Dec 27, 2010

Weak Brethren II

From the preceding chapter it was shown that the "weak brother" of I Cor. 8 was not a Christian, or "saved" person, based upon the words of Paul in the next chapter, where he says that he "became weak that I might gain (save) the weak." (9: 22) Obviously then, "the weak" is not a description of "saved" or "gained" people, or of Christians, but of unsaved people, or non-Christians. This fact is not only clear from 9: 22, but also from other things stated in the context of chapters 8-11, the three chapters that are connected with this subject.

"The Weak" vs. "The Strong"

The Greek word for "weak" is "asthenēs" and means weak, infirm, feeble, impotent. In the AV it is translated as weak (12), sick (6), weakness (2), weaker (1), weak things (1), impotent (1), more feeble (1), without strength (1). "The weak" refers to a class of people who are spiritually sick and impotent. They are contrasted with another class who are "the strong." Paul implies this opposite class in chapters 8-11 and specifically labels them as such in Romans 15: 1, where he sets "the weak" over against "the strong," and claims that he and the Roman Christians were members of the class of "the strong." The strong are the saved or gained class, those who are no longer spiritually weak or impotent, but spiritually healthy and potent. Saved people (Christians) are "the strong" and lost people are "the weak." Further, "the weak" are described as those who do not have Christian knowledge, while those who are not weak are those who have Christian "knowledge." Thus, it is a distinction of "weak" versus "strong," of the "haves" and the "have nots."

The idea of "the weak" versus "the strong" has a long tradition. Among the Greeks there was this categorizing of persons into these two classes. A person was judged as either weak or strong. If one was viewed as strong, either by natural abilities or acquired skills, he would then enjoy superior rights and privileges over the weak. The Greeks had other criteria at hand in their judgment of men as either weak or strong. What was the ancestry or bloodline of the person? Was he of "high birth" (noble birth)? Of what social and economic class were his parents? What titles are connected with the family name? Was the person born into peasantry or slavery?

One sees some of this criteria in Paul's epistle to the Corinthians. In chapter one he says "not many mighty, not many noble (of high birth) are called." The mighty, or the strong, according to Greek thinking, were they who were of high or noble birth, who had power, economically, socially, civilly, and politically. They were the "elite," or the "elect." They were the heads of society, while the weak were the tails. The strong were destined to rule over the weak, to gain the victory.

Paul uses this ancient division of men into two classes of weak and strong to describe Christians and non-Christians. He shows, however, that the Greek or worldly division is false, being based upon false criteria. Paul shows that the divine criteria, however, for labeling one either weak or strong, is different than that of the Graeco Roman world. There are similarities, but there are contrasts as well.

Men of various philosophical and religious traditions have had other dichotomies whereby men were distinguished. The children of light (day) versus the children of darkness (night) is an old one. The wise versus the foolish has also been another of long standing. Strong versus weak is but one of several of these ancient classes.

The Greeks, like the Romans and other civilizations, placed a great value on "power." A man was great depending upon the amount of power he possessed. Power, of course, has its variety. There is physical power, political power, economic power, mental power, etc. Power involved influence and control and was one of the "keys" to success.

The Sophist philosophy was strong in ancient Greece and Rome. It was strong in Corinth too.

"In Roman society rank was a prized possession. It determined one's behaviour, relationships and legal privileges. All people belonged to one of two classes: the honestiores or the humiliores, the high or the low. The former was made up of the nobility - senators, equestrians and, away from Rome itself, decurions. These were men who, together with their womenfolk, were esteemed for their dignitas and often possessed great power and fortune. The humiliores - plebs, freedmen and slaves - lacked dignitas and were held in no honour by the nobility. Since rank was hereditary, movement from one class to the other was virtually impossible." (Power Through Weakness: Paul's Understanding of the Christian Ministry in 2 Corinthians" by Timothy B Savage, page 20) See here

In first Corinthians chapter one Paul addresses the Sophistic criteria for judging between the "wise" and "foolish," between the "strong" (powerful) and the "weak."

"For ye see your calling, brethren, how that not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called: But God hath chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; and God hath chosen the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; And base things of the world, and things which are despised, hath God chosen, yea, and things which are not, to bring to nought things that are: That no flesh should glory in his presence. But of him are ye in Christ Jesus, who of God is made unto us wisdom, and righteousness, and sanctification, and redemption: That, according as it is written, He that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord." (26-31)

"Christ the power of God, and the wisdom of God." (vs. 24)

This is Paul's criteria for who is wise and strong versus who is foolish and weak. Does a man have Christ? If yes, then he has wisdom and power and is himself wise and strong. He is so in the eyes of God, although not so in the eyes of the Greek and Roman world, or world at large. If a man, therefore, is judged as wise and strong by the Greek (worldly) standard, then those who have Christ (Christians) are foolish and weak. Paul attacks the worldly standard and focuses on three standards, power, wisdom, birth status (nobility).

To the world the Christian is weak. Christians are weak-minded and weak because they extol pacifism, mercy, forgiveness, meekness, humility, lowliness of mind, etc., and because they do not prize ambition, pride (hubris), financial success, social status, etc. Christianity is also viewed as antagonistic to manliness and courage and is a belief system that leads to low self esteem and lack of success.

All this was true of the Corinthians. The first adult converts to Christ in Corinth had a lot of philosophical and theological "baggage" from which to divorce themselves. Paul was sent by God to these Greek converts to help them get rid of this baggage. In order to do this, he begins by taking up Greek concepts about wisdom, power, nobility, and elect status. In the next chapter, these ideas will be enlarged upon as the context of the first epistle to the Corinthians is more particularly investigated.

But, clearly, in this paradigm of "two classes," sometimes designated as wise verses foolish, or strong versus weak, or high born versus low born, Paul makes use of this paradigm, though he advocates a different criteria. Who does Paul think is wise and strong? Is it not the Christian who is in Christ? Does Paul not think that those who are not Christians are the ones who are foolish and weak? So, this is further evidence that Paul is not describing two kinds of saved people, two kinds of Christians, but of the two kinds of people in the world, the saved and the lost. The weak need to be saved and won (gained) to Christ. The strong are they who have been saved and won.

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