NEW TESTAMENT CONTEXTUAL COMMENTARY
Dr. Robert R. Seyda
EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS
CHAPTER FOURTEEN (Lesson I)
14:1 Be willing to take those under your arm who are weak in faith. Don’t argue with them about what they think is right.
This is a continuation of the theme in chapter thirteen of being indebted to no one accept the debt of love we owe our fellow believers and Paul’s call to wake up to the fact that for many of us sleeping on the job as Christians was ending, so it was time to get up and get busy with the Lord’s work before the nightfall of our lives arrived. Here in verse one, the Apostle Paul talks about those who have the spiritual wisdom and ability to help those who are still struggling with issues in their new Christian walk with God. Paul uses the Greek noun pistis (faith) to describe the convictions we all have with what we’ve come to believe through the Gospel.
This noun pistis can be utilized to mean many things. Thayer tells us in his Lexicon that it can denote being convicted of the truth enough to believe it; religious beliefs, such as creeds; having confidence in a predominate idea; and, faithfulness. It is also used to identify one’s religious organization as their “faith.” Thayer says that Paul uses pistis here as “concerning things lawful for a Christian to do that do not go against their conscience.”
When counseling or mentoring others, some well-meaning Christians often take single verses out of the Scriptures and apply them without first checking who wrote them; to whom they were written; what were they writing about; or what subject they were dealing with. In other words, they do not see the context in which the verse was written. When this happens, it is identified with a very well-known phrase called, “taken out of context.” Unfortunately, this often happens when they approach a freshly newborn child of God and straightway begin to discipline them over what they should or shouldn’t do now that they are a Christian, based on these verses that they’ve selected.
This is not a case of helping others to make up their minds to please God, but in forcing others in making up their minds to please us. We see this practiced as far back as the wise man Job. His friend, Eliphaz, gave Job this compliment: “You have given moral instruction to many, you have helped those with trembling hands, your words have supported those who were stumbling, and you have strengthened those who are weak-kneed.”1 Later, God would encourage the prophet Isaiah to continue the work he was given, by instructing him to: “Give strength to weak hands and to weak knees. Say to those whose heart is afraid, ‘Be strong and unafraid.’”2
But the message God sent to the religious leaders of Israel through the prophet Ezekiel was not as positive. He told them: “You have not given strength to the weak ones. You have not helped the sick find healing. You have not helped the ones that are hurt. You have not brought back those that have gone astray. And you have not looked for the lost. But you have ruled them with power and without pity.”3 Paul did not want the same thing to happen at the church in Rome. He did not want them to become the kind of shepherds described in Zechariah: A shepherd who wouldn’t bother caring for the ones who are dying; won’t help guide the young as they learn to walk; won’t find healing for the wounded and won’t encourage those who are not grazing to find nourishment.4
There is an interesting parallel here between the Gentiles who joined the Jews in the Church in Rome and the Gentile Egyptians who joined the Hebrews in their exodus from Egypt. Rabbi Abraham Saba tells us that when they came to the place called Rephidim,5 that the people began to complain about not having any water. This irked Moses because when God fed them manna from heaven it was collected along with the dew in the morning. Therefore, they already had water. But they wanted more, they wanted water to drink. They even accused God of using Moses to bring them out into the desert so they could die. Rabbi Saba says that it may have been the Egyptian proselytes who were unable to adjust to the customs and manners of the Hebrews. Says Rabbi Saba: “It is clear that Moses saw in the people’s complaint a lack of faith on their part.”6 Likewise, here in Rome, it was the Jews who were unaccustomed to the manner and customs of the Gentiles, especially when it came to eating non-kosher foods.
When the great Shepherd, Jesus of Nazareth, came. He told His disciples: “Whoever welcomes a little child because of Me welcomes Me. But whoever is the reason for one of these little children who believe in Me to fall into sin, it would be better for him to have a large rock put around his neck and to be thrown into the sea.”7 So Paul was not teaching something new here, it was already part of the Gospel of Christ. For Paul, it was not just a matter of giving the meat of the Word to a young Christian so they could grow, but feeding them the milk of the Word until they are ready for something with greater substance.8 And this is not the first time Paul has admonished believers to be careful about what they approve of as good or bad.9 That’s why Paul tells the Corinthians: “Some are weak. I have become weak so I might lead them to Christ. I have become like every person so in every way I might lead some to Christ.”10
Early church scholar Origen points out that it is better to have weak faith than no faith at all. That’s why the person who is lacking in faith must be treated differently than the unbelieving sinner.11 Then the Bishop of Laodicea instructed his ministers to be aware that any rules concerning which foods to eat or not to eat must be enforced with moderation because everything has been sanctified by the power of Christ. They must keep in mind that not everyone is so strong in their faith that they are in no danger of being tripped up by these things. That’s why whether we upset such a person or do not upset them must be taken seriously, but we are to take great care to ensure that no one damages their faith by eating something which they think might be wrong to eat.12
Several decades later, early church scholar Ambrosiaster concluded that the Apostle Paul tried to solve these disputes by arguing that the person who abstained from eating certain foods gained no advantage in the sight of God nor did the one who ate such foods lose anything. He says that the person who is afraid to eat because some of the Jews had forbidden it, needs strengthening in their faith. Ambrosiaster wanted such individuals to be left to their own judgment so as not to feel hurt and depart from that love nurtures their souls.13 An important factor to remember with this point of view is that whenever two believers come to an impasse on whether it is right or wrong to eat certain foods, the one who is stronger should be willing to abstain for the sake of the weaker friend.
Then Augustine says if we are the stronger believer and are willing to put aside our preferences for the sake of a hesitant believer their weakness becomes supported by our strength.14 In other words, when they see that we have no pleasure in criticizing their weakness they will become more open to learn and grow. And Pelagius also feels that from here on Paul indirectly begins to admonish those who thought they were strong enough to eat anything they wanted without restraint. Paul tells them not to judge the others who abstain based on their own opinions when the Church has no such rules to back them up.15
And finally, Gennadius asks why anyone would be so inhumane as not to have sympathy for the weak and trample on them, not even offering them the help they need in coping with certain issues? Paul makes it absolutely clear that anything the Law may have to say about such matters has been abolished because Christ is now the one we listen to. Yet, he was conscious that the ethnic heritage of the Jews weighed more heavily on them, especially those who felt that they would be sinning against their fellow Jews if they went against the Law.16 This Greek Patriarch makes a good point here. We must all remember that many, if not all, of our customs and manners, were formed by the ethnicity of our ancestors which may not match those of another believer. So the Word of God must become our arbitrator, and Spirit of God our guide.
Reformer Martin Luther states that the strong believer has his or her own opinion which is determined by their reasoning. In the same way, the weak have their opinions. Therefore, the Apostle says let everyone make up their own mind. That means: “That everyone should remain sure and certain in the opinion which their conscience suggests.” Luther also cautions that this does not mean that we should put up with any pretentious acts of one person trying to be more holy than another, especially when we see that they are only trying to cover their weakness in the faith.17 In other words, people who often criticize those who are more conservative and restrictive in their thinking do so because they are not all that sure about their own allowances under spiritual freedom.
Luther goes on to point out that the Apostle Paul admonished the Galatians that they should not use their liberty to satisfy any personal wishes,18 which he sees being done in Rome where no one any longer troubles themselves about what God’s Word has to say. They were being overwhelmed by endless arguments. They certainly have the right to moderately agree or disagree with one another over what one should wear, eat, or do, but they should never insist on being right just so they end up having their own way. This was only covering one’s spitefulness with the cloak of being strong in the faith.19
1 Job 4:3-4
2 Isaiah 35:3-4
3 Ezekiel 34:4
4 Zechariah 11:16
5 Rephidim was one of the stations where the Israelites stopped to rest and look for water. They could find none so God ordered Moses to strike a rock and streams of water came flowing out. See Exodus 17. The term Rephidim means: “Rest.” In other words, to spread out and camp.
6 Tzror Hamor, by Rabbi Abraham Saba, Vol. III., Lambda Publishers, New York, 2008, p. 1007
7 Matthew 18:5-6
8 See 1 Corinthians 3:1-2
9 Ibid., 8:7-13
10 Ibid., 9:22
11 Origen: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
12 Apollinaris of Laodicea: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
13 Ambrosiaster: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
14 Augustine: On Romans 78
15 Pelagius: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
16 Gennadius of Constantinople: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit.
17 Martin Luther: On Romans, op. cit., loc. cit., p. 196
18 Galatians 5:13
19 See 1 Peter 2:16