The early part of this text sets up the entire argument. Paul opens by addressing the strong in the faith because he leaves the responsibility upon the strong to welcome or receive the weak (14:1). In many ways, the strong are the leaders in the body and Paul basically is saying, “Hey, you strong Christians who walk well in the faith, you need to welcome those that are not as strong. You need to lead and teach.” It might be that Paul is taking away the leaders’ ability to use the previous passage to attack and demolish the weak. Verse 14:2 clearly shows that there is some kind of dietary dispute (likely the Jewish Law), and it seems the strong, like Paul (15:1), hold that there is no longer a dietary law that brings about righteousness. The weak person might be abstaining from eating meat to avoid eating anything unclean, or he or she may be mirroring Daniel’s actions when he was living among captivity. Either way, these are weak Christian beliefs. However, 14:3 instructs that there should be no fighting between the two groups within the Church. The strong should not look down upon the weak for bad theology and the weak should not pass judgment on the eating habits of the strong. In both cases, the one judging the other is actually saying, “I’m better than that person because. . . .” The end of verse 14:3 and verse 4 remind the reader that Christ has purchased the believer, thus owning them. The believer is ultimately accountable to him.
The text continues into the area of holding up a day as holy. The same idea applies to those who are strong in the faith and those in the weak as it does with the dietary dispute. Paul also points out that both the weak and the strong do what they do with the intention of honoring the Lord. And following this discussion, Paul again (only this time more apparently) states that Christ died for all believers and all believers will account to him (14:9-12).
Before moving on to the next point of this passage, it might seem that Paul is arguing that we should take no issue with differences among believers. However, looking at the whole of Paul’s writings, we can see that this is not as simple as it sounds. Paul hopes that all will one day have a strong, sound theology and he works hard to teach it, which is in part the purpose of his letters. Therefore, it seems the main point of 14:1-12 is an exhortation that believers should not quarrel over minor differences of gospel understanding when the intentions are to honor God (in these non-essential to salvation matters). The impetus of keeping peace among believers, however, is placed on the strong, the leaders, and Paul’s next point confirms this.
In the remainder of this text, Paul instructs the strong to act as such. 14:13 states that none should pass judgment and place an obstacle before another. Although the weak may judge the strong, it would be difficult for the weak to trip up the strong; therefore, it is likely that this passage is for the strong. Paul makes it very clear that believers in Christ are not under the Old Covenant (14:14a). However, if one thinks something is unclean, than they will behave as if it is and therefore it might as well be (14:14b). So, as brothers in Christ are coming together, according to Paul in 14:15, it is not love to cause the weaker brother to grieve over what the stronger eats in the presence of the weak. Verse 14:15 outlines the weight of the matter in dispute, placing it in its proper place: the diet is not the Kingdom of God, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit is. Verse 14:16 encourages the strong to do whatever it takes to have peace among the brethren and work to build up the body. Paul uses the remainder of chapter 14 reinforce his point.
As chapter 15 opens, Paul is still instructing the strong to carry the burden of peace among the Church. The strong are to voluntarily give up some of their liberty in Christ in order to serve their weaker brothers and neighbors. It is not that the strong simply overlook the weakness, but like Christ, humble themselves to enter the environment of the weak, in order to connect with the weaker brother and teach him, that is, build him up. And not only is this true for fellow Jewish believers, but with Gentiles who have never lived under the Old Covenant (15:8-13). And Paul reminds his readers that even though the Christian is not under the law, the Old Testament Scripture is still God’s work and good for teaching and understanding (15:5).
It seems that various non-essentials still serve as an obstacle. There are many, but one example comes in the form of alcohol consumption. Some in the Church think that a total abstinence of alcohol is necessary for holiness, while others see moderate consumption (to exclude drunkenness) as an acceptable liberty in Christ.
Does this sound familiar? It should because as Paul was discussing the quarrel due to dietary laws, he included wine! However, I have encountered Christians who look down on other believers who choose to have a glass of wine with a meal. And I have also encountered an occasional drinking Christian go off on those who say drinking even one drop of alcohol is a sin. In this case, the drinker may be like the stronger that Paul discussed and the non-drinker (for reasons of holiness) is the weaker. At least theologically, there is a strong argument that drinking in-and-of-it-self is not a sin, but drunkenness is. But when a pastor scoffs at those who hold that drinking is a sin, he is not adhering to Paul’s instruction. Instead, he may need to give up some liberty around these believers. He will do far more to teach the Bible in love than to scoff or try to make his point for the purpose of looking down on other believers (which is really to try to build himself up over them).
Here's another way to thinking about this, although I admit that this illustration is one-sided. I am reminded of my life as a private in the Army, before the war, compared to my life as a staff sergeant after my wartime experience. In 1996, as a young man and a new soldier, I felt I needed to prove myself. I wanted to be tested in battle. I talked about it very naively. The medals for bravery held a position of awe. But then after a few years in the military, I started to understand my role as a leader. Then, as a sergeant, I lead others in a war zone. The medals, I came to realize, mean very little. Keeping people alive and getting the job done meant everything. Avoiding reckless contact with the enemy was of the utmost importance. There was no need to be tested in combat. What a ridiculous notion! However, after my return, I would come across new, young privates that talk as I had. At times, I would chastise them for their stupidity, only to lose their respect. I quickly came to understand that if I were to help them grow as warriors, I would need to put aside my issues and allow them to hold to their dreams of John Wayne heroics, all the while working to prepare them. We all serve the same purpose—to fight and win wars. They will, just as I did, come to understand war and battlefield testing. The important thing is that I (as the leader) did not look down my nose at them, but instead trained them. The same is true with the gospel in the Church.
*This post was originally part of a discussion in seminary. The photograph is in the public domain.