No one wants to think of themselves as weak. (We don’t want others to think we’re weak, either.)
At one point last semester, I accidentally snapped at a friend over a small thing they said. My friend was understandably upset by the way I called them out. As we talked about it, the issue actually revealed some relatively deep convictions we each held about the “right” way to live (or speak, in this case). It seemed impossible to come to an agreement as we each became more entrenched in our own view. I walked away with hurt feelings, bristling at perceived condescension towards my position. How could I make it known that I was the “strong” one?
In his letter to the Romans, Paul’s audience is divided. He addresses both people with weaker consciences and those with stronger ones, instructing them without condemning either group. This argument appears near the end of his letter, but he starts making his case at the very beginning.
“For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles.” – Romans 1:21-23
Although God’s existence – “his eternal power and divine nature” – is evident from creation itself, we (humanity) violated the order of creation by prioritizing created things over the Creator, putting powerless idols over the Almighty. In other words, we neglected our purpose of glorifying God and remaining with Him. As a result, our minds were broken, and our hearts became impossibly confused. On a fundamental level, we could not think rightly; we were not just weak, but shattered.
“Therefore no one will be declared righteous in God’s sight by the works of the law; rather, through the law we become conscious of our sin. But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. Their righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.” – Romans 3:20-22
The law, revealed in the Old Testament, was God’s gift to His broken people. Because they couldn’t think clearly, He provided guidelines for righteousness that they could follow. This law exposed and defined sin – but it did not empower God’s people to act on what they knew was right. The OT records a long account of the people’s persistence in idolatry and failure to obey the law.
It is into this history that the Messiah was born. At Jesus’ birth, creation itself pointed to him; stars directed the wise men as if to say “This is the one you’ve been looking for all this time!” His exemplary life culminated in the cross, when his righteousness was imparted to believers, and in the resurrection, establishing hope for eternal life with him. With belief in Christ, we are made whole. Weak or strong, we are enabled to think rightly again.
“Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God – this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is – his good, pleasing and perfect will. For by the grace given me I say to every one of you: Do not think of yourself more highly than you ought, but rather think of yourself with sober judgment, in accordance with the faith God has distributed to each of you. For just as each of us has one body with many members, and these members do not all have the same function, so in Christ we, though many, form one body, and each member belongs to all others.” – Romans 12:1-5
We must not stop at thinking rightly. We must also act rightly. Sometimes this feels like the chicken/egg paradox – which comes first? Hard to say. By some invisible inner work of the Spirit, the transformation of our minds goes hand-in-hand with the conformity of our actions – conformity not to the “pattern of this world,” but to the pattern of Christ. One of the ways this pattern changes our thinking is the introduction of sober, self-aware judgment. Humility before the Lord is the first step of mind-renewal. It reminds us that we are saved in Christ by grace through faith, not by anything we could ever do. Humility also prepares us to take part in the community of the Church, made up of believers both weak and strong.
“Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister. I am convinced, being fully persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for that person it is unclean. If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy someone for whom Christ has died.… So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if they eat, because their eating is not from faith; and everything that is not from faith is sin. We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves.” – Romans 14:13-15, 22-15:1
Sober judgment of ourselves directs our hearts (perhaps unbearably slowly, even over the course of a lifetime) away from passing judgment on others. Ironically, right thinking moves us away from the need to be “right” in our interactions with the community. There are many gray areas in the Christian life, issues without one clear right answer. These seem to exist only to teach us to hold tension with wisdom. If wisdom is knowledge + action, it’s vitally important for us to both think and act rightly.
For the Jews and Gentiles of Paul’s day, dietary restrictions were a gray area. Paul talks about this topic without specifically addressing the polarized people groups associated with each side. (How our discourse might improve today if we learned to follow this example!) The diplomatic apostle makes space for those whose consciences are more sensitive, not condemning their weakness, but still encouraging them to walk in Christ’s freedom. At the same time, he reminds those who are “stronger” to be mindful of their brothers as they themselves continue to grow. My professor in Romans class summed up Paul’s point like this: “Live in such a way that is consistent with your principles.” Keeping in mind that our primary principle is love, he rephrased the instruction: “Live like Jesus by not demanding your freedom in ways that cause others distress.” When all the options are within the clear boundaries of Scripture, do not bring condemnation on yourself from the community because of your opinion on the “right” way to obey.
No one wants to think of themselves as weak. If Paul had tried to fit an entire group of people into the “weak” category, they would have stopped listening. If he’d labeled one group explicitly as the “strong” ones, the other group would have stopped listening. By speaking diplomatically but honestly, after already reminding his audience to think of themselves with sober judgment, he’s able to address each individual heart as well as the corporate whole.
No one wants to be thought of as weak, either. Have you ever walked away from a conversation – okay, an argument – certain that you were in the right and the other person was simply unable to see reason? Have you ever had your strong convictions ridiculed as weakness, despite the fact that you knew your position was solid? There may not be a more frustrating experience. When we feel condescended to, our defensiveness can quickly turn to aggression.
After my friend and I clashed over our philosophies on right speaking, I began to get carried away by this need to come out on top. Thankfully, I was reminded of two things: it is not my job to defend myself, and it is not my job to change people’s minds about what is “right.” I realized that even if I was completely right and my friend was somehow blind to reason that I could see, that didn’t make it my responsibility to do what only the Spirit can do! In fact, the more I soberly judged myself, the more I was able to understand my friend’s perspective on the issue. Humility led to empathy – the ability to see through another’s eyes (without having my own view threatened).
I was reminded that whatever strength I have, I only have because of God’s work in my life. He is the only one with the perfect perspective; His heavenly vantage point reveals the insignificance of our earthly debates and disagreements. His grace covers all our gray-area choices. The Church must bear with one another through the gray so that we can stand together for truths clearly stated in Scripture.
Of course we speak boldly when truth requires it, but even then we do so with humility and empathy – in other words, with love. As the Church, we must remember that we are sharing the gospel to a shattered world. The reason for our actions – the principle of Christ-like love – will often literally not make sense to people until we introduce them to the one who died to restore our minds. Within the Church, we must remember that our mission is not to spread our flavor of “rightness” about things Scripture left ambiguous, but to preach the gospel to those who don’t yet know Jesus. We “agree to disagree” on denominational issues, but not on racial injustice. We may differ on which party we prefer, but never on our response to hatred. In other words, we are not conformed to the pattern of this world, but are being transformed by the renewing of our minds.
I've already recommended Christena Cleveland's book Disunity in Christ. I'd also like to add Sean Palmer's Unarmed Empire to your list! (And a big shoutout to Michael DeFazio for the insights gleaned from his Romans class.)