The words "strong" and "weak" are often found in conjunction in Paul's writings. The parallelism of the two terms is used to communicate two central principles. First, human weakness allows the power of God to be most preeminently manifested. As Paul says, "For when I am weak, then I am strong" ( 2 Cor 12:10b ). Second, the two words are used metaphorically to describe the degree of spiritual development in the life of the believer ( Rom 14:1-23 ; 15:1-8 ; 1 Cor 8:7-13 ; 1 Corinthians 10:23 1 Corinthians 10:32 ).
"Weak" and "strong" serve as operative terms that combine such concepts as the kingdom of God, knowledge, love, conscience, freedom, and judgment. Paul's special use of the terms provides a theological context that informs and clarifies them. Those who have an accurate understanding of God and his kingdom and are able to actualize their Christian freedom without a conflict in conscience are "strong." Those who lack clarity and are unsure of how they are supposed to use their freedom in Christ are "weak." Knowledge alone cannot determine our use of Christian liberty; rather, the love of God in Christ must be the guiding factor in how we seek to realize the kingdom of God on earth.
Paul specifically identifies two areas of concern when addressing the strong and the weak: food and holy days. Some have the strength to eat meat; others, "whose faith is weak" ( Rom 14:1 ), feel that they should eat only vegetables (v. 2). Similarly, the weak are very concerned about observing special holy days, while the strong consider each day alike (v. 5). The weak consider issues like this extremely important in regards to God's kingdom, while the strong do not.
The beliefs and customs of the weak influence their understanding of Christian liberty. Their scrupulosity oversensitizes their consciences. When they look at the antithetical conduct of the strong, they end up in great moral torment ( 14:14-15 ). Some weak people start emulating the practices of the strong, yet do so out of fear and doubt (v. 23). This experience of confusion and doubt has serious consequences for the weak. The strong have caused the weak to stumble, and have possibly even destroyed them (v. 20).
A similar situation can be seen centering around meat offered to idols ( 1 Cor 8:1-13 ; 10:23-33 ). The strong have knowledge that an idol is nothing (vv. 4-6). They have adopted a libertarian approach and believe that "everything is permissible" ( 10:23 ). The weak possess no such knowledge, and experience a great moral conflict because of the actions of the strong ( 8:7-13 ).
The weak judge the freedom of the strong as impiety; the strong scoff at the convictions of the weak. Such tensions between believers threaten the very unity of the church.
Paul addresses the issue as follows. Because God is the Creator of all things, nothing is unclean in and of itself ( Romans 14:14 Romans 14:20 ; 1 Cor 8:8 ; 10:26 ). Food and observance of holy days have nothing at all to do with salvationthey are adiaphora, of no spiritual consequence. We are no better off for partaking or abstaining, because these things are of no significance to the kingdom of God. It is for this reason that Paul identifies with the strong ( Rom 14:14 ; 1 Cor 8:4-6 ; 1 Corinthians 10:25-27 1 Corinthians 10:29-31 ).
Paul sees that the bottom line issue is the spiritual intentions that lie behind the practices of believers. Both the strong and the weak have failed in this regard. The strong are failing to act out of love and are placing stumbling blocks before the weak that threaten to destroy them spiritually. The weak doubt that God is able to make the strong stand. Both the strong and the weak have usurped the divine prerogative by judging one another ( Romans 14:1 Romans 14:4 Romans 14:10-13 ).
Paul addresses the tensions between the weak and the strong on both the personal and community levels. Believers are not to argue over matters of personal piety ( Rom 14:1 ). Rather, they should be fully convinced in their own minds and not do anything that conflicts with their consciences ( Romans 14:5 Romans 14:14 ). Their personal convictions about what is permissible need to come from sincere faith, be kept to themselves, and not be made a norm for the whole community ( 14:22-23 ).
On the community level, there is to be mutual acceptance and tolerance, because the conduct of both the strong and the weak comes from genuine devotion to God ( Rom 14:6-8 ). Jesus Christ is the model for actualizing the freedom of believers in the church (vv. 9, 15, 18). We are prohibited from doing anything that might harm or destroy other believers ( Romans 14:13 Romans 14:15 Romans 14:20-21 ; 1 Cor 8:9-13 ). Everything we do is to be done in love, for the purpose of mutual edification and peace ( Rom 14:19 ).
William A. Simmons
Bibliography. C. E. B. Cranfield, Romans: A Shorter Commentary; V. Furnish, The Love Command in the New Testament; P. W. Gooch, NTS33/2 (1987): 244-54; idem, Crux13/2 (1976): 10-20; V. Jack, Christian Brethren Review38 (1987): 35-47; R. J. Karris, CBQ35/2 (1973): 155-78; P. S. Minear, The Obedience of Faith: The Purposes of Paul in the Epistle of Romans; R. L. Omanson, BT33/1 (1983): 106-14.
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