Strong and Weak (Romans 15:1-2)
We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. ²Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. —Romans 15:1-2
This passage is a call to self-sacrifice for the spiritual benefit of others. Paul was writing in the first century to a church troubled by competing convictions about food and Sabbath observance. Should we eat meat or vegetables? Should we worship on Sunday or Saturday?
When John Piper preached about this passage in 1995, he said the controversy in churches across America was over worship styles: traditional or contemporary. Today’s issues are different but as Piper said, the presence of people who disagree about the best ways to meet with God continues in every generation.
In order to apply Paul’s admonition, it's helpful to define terms.
Strong and Weak
Paul includes himself in the strong category, “We who are strong.” Elsewhere Paul says he’s weak (1 Corinthians 2:3, 4:10, 9:22, 2 Corinthians 12:10). The strength Paul refers to here is being strong–or weak–in the faith (Romans 14:1). Some, including Paul, had faith to eat meat. Others were troubled in conscience at the idea of consuming foods forbidden by God in the Mosaic food laws (Schreiner, 731, 732).
This word suggests a moral or legal duty or commitment, a debt we owe to another. The obligation for the strong is two-fold. They are explicitly obligated to help the weak, and implicitly, to obey God, the One who has saved them and made them strong in the faith.
“Failings of the weak” does not mean sinning. Scripture is clear that we should flee sin and temptation, and not help people continue in it (Romans 6:1-2). Rather, Paul is talking here about people who are failing to fully grasp their freedom in Christ.
To bear with means to help shoulder the burden. This is not a call for the strong to carry the weak, putting in all of the effort. Nor is it mere “putting up with.” Bearing with contains a sense of compassionate help, of love of neighbor. We are to willingly help those who are weaker in faith, prioritizing their convictions and not insisting on our own to their harm.
This “admonition could be radically misunderstood,” writes New Testament scholar Thomas Schreiner, “for some neighbors may be pleased with gossip, sexual sin, violence, and so on.” Nor is Paul affirming people pleasing which elsewhere he condemns (Galatians 1:10; 1 Thessalonians 2:4). “What Paul calls for here…is pleasing people ‘for their good, for their edification’” (Romans, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament, 746). This pleasing is toward the goal of spiritual growth.
The Way of Sacrifice
The Christian life requires sacrificing self for the good of others. We see it in our passage and throughout Paul’s letters:
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. (Philippians 2:3)
Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. (Colossians 3:12-13)
I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, (Ephesians 4:1-2)
Jesus is our ultimate example. He went to the cross willingly so that we might be reconciled to God. Now we look to Jesus not only as our example, but also as the One who secured our ability to follow it. He promised His Spirit would take up residence in those who trust Him, empowering us to obey His commands, commands like: bear with the weak, rather than please yourself. Please your neighbor, to build him up.
When I first arrived at our church I had weak faith about God’s design for women in the church and home. I believed His Word was true, but I did not see how it was good. The elders and other members who were strong in faith on this issue were gentle, patiently teaching me from Scripture to trust God’s good design (1 Thessalonians 5:14). They helped me see that His wisdom, when obeyed, leads to human flourishing. It is their strong faith that paved the way for God’s transforming work in my heart. I can now say with conviction and much personal experience, that loving authority is a good gift that, when used as God designed it, is for the good of those it serves.
God’s way of settling differences and disagreements in the church goes against our sinful nature. That’s why we need His help to obey. Left to ourselves, we prefer self. But when we consider others, it is evidence of Spirit-empowered transformation. This is cause for praise–to God be the glory! When you are on the receiving end of another believer’s selflessness, when a brother or sister is considerate of your conscience at the expense of his or her own preferences, it is a great encouragement and cause for thanksgiving to God.
May God help us in our day of fracturing congregations to forgo pleasing ourselves for the greater good of bearing with those who are weak in faith. This is love. Pleasing others this way is pleasing to God.
Are there controversies in your church between those who are strong in faith and those who are weak?
If you are strong, how might you encourage the weak and do good to them?
If you are weak, have you considered sharing your convictions with a pastor or elder to seek help?
Whether strong or weak, we are called not to pass judgement on one another (Romans 14:3-4). Instead, let us pray for unity in our churches that is a gift from God.
Candice Watters is the Fighter Verses blog editor. She is a wife and mom, and author of Get Married: What Women Can Do to Help it Happen, and co-author with her husband Steve of Start Your Family: Inspiration for Having Babies. The Watterses have four children and are passionate about encouraging moms and dads to disciple their children.