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12. Him that is Weak in the Faith (Romans 14)

In Romans 14:1 Paul has left explicit instruction about the attitude to be adopted toward those who take up wrong ideas. It is quite difficult to reconcile this advice with the drastic policy of almost immediate cutting-off as practiced by some:

“Him that is weak in the faith receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations” — or “not for disputes over opinions” (RSV).

The form of the Greek verb here means “go on receiving”; the RSV is even more gracious: “Welcome him.” Here is no grudging, grumbling acceptance, but open-hearted full Christian fellowship. It is the business of the “strong” (or those who consider themselves so) to “walk the extra mile” in receiving and helping, not “judging”, the “weak” (Rom. 15:1,2).

“The ecclesia is to receive those who are troubled by these conflicting thoughts and doubts, not however, to judge or condemn them for such, but to help them reach unto a full conviction of faith” (H.P. Mansfield, “Epistle to the Romans”, The Logos, Vol. 34, No. 8 — July 1968— p. 250).

“It is easy to see why Paul so advises. As long as the weak brother with (slightly) off-beat ideas continues in the fellowship of sounder brethren there is some hope that by degrees he will achieve a more balanced point of view. Such things have been known to happen. But the necessary condition must be observed: ‘Not to doubtful disputations.’ If such a problem individual is to continue to share the blessings of the community, he must be prepared to cease all forms of propagation of the ideas he has espoused. Only on these eminently reasonable terms can his membership in the family of Christ be tolerated” (H. Whittaker, “Block Disfellowship”, The Testimony, Vol. 43, No. 513 — Sept. 1973 — p. 344).
The reason for such toleration in “doubtful” cases is given by Paul in vv. 4 and 10:

“Who art thou that judgest another man’s servant? To his own master he standeth or falleth....”

Here “judge” signifies “to set at nought”, or “to despise”; the RSV reads “to pass judgment” — as in a formal judicial setting. Here is the type of self-righteous, superior condemnation that may so easily pass into contempt for the “weak” brother for whom Christ died (v. 15).

“But why dost thou judge thy brother? Or why dost thou set at nought thy brother? For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ.”

The reason given for a wise hesitancy in disfellowshiping doubtful cases is the shadow of Christ’s judgment seat, before which we shall all stand! “All”, disfellowshipper and disfellowshipped alike! “All”, “strong” and “weak” alike! All must stand to receive in their bodies according as they have done, whether good or evil, on the Scriptural principle:

“To whom much is given, of him much shall be required” (Luke 12:48).

The “strong” will be judged on how they used their strength, either to strengthen others or to entrench themselves in “superior” positions. The “weak” will no doubt be judged more leniently, allowances being made for their weaknesses in logic and precision in the deeper principles of truth:

“Precious though the gift of precise thinking may be, it can become unbearably tyrannical if over-pressed, and we must beware of the danger of making it seem that salvation, or even fellowship itself, is a matter of competence in logic or consistency in exposition” (The Committee of The Christadelphian, “Fellowship — Its Spirit and Practice”, The Christadelphian, Vol. 109, No. 1291 — Jan. 1972 — p. 10).
One of the longest and most destructive divisions in Christadelphian history began on just such a note: A brother’s inconsistent expositions on the nature and sacrifice of Christ led to a worldwide disruption of fellowship, with many thousands of “innocent bystanders” never sure what his doubtful opinions really were!

The brother in question was Brother A.D. Strickler, of Buffalo. The division, by which was formed the “Berean” fellowship, began in the early 1920’s. Brother Strickler died in 1940, after which attempts (by Brother John Carter, editor of The Christadelphian, and others) to heal the breach were largely successful in 1953, at least in America. A very small remnant of the original “Berean” fellowship still exists in the United States and Canada today. The former “Berean” fellowship in England became, for the most part, the current “Dawn” fellowship, after a further division caused by some ecclesias adding clauses to their Statement of Faith and Basis of Fellowship regarding divorce and remarriage.

Back to Romans 14: Paul continues in v. 19 with a plea for “peace”: Let us “pursue”, he says, those things that tend to peace and edification, or upbuilding. Ecclesias must make a conscious, positive choice to promote peace if at all possible. On the one side are set, as things always desirable, “peace” and “edification”; on the other, as things never desirable, bitterness and division and strife and dismantling of ecclesias.

Paul’s advice in Romans 14 is in direct contrast to the popular “first pure, then peaceable” syndrome, as misapplied by so many. (The true meaning of James 3:17 is considered at length in Chapter 36.) Here is obviously something “impure”, in the sense of being doubtful and disputatious, pertaining to the faith, but still Paul counsels the need for peace! While the affected ecclesia is experiencing peace within and a cordial relationship with its sister-ecclesias, then the “body” will be better able to correct the minor annoyance of a doubtful opinion. But just let there be an accusatory letter, a “call to arms” in a remote area where the “problem” has not even reached, a cry for “purity at any cost”: and the situation rapidly deteriorates into a full-blown division.

Of course, we must arrive at last at the question that is as old as divisions themselves: How does one distinguish between a truly serious error and what is merely a “doubtful” opinion?

In the first place, a teaching or practice should plainly be prohibited in the “basis of fellowship” before it should be considered even the potential subject of a division. And even then, it should be exceedingly plain that the brother in question does believe the error; in other words, that the “error” is not merely deduced as a “logical consequence” of some other idea of his!

Such discernment is not always as easy as it might seem. To the “purist” very little is ever doubtful; there are no “gray areas” in his mind. But to the brethren “in the forefront of the hottest battle”, trying to sift through conflicting testimony, trying to chase down rumors (some malicious), trying to give every consideration to the accused, it is a far different matter. It should be a fair rule, then, that no division should be initiated or continued except on clear, undeniable grounds. The issue, the principles involved, should be so clear that both sides are agreed as to the facts of the matter, if nothing else!

The issue should be so clear that even “babes in Christ” may easily understand why their leaders have insisted upon separation. And the issue should be so clear that those brethren or ecclesias that are excommunicated may say, ‘Yes, there is a definite difference between our beliefs and yours.’ If divisions are otherwise, then those who bring about such doubtful divisions bear a great burden of guilt, for they have placed themselves in direct violation of Romans 14:1. In their strivings over opinions (and pride and position?) they may discourage and drive entirely away from the Truth those who are “weak in the faith”. Christ’s warning about the treatment of the “little ones” (Matt. 18:6) is well-worth remembering here.

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