Lessons from the Apostle Paul for the weak and the strong
In his letter to the Romans, Paul writes to a church community of two minds. One group holds its traditions in high esteem, including practices such as circumcision, honoring the Sabbath, eating only clean food and four-part a cappella singing from the hymnal. This group also puts great value in its heritage, its lengthy tenure as Yahweh’s chosen people and attending the right Mennonite college. (They probably also enjoy playing the “Jewish Game” with newcomers, to see how they are related.)
The other group is made up of new believers, outsiders who don’t have names the others recognize, who are excited by the gospel of Jesus but who don’t understand (or worse, don’t value) the significance of circumcision, the Sabbath and shoofly pie. They don’t appreciate what feels like a slavish devotion to particular last names and special ethnic foods. Some probably even like to sing new songs—with lutes.
Let’s go back a few years to set the stage.
Many Jews were expelled from Rome around C.E. 49 by Emperor Claudius, leaving the Gentile Christians to fend for themselves. With the Jewish Christians gone, the Gentiles did not maintain practices that held little meaning for them. About five years later, after Claudius died, the Jews returned. They found churches that they barely recognized and were upset by all the changes.
Imagine if all of the cradle Mennonites in Goshen, Ind.—thousands of people with names like Yoder, Mast and Bontrager—were expelled from the state by order of the governor. Those who joined Mennonite congregations as adult converts would have to take over the leadership.
If in five or 10 years the cradle Mennos were allowed to return, what would they find?
Which core tenets would remain in these congregations? Which cultural practices would have been dropped for lack of interest or importance?
Some of the differences within the Roman church sound trivial to our modern ears, but they were the knock-down, drag-out theological battles of the day. The Law was God’s sacred gift to God’s chosen people. Changing or dropping part of it was not acceptable to those brought up with those beliefs, even if they also believed in the new gospel preached by the disciples of Jesus.
In such a situation fraught with strife and anxiety and misunderstanding, what can bring these two groups together? How can they just get along?
In C.E. 57, only a few years after the return of the Jewish Christians to Rome, Paul, who has never visited these Roman churches but hopes to soon, takes it on himself to discuss the differences between law and faith, between Jew and Gentile.
In his letter, Paul is trying to help these two groups understand each other and to live and worship together in a way that glorifies God. Paul may also be trying to do something that in our era seems a little subversive: He may be trying to honor and affirm the different convictions held by both groups, even though they seem to be diametrically opposed. Is this possible? If so, how?
On the face of it, Paul’s suggestions in chapters 14 and 15 for how to live together in peace seem simple, even naïve.
But as we delve into the messy reality of how to actually follow his counsel, his recommendations feel much more complex, more challenging and more relevant to our own context.
He writes: “Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat, for God has welcomed them. Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall” (14:1-4a).
Further: “We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor” (15:1-2).
That seems simple enough, right?
Welcome your sisters and brothers in the church, because God has welcomed them. Don’t despise or pass judgment on your sister or brother just because they believe and practice differently from you. Be the strong one, welcome the weak, please your neighbor more than yourself.
But this raises some questions: Who are the weak ones? Who are the strong ones? Or, when am I weak? When am I strong?
What does it mean to be weak in faith? Paul says, “The weak eat only vegetables,” which would indicate that those who strictly follow the Law are being weak. But the NRSV translation has a footnote saying “faith” could mean “conviction.” And it’s hard for me to see those who strictly follow the Law as being weak in conviction. It takes a lot of conviction to follow kosher law, to abstain from caffeine and alcohol as Mormons do, to abstain from meat and alcohol as Adventists do.
No one wants to think of themselves as weak.
Paul is probably aware of that when he exhorts his readers, “we who are strong,” to put up with the failings of those other folks. It’s a shrewd move, since most of us want to think of ourselves as being in the “strong” camp. And instead of thinking of the other group of folks as the “wrong” ones who need to be corrected or removed, we “strong” ones can now think of the others as “weak” and in need of patience and forbearance.
Sure, it’s not ideal to think of others as weaker, as lesser-than, to set up that kind of dichotomy. But if it causes people to treat others more gently and to put up with their differences, I’ll gladly take that over the alternative. And frankly, if we’re honest enough with ourselves to recognize that sometimes we are the weaker ones (or the slower ones, the more anxious ones, the less competent ones), then maybe we’ll be more appreciative of the exhortation to treat the weak with gentleness and not judgment.
Next, Paul talks about not “despising” or “passing judgment” on those who don’t share your convictions about clean/unclean things. This is strong language. Do we really “despise” those who feel differently from us about issues?
Thinking of my own attitudes, I have to admit, with regret, that I sometimes do, especially if the other person seems smug or self-righteous. In fact, I see these attitudes in a modern day debate over clean/unclean foods.
The subject: veganism.
On online message boards of environmental groups, vegans and meat-eaters attack each other in sometimes vicious battles of words. Vegans (the abstainers) pass judgment on meat-eaters, criticizing them for not sharing their convictions and not helping save the world with them. “Ethical meat” eaters, such as myself, feel judged, get defensive (and probably feel a little guilty), then turn that back on the other side by despising vegans. And the cycle continues.
Once I started thinking about contemporary issues in this framework, I saw a lot of my favorites falling into the clean/unclean kind of split: local, organic, grassfed food (clean) vs. mass-produced food using pesticides, GMOs and feedlots (unclean); green/sustainable/solar energy (clean) vs. fossil fuels (unclean). It’s challenging to think I’m not supposed to pass judgment on those who don’t see the same clean/unclean distinctions I do. But I realize I’m on different sides of the conviction line for different issues, and that allows me to understand what someone on the other side may be feeling.
But let’s go back to why we’re not supposed to pass judgment on those who will eat anything. Paul asks: “Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall.”
Aren’t we all servants of the same Lord? Do we have different lords?
Thinking of contemporary lords and masters, my mind goes to the workplace. And perhaps this fits. In any work setting, employees have different roles, different job descriptions, different skills and abilities. The boss therefore has different expectations of each employee and judges each one accordingly.
As much as we often like to pretend otherwise, we are not each other’s bosses, authorized to pass judgment on each other. Christ is each person’s Lord, and we do not know what another member is called to.
Again, this is a simple point, but how well do we follow it? It seems we too often worry that God may not judge this awful thing my neighbor is doing, so we need to jump into the gap and do it on God’s behalf. But Paul says, “For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God. … [E]ach of us will be accountable to God” (14:10, 12).
In regard to this tough theological issue that faced the Roman church, Paul could have made a ruling on which side is right; he doesn’t. He could have said, Everyone has to follow the same rules and behave in the same way—and if you can’t agree, you should go your separate ways. He doesn’t say that, either.
He doesn’t call for one side to “win” over the other.
The final word instead? Whatever you do, do it in honor of the Lord. Be fully convinced in your own mind. But remember to spend more energy building up your neighbor and putting up with their failings than focusing on pleasing yourself. You don’t need to get your way all the time.
And he urges: “Welcome one another, therefore, just as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God” (15:7).
Dave Hockman-Wert is a member of Corvallis (Ore.) Mennonite Fellowship, and this article is adapted from a sermon he presented there on July 27, 2014.