Who are the Weak and Strong in Romans 14?

strong-and-weakAlthough it is possible Paul includes this section as a general commentary on how Jews and Gentiles ought to get along in mixed congregations, it is likely he has heard something about a specific conflict in the house churches in Rome. He describes some of the believers as weak and others as strong and admonishes the strong to not pass judgment on the weak.

Who are the “strong and weak” in this passage?

Most commonly, the “weak” are legalists and the “strong” are those that are not trying to “earn” status by their good works. This view has been eroded by the New Perspective on Paul, since it may not be the case that Jews in the first century say themselves as earning their salvation.

After surveying several options, Cranfield concludes the weak are those who desire to continue to observe the ceremonial law of the Old Testament. If this is the case, it is a similar situation to the Gentiles in Galatia who are being encouraged to fully convert to Judaism in order to follow Jesus.

It is possible this weak/strong discussion is an extension of the “meat sacrificed to idols” problem in 1 Corinthians, as suggested by Mark Reasoner. If so, then the weak might be the Jew, and the strong the Gentile. This suggestion has some merit since Paul wrote Romans from Corinth after the period of conflict had come to a close (after 2 Corinthians). It is possible his experience with the Corinthian believers colors his comments to the Romans who may be struggling with similar issues.

Paul Jewett draws attention to a brief exchanged in Horace in which one character does not wish to speak on the Sabbath because he is “a small man of weakness, one of many” (Jewett, Romans, 834; Horace Sat. 1.9.67–72). Reasoner used this line to argue “the person excessively observant in a foreign religion who matched the ‘weak’ caricature was known to Horace’s audience.” (Reasoner, 54).

What has always impressed me about this passage is that Paul never really says the weak are Jewish and the Gentiles are the strong. That may be what Paul is saying, but our post-Reformation reading of the text tends to obscure Paul’s subtle rhetoric. It is possible a Jewish Christian might hear “we who are strong ought to bear the failings of the weak” (Rom 15:1) as meaning, “we Jews who are strong and keep the law properly ought not to look down on the weak Gentiles who have not fully understood the Gospel yet.” But it is also possible a Gentile would hear Paul saying “We strong Gentiles who fully understand the grace of God should not look down on these weak Jews who insist on Old Covenant practices.”

Regardless of the practices of the weak, their faith is sufficient for Paul to consider them to be Christians. He does not tell the Roman congregations to expel them from the church like the young man in 1 Corinthians 5, nor does he admonish them like he the wealthy in 1 Corinthians 11:17-22. Both the weak and the strong are Christians and equally a part of the Christian community. Both are equally welcome at a communal meal where the Lord’s Table is being celebrated.

This issue has important ramifications for Christian fellowship in the present church. Churches often draw lines where they should not, or fail to draw lines when they should. Are there people who are often excluded from fellowship because of some practice (or non-practice)?

Bibliography: Mark Reasoner, The Strong and the Weak: Romans 14:1-15:13 in Context (SNTSMS 103; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999).

13 thoughts on “Who are the Weak and Strong in Romans 14?

  1. There are many differences among denominations in modern day Christianity. These differences can cause tension between fellow believers because of a minor detail that really has nothing to do with salvation. One denomination believes they are better than another and they develop the attitude of the strong looking down on the weak. This is a similar issue for those who are may be new to the faith or are struggling with something in their life that “strong” Christians may look down upon, an example is a person abusing drugs or alcohol. A person may think the person struggling has a weak faith, which is why they are struggling. Romans 14:4 says “Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” It is important to remember that we are all servants of God, even if there are “weak” and “strong” people. God is able to make us stand as long as we have faith.

    Like

  2. The church certainly does exclude people who don’t seem to fit into their precise way of thinking. For example, some churches look down on Christians who have tattoos and therefore judge them or won’t hire a pastor or church leader who has one. There are so many issues in that area as well as theologically. The differences theologically are not that big though we make them out to be as if they are a matter of being saved or not such as the topic of baptism. No it does not save a person, but some denominations find it fit to practice and others don’t and will argue with you until death over this one issue. Romans 14:1 starts right off the bat saying “As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions” (ESV). If you look down on a person for what doesn’t make them stumble in their faith and both of you are Christians, welcome each other rather than argue. There is no need to do so. These issues are not a matter of salvation and shouldn’t be treated and given as much heat in conversation as we tend to do.

    Like

    • I would agree with you here Andi and say that the church certainly does exclude people who do not seem to fit into their ideal vision of what a Christian looks like. I think that Christians have started to think of their own ways as the best way instead of looking to God for the best way. I think that we are meant to help people always get closer to God and I think that the churches have changed that ideal of thinking. I think churches are spending time thinking about what kind of people they want to fit into their church instead of on the big ideal of faith in Christ and serving God.

      Like

  3. Moo would suggest that the weak in this passage are referring to the Jewish Christians who were still influenced by Jewish traditions (Moo 180). I would agree with Moo is this stance. Those who still felt the need to keep the law may have been viewed as being weak in their faith, whereas the strong were those who prided themselves in having all their freedoms. Paul rebukes the strong in greater detail because they ought to help the weak along, instead of causing conflict and strife. I think in the modern church we can do the same thing, in our heads we label other Christians by what they wear, if they drink, or if they go to Sunday school. All of those thing may cause a person to stay away from those types of people because they are different. Yes, I would say there are people who get separated from fellowship due too not having the same values as others in the church.

    Like

  4. I think it happens a lot in different congregations because every church has slightly different beliefs. However as Paul points out, there are gray areas where practices are neither right nor wrong. It depends on the issue though. Some practices are clearly wrong and against the Bible and should not be condoned, however as Christians we still need to reach out to those people and show love. Some people should not be excluded from fellowship but unfortunately are often excluded. For example, some denominations only allow women to wear skirts, some people force you to be baptized or complete certain rituals to attend, Catholics require observation of the sacraments, and some churches do not ordain women. There are many more conflicting views on other issues. Paul emphasizes a mindset of unity. He does not require absolute uniformity of thinking, never disagreeing about anything, but refers to unity in spirit and attitude, an underlying sense of belonging to each other (Moo). “Love your neighbor as yourself” is a major theme.

    Like

  5. In regards to all of the arguing and division that is involved in this passage of Romans 14, it is refreshing to note that all are Christians, as you mentioned towards the end of this post. “Both the weak and the strong are Christians and equally a part of the Christian community.” This is a great point to make, because the issues that they are divided over at not matters of salvation. In contemporary culture, we see divisions like this all the time. Congregations split over what songs are played in worship, whether coffee should be allowed in the sanctuary, and what color the new carpet should be. In the end, Christ still shows up in a church where people drink coffee during worship, and Christ will show up anywhere where he is wanted and where the mindset is right. The Devil can sneak these petty details into our meetings and create a little hostility over the differing opinions. As a body of believers, we need to stay focused on things eternal, and focus on the relationships that we create in this life; as opposed to whether those people can eat certain foods, or drink certain drinks.

    Like

  6. There have been so many horror stories within the church regarding the exclusion of certain attendees based on choices they have made. Some of these choices are not even wrong. Similar to the scripture (Romans 14: 2-3), I have heard of and witnessed judgment upon certain believers because of their choice to drink alcohol. Sometimes a person may be excluded because of a relationship choice they have made. A friend of mine was not welcomed back nicely to her church because of issues of faithfulness within her parents marriage. Obviously, adultery is a sin. However, all of us will stand before God at judgment. Because of this then we should not judge our brothers or despise them. (Romans 14:11-12) Some times homeless people will enter into a church and get strange looks from all the attendees. The homeless man may not be engaged with because of a certain way they look or behave. Some churches have become the “weak”, seeing man-made rituals as necessary for inclusion. They may not reason that God accepts of as we are then changes us to what he wants us to be.

    Like

  7. This past summer I had the opportunity to hear Michael Card speak. He talked about “bullet” and “non-bullet” issues. He said that before entering into an argument with someone or considering leaving a church, one should ask the question, would I take a bullet for my side in this dispute? Would I take a bullet for believing Jesus is Lord? I hope so! Would I take a bullet for believing in predestination over freewill or vice versa? Probably not. I believe if we all asked this question before bringing up grievances in the church, it would solve a lot of issues.

    Like

  8. Everyone in our society wants to be a strong person but who actually knows how to become a strong person. In my opinion a strong person is someone who stands up for what they believe in, but also follows that through with their actions along with the word choice they have when speaking people. A strong person is able to be humble, and accept defeat, and acknowledge when they are wrong. They are able to see all different sides of the argument and be able to distinguish the best way to figure out the certain problem, even if that means not using the suggestion they thought of. A strong person is able to step down from the leadership role, and let other lead and be willing to follow that person’s lead. God wants us to be strong in our faith because then we will be able to help guide other people into the faith as well. Being strong can seem arrogant, but as long as we have Jesus Christ our Savior helping us, then being a strong leader; there is nothing wrong with that.

    Like

Leave a Reply to bjohnston7415 Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.