What if a chronically weaker brother or sister is forever controlling the freedom of others? What if this person chooses to use their never-ending weakness to manipulate everyone around them into doing what they want?
Scripture Reading: Romans 14:1-12
1Welcome those who are weak in faith, but not for the purpose of quarrelling over opinions. 2Some believe in eating anything, while the weak eat only vegetables. 3Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has welcomed them.
4Who are you to pass judgment on servants of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand. 5Some judge one day to be better than another, while others judge all days to be alike. Let all be fully convinced in their own minds. 6Those who observe the day, observe it in honour of the Lord. Also those who eat, eat in honour of the Lord, since they give thanks to God; while those who abstain, abstain in honour of the Lord and give thanks to God.
7We do not live to ourselves, and we do not die to ourselves. 8If we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord; so then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. 9For to this end Christ died and lived again, so that he might be Lord of both the dead and the living.
10Why do you pass judgment on your brother or sister? Or you, why do you despise your brother or sister? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God.11For it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.” 12So then, each of us will be accountable to God.
A few years ago I discovered a letter from my grandfather to his church’s monthly magazine. Written in the forties, it was about the official regalia of elders. Traditionally, they dressed in tailcoat suits with white bow ties. (Funeral directors still wear these tailcoat jackets.) From his letter it seems that the Church’s General Assembly decided that an ordinary suit with an ordinary tie was acceptable. It deeply grieved my grandfather.
He wrote to the editor that official regalia for priests was prescribed in the eighth chapter of Leviticus. This book calls its contents ‘God’s eternal statutes’. The removal of the tailcoat requirement was therefore an act against God. There was only one logical conclusion to be reached: tailcoats should be restored, because, if we meddle with God’s everlasting decrees, we jeopardize our eternal salvation!
My grandfather’s own congregation decided to make the wearing of tailcoats voluntary. When I grew up, most of the elders, including my father, were still wearing them. The Church’s reaction to the conservative backlash was interesting. They bent over backwards to accommodate the traditionalist wing—something I call the tyranny of the weaker brother (and sister to be politically correct).
There are many examples of this. A certain church banned applause during services, even baptisms. A sister had complained that church is not entertainment; so there should be no clapping. At another the Annual General Meetings were not held in the church itself. After the service all members had to move to the hall. One elder had argued that money was on the agenda. This should not be discussed in church, because Jesus turned over the tables of the money exchangers. No wine was also to be served at church functions, because the same elder forbad it. Everybody gave in to his demands, since he was a good contributor and the implied threat was that he would withhold his money.
This brings us to the question of how we should handle diversity in the church—of practice, of opinion, of conscience and even of theology. Traditionally, Romans 14 was used to justify accommodating the wishes of the weaker person. We all know that clothes, applause, the serving of wine, or believing that a building is holy are definitely not the essentials of our faith. However, Paul does seem to imply in 14:15 that if a brother or sister is being injured by what we eat, we should accommodate their concerns.
A text without a context becomes a pretext—always. We all realise the danger of quoting verses out of context. A student once arrived late for one of my classes. He apologised and said he had been caught in a speed trap:
‘I proposed to the officer that, if I could prove to him that traffic cops are spoken of in the Bible, he would let me go. He agreed. So I read from Psalm 10 verses eight and nine: “He lurks in ambush in the villages. He lies in wait to catch the helpless, when he draws them into his trap.”’
He was not issued a ticket! Another example is, ‘What excuse did Adam give to his children as to why he no longer lived in Eden?’ ‘Your mother ate us out of house and home.’
Without context, a text becomes a pretext for whatever point we want to prove. Let us therefore look at the context of Paul’s argument about the person who is weak in faith. Shortly after the crucifixion of Jesus, many Jews settled in Rome for various reasons—either as fugitives, or as tradespeople. Some of them regarded Jesus as the Son of God. For others he was only a prophet or a rabbi. They argued about this in the various synagogues of Rome. This was long before Christians organised themselves as a separate religious movement.
As these altercations became ever more violent, the Emperor Claudius in 41 CE closed down all synagogues. From then on the Jews and their non-Jewish converts gathered Saturdays in houses and apartments. The unrest still continued. In 49 CE Claudius expelled all the Jewish leaders from Rome. He also put a stop to meetings on the Sabbath, on Saturdays. So they started to have meetings on Sundays, just like the popular cult of the Roman army, that of Mithras, the sun-god, did. I know we give our children some very noble reasons for Sunday worship—but this is the real one.
Paul met some of these exiles like Priscilla and Aquila. He decided to write a letter to these various churches in Rome. He knew it was a divided community. They did not only fight about the status of Jesus, but also about what foods one was allowed to eat, and what holy days one should observe. During certain festivals, Jewish believers ate herbs only. Non-Jewish converts found it ridiculous. Jews had special holy days like the Purim, celebrating the saving of the Jewish people described in the book of Esther. Non-Jewish believers had other holidays, like Spring festivals. They had heated arguments about these as well.
It is very clear that the churches in Rome were not able to handle diversity. For Paul it was an unhealthy situation. He wanted to raise money and get support for a mission he planned to Spain. The various communities had to work together to help him. His letter attempts to unify them in purpose.
Firstly, he adapted some well-known rituals. One was the so-called Holy Kiss (Rm. 16:16). When they gathered for worship, they had to greet each other like brothers and sisters. He describes baptism (6:3-4) as a ritual which transformed believers into members of a new family. The prayer before a meal (14:6) was done to remove the distinction between kosher and non-kosher food. His message in Romans 14 is basically that we should respect differences with regard to food and holy days. We should not judge each other, as God is our judge. Although Paul’s journey to Spain never materialised, he was extremely successful in creating a new family. Tolerance for differences was the success recipe of the early church.
So what are the essentials of faith? Is it infant baptism or adult baptism? Is it to read the Bible literally or figuratively? Is it true doctrines, or sacraments or kosher foods or the right regalia or the correct holy days? Later in the chapter Paul says it is justice, peace and joy (14:17). In the previous chapter he says that we have to owe no one anything except to love each other. In the vision and mission statement of the Community in Christ, we expressed it as to promote life in all its forms—to be alive in ourselves and in our relationships with others, and also to promote life in God’s creation. This is a neat formulation, because it includes love, and justice and joy—simply, in happiness, to live and let live.
Unfortunately, this is not how it was interpreted in the history of the Church. I have attended assemblies where it was debated for hours on end whether communion should be served from one cup, or individual cups. Normally the traditionalists won because of implied threats. In 1054 the Orthodox Churches split from the Western churches mainly because of one line in a doctrinal statement. The Eastern Churches believed that the Holy Spirit only came from God. The Western Churches supposed that the Holy Spirit came from God and the Son.
In the late nineteenth century, the Anglican Bishop of Natal, John Colenso, was convicted of heresy because he did not believe in hell, substitutionary atonement, or the historical accuracy of the first five books of the Bible and Joshua. Although he was excommunicated, he managed to remain Bishop of Natal.
In 1929 Prof Johannes du Plessis of Stellenbosch (NG Kerk) was found guilty of heresy. He had argued that the Bible should not be read literally, especially the accounts of creation in Genesis. He accepted evolution. Du Plessis was fired from his job as professor. The verdict of the church was overturned on appeal by the court. However, the university put him on permanent administrative leave and he was never again allowed to teach students.
In Zeerust during the latter part of the nineteenth century a teacher was imported from Holland to instruct the school children in geography. They informed their parents that he taught them that the earth was round and orbited around the sun. It caused consternation because the Bible clearly stated the earth was flat and stood on pillars. The teacher was charged with heresy. The minister, being educated, sided with him. Finally the church council decided, and it was so minuted, that they accept the earth may be round and orbiting the sun. However, as far as Zeerust was concerned, the earth was flat (Rev. 7:1), stood on pillars (Ps. 75:3), and that the sun came up and went down (Eccl. 1:5).
Churches have split from one another because one group believed only psalms should be sung in church, whilst the others said hymns were acceptable too. The Anglicans split from the Catholics in England because of the question of divorce with regard to King Henry VIII (he divorced two wives and beheaded two). Churches in Africa have split because of the question of whether females should be allowed in the pulpit or not.
Charismatic churches formed new organisations due to the belief in miracles, speaking in tongues, adult baptism, and doctrines like the rapture and the millennial kingdom of peace.
The Anglican Church in South Africa is facing a split. Last week its Pretoria region declared that it would not abide by its parent body’s decision not to bless same sex marriages. This was preceded last year by a similar decision of the Saldanha Bay region. The NG Kerk decided to accept same sex marriages (Oct. 2015), then reversed the decision (Nov. 2016) because of opposition from the weaker believers’ section. The tyranny of the weaker person is still having a devastating effect on the life of the church and on biblical scholarship.
We live in a time when we should, like St. Paul, address the question of diversity. We should do it in such a way that informed arguments win the day, not threats, blackmail and the manipulation of decision making processes. Unfortunately closed minds do not come with closed mouths. So we have a simple decision to make: to continue capitulating to the tyranny of the weak, or to follow the rule of common sense and stand firm and assert what is right. Only then will we be able to realise the essence of faith, which is the promotion of life. Only then will we perhaps have a taste of peace, love, and joy in all we do, believe and think.[/vc_column_text][/vc_column][/vc_row]