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.
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.