STRONG AND WEAK CHRISTIANS
By Pastor Glenn Pease
A man wondering in the woods was caught in a bad storm. It was very dark, and the only light he had was from the flashes of lightening which were followed by deafening thunder. He fell to his knees and prayed, "Lord, if it will be all right with you, please give me more light and less noise." This should be the standard prayer of believers when wondering through the dark woods of controversy. In a religious argument the louder the noise the less anyone has a chance to see the light and learn anything. A Christian controversy should always be kept in the realm of light and not sound.
Man is made in the image of God with an infinite capacity for variety. Each man has a unique individuality that he is to develop for the glory of God. This means men will differ in their likes and dislikes; in their tastes and interests ; in their personalities, and everything imaginable. The glory of man is that he is not like a herd of cattle or flock of sheep.
This blessing, however, leads to inevitable conflict of opinions. Differences are impossible to escape, and unless people learn to accept differences they cannot live in association. You may have heard the story of the three monks who lived in the woods and seldom spoke. One day a knight came riding through the woods past their place of seclusion. About six months later one monk said, "That was a beautiful black horse that knight was riding." About six months later another monk said, "That was no black horse, it was white." Several months after that the third headed for the door with his belongings in a bag. He said as he left, "If you two are going to argue, I'm getting out of here."
Such an excessive dislike for disagreement would make it hard to live anywhere but alone. No marriage can be happy even without an acceptance of the inevitability of differences. Richard Armour may be putting it too strong, but he has a point that cannot be denied when he writes-
Some hoist the windows, gasp for air,
While others find it chilly.
Some turn up thermostats a hair,
While others think them silly.
Some like cold, some like hot,
Some freeze, while others smother.
And by some fiendish, fatal plot
They marry one another.
Differences within marriage between two people who love each other are so common that it is a mystery why anyone would ever expect conformity of views within a church where people of every conceivable background and personality are mixed. There is no organization on earth that includes a greater variety of people than the church. This means acceptance of differences is a must for Christians. None is all wise but God, and none except God is wholly good. This then makes it folly for the Christian to expect unity of belief or action on the part of men who are both sinful and ignorant. Paul said at best we know in part, and this means every Christian is ignorant about many things, and imperfect in all things.
Humility and honesty demands that Christians be tolerant of differing views among themselves. Not to be tolerant is to set one's self up in pride as having reached the ideal. Even if this was true, if we from our platform of perfection reject those who do not conform, we are not being Christ like at all. Christ in His perfection does not reject the imperfect, but in love seeks to lift them to his level. This means that if we cannot accept those whose opinions differ from ours, we are sub-Christian and worldly. Many Christians who do not do all of the things we usually consider to be worldly are still worldly because they live on the worldly level of pride which says, "If you don't agree with me, you are wrong, and I am not interested in you." This is worldliness at its worst, for it is being sub-Christian in the inner man where Christ is to reign as Lord.
Paul makes it clear in this passage that both the strong and weak in faith are in danger of slipping to a sub-Christian level. The issue here is not to determine who is right and who is wrong, for the fact is you can be wrong even if you are right if your attitude is wrong. If your attitude toward a fellow believer is not one of acceptance, and open-minded toleration of his differing conviction, than you are wrong and sub-Christian even when your particular conviction on the issue is right, and the one God hopes all Christians will come to in full maturity.
A Christian must be one who is concerned, not just about the truth in a conflict, but about the person he disagrees with, for if he is right about the truth but wrong in his attitude toward his opponent, he is still missing the boat and is out of God's will. It is never enough to be right, for we must also be loving. Paul says in I Cor. 13:2, "If I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing." Tom Westwood points out that of 16 chapters in Romans Paul devotes one and a half chapters to the issue of Christian dealings with other Christians with whom they disagree. He rightly concludes, "I believe we have altogether underestimated the magnitude of Christian courtesy and consideration." We are studying this passage in detail in order to magnify in our minds the importance of Christians courtesy in controversy.
In verse 2 Paul states the position of the strong believer. He believes he can eat anything. This does not mean he thinks he is a superman who can eat nails and arsenic without injury. It simply means he feels that no food is defiling and, therefore, forbidden. He accepts the words of Christ that it is not what goes into a man but what comes out that is defiling. Peter had to learn this truth that all that God has made is clean. Paul warned Timothy about those who would come urging Christians to obtain from meats, and he rejects this and writes in I Tim. 4:4, "For everything created by God is good, and nothing is to be rejected, if it is received with thanksgiving."
The strong Christian, therefore, has a solid Biblical foundation for his feelings of liberty from all rules and regulations concerning his diet. He will not go hungry for any sacred cow as do millions in India. He will not give up meat because of some fear of contamination from an idol. He may give up certain things because they do not agree with him, or simply because he does not like them, but he does not give up eating anything with the idea that he is thereby pleasing God. He is convinced God is pleased with anything he eats if he does so with thanksgiving.
He says I can eat swine and love it even if the Jew gets squeamish at the very thought of it. Not only that, he can eat it on Friday too, even if the Catholic gets nervous at that thought. Julicher says, "He believes magnificently in the conception of the unfettered conscience of the believer." He is at liberty to eat as he pleases without feeling obligated to any law. He gives God thanks and enjoys it, and does not worry about any tradition or regulation. This was Paul's own personal position. He gloried in his freedom from the bondage to the law, and encouraged others to do so. He wrote in II Cor. 3:17 that, "...where the spirit of the Lord is there is liberty." To the Galatians he wrote in 5:1, "Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free, and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage." Paul was the Apostle of liberty, and he did not want his life to be bound up by other people's superstitions and hang ups. He said in I Cor. 10:29, "For why should my liberty be determined by another man's scruples."
There is no doubt as to where Paul stands. Here in verse 14 he says he knows and is persuaded that nothing is unclean in itself. He knows the strong Christians are right, but Paul has one virtue he places even above his liberty, and that is love. Therefore, he is not going to tell the strong Christian he agrees with to sock it to the weak one who has scruples. Instead, he is going to warn them about the very dangers they face in being on the right side of an argument. In verse 3 he commands those who feel free to eat anything not to despise the brother who cannot. With all of his strength this is where the strong Christian is weak. He has a hard time keeping from despising those who do not have his light. In pride they feel all Christians should be where they are, and not hung up on obsolete regulations.
Martin Luther felt this way when he was a Catholic priest. He wrote, "Nobody cares whether perjury, lies, or slander are committed, even on holidays. But if somebody eats meat or eggs on the sixth day of the week people are stunned. This is how silly almost everyone has become nowadays." Luther was among the strong believers of his day, but his danger was that in his strength he would despise those who were weak. It is natural for the strong to do so, but Paul says a Christian is not to be natural, or live on the level of the natural man. He is to love and not despise those believers who have hang ups that obstruct Christian liberty.
A strong Christian has to have the mind of Christ, and distinguish between the sinner and the sin. Jesus despised sin, but loved the sinner. So a Christian is to distinguish between the person and the position. The strong Christian can despise the position of a weak believer, but he dare not despise the person holding it, or he loses the advantage of his liberty, and becomes sub-Christian. In other words, no matter how silly and foolish I think another Christian's convictions are, I am obligated to love them as a brother in Christ.
Now lets look at the position and danger of the weak Christian. In verse 2 Paul says the weak Christian eats vegetables. He is so sensitive about defiling himself with meat offered to idols that he just gives up eating meat altogether. That sounds like a noble sacrifice, and it would seem that such a believer would be commended for his commitment to remain undefiled. He is considered the weak one, however, because he has sacrificed his liberty in Christ for the sake of the law. It is no virtue to be fussy where God is not. To abstain from something that God does not forbid is to add laws to life which hinder ones liberty in Christ. Men who do this reveal a weakness in their faith, and reveal that they depend upon the law as a crutch. It is easier to live under law than under grace. Freedom and liberty in Christ demand a great deal of soul searching in making decisions. Freedom is ambiguous, and one is left open to risk and mistakes. It calls for maturity to be free and remain in God's will.
On the other hand, the man who depends upon law to regulate his life has it made. There is no ambiguity, for it is all black and white and clear cut. There's no risk whatever, for all of the thinking is done for you. Your mind is made up by rules, and all you have to do is follow the rules. Your religious life is just a matter of following the rut that is cut out for you. This is the religion of the immature and the weak. The sin is not in being weak, however, but in judging and condemning the strong for their liberty which they do not understand. The weak feel they have Scripture on their side, and they can quote Ex. 34:15 where God warns against eating with the Canaanites lest they eat meat offered to idols. Here was a clear command, and the strong Christians were violating it. They felt justified in judging the strong, but Paul says it is wrong to do so, for God has accepted them.
Many of God's children feel that many others of his children are to liberal and do not deserve to be in His family. They judge them and say they are not children of God. This is a great evil that Paul is fighting. Karl Barth wrote, "Weak is the man who allows himself to be pushed into a position from which he judges others. Who is the Lord? Who has authority to judge? Who has power to exalt or cast down? Man or God?" If God receives the strong, who are you to condemn? The weak have a tendency to condemn, for it is their only weapon of defense. In a debate reason will not support their position, and so they have to shout condemnation for support.
Have you ever had one of your children come and demand that another of your children deserves punishment, and if you don't do it they get mad? They feel you should take their side and vindicate them by judging the other. You would be a foolish parent to judge on the basis of your children's judgment. So God would be foolish to judge His children on that basis as well. Paul says God welcomes the strong who lives on the level of liberty in Christ. God delights in this kind of Christian. Paul warns the weak to stop playing God and leave judgment to Him who is God. The weak Christian needs to learn the attitude expressed by Walter Van Kirk who said, "I will attribute to those who differ with me the same degree of sincerity that I claim for myself." Both the weak and the strong need to learn this. One is sincerely right, and the other is sincerely wrong, but both are acceptable to God because the weakness is in a non-essential area of life. Whatever camp you are in, Paul demands that you live in love, and accept both the strong and the weak.