Owen Strachan is no stranger to causing controversy. He is Provost and Research Professor of Theology at Grace Bible Theological Seminary. His view on Christ’s relation to the Father within the Godhead (which places him outside of Nicean and biblical orthodoxy) has ruffled some feathers (as it should), but that is a discussion for another day. I want to focus on Owen’s assertions in a tweet he made on August 18th, 2021 and why he is wrong about how we are to accommodate the weaker brother. He said,
The “weaker brother” principle of Romans 14 does not mean you MUST accommodate the conscience of your weaker brother. It means you are free to do so, may choose to do so from love, but are in no way compelled to do so. Otherwise we would have a functional rule of weakness.Owen Strachan Tweet from August 18th, 2021 at 11:36 AM
Lack of Exegesis
Yes, I know. He posted this on Twitter and there are only a certain number of characters that can be placed in a single Tweet. Which is precisely why at least some theological assertions should be left to mediums such as blogs, podcasts (such as ours, The Particular Baptist Podcast), or the pulpit as you can expound and exegete in a way that is difficult on Twitter. But Owen merely asserts without any references to context, Greek word usage, or any specific place in Romans 14 that would allow us to extrapolate his interpretation from the text. It is merely asserted. And this is a huge problem given his interpretation is in contradiction to the majority reading of Romans 14. I think that Twitter has led us to making quick, terse theological assertions and discussions preventing us from taking the time and effort to be clear and correct. It is better to leave certain conversations off the Twitter space and take the time to write long on them to ensure we are clearly heard and understood.
Loving our Neighbor
Owen says that we do not have to accommodate the conscience of the weaker brother. Paul didn’t actually mean that in Romans 14. It is merely optional. However, let us look at what Romans 14 says and exegete to find out.
Paul is continuing his discussion of love and holiness that we find in chapter 13:
Owe no one anything, except to love each other, for the one who loves another has fulfilled the law. For the commandments, “You shall not commit adultery, You shall not murder, You shall not steal, You shall not covet,” and any other commandment, are summed up in this word: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the law. Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.Romans 13:8-14 (ESV)
We are to walk as holy ones and walk in love with our neighbors which would (especially) include Christians. There is to be self-sacrifice and a putting of others’ interests ahead of our own. In doing so, we are fulfilling God’s law, ergo loving God. Keep this theme of love in mind as we go into chapter 14. Notice what Paul says in the opening verses:
As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.Romans 14:1-4 (ESV)
Already we see that there is to be sensitivity to the weaker brother and this follows right after Paul discussed loving our neighbors in chapter 13. We are not to hate the brother who has a different view than we do about scrupulous things. We should be patient with them and see this thing they are NOT doing as something to not divide over. Calvin said,
He passes on now to lay down a precept especially necessary for the instruction of the Church, — that they who have made the most progress in Christian doctrine should accommodate themselves to the more ignorant, and employ their own strength to sustain their weakness; for among the people of God there are some weaker than others, and who, except they are treated with great tenderness and kindness, will be discouraged, and become at length alienated from religion.Calvin’s Commentary on Romans 14
We should not be discouragers! We should not have a cruel spirit toward our brothers who are weak in the faith, weak in scruples. But we should love them and help them to grow, although not at the expense of their spiritual well-being. Owen has abandoned the principle in Romans 14 of obligatory love toward our brothers and sisters in Christ. He makes love optional in our accommodation of the weaker brother while Paul grounds these principles in God’s law which requires love of our neighbor at all times. And how much more for God’s people! (Galatians 6:10)
The first rule of Christian love is that we receive others who are weaker in faith as brothers and sisters. Every Christian is a servant of Christ. Christ is his master and judge. I am not to judge those who are Christ’s.Sproul, R. C. “Dealing with Those Who Are Weaker | Reformed Bible Studies & Devotionals at Ligonier.Org | Reformed Bible Studies & Devotionals at Ligonier.Org.” Ligonier Ministries, Ligonier Ministries, 28 July 2009, http://www.ligonier.org/learn/devotionals/dealing-those-who-are-weaker.
We Must Accommodate
Given what we find from Paul below, it is a wonder how Owen could come to such a conclusion in his tweet. What he says is in contradiction to Paul’s clear and unequivocal language.
Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.Romans 14:13-19 (ESV)
Here we have imperatives, not suggestions. Here we have commands to be obeyed, not guidelines that I can follow if I so choose. But this is what Owen wants us to believe. However, the apostle says we are to not cause our brother to stumble. We are not to grieve our brother as we carry out our liberty. He grounds that in the second greatest commandment: to love your neighbor as yourself. This means we are absolutely obligated to not destroy the one for whom Christ died.
Owen, at the end of his tweet says, “Otherwise we would have a functional rule of weakness.” This could be true if a situation arises where there are weak brothers who are trying to impose their views on other Christians and a church simply accommodates them without confronting them. As Paul said in the opening verses of chapter 14 of Romans, this would be wrong for the weaker brother to do since he is not to judge the one who eats meat (verse 3). So to accommodate him simply because he says we shouldn’t eat meat would be wrong. But if we know that there is a brother or sister who does not like what we do in liberty and we do it in front of them, we are not loving them or considering their weakness and we have sinned. And this has to be based on us knowing who the weaker brother or sister are and that they have this weakness. We cannot live in fear of the weaker brothers as there is any possibility of things that are not commanded or addressed in Scripture that could cause a brother to stumble. In verses 1-4 Paul talks about judging each other based on what we do or do not do in terms of indifferent activities. This would mean that there is knowledge of the weaker brother and his scruple. With this in mind, Paul then moves throughout the rest of the chapter to discuss how the strong are the handle the weak in the assembly. So while a “functional rule of weakness” could be had in unchecked situations, the rule of willing to lay aside what we want to do for our brothers must be in the forefront of our minds as it relates to Christian liberty. Simply writing it off will not do when we have clear instruction from the apostle.
It is frustrating to see this kind of talk about the holy Scriptures in the church. Seeing one who should know better because he is highly educated in the Word and is involved in teaching it to others means he is subject to higher criticism when he speaks. As the Scripture says,
But the one who did not know, and did what deserved a beating, will receive a light beating. Everyone to whom much was given, of him much will be required, and from him to whom they entrusted much, they will demand the more.Luke 12:48 (ESV)
If you are educated and are a teacher of the Word or are involved in somehow educating others in the Word, especially at the academic level, you are held to a higher standard than those who do not. Much is given to you, ergo much is required. May the Lord help us all to stay true to His Word and to exegete it rightly.