“Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things” (Romans 14:1 NKJV).
Some years ago we planted a row of Royal Palm trees on the Bible College campus in Bangladesh. They have grown and are now quite tall, stately, and very beautiful. Well, most of them are. There is one, on the far end next to the outer wall, which has grown comparatively little and is still small and weak looking. All were the same size at planting, all put into the same soil and treated identically. Yet one is much smaller than the others.
When a dog or a sow gives birth to several young, it is quite common for there to be one which is noticeably smaller than the others. Called “the runt of the litter” it is the most likely not to survive infancy, and if it does, it will likely always be smaller and weaker than the others. Why does this happen? There is no clear reason; there are just some who are not strong.
In a similar vein Jesus once said, “For you have the poor with you always” (Mark 14:7). Regardless of the abundance of resources in a given society, or the economic system employed, there will be poverty. It is a reality with which every civilization must deal.
The same is true with spiritual weakness. In most congregations there are a few members who struggle with issues or problems that most have long since gotten past. It may be a doctrinal matter of great insignificance to the majority, or it may be a moral problem not yet conquered, or a worldly attitude or character trait.
The stronger, more spiritually mature members are often impatient with their weaker brothers and sisters. They wonder why they still have those problems. Frequently they blame them and thus absolve themselves of the obligation to consider them and defer to their weakness. That was what was happening within the church in Rome. Some were willing to eat meat, knowing it was permissible in Christ to do so. But others did not have that certainty of knowledge. The mature were insisting upon their right to abide by their own conscience, regardless of the effect their actions had upon their weaker fellow-Christians.
Paul taught them otherwise. “Therefore let us pursue the things which make for peace and the things by which one may edify another. Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food” (Romans 14:19-20). Meat was optional. It had no bearing on one’s salvation. But loving one’s brother and sister is not optional. It is God’s command (Romans 13:8-10).
Yes, in many cases people are weak because of factors they could control. The writer of Hebrews addresses that in his letter. “For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food” (Hebrews 5:12). They were still babies in Christ because they had not continued to study God’s word. They had forgotten what they had once learned. Neglect of Scripture will always create runts.
But in Romans, Paul was not concerned with the causes of weakness; he did not seem to care whose fault it was that some had poorer understanding. His was the practical outlook of a spiritual leader. They are weak. They need help. Do not be a stumbling block to them.
There will always be varying degrees of Spiritual maturity in the church. Sometimes it is simply a matter of time; new Christians must increase their knowledge of Scripture through study and practice. Sometimes there is simply a limited ability to distinguish complex subjects and understand all of the nuances of a particular doctrine. And, yes, sometimes a young Christian just does not make the effort and exercise the self-discipline required to mature properly.
But regardless of the reason, these are still brothers and sisters in Christ for whom Jesus died and whom he loves. Let us receive them, not for disputes, but for mutual encouragement.