Serving the Weaker Brother
The personal convictions people hold are often the foundation for many disagreements between Christians both individually and in groups. Some Christians may believe that engaging in a particular activity is sin, whereas others do not. In order to help shape our thinking about how we are to get along with each other as God people in spite of the personal convictions we may hold dear to our hearts, I have turned to Paul's words in Romans 14:1-15:13.
In that passage, Paul addresses two classifications of people with in the membership of the Body of Christ: The strong in faith and the weak in faith.
It's important to remember that the idea of faith here is not salvation per se, but whether the person was persuaded unto the truth regarding a conviction. Additionally, doctrinal purity is not at stake. The convictions were developed from personal opinion, not biblical orthodoxy. We are not talking about disagreements over how to understand the divinity of Christ or the nature of God's attributes, for instance.
The disagreement between these two groups Paul addresses in Romans divided along the lines of eating specific foods and the observance of particular days deemed holy. It is understood that Paul had gentile believers and Jewish believers in mind when he wrote his corrective. The gentiles would be the strong in faith and they had liberty to eat non-kosher foods, like bar-b-que pork ribs, and they didn't believe it was necessary to observe the many holy days associated with Judaism. The Jews, however, still had personal hang-ups about eating any food that wasn't kosher and they believed it was important to observe those holy days.
As a result of these disagreements, the two groups were divided with the weaker in faith asserting the strong are "just too worldly," and the stronger holding the weaker in contempt as being legalistic. The principles Paul outlines in Romans 14 and 15 are meant to re-focus these two groups to seek unity. They are equally compelling for us today who disagree, yet along differing convictions.
Beginning in 14:13 and following, Paul narrows his principles to address the strong more so than the weak. I believe there is a reason why he writes a substantial paragraph addressing the strong. Even though the strong are correct in their understanding of how the food regulations have been abolished (Acts 10:9-16, 11:4-17), because the abstaining from eating foods really has no value in helping a Christian's spiritual heart (Col. 2:20-23), and how the holy days were mere shadows that have been fulfilled in Christ (Col 2:17), they are at greater risk with abusing their liberty.
With liberty comes greater responsibility. Just like that teenager who earns his driver's license and is now free to drive dad and mom's SUV, he is now even more responsible for the abilities he has because the misuse of that freedom can endanger many lives. So it is with spiritual liberty. The strong have great freedom in Christ, but greater responsibility to utilize that freedom for Christ's sake.
I believe Paul outlines 6 principles the strong can use to serve the weaker brother
1) Maintain a clear path (vs 13)
The liberty of the strong in faith should not be a stumbling block for the weak in faith. A stumbling block would be any obstacle that would cause a person to trip. Metaphorically, tripping into a spiritual downfall. Paul goes onto explain how what is considered clean to the strong, like eating certain foods, may still be "unclean" in the mind of the weaker brother. The stronger may consider such a conviction as "silly" and "ridiculous," but Paul is clear that by the strong partaking in their liberty, they potentially could cause spiritual ruin to the weaker.
2) Walk in love (vs 15, 21)
The stronger walking in love before the weaker is simple: if your liberty grieves the weaker, then deprive yourself of your liberty for the sake of the weaker.
I saw this principle illustrated recently with my children at play. In the afternoons I will sit in our garage while my two oldest boys ride their bikes around in the driveway between our condo buildings. I let them ride the sidewalk around our building so they can have a longer path to follow. The side walk takes them out of my sight for maybe 40 seconds and if they are late, I can holler their names and they come.
Our neighbors across the way also have a boy around the age of my two oldest who also likes to ride his bike. His father, however, doesn't want him following the sidewalk out of his sight, even if it is just 40 seconds. As would happen, my two boys started riding on the sidewalk and without thinking, their friend followed. The father was upset that his son disobeyed by riding out of his sight and thus made his son come inside. He goes into his home crying and my boys are bugged their friend had to leave.
Thinking swiftly, I asked them both, "What would have been the kind thing to do?" "I don't know," was the reply. I said, "Well, your friend's daddy didn't want him riding around the building on the side walk, right? So don't you think it would have served your friend by staying over here and not riding on the sidewalks?" "Yeah, I guess, can we have soda for dinner?" Anyways, in many situations, the strong will be serving their weaker brothers by limiting their freedom. Even if he can partake in eating pork ribs freely, don't do it for the sake of the weaker one who thinks pork is unclean.
3) Use your strength to serve Christ (vs. 16-18)
Liberty is a riotous good thing, be we must not let our good thing be turned into a blasphemous or evil thing. What is good could be perceived as evil because it gives the appearance that all that matters in the Kingdom of God is the liberty to eat and drink, rather than what is truly good, a right relationship with God our savior and with our fellow men. Liberty is not about physical blessing, but spiritual blessing.
4) Pursue unity (vs 19, 20)
Rather than pursuing our liberty to please, what really amounts to our self interests, we need to pursue the common good of the Body of Christ. Our pursuit should be to build up our fellow believers and their best interests. Their best interests for the time being may not have anything to do with the freedom of eating food. What serves them better is to perhaps shepherd them through their "weakness" as it were.
Note Paul's words in verse 20. Is your liberty to eat pork ribs, or in our modern world, drink beer, worth destroying the work of God in the life of a person just so you can enjoy your ribs or beer? And believe me, I have had some good ribs in my life, but my appetite is not worth destroying the sanctification of my fellow saint just to eat some ribs.
5) Please others (vs. 22-15:3)
Pleasing others involves two actions we have already considered: Deny your liberty for the sake of the weak and do that which edifies others. It may be you have faith to eat, but enjoy the use of your faith before God. Don't flaunt it before others to show off what you have in Christ. By conducting yourself in such a manner, it will seek to build up others. Christ is our prime example. He could have pleased himself by destroying his enemies. He certainly had the ability as God in the flesh. Yet, instead he took the reproach owed to us so we could be lifted up. Our mindset toward the weak in faith should be the same.
6) Receive one another
In other words, don't let petty bickering over personal convictions destroy the unity of the church. How absurd it is to think Christians will divide over mundane issues like a woman wearing pants, or if a pastor attends a Billy Graham crusade, or if a Christian couple uses birth control or not. Those are not the matters which should divide believers.
Now, with these points in mind, allow me to conclude by saying a word to my Reformed comrades. I believe my Reformed friends often times, and with the intentions of being provocative, violate these principles when they indulge their liberty to drink alcohol and smoke cigars. It's sort of the trendy thing to do nowadays if you are a restless young Calvinist. You join your theological buddies down at a high-end pub, drink up some ale and smoke a cigar while discussing the differences between Clark and Van Til. Though it may be the trendy thing to do, I don't believe it is necessarily the wisest.
Listen, my Reformed friends, I sympathize with you. For many of you, years ago, God gripped your heart with the doctrines of grace. You fell in love with the Puritans and the writings of those men like A.W. Pink who had a high vision of God's sovereignty. You more than likely spent all the extra money you had to purchase a boat load of Sola Deo Gloria reprints and R.C. Sproul videos. You also fell in love with solid biblical, expositional preaching like that of D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, and you probably read through your first systematic theology by someone like Louis Berkhof or Robert Reymond.
Nearly all of you more than likely came from an independent, fundamentalist background and it didn't take long to see how your new found Reformed beliefs clashed with the traditional American Bible-belt style Christianity you were initially taught at your church. Eventually, by either moving away to college or breaking away to attend a church more reflective of your new found Reformed ideas, you reacted against your early spiritual upbringing by attending your first movie, or smoking a pipe, or drinking your first glass of wine with out feeling the cringe of guilt that you are turning apostate.
But, what originally was the joy of liberty quickly turned to a opportunity to gloat against those men and women who didn't partake in your liberty. But your gloating, and what is often times a flamboyant display of spiritual liberty, is perceived as being obnoxious. This should not be, because the abuse of liberty does violence to the biblical teaching you came to love. Rather than seeing a passionate lover of God's sovereignty, those who oppose you see a jerky worldly guy. Though you may be correct with your liberty, the weak in faith don't see the situation in the same manner. They have a lot of militant fundamentalism hung up in their souls that will take patience, shepherding and the sanctification of the Spirit to free them. Don't hinder that work by a flagrant misuse of your liberty.
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