December 6, 2010

To Live is Christ — bearing the weak

My devotional guide directs one more time to Romans 15 so I can take a closer look. I’ve interpreted the verse by itself. Looking at the context is important.

Paul has been talking about Christians who are weak in the faith and struggle with whether or not they can eat food sacrificed to idols. Today, some might consider this a form of legalism.

Legalism is living by rules. Do this. Don’t do that. While the Bible has many commands that I must obey, some turn church traditions into “rules” and then harp at the rest of us to obey them. It could be about what to wear to church, whether or not to go to movies, and other things not mentioned in Scripture.

By saying I am to please such a person “for his good, to build him up” limits my response. Neighbor-pleasing is not absolute. I don’t need to defer to the whims and wishes of others. Rather, the context shows that Paul is talking about pleasing others in areas where their conscience is threatened by weak faith. Pleasing the weak “for his good” means “for his spiritual profit or spiritual advantage.” It means doing what is necessary to help a weak believer maintain a clear conscience in these areas.

Paul considers himself strong in faith. He says, “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself” yet adds, “but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love.” He added that if eating meat made someone stumble into sin, he would not eat meat.

Nevertheless, walking in love includes trying to lead the weak out of unnecessary rule-keeping. Love does not allow the weak to control the church. If someone says that going to hockey games is sinful (and it could be for them), everyone in the church cannot be “forbidden” to attend a hockey game. This would put everyone at the level of the weak believers. Spiritual life and growth would cease — which is what happens when we try to live by rules instead of walking in faith by grace.

Paul is more concerned that we treat one another with love and respect than we agree on the “rules.” He advises that we “pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.” He also says to those who are comfortable without such rules that they keep that “between yourself and God.”

My natural tendency toward those caught up in legalism is to try and talk some sense into them because the kingdom of God is about grace and His righteousness, not rule-keeping. I can see that their focus on these rules keeps them from Christian maturity. However, Paul says this:

We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.” (Romans 15:1–3)
The Old Testament verse quoted here points toward Jesus. The “you” is God and the “me” bearing all the insults heaped on God is Jesus Christ. Because He bore those insults, I am to have the same attitude. Bearing what seems to me an insult to the grace of God and the intent of the Gospel is behaving more like Jesus than I would be by rebuking believers who are weak in faith.

Instead of doing what would please me, I am supposed to care about pleasing others. I know they cannot please God by their rule-keeping. However, I need to think of ways to build their faith, not challenge their weak conscience.

Again, the commands of God, including this one in Romans 15:2, are not easy. They go against my human response and require me to seek the face of God and His wisdom for each circumstance of life.

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