The Strong, the Weak, and the Carnal

This past Sunday I tried to lay out, in our discussion of submission to one another, how mutual submission works in cases of strong and weak believers in the context of Romans 14-15.  The basic principles were:

1.  The strong bear with the failings of the weak (14:1).  This means that those who are mature will recognize weak, immature expressions of faith, and will love these believers by not purposely disregarding the concerns of the weak.  If a strong believer is in the presence of a weak believer who thinks Christians cannot eat meat or drink wine (the two are the examples of “weak” beliefs in 14:21), then the strong will not eat meat or drink wine in their presence, nor will they argue with them about their opinions–these are not important issues over which to cause division in the body.

This passage leads to two further principles that I tried to make clear:

2.  The weak do not recognize that they are weak, but believe that they are holding to that which the Lord (through the Bible in our case) teaches.  That is what is meant when it says “he believes” these things in 14:2.  They may, in fact, believe that they are standing for the truth of Scripture and not see themselves as weak, but strong!

3.  If a person recognizes that his or her view is not required by Scripture, but then seeks to force that view on others, he is not acting as a weak brother, but as a carnal one.  “Carnal” means “of the flesh” as opposed to “of the Spirit, and activity that promotes self will is carnality.  In this case, someone is making his own preference a requirement for other believers.  And the Bible condemns making the opinions or precepts of men equal in authority to the word of God (Matthew 15:1-9). 

What I have just described is one basic distinction between biblical Christianity and legalism.  Take meat eating as an example.  The Bible clearly allows it, but a life long vegetarian may have been taught the belief that meat eating is a sin.  When that person comes to Christ, he may still carry his anti-meat bias with him.  You or I (as stronger and more mature in our understanding of Scripture) can love him practically by not making that an issue with him and not eating meat in his presence.  We may still eat meat privately.  If he were to ask me point blank, “do you eat meat,” I would tell the truth, and I would also seek to help him understand that I do so only because the Bible allows it and seems to bless it:  seen in Genesis 9:3, the allowance of meat in the Law, and the declaring of all foods clean through Christ’s words in the gospels and Peter’s vision in Acts.  To help him grow, I would even consider saying, “I’ll tell you what.  I won’t eat meat while the two of us look at Scripture to see if we can come to a clear understanding of what is allowed and not allowed by God.” 

Let’s say that he came to understand that the Scripture does not prohibit meat eating, but he still doesn’t feel right about it.  First, he should not violate his own conscience in the matter (Rom 14:5, 23).  Second, he should not judge those who eat meat without guilt (Rom. 14:3-4, 13).  As long as he can do this, there is no problem.

BUT, if he says, “I know the Bible may allow it, but it is cruel, and it is unhealthy, and people get high cholesterol and clogged arteries from it and die, so it’s wrong and no Christian should consider themselves free to do it,” then there is a problem.  Our friend is now making his opinions (valid though some may be) binding on others’ behavior without having Scriptural authority to do so.  And that is sin against brothers and sisters in Christ.

Let me go further and give a real life example we have faced here. 

This strong/weak/carnal issue relates to why some have a problem with me related to my beliefs about consuming alcohol.  I do not drink alcohol.  It has never been my practice, and I have made the decision that it will not be my practice to do so.  Further, I believe that our culture has shown an addictive pattern that has meant we often find ourselves enslaved to things that do not enslave people in other cultures to the same extent.  I know that many Christians and non Christians might have a problem with seeing me, as a pastor, drink alcohol.  And I know that if I never drink, I never run the risk of drunkenness.  These are my personal choices and practices through which I believe I can best honor God in this matter.  These are also the point of view from which I have counseled others and raised my children.

But the Bible does not forbid the use of all alcohol.  Drinking wine was standard practice in Bible times, and that wine contained alcohol (A simple word study will show that the same word for “wine” is used where Jesus turned water into it, and we are told not to be drunk with it.  “New wine,” a term used in Acts 2 to describe the accusation against the apostles at Pentecost, obviously was also alcoholic, as they were being labeled as babbling as you would when under the influence.  Those who have tried to teach that Bible characters drank only grape juice have no historical or linguistic support).  The Bible condemns drunkenness, warns against strong drink, and says that those who linger long over wine are fools.  Overuse and abuse of wine is a sin, but wine is also spoken of positively in biblical descriptions of joy, feasting, and blessing (we saw that in Ecclesiastes, and a quick concordance check using the word “wine” will prove it further).  So it cannot be maintained that drinking alcohol is sin.  If someone points to 19th century temperance preachers as having justifications for teetotalism as the only biblical view, I would respond that preachers have often erred based on cultural situations.  Temperance preachers were a historical phenomenon among Christians in America and England, arising when drunkenness was a national crisis.  Such preaching did not emerge among Christians in Europe at the same time, or in Africa and Asia as Christianity took root there.  And some 19th century preachers gave biblical justification for American slavery before the Civil War and denying women the right to vote near the turn of the century.

So, I cannot teach that the Bible forbids alcohol, nor can I prove from Scripture that using alcohol makes one unable to hold membership in the local church.  As you know, when I became pastor I asked the deacons to remove that prohibition from our membership application, and they did so.

Now I have been accused by some (and they have said it to me personally) of “promoting drinking alcohol.”  I reject that claim, for I have never promoted it.  One person told me that I must believe that I could sit in in a casino in Vegas with a cocktail and glorify God.  Now, that conjures up a very strange picture of me in the mind, but at no time could anything I have said or done ever be interpreted in that way by any fair assessment.

What I do promote is this:  we should allow believers, strong or weak, to make choices about their behaviors based on the clear teaching of the Word of God, as they understand it.  We who are stronger will lovingly help the true weak toward maturity.  In those cases where they progress slowly, those of us who are stronger will submit to their weakness by limiting our own personal freedom in order to demonstrate our maturity and our desire to maintain harmony in the body.  We will call “sin” whatever the Bible calls “sin.”  We will allow those who choose to abstain from biblically permissible items or activities to do so to God’s glory, and those who choose not to abstain from them to also do so to God’s glory.  One group will not judge the other.  That is the heart of Romans 14, and it is the heart of Jesus.   As a church, we will be careful about not trying to force one side or the other of such choices upon the whole body–those who choose to abstain will not find it hard to do so here, and those who choose not to abstain will not find it hard to exercise their personal freedom.  We will let the Holy Spirit and the Word of God be the convicting and directing agents in these matters.

Published in: on October 3, 2007 at 4:32 pm  Comments (4)  

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4 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Curious to know if you think Christ drank wine containing alcohol?

  2. Response to Phil’s question…
    I do believe that the wine mentioned in the New Testament contained alcohol. The Greek words used for wine in the NT all are used in contexts that indicate that people could get drunk, whether using the word translated “wine” or the word translated “new wine.”

    Even today most wine does not have the high alcoholic content of distilled drinks, and in cases where feasting over hours occurred, drinking wine in moderate amounts over the course of a feast would not lead to drunkenness.

    I have read the arguments by those taking a total abstinence view that seek to prove that one or the other of the Greek words refer to non-alcoholic wine, but the evidence is inaccurately cited, or in a few cases just made up. I’ve read the historic citations of Greek writers who speak of cutting wine with water, and while that practice has solid evidence, it did not make alcoholic beverages non-alcoholic, just less alcoholic in content.

  3. I have always wanted to know what is the difference between wine and new wine? I thought the one greek word for wine “oikos” refers to any grape juice product, whether it be jelly,unfermented juice or fermented juice.

    What are your thoughts concerning the viewpoint that the fermentation process (the rotting of the fruit) would cause the product to become unclean according to the dietary laws of the OT. How this impact Solomon’s recommendation to refuse that which had fermented (when it is red, when it giveth his color in the cup, when it moveth itself aright Prov.23:31.

    Thoughts from the balcony.

  4. Do you think that a Pastor drinking alcohol even in public can stumble someone else? Or is it like saying that seeing a pastor eat food stumbled someone else into gluttony? Alcohol seems to be a matter of the conscience it can be right or wrong differing on the person.

    Romans 14:21 seems to be in the context of religious purposes, like the food from the temple in 1st Cor. Was that wine also from the temple, had it been discounted like the meat because it had formorly been offered to an idol?

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