Both “Biblical” and Weak in Faith?

Today in my Sunday school class we reached Romans 14, which famously discusses the relationship between the “weak” and the “strong” in the church in Rome.

We began by noting that everyone who reads this passage inevitably assumes that they are the strong and others are the weak.

So we considered the text in its original context first, and asked who the “weak” seem to have been, given the clues in the passage.

They were those who were concerned with matters such as kosher food (the eating of vegetables alone, as Francis Watson and others have argued, probably indicates that there were Jewish Christians who were alienated from the Jewish community in Rome, and thus did not have access to meat killed in the manner required by Jewish law).

It is easy for Christians today to read this without noticing the implication: those whom Paul characterized as “weak in faith” are those who adamantly insisted on the importance of observing the details of the Bible – or as some would put it today, they emphasized the need to be “Biblical.”

In contrast, Paul characterizes as strong those who felt able to view all foods and all days equally – and however admirable Christians might find this stance, we should not overlook that it meant that such individuals were not standing for the details of what the Bible required in the way that the “weak” were.

It is therefore ironic that so many in our time, both within the church and outside, consider those who adopt a stance of Biblicism as representing the true Christians, the defenders of the faith.

In light of Romans 14, it would seem that such individuals are, from Paul’s perspective, weak in faith.

That assessment is at odds with how they would view themselves, then as now. And surely that is part of Paul’s point: characterizing them in a manner diametrically opposed to the way they thought of themselves.

For those who have grasped the key aspects of Jesus’ teaching regarding the Law, as depicted in the Gospels, none of this should be too surprising. Jesus is depicted as having elevated core principles such as love for God and neighbor above concern for ritual purity and other things of the sort. Although not simply identical, there is definitely a continuity between Jesus’ inclusion of the marginalized and touching of the unclean, and Paul’s inclusion of Gentiles.

If there is a message for today’s church in this, it is presumably no different than Paul’s message for the church in Rome in his time: not only is being “Biblical” not synonymous with being strong in faith, but sometimes the two can be diametrically opposed.

  • Anonymous

    Interestingly, those that fight for the “Biblical” “Christian Nation” thesis are fighting those that are historians, just as they do “Biblical scholars”! I don’t think it serves us well (no matter what the scriptures admonish about limiting one’s liberty) to affirm “nonsense”. Perhaps, it is because I know that the longer you live in/under wrong thinking/understanding, the more limitations one will put upon themselves. And that limits possibilities…..and choices!!

  • Geoff Hudson

    Romans 14 has its origins in the context of James’s vegetarianism and his refusal to eat meat sacrificed in the temple.  But he says that while one person’s spirit allows him to eat everything, another persons’s spirit allows him to eat only vegetables. In other words, eating meat from the temple did not mean that one had to be approving of animal sacrifices. 

  • http://mystic-mom.blogspot.com/ Shanyn

    Interesting post, and it does remind me of the comfort zone so many churches and Christians build for themselves. “I feel safe here so I’ll stay and defend it to the death” even though that stops them from going forward and actually doing the work of the Gospel!

  • anna

    actually those who were weak were not adament about the details of ‘the bible,’ but about the law, and some additional restrictions we would consider extrabiblical.   ‘the bible,’ as we know if, of course had not been completed yet.  funny how a little editorializing can make a case.   it is from following the details of ‘the bible,’ as written in paul, that we find freedom to eat non-kosher.  

    • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      I think you are missing the important point that in Paul’s time the laws about clean and unclean foods and observance of Sabbath and holidays were the Bible for Jews (and thus the first Christians), while Paul’s writings as yet were not. 

      • Geoff Hudson

        “Laws about clean and unclean food were the bible for Jews”.

        Not all Jews, and probably not the first christians.  For some Jews there was a higher authority than the Law. 

  • anna

    really, Paul didn’t have Revelation, either then, or Luther’s theses?   i think you missed the irony of my point.   it sounds like you are trying to point fingers at probably someone specific you have in mind who is acknowledging authority in the Bible.  and then you turn around and use Jesus and Paul to show that being a slave to the law (which included biblical and extra-biblical rules–using those terms loosely, ofc, since i do know enough to know it’s the talmud and rabbinical law, not ‘the Bible’) was not required.  Jesus and Paul whom we read of….in the Bible.   what the Bible was and what it taught, changed drastically with Jesus.   You cannot really extrapolate that because Paul pointed out that it was weak faith that clung to the old rules, that it is also weak faith that gives authority to the Bible representing Jesus and Paul.     

    • http://www.patheos.com/community/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Sure you can. But what I actually said was that the Bible itself provides a reason to think that following the minutiae of the Bible’s contents is not “what the Bible is all about.”

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  • http://www.facebook.com/Glenn.Andrew.Peoples Glenn Andrew Peoples

    The weak considered their position biblical, just as those whom you might today count as “strong,” James, consider their position to be biblical. No dice. :)

    • http://www.patheos.com/blogs/exploringourmatrix/ James F. McGrath

      Sorry, since this thread has been inactive for about a year, I am afraid that your brief comment isn’t clear to me. Could you perhaps elaborate on and clarify your point?

      • Pascal

        Both you, James and Anna are correct. Sometimes it is a matter of emphasis. Paul is really talking about two issues in Romans 14 that many people miss: freedom in Christ and binding ourselves to old traditions, laws and self-imposed restrictions. The one who is weak in faith is the one who does not understand the freedom in Christ from these rules. However the one strong in faith should not let his freedom destroy his brother. The problem here comes about when both sides think each other is right and begins to judge each other.


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