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Romans (Series 1)

Lordship - and the Weaker Brother

Romans  14

One of the enduring problems of the church is the “weaker brother” -- who often appears to be the strongest in the faith. This is the person who says. “No Christian would ever do.....” and thus adds to the faith a rule, a regulation, a burden not necessary for salvation.

The origins of this passage need some explanation. In these times, men would make animal sacrifices to pagan idols. You can imagine a worshiper, carrying a quarter of beef, down to the temple of Ugabuga. There the meat is roasted; the priest takes his share, and the rest must be eaten -- or sold! (No refrigerators, you see.) The new Christian, weak in the faith, sees in this meat not the creation of God but the pagan sacrifice -- and therefore creates the rule. In fact, it went so far as to say, “Since I can’t tell which meat has been so sacrificed, I will eat none.” The controversy seems out of date today -- but perhaps not.

The Weaker Brother

(Rom 14:1-4 NIV) Accept him whose faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters. {2} One man's faith allows him to eat everything, but another man, whose faith is weak, eats only vegetables. {3} The man who eats everything must not look down on him who does not, and the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him. {4} Who are you to judge someone else's servant? To his own master he stands or falls. And he will stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.

The first, and key, concept here is this: just who is the weaker brother? Let me translate this into the twentieth century. I teach this class without a suit -- indeed, I’m so wildly liberal as to not even wear a tie! Good, pious Christians know that they must honor God in the way they dress, and that obviously means that you should wear a suit to church. So I must be the “weaker” brother.

That’s not how Paul sees it. Indeed, the principle here is that the one who establishes the rules is the weaker brother. Not me; the guy who must wear a suit. For so many of us, this seems backwards. The point needs some amplification.

·         First, we are not talking about a legalist -- one who substitutes the rules for the atonement of Christ. Paul never fails to condemn such. We are talking about someone who adds these rules to the royal law of Christ.

·         We are not, except incidentally, talking about the one who makes it a personal law of life, for good reason. For example, a man might be a recovering alcoholic. He might indeed acknowledge that there is no blanket restriction on alcohol for the Christian, but yet make it his personal law never to touch the stuff again. In charity, we may regard him (on this matter) as the weaker brother and support him in this decision. We are not speaking of supporting the brother with a besetting sin.

·         We are not talking about the one who refrains from a given practice, say drinking, for the sake of harmony in the church. But more on that later.

·         We are talking about the one who concludes that there is a general law -- a moral commandment, if you will -- which should apply to all Christians, for which there is no particular warrant in Scripture.

Paul describes this man as one whose “faith is weak.” We often see it as strong, but in fact it is weak. In a curious turn of phrase, Paul describes one man’s faith as allowing him to eat only vegetables. It is not strong enough to allow him to eat meat. Weakness in faith prevents people from exercising their liberty in Christ.

But we must distinguish between liberty -- freedom to do as I please, with the responsibility for the results -- and license (which takes no responsibility at all). It is Christian liberty we have. To that end, Paul gives us instruction.

First, we are not to condemn the weaker brother. It is a curious reversal of form. We usually think of the person with all the rules condemning the liberal one. Paul prohibits condemnation on these grounds:

·         First, God has accepted this person as His child. Who are we to say to God, “You made a mistake on that one?” Are we not indeed commanded to show hospitality to all the brethren?

·         Next, in doing so we exceed our authority of judgment. We can only judge ourselves, and then only to bring repentance (Godly sorrow). We cannot pass judgment on someone else’s servant; not in this world nor the next.

·         Finally, to pass such judgment is itself a lack of faith!

·         It says, “God, you could never make anything decent out of .....” Is it ever proper to deny the power of God?

·         We sometimes get into this habit because of our misunderstanding of humility. We say, “Oh, I’m so rotten, God could never make anything out me!” This is completely presumptuous (and rather blasphemous) talk, masquerading as humility. True humility says, “I can’t make myself into greatness -- but He can.” And if He can do it to me, why not my weaker brother?

Next, we are commanded to accept them. Not to tolerate and look down on, but accept them. It is fitting both for our humility and our service that we do this. Humility, in that we are sinners too; service, in that they are the children of Christ also, and as we receive them, we receive Him.

You see, I hope, that this passage is not really about “weaker brethren.” It is about the Lordship of Jesus Christ -- and his command to us to help our brothers come closer to Him, at whatever cost to ourselves.

Fully Convinced

(Rom 14:5-12 NIV) One man considers one day more sacred than another; another man considers every day alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. {6} He who regards one day as special, does so to the Lord. He who eats meat, eats to the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who abstains, does so to the Lord and gives thanks to God. {7} For none of us lives to himself alone and none of us dies to himself alone. {8} If we live, we live to the Lord; and if we die, we die to the Lord. So, whether we live or die, we belong to the Lord. {9} For this very reason, Christ died and returned to life so that he might be the Lord of both the dead and the living. {10} You, then, why do you judge your brother? Or why do you look down on your brother? For we will all stand before God's judgment seat. {11} It is written: "'As surely as I live,' says the Lord, 'every knee will bow before me; every tongue will confess to God.'" {12} So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God.

Paul commands us to be “fully convinced” of what we do. We need to see that just because my weaker brother is full of rules and regulations this does not make him a sinner. It just makes him weaker in that respect. Indeed, as servant to his Lord, we must recognize that he will render account to his Lord. This means that we can look at some interesting little consequences of this:

·         We often tell people that “it does matter what you believe -- even if you’re sincere.” This is true in essentials. But did our Lord lay on each and every one of us the heavy burden of knowing, despite culture, teachers and trials, exactly what is and is not essential? Or did he lay on us the privilege of following Him? If a man is sincerely convinced that the Lord commands him to dress a particular way on a particular day, only our Lord can reward or deny that man.

·         We also know that anything can be done for the glory of God:

(1 Cor 10:31 NIV) So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.

(the entire passage is instructive in this regard). If done for Christ, it will be honored by Him. The concept is even stronger when turned about. Whatever you do, do it as if to the Lord -- and He will honor that.

We are to “live to the Lord;” we are to “die to the Lord.” In this phrase Paul expresses some of the truths so needed in dealing with this problem:

·         We don’t live alone nor die alone; the Lord, at least, is with us. This is not a solo flight. Therefore, we need to think of our brothers in our actions.

·         Christ is Lord of All, living and dead. Whatever we do must be done in that light. What will the boss think?

·         Finally, I will be called to give account of my actions. What shall I say if I have mislead my students -- by word or by example?

In light of this, then, how should I treat my weaker brother? I am not to judge; I am not even to look down on him. So much for the negative side; what of the positive?

Duty to my weaker brother

(Rom 14:13-23 NIV) Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother's way. {14} As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean. {15} If your brother is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy your brother for whom Christ died. {16} Do not allow what you consider good to be spoken of as evil. {17} For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, {18} because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by men. {19} Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification. {20} Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a man to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. {21} It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother to fall. {22} So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he approves. {23} But the man who has doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.

This is really just a subset of the command, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” I must not put a stumbling block in front of my neighbor. To understand this, we need to see some of the more general principles first.

·         First, everything created by God is good. Nothing is intrinsically bad (though almost anything can be turned to evil use). As Paul told Timothy,

(1 Tim 4:4-5 NIV) For everything God created is good, and nothing is to be rejected if it is received with thanksgiving, {5} because it is consecrated by the word of God and prayer.

·         Next, things material are pure and righteous largely in the mind of the beholder. If I am firmly convinced it is pure, it is:

(Titus 1:15 NIV) To the pure, all things are pure, but to those who are corrupted and do not believe, nothing is pure. In fact, both their minds and consciences are corrupted.

Taken together, we obtain the principle of “sins against the conscience.” An example may make this clearer:

Suppose I have a weaker brother, one who believes that drinking is absolutely forbidden by God -- no exceptions! Now, I can attempt to persuade that brother by diligent argument and searching the Scriptures (but see verse 22 above for a good reason not to do so), but I might try to persuade him with the argument, “Come on over to the bar and have a drink like everyone else.” In doing that, I am attacking his conscience. His conscience is his first defense against sin, and when he violates it, he becomes conscious of guilt. I have (quite literally) defiled his conscience. In so doing, I have tried to separate him from God. Have you ever “put off” praying because of your conscience, hoping that the passage of time will heal over the wound?

What should I do, then? I submit there are three things:

·         First, I must take care not to make my brother stumble -- even if he’s stumbling over a rule of his own creation.

(1 Cor 10:32-33 NIV) Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God-- {33} even as I try to please everybody in every way. For I am not seeking my own good but the good of many, so that they may be saved.

·         Next, I must go so far (verse 16) as to preserve the good reputation of the church. If the world thinks Christians never drink, why should I disgrace the church to exhibit my liberty?

·         Finally, I must do what I can to cause peace and edification in the body. Scholarly debate; discreet conversations on the side, and mutual respect of Christian liberty are ways for us (verse 22) to keep things quiet, as between me and God.

The world often teaches us to know which things are important and which are not. Here is the Christian being wise as the serpent and harmless as the dove.

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