Olson: We Have Forgotten the NT’s Teaching on Strong and Weak

From Roger Olson’s blog:

I am very interested in studying the mores and norms of contemporary American Christians today (2019) compared with what I know they were fifty and more years ago. Let me explain one example of where I think contemporary American Christianity, especially evangelical Christianity, has nearly totally forgotten a biblical principle that was often preached and practiced fifty and more years ago.

What I am saying is that I believe, based on my almost daily interactions with American Christian students who grew up in evangelical Christian homes and churches that this very prominent biblical principle has nearly disappeared from American Christian consciousness. And I know for a fact that fifty plus years ago it was a principle widely preached and discussed in American evangelical churches and parachurch organizations (and families). I think this is worth considering. Why has this happened? What does it reveal about American Christianity?

*Sidebar: The opinions expressed here are my own (or those of the guest writer); I do not speak for any other person, group or organization; nor do I imply that the opinions expressed here reflect those of any other person, group or organization unless I say so specifically. Before commenting read the entire post and the “Note to commenters” at its end.*

The principle I speak of here has a scholarly name: “love paternalism.” Many Pauline scholars know immediately to what that refers. It was never called that among the grassroots; it’s a scholarly term. For what? For Paul’s forceful command in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8-9.

Scholarly opinion about the Sitz im Leben (the situation in life) in the background of these chapters is what is called the conflict between the “strong” and the “weak”—in faith—among first century Christians. The “strong” were those who knew of the great liberty of the gospel of grace—liberty from rules and regulations that don’t really matter to God but only to some people. (When I was growing up in the “thick” of American evangelical Christianity these were called “convictions.” Later I discovered the theological term for them: “adiaphora”—things indifferent. The “weak” were those first century Christians who, in their own minds, considered certain practices more than “things indifferent” (to salvation) and truly believed that engaging in them would destroy their relationship with God.)

The specific Sitz im Leben into which Paul spoke this “love paternalism” was whether eating meat offered to idols in a pagan temple ceremony may be eaten by Christians. The “strong” said yes and Paul agreed with them. The “weak” said no and Paul disagreed with them. However, along with chiding the weak for judging the strong, Paul also chided the strong for caring more about their liberty from laws (rules and regulations about things like meat) than about the spiritual condition of the weak.

“Love paternalism” is the scholarly term for Paul’s principle that the strong in faith should put aside their liberty and not exercise it for the sake of the weak. In other words, Paul taught, yes, you strong in faith have the right to eat meat sold in the marketplace that you know was dedicated to idols before being put up for sale. However, Paul taught, you must put aside that right and not exercise it insofar as it might case a weaker brother or sister to “stumble.” He even goes so far as to argue that flaunting that right in front of a weaker brother or sister may cause a person for whom Christ died to be destroyed. Clearly, clearly (!) Paul took this principle that we now call “love paternalism” very seriously and wanted his converts and other Christians to observe it. It was not just an opinion; it was the Apostle Paul’s clear teaching to Christians then and, I would dare say, to us. There is no reason to consider this particular principle merely cultural—tied to a certain time and place. The principle goes far beyond the issue of eating meat to all kinds of issues—between then and now and today.

The wider context of Paul’s teaching about love paternalism is love for one another within Christian communities. Love overrides rights. If anything I do really might cause a brother or sister to stumble in his or her faith walk with God, then I ought not to do it—even if I know with certainty that doing it is not wrong in God’s sight.

This principle was widely and deeply discussed in the Christian faith communities I grew up in and I am confident it was widely and deeply discussed in other ones—all around America (and possibly all around the world). That because it is so prominent in Paul’s Epistle to the Romans and 1 Corinthans. (If you doubt me, read those identified chapters for yourself.)

Now, Paul even applied this to himself—in 1 Corinthians 9. There he argued that, as an apostle, he had every right to be supported by his converts (and, presumably, other Christians to whom he ministered the Word of God). However, he argues there, right on the heels of 1 Corinthians 8 which spells out his love paternalism principle, that he foregoes that right with the Corinthians because it might undermine his ministry among them. They apparently would think he was doing it for the money, so he refused their offerings even though he had every right to accept them.

I am not oblivious to the numerous questions and issues Paul’s principle raises among Christians. I well remember long, complicated discussions among Christians in the 1950s and 1960s about this principle and its application.

Let me give one example.

During the Jesus People Movement of the early 1970s some youthful Christians who had been part of the so-called “hippy” movement and had taken LSD and other drugs were appalled when our Christian coffeehouse put on a “psychedelic” event of worship that included cutting-edge contemporary Christian music, multi-colored lights “strobed” around the room, and what was then called “psychedelic” lettering on the brochures and invitations, etc. According to some of the new converts who were just emerging from the hippy culture (think Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco and events like Woodstock) were livid about our use of music, lights, psychedelic lettering, the entire “vibe” (as they called it) of the drug scene they knew so well to their shame (as new converts). They wanted and needed a total break from anything associated in their minds with that “scene.” We, who ran the coffeehouse, listened to them and promised never to attempt to imitate that “scene” or that “vibe” again—for their sakes. We were Paul’s “strong” and they were Paul’s “weak” and we were commanded by Paul (the Holy Spirit speaking through Paul) to give up our right to do this for their sakes.

Yes, of course, in those chapters Paul ALSO commanded the “weak” not to judge the “strong,” but that is not my point here.

I knew a pastor once whose favorite response to the argument “But they should not judge us” was “You’re reading someone else’s mail. Stop it.” In other words, insofar as a Christian is one of the “strong,” he or she should ONLY read those portions of those Pauline chapters that apply to them. The strong should give up their rights within a specific Christian community or context for the sake of the weak.

Now I will get really controversial and apply Paul’s love paternalism principle to another situation that arose later than the coffeehouse incident. I was manager of a Christian summer camp for high school kids. Among the one hundred to two hundred campers one week were both “strong” and “weak” Christians. Two of the strong Christian youths brought to the camp extremely skimpy bathing clothes. (The camp was on a lake and had a nice beach.) One was a girl and the other one was a boy. The boy wore a thong-like bathing suit that was revealing. The girl wore a very revealing bikini. Did they have those rights? Certainly. But we, the camp leaders, asked them to give up those rights for the sakes of other teenagers whose bodies and minds might be—probably would be—aroused unnecessarily by the too obvious cleavage and outlines of male genitalia. Both of them were outraged. They knew that it was the responsibility of the other campers to look away or stay off the beach if seeing them almost naked would cause them to be sexually aroused. I agreed—up to a point. But, following Paul’s lover paternalism principle I, together with other camp leaders, found alternative swimming clothes for them.

It is my observation that this love paternalism principle has almost entirely disappeared from American Christian consciences except perhaps among fundamentalists. When I have talked publicly about the Christian virtue of modesty in attire, for example, I have received strong resistance—especially from Christian women who believe that they alone should decide what they may wear, even within a Christian context, and that if any male is offended by it that is their problem and none of the Christian women’s. I would agree except for Paul’s love paternalism principle. When I have brought that up in such discussions the vast majority of even evangelical Christians admit they have never heard of it. Many of those who have heard of it or  have read those chapters in Romans and 1 Corinthians express the understandable opinion that this just cannot work because some of the “weak” will expect absolutely unreasonable accommodations on the part of the “strong.”

However, I believe that rather than simply discard the principle we Christians ought to continue to discuss it and work it out in ways that are as reasonable as possible—within specific Christian communities (churches, educational institutions, camps, etc.).

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