There are two different scriptures about dietary codes that use a very similar phrase about the “weak” Saints. The first is at the beginning of the Word of Wisdom, D&C 89:
1 A Word of Wisdom, for the benefit of the council of high priests, assembled in Kirtland, and the church, and also the saints in Zion—
2 To be sent greeting; not by commandment or constraint, but by revelation and the word of wisdom, showing forth the order and will of God in the temporal salvation of all saints in the last days—
3 Given for a principle with promise, adapted to the capacity of the weak and the weakest of all saints, who are or can be called saints.
The other I’m thinking of is in Romans 14, in which Paul is discussing whether non-Jewish Christian converts need to avoid eating meat offered to idols, something that was prohibited to Jews. The gist of the question is whether Christianity is a Jewish sect or transcends Judaism, becoming a new religion without ties to its roots. Underneath that argument was a very important core question: were Jewish converts to Christianity somehow superior to those from other backgrounds? Was there a hierarchy based on lineage?
1 Him that is weak in the faith receive ye, but not to doubtful disputations.
2 For one believeth that he may eat all things: another, who is weak, eateth herbs.
3 Let not him that eateth despise him that eateth not; and let not him which eateth not judge him that eateth: for God hath received him.
4 Who art thou that judgest another man’s servant? to his own master he standeth or falleth. Yea, he shall be holden up: for God is able to make him stand.
5 One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind.
21 It is good neither to eat flesh, nor to drink wine, nor any thing whereby thy brother stumbleth, or is offended, or is made weak.
I was recently reading Peter Enns’ book The Bible Tells Me So, in which he talks about this particular set of verses:
Jews were on the scene first, and so they felt they ranked higher than these newbie Gentiles. Gentiles, since they didn’t have all that food regulation business to attend to, snickered a bit at the old-fashioned, backwater Jews.
But, if the gospel means anything, Paul argues, the people of God should not act this way toward each other. So here is Paul’s solution: he tells those who are “strong” to put up with those who are “weak” and not make their lives difficult.
. . . Although he never spells it out, it’s clear enough that the “weak” are those who still feel they need to keep the commands of God to eat kosher. The “strong” are those who know that, because of Jesus, they can live free of those commands.
Paul pushes this a step further. If you really want to be shown to be a follower of Jesus, the strong, even though they are right, shouldn’t rub their freedom in the faces of their weaker brothers and sisters by sitting down next to them and eating lobster bisque. Sure, they can–in the sense that God is just fine with lobster now–but they shouldn’t if in doing so they will undermine the faith of their weaker brother or sister.
There is no higher “law” to be obeyed than the law of love. That, at the end of the day, is what it means to follow Jesus.
Stephen’s recent post about the book Misreading Scripture Through Western Eyes reminded me of an earlier post I did called Rules & Relationships which also referenced that book. Consistently with what Peter Enns says above, I observed in that post that relationships supercede rules in the scriptures. The Israelites break the rules (commandments) all the time, but they are still under covenant (relationship) with God. God chastises them, but still keeps gives them the preferential status associated with their special relationship with him. Likewise, in the post, I posited that “rules should never substitute for relationships (sounds like a rule!), not with God, not with our fellow man.”
Other religious bloggers have taken on the topic of weak vs. strong faith in various posts. Mark Reasoner adds an interesting idea to the passage, that no matter who reads it, they will interpret themselves as the “strong” and the other type of believer as “weak.”
Who are the “strong and weak” in this passage?
Most commonly, the “weak” are legalists and the “strong” are those that are not trying to “earn” status by their good works. This view has been eroded by the New Perspective on Paul, since it may not be the case that Jews in the first century say themselves as earning their salvation.
. . .
Paul never really says the weak are Jewish and the Gentiles are the strong. That may be what Paul is saying, but our post-Reformation reading of the text tends to obscure Paul’s subtle rhetoric. It is possible a Jewish Christian might hear “we who are strong ought to bear the failings of the weak” (Rom 15:1) as meaning, “we Jews who are strong and keep the law properly ought not to look down on the weak Gentiles who have not fully understood the Gospel yet.” But it is also possible a Gentile would hear Paul saying “We strong Gentiles who fully understand the grace of God should not look down on these weak Jews who insist on Old Covenant practices.”
Years ago, in a leadership training I attended, we were given the advice that the person with the most awareness in a situation bears the greatest responsibility for how the relationship goes. That’s great advice because it means that being right doesn’t mean you get to lord it over the other person, but instead that you have to suck it up and deal with the other person because you are the more mature one, and who doesn’t want to be the more mature one? It may feel satisfying to be able to correct the other person, but instead, the advice is to meet them where they are, to find a way to bring them along.
Here’s another take on the Romans 14 scripture from the Ligonier Ministries blog site:
If a man believes that it is a sin to eat meat and then goes ahead and eats it, he has sinned. He has sinned not because he has eaten meat but because he has done something he believes God has forbidden—his intention was to disobey God. Because of this, Paul says that strong Christians are to be careful not to lead weak Christians into sin by encouraging them to go against their consciences.
If, on the other hand, I eat or drink in private without violating my conscience, I have offered no offense. The weaker brother may not like my doing it, and he may even be shocked, but I have not encouraged him to sin. Moreover, Paul makes it very clear that the weak believer is not to tyrannize the church. When the weak Judaizers wanted Paul to eat separately from the Gentiles, Paul adamantly refused (Galatians 2). The strong believer must oppose the weak believer when he tries to make his scruples a law for the whole community, because to capitulate on this point is to allow the corruption of legalism into the church, which eventually will destroy the Gospel.
This idea of violating one’s conscience reminds me of a practical joke someone played on my mission. There was a local member who used to love to serve guests these fake espressos made with Echo (a coffee flavored drink similar to Postum). He distilled them down so they were very strong and smelled and tasted like a highly concentrated coffee drink. A new missionary was brought to his house and told he was an investigator, someone who objected to the legalistic way members followed the Word of Wisdom. He said he would only be baptized if the missionaries would drink the “coffee” he had put in front of them. This young missionary began to sweat. He had never tasted coffee before, and he believed it was prohibited. He didn’t want to drink the coffee and do something against his conscience, but he also believed that his sole purpose for being there was to bring souls to Christ, to help people join the church through baptism. In a moment of indecision, he shakily reached out and grabbed the little cup and quaffed it down. Of course, the joke was then revealed, and he felt foolish for having abandoned his principles in the heat of the moment.
It’s as if Paul was writing about this exact implausible scenario!
Another take on Romans 14 from Bible.org:
While I was attending seminary several years ago, the most amazing realization of my study of the New Testament was that someone had switched the labels on the strong and the weak. I had always been taught that the strong Christian was the one who knew he couldn’t. He couldn’t smoke, drink, dance or go to movies. And she couldn’t wear lipstick or make-up. The strong Christian is “… someone who lives in mortal terror that someone, somewhere, is enjoying himself.”114 The weak Christian was the one who spoke of liberty.
If this has been your understanding of the ‘strong’ and the ‘weak,’ then you had better take a closer look at this chapter. The weak brother thinks it is wrong to eat meat, and so he eats only vegetables. The strong knows there is nothing intrinsically sinful about meat-eating (verse 2). The weak (we would assume) regards some days as more sacred, while the strong regards every day alike (verse 5). When I was a youngster, I can remember Christian friends whose parents thought it wrong to swim or water ski (or do anything fun) on Sunday. The strong knows he is free to drink wine in moderation (verse 21, cf. I Timothy 5:23), while the weak feels he must be a tee-totaler.115
I must go on to say that the weak Christian is not just the one who believes something which in fact is a Christian liberty is prohibited, but he is one who is inclined to go ahead and follow the example of the strong in spite of his scruples. The weak Christian, then, is not just the one who heartily condemns drinking wine, but who also might drink wine against his conscience because you or I do it.
So, like the missionary who was the butt of the joke, a Christian who does something he or she thinks is wrong is wrong because of violating his or her own conscience, even if that belief is misplaced and legalistic.
The observation about which are the weak and strong Saints is an interesting twist on which ones we assume are weak in section 89 of the D&C.  We tend to believe that the “weak” are the ones who struggle to obey dietary codes, who want to drink hot drinks or alcohol despite being warned against them. But Paul’s take on who is weak seems to be just the opposite. Those with weak faith are the ones who need to believe that their checklists and rules will save them–from themselves, from damnation, from temptation–and that they are unable to self-govern.
When I was new to the bloggernacle, I read a post on another site in which someone asked whether readers would stock jars of mud in their basement if they were asked to do so by the prophet. This evolved into a discussion equating willingness to do such a strange thing with being faithful. It seems to me that one’s willingness to do such a thing is not the litmus test of religious strength or weakness. The question of strength or weakness is related to what type of belief we have about the thing we do. Do we believe our checklists will save us, that life is a series of opportunities to rack up righteous points, that we are rewarded based on our exactitude in following rules–or do we build a relationship of trust and loyalty with God and others and avoid judging our fellow men using our own preferences as a standard?
- How do you read Romans 14? Who are the weak and who are the strong?
- In today’s church, what are examples of weak faith vs. strong faith?
- Is the Word of Wisdom something that is given so that those with weak faith have a checklist for acceptable behavior or does it create weakness by encouraging saints to judge one another and preventing people from developing self-discipline and behaving responsibly?
- Lastly, did anyone in your mission do any mean Word of Wisdom related practical jokes?
 And of course, the Word of Wisdom as written in D&C 89 is not how it’s practiced today as it clearly allows for beer, doesn’t name coffee or tea (instead referring to their temperature), and limits meat-eating to “sparingly,” something that nobody is asking about in a temple recommend interview.