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 advices. 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
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
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
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
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.