How to Welcome a Weak Brother
As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.
Today we enter the third chapter of application after the great doctrinal chapters of Romans 1-11. We begin Romans 14 and clearly the theme remains the same as in chapters 12 and 13: love your neighbor as you love yourself. But the specific issue in this chapter is how a church can hold together when some members are so different from each other. The way Paul sums up that difference is by saying that some have weak faith and some have strong faith.
You see the reference to this difference in verse 1: “As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions.” And then you see it again in Romans 15:1: “We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak.” And then you see another parallel between the beginning of chapter 14 and the beginning of chapter 15. You see the command to “welcome” each other in Romans 14:1 (“As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him”); and you see it again in Romans 15:7 (“Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God”). So the entire chapter plus part of chapter 15 (up through verse 13) is dealing with the danger of divisions in the church that can happen because of the differences between the weak and the strong.
So it’s tremendously important that we understand what it means to be weak and strong. It’s probably not exactly what you think it is. At least I am surprised by some of what I see there. So let’s start by asking what it means to be weak in faith and strong in faith. Then let’s see how Paul says we should treat each other when we have these differences. Then we will look at the amazing foundations Paul gives for this kind of loving treatment.
1. What Does It Mean to Be Weak in Faith?
The Weak Brothers Avoid Meat and Wine
Notice first that those who are weak in faith don’t eat meat and don’t drink wine. Verse 2: “One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables.” The issue here is meat, as you can see in verse 21 where wine is added to the list: “It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.” So Paul is saying to the strong in faith: there are times when you deny yourself meat and wine for the sake of the weak who don’t eat meat or drink wine. So that’s the first thing we see about the weak and the strong. The weak avoid meat and wine, and the strong are free to eat and drink anything.
The Weak Brothers’ Practice Is Not Sin, But God-Exalting Behavior
Second, the avoidance of meat and wine—the practice of the weak—is not sin, but is God-exalting behavior. The first evidence for this is that verse 1 says they are acting in “weak faith” not no-faith. The practices of the weak are faith-driven practices. Paul says in verse 23b, “Whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” But he does not accuse the weak of sinning. They are acting from faith. Weak faith. And faith is a God-centered, God-exalting frame of heart.
The other evidence that the abstinence of the weak is God-exalting behavior is found in verse 6: “The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.” Notice how much credit Paul gives to the weak brother who will not eat meat or drink wine. “The one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God (kai ho më ethiön kuriö ouk esthiei kai eucharistei tö theö). His behavior is God-directed (to the end) and he feels deeply thankful, not resentful, as he abstains. So this weak brother is acting on faith and he is God-centered and he is overflowing with thanks to God. Is this what you think of when you think of weak?
The Weak Brothers Are Not Legalists
The third thing to say about the weak brother’s abstinence from meat and wine is that it is not because he believes this behavior is the way he gets justified or the way he secures his acceptance with God. This weak brother is not like the Judaizers in Galatia who thought that circumcision was essential to securing acceptance with God (Galatians 5:1-3). We know this because Paul was furious with this false gospel in Galatians (Galatians 1:6-9), but he gives no criticism of these weak brothers like that. They are not legalists. They do not think their abstinence earns God’s acceptance or contributes to their justification.
The Weak Brothers Regard Meat and Wine as “Unclean” or “Common”
One more thing we see in this abstinence of the weak from meat and wine, namely, that they regard meat and wine in some sense as “unclean” or “common.” Verse 14: “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean (koinon) in itself, but it is unclean (koinon) for anyone who thinks it unclean (koinon).” Paul wouldn’t have said this if it were irrelevant to the situation. This was the view of the weak: meat and wine are in some sense “unclean.”
2. Why Does Paul Call Them Weak?
So the question now is: What’s weak about this abstinence from meat and wine? Why does Paul call it weak? It’s based on faith. It’s God-exalting. It’s expressing gratitude to God, not self-sufficiency. It’s not legalistic. So how is it weak? And I hope you are asking: am I in the weak category or the strong category? Or maybe I don’t qualify for either. And I hope you are feeling that Paul is pretty impressed with the weak. He’s thankful for them. He is practicing what he is preaching. Welcome the weak (v. 1). Don’t despise the weak (v. 3).
So what is their weakness? I think the answer is the same as the answer to the question why they view meat and wine as “unclean.” If we could understand that, I think we would see why Paul calls them weak. My answer to this question is this: The weak regard meat and wine as unclean because they believe eating meat and drinking wine will not glorify God as much as abstaining will. There is something about meat and wine that makes eating it and drinking it less honoring to God than abstaining.
I base this on the end of verse 6 where it says that “the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.” In other words, the weak man is making his choices rightly on the basis of what he believes will most honor the Lord and express thanks to the Lord. They are good, well-motivated choices given his convictions about meat and wine. He must believe that those who eat meat and drink wine don’t honor the Lord as much as they would if they abstained. Why they believed this about the meat and wine, Paul doesn’t say explicitly.
What’s crucial to know is that Paul surely thought they were wrong in this conviction. The conviction that there is something about meat and wine that makes abstinence more honoring to God than eating and drinking was a mistake. They lacked the knowledge that would undergird and liberate their faith. They could not trust God for the holy joy of eating meat or drinking wine because they lacked some crucial knowledge. They knew God, they loved God, they trusted God. But they did not understand something that would have strengthened their faith in these particular ways.
What knowledge did they lack? Paul makes the explicit connection between lack of knowledge and weakness in 1 Corinthians 8:6-7. He’s dealing with a situation similar, though not the same, to the one in Rome. He says, “For us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist. However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.” So there is the explicit connection between lack of knowledge and weakness. “Not all possess this knowledge”—namely, the knowledge that all creation is from God and through Christ and for God. And lacking this knowledge, eating and drinking certain things are viewed in themselves as less honoring to God.
Paul puts it this way in 1 Corinthians 10:25, “Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. For ‘the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.’” In other words, the fullness of faith to eat what you will to the glory of God is based on the fullness of knowledge that “the earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.” The weak believer lacks this knowledge—and perhaps other knowledge as well—and therefore their faith is limited in its exercise. They are weak in faith.
The strong, on the other hand, have a more full understanding of God and his relation to the world, and are freed by this truth to embrace more of God’s creation in a God-glorifying way.
Don’t make a mistake here. Make sure you see how amazing Paul’s distinctions are. Just as the weak in faith are not self-exalting in their abstinence, so the strong in faith are not self-indulgent in their liberty. Verse 6b is so crucial: “The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.” In Paul’s way of thinking, the weak and the strong are radically God-centered people. They are deeply thankful people. Their differences are in their convictions about what behaviors are “unclean”—what behaviors give more glory to God.
And even on this point the differences only relate to non-essential things. You can see this as we turn to the second question: How does Paul say we should treat each other when we have these differences?
3. How Should We Treat Each Other When We Have These Differences?
He says it positively in verse 1 and negatively in verse 3. Verse 1: “As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions.” In other words, be accepting of the weaker brother, and be sure that as you fold him into your life, you keep “divisive questionings” (diakriseis dialogismön) to a minimum. I take that to mean: questionings about meat and wine and days, etc. So the first, positive, instruction Paul gives about how the strong and weak should treat each other is: welcome each other, accept each other. And don’t let “divisive questionings” over non-essentials create barriers.
The negative way of saying it is in verse 3: “Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats.” Typically the strong will be tempted to “despise” the weak—look down on them with a patronizing air. Paul has not done that in this chapter and we should not do it either. And typically the weak will be tempted to judge the strong because, to the weak who are careful to abstain from things, the strong seem to be spiritually careless. So the weak are tempted to point out careless behavior that may well be leading to a fall—to spiritual destruction. In other words, they are not legalists who say: you can’t be saved if you do that; but they do say, If you are spiritually careless like that you may drift away and be lost.
So Paul says, negatively, don’t despise each other and don’t judge each other, and don’t build your relationships on “divisive questionings” or “quarrels over opinions.” Rather accept each other and build your lives—your relationships—on something far greater than convictions about meat and wine and days. On what? That is what Paul takes up in verses 3b and 4.
He mentions three great truths that give a firm and glorious foundation for accepting each other with our differences.
3.1. God Has Accepted Us in Jesus Christ
Verse 3b: “God has welcomed him.” The strong and weak should welcome each other because God has welcomed us. Paul says in again in Romans 15:7, “Welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God.” The great foundation for our forbearance of one another is that God has accepted us in Jesus Christ. The weak and the strong believe in Christ who died for them. They are accepted by God in Christ. We should accept them with all their differences.
3.2. God Will Be Our Judge
Verse 4a: “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls.” The second great foundation for our tolerance of each other is that we will all give an account to our one Master in heaven. Each of us has one Master, Jesus Christ. Husbands, your wives will give an account to him. Wives, our husbands will give an account to him. Pastors will give a most serious account to him. You need not lift yourself up as judge. Leave it to God. So the first foundation of our accepting one another is that God has accepted us, and the second is that God will be our judge, so that is not our job.
3.3. God Will Make Us Stand in the Last Day
Verse 4b: “And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” Here Paul goes beyond the statement that believers have a judge in heaven. He now says, Every believer will be upheld in the judgment. Every believer will stand erect and accepted in the last day. The weakest believer you know will stand glorious and vindicated and loved and forgiven and righteous and accepted in the last day.
Therefore, Bethlehem, welcome one another—receive and accept one another—into sweet unity and harmony and fellowship, not on the basis of “divisive questionings” about non-essentials but on the basis of the glorious truths that God has accepted the believers from whom we differ most; God alone, not you or I, is the final judge; and God himself, with sovereign preserving grace (Jeremiah 32:40-41) will see to it that every believer perseveres in faith and stands upright and full of joy before the Judge on the last day. Dwell on these great truths, and accept one another with our differences in non-essentials.