In Romans 15:1-7, St Paul offers his understanding of how Christians should deal with disagreements within the Christian community. He offers this same teaching several times in his letters to the churches. The framework is that we are to love one another, but he is trying to apply it practically to a situation where different opinions arise on an issue. He wants to help the local community learn how to be of one mind even as there are disagreements about various practices. St Paul is not here writing about doctrinal issues but about pious practices within a community. St Paul acknowledges that some people are more tolerant of divergent practices than others. Some people are zealous, some have a strict interpretation of what is allowed, while others think pious practices are of no real significance. His solution is that when parishioners are uncomfortable with what others are doing, love requires that those who are strong in the faith have to lovingly be patient with those who are weak in the faith. The strong in faith are not those who have the greatest scruples, but rather those who are not bothered by various practices and who don’t worry if not everyone measures up to a standard. St Paul sees those who are weak in faith are much more subject to being scrupulous about every detail of the rules. But he does not comment that strong vs weak means better vs worse or right vs wrong. He recognizes only that there are divergent opinions about divergent practices and he hopes people can recognize that what is really important is that we learn to live in love for one another as Jesus commanded. St Paul writes:
We then who are strong (who have power/strength, dynamis) ought to bear with the scruples/weaknesses/failings of the weak (adynamis, those without power/strength), and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, leading to edification. For even Christ did not please Himself; but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached You fell on Me.” For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that we through the patience and comfort of the Scriptures might have hope. Now may the God of patience and comfort grant you to be like-minded toward one another, according to Christ Jesus, that you may with one mind and one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore receive one another, just as Christ also received us, to the glory of God.
The strong have to bear not just those who lack strength but have to bear with their failings. The strong have to pick up the slack, even if they aren’t personally bothered by some behaviors, they have a responsibility not to offend those who have many scruples or who have a hard time keeping the faith to the full.
St Paul says the strong have to bear with the weak. Bear – this is the same word as Christ uses in telling us to take up/bear the cross to follow Him. It is the same word used to describe Christ bearing his own cross in John 19:17. We can remember also that Christ bore our sins on the cross as well as bearing the cross itself!
The strong bearing with the weak is the opposite of social Darwinism – which advocates the survival of the fittest. For St Paul, following Christ means the strong have to help the weak and wait for them and care for them, not forget about them, or leave them in their problems. Christian love is not about competing with others to get ahead, but is about community where one works with and for everyone else.
In Galatians 6:2 St Paul says to bear one another’s burdens to fulfill the law of Christ. We are to bring the weak to God, not leave them to their own devices or to sleep in the beds they have made for themselves. We are to help the weak with their struggles, this is the Law of Christ. This is the Gospel.
Throughout the Liturgy we sing “Lord have mercy!” This is the petition of all of us, but especially of the strong for the weak. The petitions are not time for us to sit down and take a time out during the Liturgy but exactly the times in the Liturgy when we take up the burden of others. We come to church to do the communal work of God (the Liturgy), which means lifting up the weak and needy in your prayers.
Here is a story from the desert fathers about how one saintly monk attempted to bear with the burden of a weak brother:
When the abbot of the monastery was going to start the Divine Liturgy he discovered that the priestly stole was missing. The abbot said there would be no Liturgy until the stole is returned. Nothing happened. So the abbot ordered that every room in the monastery was to be searched. One young monk immediately went to an old monk who had the reputation of being a saint, and he confessed to the old man that he had taken the stole. The older monk told the young monk not to fear but to hide the stole in his cell. So of course the stole is found in the old monk’s cell. Despite his reputation as a saint, the other monks are furious at the old man and denounce him as a fraud and a thief. They severely beat him. The old man begs for mercy and promises to repent, but the other monks do not want a thief in their monastery and expel him from the monastery. The monks then assemble in the church for Liturgy, but God sends an angel to the church and prevents the abbot from approaching the altar. The abbot tells the brothers that they need to bring the old man back and be compassionate toward him. They bring the old monk back and the angel allows the Liturgy to proceed.
The old man bore with the weakness not only of the young monk but with all the other monks.
St Paul concludes the lesson of Romans 15:1-7 with these words: Therefore receive one another, just as Christ also received us, to the glory of God.
We are to receive each other as Christ received us. We are to welcome one another as Christ welcomed us. We are to treat others as Christ treats us. This is the rule of community which St Paul believes fulfills the law of Christ.
Christ does not require us to be in his good favor before allowing us in His presence. While we were still sinners Christ died for us. He came to seek and save sinners. We are here because Christ sought us out as sinners and we have accepted Christ’s invitation to live according to His commandments.
A final good example of how this principle worked in St Paul’s favor. From Acts 9:10-17 –
Now there was a disciple at Damascus named Ananias. The Lord said to him in a vision, “Ananias.” And he said, “Here I am, Lord.” And the Lord said to him, “Rise and go to the street called Straight, and inquire in the house of Judas for a man of Tarsus named Saul; for behold, he is praying, and he has seen a man named Ananias come in and lay his hands on him so that he might regain his sight.” But Ananias answered, “Lord, I have heard from many about this man, how much evil he has done to thy saints at Jerusalem; and here he has authority from the chief priests to bind all who call upon thy name.” But the Lord said to him, “Go, for he is a chosen instrument of mine to carry my name before the Gentiles and kings and the sons of Israel; for I will show him how much he must suffer for the sake of my name.” So Ananias departed and entered the house. And laying his hands on him he said, “Brother Saul, the Lord Jesus who appeared to you on the road by which you came, has sent me that you may regain your sight and be filled with the Holy Spirit.”
Ananias had heard about Saul and how Saul totally opposed Christianity. He wanted nothing to do with Saul and certainly did not want to help him. If Saul was suffering, he deserved it. Christ tells Ananias to show Saul what Christian love is. And the rest is history.