Chapter fourteen deals with another issue in Christianity, namely, the practice of one believer forcing his convictions and preferences on another believer and condemning him if he does not agree and submit. Paul introduced a new categorization of believers at this point: strong and weak. 1 Using illustrations like what we are permitted to eat and which day or days we should set aside as sacred, Paul concluded that the believer who places himself under restrictions that God did not specifically prohibit is “weak,” because engaging in such activities would violate his personal conscience, causing him to sin. A “strong brother,” on the other hand, is not burdened by these extra-biblical prohibitions and, thus, can freely participate without sinning, because they are not God’s prohibitions at all (Romans 14:14). Paul did not give an exhaustive list of activities, because it can include any restriction that a believer places on himself that God did not command. Not surprisingly, even modern believers still wrestle with the broad categories mentioned like entertainment (TV, movies, playing cards, music), substances (certain foods, alcohol, some drugs), and special days (when the church gathers).
However, Paul did not leave the question with just a definition of terms. There are two principles that we are to learn and live in light of this truth. First, “weak” is not the desired state for a Christian. Because these are extra-biblical prohibitions, God wants us to grow from “weak” to “strong” in our faith, so we are not weighed down. The second principle is equally important, though. Just because a “strong” brother can participate in these activities, it does not mean that he always should. In fact, Paul commanded “strong” Christians to specifically withhold from participation if they know that engaging in them could cause a “weak” Christian to fall into sin by participating as well. In this scenario, rather than helping our weaker brothers, the stronger brothers actually become an obstacle to our fellow Christians’ growth, potentially destroying God’s work in them, which is the opposite of love. A decade earlier Paul acknowledged that it was “for freedom that Christ has set us free.” Yet we must “not use [our] freedom as an opportunity to indulge [our] flesh, but through love serve one another” (Galatians 5:1, 13). Continuing his theme from chapter twelve, Paul implored, “So then, let us pursue what makes for peace and for building up one another” (Romans 14:19).
- These are slightly different from his categories in 1 Corinthians 3:1-5. There “carnal” refers to a believer who is driven by his sin nature, and “spiritual” is a believer driven by the Holy Spirit. ↩