We are the beta test for the new humanity, but this might require some explanation. Jesus Christ is the perfect man, but we are not yet grown up into that perfect man (Eph. 4: 13). So, as far as we go, we are the working prototype of what God is up to. There are some bugs to work out yet, mostly having to do with our lack of love for one another. So let’s work on that.
“Him that is weak in the faith receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations. For one believeth that he may eat all things: another, who is weak, eateth herbs. Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not; and let not him which eateth not judge him that eateth: for God hath received him. Who art thou that judgest another man’s servant? to his own master he standeth or falleth. Yea, he shall be holden up: for God is able to make him stand” (Rom. 14:1-4).
Summary of the Text
Paul has been explaining the gospel, that message which establishes a new race descended from the new Adam, designed by God to replace the corrupt mass of humanity wrought by the old Adam. We are living in a time of great transition, and so we in the church must live in a way that displays to the outside world how this is supposed to work. The first thing to understand is that the church is not an exclusive club for spiritually superior people. Receive the one who is weak in faith (v. 1), we are told, and we are not supposed to receive him in order to argue with him (v. 1). For example, one Christian believes he can eat anything, while a weaker brother with dietary scruples is a vegetarian (v. 2). Paul sets down the principle of love—do not despise or judge one another, and this is a principle that goes both ways. It goes from the strong to the weak and from the weak to the strong (v. 3). If God has received someone, don’t you try to get more exclusive than God (v. 3). It is bad to try to have higher standards than God does. It is not our place to judge the workmanship that is submitted to another (v. 4). To his own master a man stands or falls (v. 4). And for Paul’s money, he is going to stand—because God is able to make him stand (v. 4).
What Love Looks Like
Paul has already defined the bedrock of love for us, which is the law of God. Love does no harm to his neighbor, and this harm is defined by what God says harm is. We don’t get to define it. In this area—the tangled debates Christians get themselves into—Paul says that love receives a brother without engaging in doubtful disputations. Paul says that the stronger brother must take care not to despise the weaker brother, and the weaker brother must not judge the stronger. These are different verbs, but they both have to do with “not receiving.” The one who despises looks down on the one who tangles himself all up in unnecessary rules and complications, and thus his despising breaks the law of love. The one who judges does so according to his own made-up standards, substituting them in for God’s actual standards. This means he has to judge uphill, which makes him cranky. Both are forms of acting like a supervisor over people you weren’t given any authority over. Your brother stands or falls before somebody else, and the One before whom he stands or falls loves him more than you do, and is not nearly as eager as you are to see him mess up.
This means that love—as God defines it—trumps everything. It is to be the governing demeanor in all our discussions, disputes, and debates, and it is this attitude of love that prevents us from becoming “faddists for Jesus.” C.S. Lewis warned against the error of what he called “Christianity and . . .” Christianity and vitamins, Christianity and homebirthing, Christianity and no cheeseburgers, Christianity and the grunge aesthetic, and so on.
Now of course, we have to make our decisions in these other areas, but we must never do so in a way that links them to the faith in the wrong way. Neither may we leave them unlinked—that would leave our fads without any regulating authority, which would be terrible.
So we must link them up intelligently and in love. In these other areas, we need to be fully convinced in our own minds—we don’t float through life—our ands must be followed by something. But if we accept the duty to love others along with being fully convinced in our own minds, then we are protected against most forms of faddism. This is because fads are not very much fun without the added fun of recruiting for a movement. The substance of the fad is just the raw material. The real attraction lies in supervising people who don’t answer to you, which is what Paul prohibits.
Love Is Not Relativism
But Paul is no egalitarian. He does not say that any decision made by any Christian is just as good as any other. He most emphatically does not say that. In the first of his examples, he takes sides. The weaker brother is the vegetarian. But at the same time, if a modern day Pauline carnivore takes this verse, and beats a veggie-brother over the head with it—“it says weaker brother here, el stupido . . .” it is clear that the stronger brother is not the stronger brother at all. He is right about the meat, but wrong about everything else. He is right about the meat, except for the meat in his head.
Paul comes to other examples in this chapter, but he begins with the food. This is a perennial problem area for a certain religious type of man. Men have a deep desire to have God care about what they put in their mouths. The problem is that the triune God of Scripture doesn’t care—bacon is fine, as are oysters, and refined sugar, and processed stuff made out of what used to be corn, and beer, and tofu, and wheat germ, and dirt cookies, and alfalfa sprouts from the coop. God doesn’t care . . . about that.
Within the church, the imperialist for “whatever fad it is” struggles with Paul’s acceptance of his option as a mere option. He doesn’t want to define love the way Paul does—in terms of leaving your brother alone—and instead wants to say that it is only because of his deep love that he is urging his brother to start taking these pills “for what ails ya,” $4.99 a bottle. Love is what makes a helpful sister tell a newly pregnant woman a bunch of hospital horror stories. Right. Love meddles, love bustles, love volunteers information, love won’t shut up. Love refuses to listen to Paul, which can’t be right somehow.
The Real Test
Love and wisdom go together. If everyone loves one another, disagreement is manageable—even when the consequences of being wrong can be significant. The less able you are to keep your crusade to yourself, in line with Paul’s instruction here, the more likely it is that your wisdom on that issue is not wisdom at all.