In wider cultural circles, Christians often come under attack for failing to express to one another those virtues which we say are so important. I’m talking about things like love, sympathy, acceptance, and showing undeserved kindness.
This is, in one sense, a decoy topic for someone who has refused to consider the claims of Jesus. All too often their reasons amount to nothing more than excuses which avoid, rather than seriously engage, the truth claims of the faith.
Think about it. Don’t deep divides within the fields of evolutionary biology about just how the world came to be separate the most scholarly in the field? Yet such divides are not singled out for forming a reasonable basis for rejecting evolutionary biology. The same goes for politics. Deep divides within the a political party in American society are not a sound basis for rejecting said political party, or politics, as a whole.
In fact, in every area of public life, quarrels over fairly minor points are disputed between friends: “You like the NFL, I like the NFL; you like the AFC, I like the AFC; you like the AFC East, I like the AFC East; you like the Cowboys, I…click.” You get the idea.
Yet, I suspect that Christians are singled out in a special way for hypocrisy here because of the claims of the Christian faith itself: we say our religion has an all-encompassing answer to everything and for everyone, including one which holds out a solution for such divisions. So those who say “Jesus is Lord” would do well to listen to such critiques with their learning caps on.
After all, Jesus Himself said that they (outsiders) would know that we are Christians by our love for one another (John 13; John 15). He prayed, in the longest prayer in the Bible, that Christians would be one (John 17) and in this unity, those outside the faith (the “world”) would know that the Father sent the Son. Forgiveness, an oft discussed, and little practiced virtue, is defined as the tangible expression of love between two people who are enemies; and if Jesus commands His followers to forgive their enemies, what of those whom we say are our “brothers and sisters”?
With this as a background, I was freshly convicted today in my own personal Bible study when reading Romans 14:1, which commands Jesus’ people to “welcome those who are weak in faith without quarrels over disputable matters.”
Several questions arise when thinking about this verse:
- How do I know what a disputable matter is?
- What does it look like to discuss a disputable matter vs. quarreling about it?
- How do you recognize someone who’s weak in faith?
- Do we get to label ourselves as “weak in faith” or “strong in faith”–who’s the judge there?
- What does it mean to “welcome someone”? Does it mean saying “hi” to them or is more implied?
I can’t answer all those questions, but I do know a couple of things.
First, often the people who are weak in faith think they are strong in faith. Following Paul’s instruction here in Romans 14 is a whole lot easier when the weak in faith person actually knows and admits that he or she is weak in faith. Far too many controversies in Christ’s church are made more difficult because “weak-in-faith” people walk around, and carry themselves as if they are the ones in charge. But weakness implies not authority and strength, but humility and need.
Second, what the strong in faith are called to do is to “accept” such persons. This is the thought I’d like to develop more fully here in this essay.
Looking at the original text of this verse, I noticed that the word the ESV uses (“welcome”) to describe what we are to do is appropriate. In Greek, the concept is quite vivid. In one of my dictionaries, I read the following definition of welcome:
receive or accept into one’s own society, into one’s home, or into one’s circle of acquaintances.
To illustrate this idea, a story. My son and I were talking about a businessman in town who isn’t particularly welcoming to either him or me. We’ve both noticed it and discussed it today. It feels like this businessman has his “friends” and then “everyone else.” When I and my son have reached out to him for help from time to time, he’s seemed to us to be fairly cold–at least that’s been our impression. We’ve determined that doing business with him isn’t that pleasant, and while we like to support local businesses, we would prefer to do business with him in a different way.
Now this may be a mistaken impression on our part; and I’m not somehow judging him or giving up on the situation. But by providing a concrete example of what it might look like to “receive or accept someone into your society or circle of acquaintances” I think you get the idea that welcoming the weak in faith involves some risk, some danger, some pain, and some inconvenience. Its not easy for anyone.
I have found the most people, despite what they say they believe on Sundays, are not prepared to welcome many (if any) new people into their circle of acquaintances. This explains why so many churches preach about love and acceptance, and yet when the benediction is pronounced, people gather their things and go on their merry way, sometimes practically making a bee-line to their cars, without hardly speaking to anyone else in the building along the way.
What gives this notion of welcoming real power, however, is not our experiences with one another, be they more or less positive. What makes it so poignant is the way in which it is used just a few verses later in Romans 15:7, in which we read that we are to welcome or accept the weak because, or in light of the fact that we, ourselves, have been “welcomed by Christ, to the glory of God.”
Now we see that welcoming, and its various component skills, is grounded not simply in being “nice” to other people, but it is a religious discipline by which we live out the very things we say we believe about ourselves (sinners) and God (savior of sinners). In other words, if God has done this great thing for me (salvation from eternal hell is what Christians say we believe), then I can do this little thing for another person (welcoming them into my society, my set of acquaintances, and even my family).
Sartre is famous for saying “Hell is other people.” He’s actually right. Because other people are sinners, rebels to the righteous God, being in their presence really is difficult. But we have a pot-and-kettle dynamic going on here: if that’s true of other people, according to Sartre, it is also true of us. Hell is us. The miracle of what Christians believe is that Jesus in embracing us and accepting us into His Divine Society, has undertaken all the miseries of our sorry selves upon Himself. He has paid the price for our entrance into the “club” of the Triune God. That expense and extravagance then is the Bible’s basis for our responsibility and calling to engage the needs and hurts and idiosyncrasies of others.
In conclusion, a reminder. The weak in Romans 14 are described as those who tend to be over-scrupulous about rules regarding food and drink. This is not the place to discuss this issue in detail, but it is important to notice (as stated above in my first point) that they are weak: morally, or in religious matters, they struggle distinguishing between first and second-order priorities. Our job is two-fold in this case. Recognizing our Christian responsibility, we are to accept or welcome such persons–bear with them and be devoted to them is how the apostle puts it in 1 Thessalonians 5:14. Their moral or religious weakness is something we can relate to: as fellow sinners, we would not need a savior if we were “strong.”
But we must also realize that as such persons are weak in this specific, Romans 14 sense, we must not allow the weak to exercise authority over the strong. The word for such things is tyranny of the minority. Rather we must with courage and faith (they have little to no faith in such matters, which is why they are weak in the first place) lead them, and the people in our society or sphere of influence, to greener pastures of freedom, joy, and peace in the Holy Spirit.
May God have mercy as we do so.