We’ve all been there. We’ve all had to deal with that person or two who just seems unbearable, who places more and more demands on our shoulders until we find ourselves wondering which straw will finally break the proverbial camel’s back. I’ll give you the bad news first: life will always be filled with difficult people. The good news is that God provides us the strength to endure.
Paul had previously addressed the issue of the “weaker” Christians who felt convicted to adhere to certain religious duties in their Christian walk. Now, Paul turns his attention to those who are “strong.”
We might imagine that many early Christians had no qualms about things like eating meat, or skipping certain Jewish “Holy days,” and it would have been easy to look down on those whose convictions ran the other way. In today’s terms, it’s not hard to find those Christians who enjoy their craft beer, stream Hillsong on their iPhone, and wear faded jeans to a Sunday service. And I image that this group might feel a bit of smugness toward those who abstain from alcohol and wear a necktie to their church’s potluck and hymn-sing. Obviously, I’m drawing a bit of a cartoonish caricature, but my point is this: Christ-follower, if you celebrate your freedom in a way that mocks the convictions of others, you’re not operating as a “strong” Christian, but a foolish one.
Paul writes that the strong in Christ have social responsibilities toward those who are weak:
We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. 2 Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. 3 For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.”4 For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. 5 May the God of endurance and encouragement grant you to live in such harmony with one another, in accord with Christ Jesus, 6 that together you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. 7 Therefore welcome one another as Christ has welcomed you, for the glory of God. (Romans 15:1-7)
Paul recognized that Christ’s church would be full of different men and women, all of whom are at different places in their walk with Christ. The “strong” may have felt tempted to flaunt their freedom, or to mock the “weak” in an attempt to mold them in a different understanding of their Christian walk. Paul is saying that Christ’s followers should show love to one another—that the strong should “bear with the failings of the weak”—in order to build the body.
But wait, you might object, doesn’t this mean that the weaker Christians win? Paul is saying that this is exactly the sort of question that doesn’t make sense in the Christian community. We fear that tolerating people will turn us into doormats—that they can have their way and we have to cater to them.
But that’s not what Paul is saying either. He’s saying that because Christ took on our reproach and our shame, he also bore the shame of those we struggle to get along with. Therefore the cross sets us free to love our neighbors—even those we don’t get along with.
This is why Paul goes on to say that Jesus served all of God’s people regardless of their original background or the “Jewishness” of their character:
8 For I tell you that Christ became a servant to the circumcised to show God’s truthfulness, in order to confirm the promises given to the patriarchs, 9 and in order that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy. As it is written,
“Therefore I will praise you among the Gentiles,
and sing to your name.”
10 And again it is said,
“Rejoice, O Gentiles, with his people.”
11 And again,
“Praise the Lord, all you Gentiles,
and let all the peoples extol him.”
12 And again Isaiah says,
“The root of Jesse will come,
even he who arises to rule the Gentiles;
in him will the Gentiles hope.”
13 May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope. (Romans 13:8-13)
The gospel application is this: because all people may experience the love and acceptance of Christ, you and I have no basis for drawing boundaries between people at different places along their spiritual walk.
But, if we return to what Paul said in verse 2, our greater obligation is the building of the body of Christ. Bearing with “weaker” Christians doesn’t mean affirming their habits or their beliefs; in many cases our Christian siblings need to be challenged.
People grow; people change. In the meantime, though, Christ’s followers can cultivate a grace-saturated community into which all of God’s people may grow and flourish. We can’t do this by focusing on individual needs, but we can do this by laying down our lives like Christ.