14 Dec 2018
A Commentary by John Stott
Both previous chapters of Romans have laid emphasis on the primacy of love, whether loving our enemies (12:9, 14, 17ff.) or loving our neighbours (13:8ff.). Now Paul supplies a lengthy example of what it means in practice to ‘walk according to love’ (14:15, literally). It concerns the relations between two groups in the Christian community in Rome whom he names ‘the weak’ and ‘the strong’: ‘we who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak’ (15:1).
It is important to be clear at the outset that Paul is referring to a weakness neither of will nor of character, but of ‘faith’ (14:1). It is a ‘weakness in assurance that one’s faith permits one to do certain things’. So if we are trying to picture a weaker brother or sister, we must not envisage a vulnerable Christian easily overcome by temptation, but a sensitive Christian full of indecision and scruples. What the weak lack is not strength of self-control but liberty of conscience.
But who were the weak and the strong in Rome? Four main proposals have been made regarding the identity of the weak. The strong then identify themselves by contrast.
First, it is suggested that the weak were *ex-idolaters*, freshly converted from paganism, the same group in fact whom Paul had encountered in Corinth and of whom he had written in 1 Corinthians 8. Although now rescued from idolatry, their overscupulous conscience forbade them to eat meat which, before being sold by the local butcher, had been used in sacrifice to an idol. They feared that to eat idol-meat (*eidolothyta*) would compromise and so contaminate them.
Comparing Romans 14 with 1 Corinthians 8, there are certainly some obvious similarities. Both chapters refer to eating and abstaining, to the danger of causing the weak to stumble, to the sanctity of the conscience, to the voluntary limitation of Christian freedom, and to ‘the brother for whom Christ died’. But in Romans 14 there is no reference to idol-meats, and no hint that the question of idolatry was involved in the debate. We surely have to conclude that, although some of the same principles were involved in the two debates, the situations in Corinth and Rome were different.
The second suggestion is that the weak were *ascetics*. To be sure, ‘the broad distribution of religious asceticism in antiquity is …well documented’, and ascetic ideas and practices could have infiltrated into the Roman church. Ascetic movements existed both in paganism (e.g. the Pythagoreans) and in Judaism (e.g. the Essenes). Such an asceticism might explain why the weak abstained from wine as well as meat (14:21). But beyond this the evidence is wanting.
Thirdly, C.K.Barrett has maintained that the weak were *legalists*. The phrase ‘weak in faith’, he proposes, ‘attests a failure to grasp the fundamental principle, which page after page of this epistle emphasizes, that men are justified and reconciled to God not by vegetarianism, sabbatarianism, or teetotalism, but by faith alone’. In other words, the weak (being weak in faith) regarded their observances and abstentions as good works necessary for salvation. But in Galatians Paul pronounced a solemn anathema upon anyone who in such ways distorted the gospel of grace (Gal.1:8f.); could he have been so gentle with the weak in Rome, so lacking in indignation towards them, if the very essence of the gospel were at stake?
The fourth and most satisfactory proposal is that the weak were for the most part *Jewish Christians*, whose weakness consisted in their continuing conscientious commitment to Jewish regulations regarding diet and days. As for diet, they will have kept the Old Testament food laws, eating only clean items (14:14, 20). In addition, either they will have assured themselves that their meat was kosher (the animal having been slaughtered in the prescribed way) or, because of the difficulty of guaranteeing this, they may have abstained from meat altogether. As for special days, they will have observed both the sabbath and the Jewish festivals. All this fits a Jewish Christian context.
Paul’s conciliatory attitude to the weak (not allowing the strong to despise, browbeat, condemn or damage them) is also in keeping with the Jewish Council’s decree, which had been designed precisely to restrain the strong and safeguard the consciences of the weak. Having stated categorically that circumcision was not necessary for salvation (the central theological principle in the debate), the Council not only (tacitly) gave Jewish Christians the freedom to continue their distinctive cultural-ceremonial practices, but asked Gentile Christians in certain circumstances to abstain from practices which would offend sensitive Jewish Christian consciences (e.g. asking them avoid *eidolothyta* and non-kosher meat; Acts 15:19ff.; 27ff.). The apostle Paul evidently followed these guidelines in his own ministry, combining no compromise on principle with concessions on policy (E.g. Acts. 16:3; 21:20ff.; Gal. 6:12ff.; 1 Cor.9:20).
Further, this understanding of the background of Romans 14:1-15:7, and of its purpose to enable conservative-minded Christians (mostly Jewish) and liberal-minded Christians (mostly Gentiles) to co-exist amicably in the Christian fellowship, also prepares the way for Paul’s eloquent conclusion (15:5ff.). In it the weak and the strong disappear from view, Jewish and Gentile believers take their place, and this reconciled multi-ethnic community is heard ‘with one heart and mouth’, in glorious gospel harmony, worshipping ‘the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (6ff.).