A large part of Paul’s advice on living with one another in the gospel is taken up by the problem of weak faith.
For this discussion, “weak faith” means the fear that righteousness cannot be secured without keeping petty rules of conduct. “Strong faith”
has confidence in righteousness through faith alone.
This was an issue when he was writing to the Galatians. Then the rules were those inspired by the written code of Moses, about avoiding contact with
outsiders, and about special treatment of certain foods and special treatment of certain days. Not necessarily wrong in themselves, but it was a great
mistake to think that salvation depended on them.
In this letter, the issue is a supposed obligation to avoid meat (ch14 vv1-2).
It isn’t at all clear where that sense of obligation could have come from. It doesn’t have any roots in the scriptures or mainstream Jewish
Noah was told “Every moving thing that lives shall be food for you” (Genesis ch9 v3). The more specific food laws of Leviticus ch11 forbid the
consumption of some living animals, being “unclean”, but not animals in general.
The whole point of the sacrificial system is that it is about giving God a share of the meat that is being eaten. And obviously the central feature of
the Passover celebration is the sharing of the lamb.
It is true that Daniel refused to eat the meat sent from the king’s table, but this was because it would have been offered to other gods first
I suppose one possibility is that Daniel’s practice took root among the Babylonian Jews, because of the difficulty of finding meat in Babylon
without idolatrous connections.
The Essenes are thought to have had a vegetarian preference. But would there have been many Essenes in Rome? Or even in the Aegean region where Paul
was doing most of his work?
It’s also possible that Paul’s teaching accidentally stimulated the rejection of meat, when he spoke in condemnation of “the flesh”, and some
of his followers took the metaphor too literally.
Paul’s position is that the man weak in his faith has got it wrong, as the nickname implies, but not so wrong that he needs to be excluded from the
Therefore he is to be accepted in the community, “but not for disputes over opinions”. He is not to be encouraged to persuade other people into
his views, and in return they will not try to talk him into abandoning them.
Each side of the argument will be prone to look down on the other. The strong in faith may despise the weak in faith for their unnecessary scruples.
The over-scrupulous man may pass judgement on the rest, as failing to do what God wants.
Both attitudes are wrong. They amount to “judging another man’s servant” (vv3-4).
We must all stand before God in judgement, and only God can call us to account (vv10-12).
Then Paul addresses himself to the strong in faith, and urges them not to lay down “stumbling-blocks” for their weaker brethren.
Of course, “the strong” are right in principle, because physical things are not “unclean” in themselves. It is the human use of them which is
either clean or unclean. He might have quoted, if he knew them, the words of Jesus, that a man is not defiled by what goes into his mouth (Matthew
Nevertheless, they should not use their freedom to eat in a way which injures their brethren. The danger is that the “weak in faith” may be
tempted by their example into doing something which he
believes is contrary to God’s will. Then he will be acting against God’s will,
according to his own understanding, and therefore falling into sin. That is what Paul means by the statement that “whatever does not proceed from
faith is sin” (vv13-23). He used the same argument in 1 Corinthians ch9, on the subject of “meat which has been offered to idols.”
The answer to both
sides of the dispute is that “the kingdom of God is not food and drink, but righteousness and joy and peace in the Holy
Spirit; he who thus
serves Christ is acceptable to God and [should be] approved by men” (vv17-18).
A couple of supplementary passages on different topics seem to have got attached to this chapter, linked together on a theme of “living to the
Paul mentions the similar dispute between people who give esteem to specific days (which was one of the issues in Galatians). Both sides are acting
“in honour of the Lord”, just as those who eat [meat] and those who don’t are intending to act in honour of the Lord (vv5-6).
This attracts another observation, to the effect that those who live and those who die are both living or dying “to the Lord”. None of us lives or
dies “to himself”.
The explanation of that statement is that Christ died and lived again in order that he might be Lord of the dead and of the living.
These must be words of comfort on the subject of Christian brethren who have “fallen asleep”, as in 1 Thessalonians ch4, not directly related to
the topic of the chapter (vv7-9).
In the next chapter, Paul turns his conclusion into a general rule. Those of us who are strong (in faith) should be patient with the brethren who are
weak (in faith). That is , if we have enough confidence in faith to know that we don’t need to observe trivial rules, we should be more
understanding towards those who are still too nervous to give them up (ch15 vv1-2).
In doing this, we will be following the example of Christ, who submitted his will and sacrificed his own interests.
He prays for the ideal of unity, that God might enable both sides to live together in harmony, and in accord with Christ Jesus (which is an essential
prerequisite of that harmony), making it possible for them to combine in glorifying their common God and Father (vv5-6).
Paul tells the Romans that they should welcome one another, just as Christ has welcomed both parties.
But he explains this by adding that Christ submitted himself to the circumcised in order to achieve the goals already mentioned in the previous
chapters; to show God’s truthfulness, to confirm the promises made to their forefathers, and to enable the Gentiles to glorify God for the mercy
they have received.
In other words, we have come back to the topic of the relationship of Jews and Gentiles.
Or perhaps we never left it, if the scruple about eating meat was mainly found among the Jewish Christians.
Certainly the scriptural quotations which close this topic are a return to the style of argument which Paul was using when discussing the
“rejection” of the Jews.
Paul appears to be more indulgent towards weak faith in this letter than he was in the letter to the Galatians.
The difference seems to be that refusing meat is not one of the mainstream rules of the Jews, whereas the necessity of circumcision is based on one of
the laws of Moses.
I would have thought, then, that “refusing meat” had a weaker
claim to indulgence, because it was not a condition of the religion in which
Jewish converts had been brought up.
Paul must have taken the view that this difference made the demand for circumcision a greater threat to the integrity of the Christian faith. So he
recommends toleration for the vegetarian scruple, instead of meeting it with the kind of combative argument which we might have expected.
We ought to consider how much this difference of treatment might apply in other areas of Christian disagreement.
edit on 29-11-2019 by DISRAELI because: (no reason given)