticise one another from afar!

A taste of the Kingdom to come

Paul’s letter projects far beyond these contentious issues and establishes the aim that should be at the centre of every ecclesia. Th e joys of the Kingdom are not exclusively reserved for the future, for if we pursue peace and mutual edification then we can enjoy an environment of “righteousness and peace and joy in the holy spirit” (v17 ESV). Paul’s advice followed, we can experience a taste of the Kingdom of God within our ecclesias today! Righteousness and joy and peace can exist among our ecclesias. But for this to happen, we need to acknowledge that despite our strengths, we all have our weaknesses. Rather than judging or despising, we need to give our brothers and sisters the benefit of the doubt. Instead we should walk in love (v15) and remember that our Lord who died for all of us (weak, frail, compromised creatures that we are) accepts and loves us despite our limitations.

So let’s appreciate our differences, and see them as opportunities for spiritual growth where we are weak, and a chance for love and submission where we are strong. In anticipation of the Kingdom of God to come, let’s strive to foster righteousness, peace and joy in our midst now. If we do this, our ecclesias can continue growing into the glorious Kingdom age and beyond, with all the precious members intact.