Is It Really About the Weak and Strong?
As legal restrictions lift in England, life has become a lot more complicated. No longer are there clear parameters for us to follow, we must now make our own choices about how to live in the midst of an ongoing pandemic. This is true for us individuals, but it is also true for us as churches. Should we still ask people to wear masks next Sunday? Should we still encourage or facilitate social distancing? Should we sing? These are the questions at the forefront of many of our minds at the moment.
The questions are very complex, and I’m really not sure what I think are the right or best answers. But as I have been listening to and involved in discussions around these matters, both online and offline, I have become increasingly uncomfortable with a particular aspect of the conversation. It’s something I wonder if we could benefit from bearing in mind as we engage with this tricky situation.
Should we talk of the weak and the strong?
Many of us have understandably been drawn to Romans 14-15 and the concept of ‘disputable matters’ that has been drawn from Paul’s teaching there. In a context where there were disagreements over the best ways to honour God, especially, it seems, in relation to food laws, special days, and perhaps also drinking alcohol, Paul calls the Roman believers to imitate Christ in extending an equal welcome to others regardless of their views on these matters in order to maintain unity in the church. In this context, he distinguishes between ‘the weak’ and ‘the strong’ (Romans 15:1), calling on the strong to bear with the weak.
Both the teaching of Romans 14-15 and the concepts of ‘weak’ and ‘strong’ have been drawn into the current discussions about church life after the lifting of restrictions. Carefully applied, I think the former can be helpful, but I wonder if the latter is unhelpful.
In most of the discussions I have heard, the clear implication is that those who are inclined to maintain some level of restrictions are the weak and those who want to move quickly back to a pre-pandemic norm are the strong. I am not sure that this is a helpful or fair use of the concept.
It seems unhelpful because to brand one group as ‘weak’ can easily be interpreted to convey – and may sometimes be intended to covey – disapproval. The irony is that in doing this we do exactly what Paul instructs the Romans not to do – we pass judgement (Romans 14:3-4).
Now, of course, the language is taken from Paul himself, and so how can it be wrong for us to use it if he uses it? Because I’m not sure that Paul’s situation maps closely enough onto ours. There are three important differences I think we need to acknowledge.
1. It’s not a clear right and wrong situation
As Paul looked at the different opinions among the Roman Christians, he knew that the position of the strong was actually correct. He makes this pretty clear (Romans 14:20), and yet doesn’t go to any length to convince those who disagree.
Our situation seems quite different. The matter is not clear-cut. The evidence on masks is not clear-cut. The potential outcomes of different choices we make and the development of the pandemic over the coming months are not and cannot be known. And different circumstances and situations mean different ones of us are understandably inclined to take different levels of risk. Unlike Paul’s situation, this is not one in which we can isolate a clear, one-size-fits-all right answer, and yet also unlike Paul’s situation, some seem rather clearly to claim – or at least strongly hint – that there is.
2. It’s not a fair comparison
The Roman believers were divided over the matter of how best to honour God in the way they lived their lives. Their differences of opinion were based on different levels of ability (‘the weak’ in Romans 15:1 is literally ‘the unable ones’) to accept the wonderfully all-encompassing impact of what God has done in Christ. This is why Paul specifies in his first reference to the weak that they are ‘weak in faith’ (Romans 14:1). They are not people who are just generally cautious or sensitive or uncertain, they are struggling to accept one particular element of truth about the work of Christ.
The Roman situation was in this sense a matter of faith. I would argue our situation is a matter of wisdom and love. The question is not whether we have the faith to go without restrictions – as if God has promised to protect us from illness, including its potential long-term effects and death. The question is whether it is wise to do so at the moment and whether it is loving to those who are more vulnerable – whether that be a physical vulnerability to the virus or a mental health vulnerability to anxiety after a year which has been incredibly hard on the mental health of many people.
3. It’s not clear who the strong are and who the weak are
In Paul’s situation, the identification of the strong and the weak was clear because the truth of the matter was clear. Since in our situation it is not clear which view is actually correct, it is also hard to say who are the strong and who the weak.
Most I have heard have seemed to assume that the strong are those who feel comfortable to go without restrictions and the weak are those who would prefer to take a more cautious approach by retaining some protective measures.
But it would be equally possible to say that the strong are those who still have the stamina, after all this time and all we have been through, to persist under restrictions that are frustrating and uncomfortable, but which may be wise and may be a way we can love others well. On this perspective, the weak would be those who have run out of the energy to endure some minor discomfort for the sake of helping and loving others – and potentially themselves.
It’s certainly not clear who the weak are.
So, what do we do?
This is a conversation we need to have. Many of us have already had to or will this week have to make decisions as to what will happen at our churches this coming Sunday. I do believe the principles of Romans 14-15 can help us: we should be working for unity; we should be sensitive to different perspectives, and we should do so without passing judgement on others. But I’m not sure the use of ‘strong’ and ‘weak’ is fair or helpful in this particular circumstance.
Let’s love and honour each other. Let’s not pass judgment on each other. Let’s acknowledge that this is complex and that things are not clear-cut. And as we do this, let’s also agree on the simple, clear fact that we want to love one another well, however we may conclude is best to do that.