“Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another.”
~Romans 14:13 (NRSV)
Like so many passages in the Bible, Romans 14:1–15:13, and many verses throughout, is often misconstrued. There are, of course, many valid messages apportioned to Paul’s exhortation.
The one to centre upon, though, certainly within the context of church fellowship, is the perennial argument over what is clean and unclean.
It is clear, from the outset, that Paul is saying that all things are clean. Alcohol and all foods are clean. Yet, if anything is considered unclean by any particular individual—alcohol for an alcoholic, for instance—then, that thing, for that person, is unclean. Why should anyone put a stumbling block before such a person in such a situation? That would defeat love—the Great Commandment.
Determining the Weak and the Strong
Just who is the weak and just who is strong?
It might be clear to us that the person who must, or chooses to, abstain, is the weaker one—they cannot bear the consumption of a thing; for them it is unclean. And perhaps we think that those who have no such problem, all things being clean, are strong.
In Paul’s terms we may be mistaken.
The apostle’s key theological fight was against the false teaching of the legalistic Judaism encroaching upon the gospel of grace.
One of the things that may have been destroying the First Century church, even insidiously, as it may indeed do today, was the presence of disparate judgmental views of the few taking exception to others’ expressions of life.
Again, Paul has declared free the things that were previously declared unlawful—foods for instance. A common issue in our day is alcohol in church settings. I have to declare, upfront, that I personally do not have the ability to safely consume alcohol. Like a good many in society I was proven to binge.
Does such a person as myself show a weakness in not bearing a substance, like a certain food or alcohol? Perhaps, but Paul has a bigger target in mind.
The strong, in this context, are not to prove a hindrance to the weak. But I, for one, do not have a problem with people consuming alcohol near me. Most alcoholics don’t. But if it was a problem, the mature (loving) Christian would respect my weakness and might refrain so as not to construct a stumbling block for me and others like me.
Paul’s bigger problem is with the person who either forces allowance for things or completely disallows things—remember, nothing is unclean of itself. It can only be situationally unclean, in accord with the Spirit.
The weak one in Paul’s context is someone who wants to set up rules about what is clean and unclean. They undo grace.
Unity is a Challenge for the Weak and the Strong
It may not help much to categorise people as weak or strong.
It’s probably better to understand that Paul is trying to open the church up to accept its freedom; that every Christian saved by grace—each one for which Christ died—is able to choose for him or herself what is clean and unclean; but to the church as a whole nothing is unclean.
The challenge is for unity and ever will be.
The weak may be the one who submits to the greater cause for the church, whilst the strong may be self-considered: the one weak to nothing. It’s a paradox, then, that the strong are the fatal flaw of an otherwise perfectly imperfect church, and ‘the weak’ may well need to bear them who insist on rules.
Unity is the challenge for the weak and strong alike; that each might bear with each other for the cause of Christ. Unity is achieved when all agree: nothing that remains in love is unclean.
© 2011 S. J. Wickham.
General Reference: Douglas J. Moo, Encountering the Book of Romans (