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Wanted: Weak Christians (4 of 5)

This is part four of a series called “Wanted: Weak Christians.” Here are the other posts:

Wanted: Weak Christians (1 of 5) — Introduction
Wanted: Weak Christians (2 of 5) — Who Are They?

Wanted: Weak Christians (3 of 5) — How Are They Indispensable?
Wanted: Weak Christians (4 of 5) — Advice to the Strong
Wanted: Weak Christians (5 of 5) — The Power of the Powerless


What if your weakness is God’s gift to Christ’s church?

I asked this question at the end of my last post, and I plan to return to it. But first, in this post, I want to (1) summarize this blog series so far, and (2) give some advice to “strong” Christians.

SUMMARY

This blog series is my attempt to encourage discussion of Paul’s teaching about “the parts of the body that seem to be weaker” (1 Cor. 12:22). Here, without adornment, are the main ideas we’ve covered:

  • Discussions about the body of Christ usually conjure images of spiritual gifts and individual strengths. But when God “composed the body,” he also intentionally wove into its fabric members who “seem to be weaker,” people whom “we think less honorable” or even “unpresentable.” Valuing only strengths will lead to bad fruit.
  • In the analogy of the body, the “weaker” members are the hands and feet, but especially the “necessary” or “private parts,” which we honor by covering with clothing.
  • In Christ’s body, the “weaker” Christians are those who tend to be considered weak or embarrassing because of some perceived lack, such as in social status, psychological disposition, aptitude, confidence, spiritual gifting, or knowledge. Often they are perceived as being less “spiritual” in some way. The symptom that is perceived as weakness often truly exists. But more importantly, it exists as “weakness” in the eye of the beholder—in the eyes of other Christians who often feel themselves “strong” by comparison.
  • “Weaker” Christians are “indispensable” to the rest of Christ’s body. God gives them gifts that are essential. Further, God uses them to unify the church, as other members share in their suffering and extend them honor. Mutual suffering, even mutual embarrassment, stimulates mutual care, which binds the body together in unity.
  • God designed our physical bodies so that our brains, eyes, and hands instinctively work together to honor our crucial reproductive organs with appropriate clothing. In the same way, God designed Christ’s body so that its Spirit-filled members work together to give honor to fellow Christians who appear weaker, knowing they are valued by God and essential to the church. In this way, God gives “greater honor to the part that lacked it.”

God’s composition is not something you or I would have dreamed up. But what if what your world most needs is someone with needs? What if your weakness is God’s gift to Christ’s church?

ADVICE TO THE “STRONG”

On the other hand, perhaps you don’t think of yourself as one of the “weaker” ones in Jesus’ church. Perhaps you have been granted the gifts, social graces, and spiritual empowerment that have secured you a respected place among God’s children. Maybe you are typically the strong one in your relationships, usually helping others along, often leading. You feel weak the odd time, but generally people admire you, want to be around you, and want to be like you.

If so, that’s okay. It’s not wrong to be strong (how’s that for a slogan?), as long as you remember that your strength is actually God’s strength, and that it won’t always be yours. Just as “weaker” Christians are indispensable, so are “stronger” ones.

How, then, should a “stronger” Christian relate with “weaker” Christians? This question deserves books; I will discuss one sentence of Scripture. Consider this four-point sermon outline from Paul:

And we urge you, brothers, admonish the idle, encourage the fainthearted, help the weak, be patient with them all. (1 Thess. 5:14)

Paul is matching the cure to the disease. He identifies three types of Christians with problems: the idle, the fainthearted, and the weak. And he names three responses to these Christians: admonish, encourage, and help. The way he pairs these responses with these “problem Christians” is most instructive.

The “idle” are disorderly, disruptive, and unruly. They are not so much lazy as “busy doing the wrong things,”1 such as being busybodies and spreading false teachings. These people need to be “admonished”—firmly warned and even disciplined if necessary (cf. 2 Thess. 3:6, 14-15).

The “fainthearted” are timid and discouraged. They may be worried, sad, or low on faith. “These people did not need to be admonished but persuaded not to give up.”2 If “encouraged,” they will succeed.

The “weak” may be the least specific category. The word here is a variation of the same word translated “weaker” in our main passage, 1 Corinthians 12.3 Here, as there, commentators suggest diverse references, such as spiritual shortcomings, physical sickness, economic need, low social status, or psychological weakness. Whatever the case, what these people need is “help.”

Our English word “help” may be too vague and weak, however. The same Greek word4 is found three places in the New Testament, where it is translated as “be devoted to” (Matt. 6:24; Luke 16:13) or “hold firm to” (Tit. 1:9). The word seems to imply proximity, focus, and allegiance. Someone who “helps” in this sense will not hold others at a distance, will not devalue or forget them, and will not reject them. Paul is saying we should “take an interest in [the weak], pay attention to them, and remain loyal to them… Those whom society walks over and puts down are lifted up and given support by the church.”5

Finally—point four in Paul’s outline—all three kinds of Christians require, and must be offered, patience.

AT THE PIANO: WHEN ONLY HELP WILL HELP

In identifying the “idle,” “fainthearted,” and “weak,” Paul seems to be describing three levels of ability: Those who are able and active but unruly, those who are able but inactive because discouraged, and those who are unable and need help. Because of these differing levels of ability, offering the correct response is crucial.

What will happen if we give the unruly encouragement or help? They will probably abuse them. What will happen if we warn the fainthearted? Their discouragement will only deepen. And if we help them without encouraging them? They may never learn to do what they, with encouragement, could do for themselves.

And what about the weak? What if we warn them? What if we feed them motivational words? What will warnings and “encouragements” do to their souls if they are truly unable, for whatever reason, to do what we are expecting them to do?

Let me illustrate. Recently we hosted a piano recital in our home. Each of my three daughters played a solo. One of my daughters is developing socially somewhat more slowly than her sisters. She turns inward when she is asked to interact with new people.

When this daughter’s turn came, I asked her aloud, “Do you want to tell us what song you’re playing?” Immediately I read on her silent face the expected answer: No. So I whispered to her, “Shall I say it?” Yes, she nodded. She then relaxed, I introduced her song, and we were treated to a lovely, sensitive performance of “Silent Night.”

You can catch the tail end of our daddy-daughter conversation here, along with her performance:

Now what would have happened if, when my daughter communicated that she did not want to introduce her song, I had admonished her in front of a living room full of people? “Why are you being stubborn? Don’t you realize that you are dishonoring our guests? We can wait here until you find enough respect to talk.” As her dad, I simply can’t imagine saying anything like this.

What if, instead of rebuking her, I had encouraged her, saying “You can do it!” or “Don’t be afraid!” or “Everyone here is friendly, you’re safe.” While this would have been less damaging, it still wouldn’t have been pretty. Suddenly the girl who was already trying to avoid attention would have been thrust doubly into the center of everyone’s focus. Shame and fear would have washed over her. Even if she had eventually found words, her piano performance would probably have suffered.

No, what my daughter needed in that moment was not admonishment, not encouragement, but help. We’ve all been there! She needed someone who was devoted to her and who would care for her. She needed me to speak for her. And when I gave her the help she needed, she freely shared her gift with the group—a pleasing performance of a carol she had diligently prepared. As her father, I was, and am, delighted and proud.

“Strong” Christians, what was true for my daughter is equally true for the “weaker” Christians in our midst. While every Christian benefits from regular encouragement, and we all need warning from time to time, what “weak” Christians need most of all is help.

What that special needs teen needs is someone to continually give him attention by rubbing his back, so he doesn’t feel a need to speak out during the service—and a congregation who will laugh good-naturedly when he does. What that post-operation preacher needs is someone to read his sermon for him. What that immigrant family needs is an opportunity to share a song in their own language. What that timid music team member needs is permission to look down at her music instead of at the congregation, so she is not distracted from worship by social anxiety.

I witnessed each of these and more yesterday at the church we visited.

Sure, it takes a lot of patience sometimes, but what “weak” Christians need most of all is help.

PHYSICIANS OF THE SOUL

Christians, then, must learn to be what the Puritans called “physicians of the soul.” We must learn to not only note symptoms but also diagnose diseases correctly and then apply the right cures.

The easiest thing for all of us, of course, is to note symptoms—some dishonorable behavior in our “weaker” brother or sister—and then diagnose them based on our knowledge of ourselves. “If I acted the way he did, I would be stubborn, selfish, or unrepentant.” But I am not him and you are not me, and essentially identical symptoms may be caused by very different diseases. We need to listen devotedly to our “weaker” brother or sister, learning to know them well. If not, we will diagnose wrongly and could apply a “cure” that actually worsens their disease.

Tim Keller has written a helpful article about the Puritans and soul care. Here are a few excerpts:

The Puritans had sophisticated diagnostic casebooks containing scores and even hundreds of different personal problems and spiritual conditions. John Owen was representative when he taught that every pastor must understand all the various cases of depression, fear, discouragement, and conflict that are found in the souls of men. This is necessary to apply “fit medicines and remedies unto every sore distemper.” Puritans were true physicians of the soul. Their study of the Scripture and the heart led them to make fine distinctions between conditions and to classify many types and sub-types of problems that required different treatments…

In addition, the Puritans were able to make fine distinctions in diagnosing the root causes of the problems. [Richard] Baxter’s sermon, “What are the Best Preservatives against Melancholy and Overmuch Sorrow?” discerns four causes of depression (sin, physiology, temperment, and demonic activity) which can exist in a variety of interrelationships…

The Puritans’ balanced understanding of the roots of personal problems is not mirrored in the pastoral practice of modem evangelicals. Most counselors tend to ‘major’ in one of the factors mentioned by Baxter. Some will see personal sin as the cause of nearly all problems. Others have built a counseling methodology mainly upon an analysis of “transformed temperments.” Still others have developed “deliverance” ministries which see personal problems largely in terms of demonic activity. And of course, some evangelicals have adopted the whole ‘medical model’ of mental illness, removing all ‘moral blame’ from the patient, who needs not repentance but the treatment of a physician.

But Baxter not only shows an objective openness to discovering any of these factors in diagnosis, he also expects usually to find all of them present. Any of the factors may be the main factor which must be dealt with first in order to deal with the others.

So we see sophistication of the Puritans as physicians of the soul… Biblical counselors today, who sometimes are rightfully charged with being simplistic, could learn from the careful diagnostic method of these fathers in the faith…

Most of us talk less about sin than did our forefathers. But, on the other hand, the Puritans amazingly were… extremely careful not to call a problem ‘sin’ unless it was analyzed carefully. One of their favorite texts was: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoking flax he will not quench” (Matthew 12:20). 6

This, then, is my advice to “strong” Christians: seek to be physicians of the soul. We won’t always get it right, of course. But do not assume everyone is as strong as you are. If someone’s symptoms are due primarily to weakness, then be very slow to offer warning. Be judicious even in how you offer encouragement. Aim primarily to offer help.

Understand, however, that help is not help, biblically speaking, unless it is an expression of authentic devotion and loyalty. In fact, be wary of communicating that you are providing help. Seek ways to personally share in the suffering of the “weaker” members of Christ’s body, experiencing empathy and not merely offering sympathy.

Join God in honoring your “weaker” brothers and sisters, that your mutual joy may be full. Remember that God is the one who placed both of you in his composition. All colors are indispensable there, not just your brilliant ones. Mourn when your strength inhibits Christ’s grace. Offer help to the “weak” with great patience and devotion. Don’t, by holding them at a distance, miss an opportunity for God to increase the unity of Christ’s church.


This post grew beyond my expectations. I want to speak a final word primarily to “weaker” Christians in my final post. (And don’t we all have at least one turn being weak?)

But for now, I invite your responses to this post. I’m sure I’m missing a lot that should be said, so likely my balance isn’t perfect. Did you find something here helpful? Do you have more to add? Please share your insights in the comments below. And thanks for reading.

  1. G.K. Beale, 1-2 Thessalonians, IVP New Testament Commentary Series (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2003), 164.
  2. Gene L. Green, The Letters to the Thessalonians, Pillar New Testament Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2002), 253.
  3. The lexical form for the words in both texts is ἀσθενής.
  4. Lexical form: ἀντέχομαι.
  5. Green, ibid., 254.
  6.  Tim Keller, “Puritan Resources for Biblical Counselling,” blog post, June 1, 2010, Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation, https://www.ccef.org/resources/blog/puritan-resources-biblical-counseling, accessed December 5, 2018.

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Wanted: Weak Christians (2 of 5)

This is part two of a series called “Wanted: Weak Christians.” Here are the other posts:

Wanted: Weak Christians (1 of 5) — Introduction
Wanted: Weak Christians (2 of 5) — Who Are They?

Wanted: Weak Christians (3 of 5) — How Are They Indispensable?
Wanted: Weak Christians (4 of 5) — Advice to the Strong
Wanted: Weak Christians (5 of 5) — The Power of the Powerless


Who, then, are the ones who “seem to be weaker” in Christ’s body? We have already noted Paul’s mention of hands and feet. Chrysostom (AD 349-407) identifies another set of body parts:

What is thought to be less honorable than our organs of generation? And yet they receive greater honor. Even the destitute, though the other parts of their bodies may be naked, will not allow those parts to be uncovered. 1

Modern commentators agree. “The necessary member” was an ancient euphemism for the male reproductive organ.2 Paul seemingly alludes to this when he says the parts of the body that seem to be weaker “are necessary” (1 Cor. 12:22 KJV). Other commentators suggest Paul is also alluding to female reproductive organs and the mother’s breast,3 or even “the excretory tracts.”4

“WEAK” CHRISTIANS IN CORINTH

So then, who are the feet, hands, and private parts in Christ’s body? In the immediate context (see 1 Cor. 12:7-10), they are especially those Christians who lacked the charismatic gifts that were most highly valued in the church at Corinth—those who were weak in the gifts of wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, miracles, and especially speaking in spiritual languages (“tongues”). But in the context of the entire letter, the language of weakness is applied more broadly, such as to those who lacked the sort of rhetorical wisdom that Greeks valued (1 Cor. 1:22, 26; 2:3-4), to those who lacked noble birth (1 Cor. 1:26), and even to those who possessed weak consciences because they lacked knowledge (1 Cor. 8:7-13). It is in this latter context that Paul says, “To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak” (1 Cor. 9:22).

A common thread among all these examples is that the “weak” are those who are looked down on by others. For a wide variety of possible reasons, they are considered to be socially second class.5

Who else might these “second-class Christians” be? Commentators suggest many possibilities. Are they describing you? Are they describing someone close to you?

EXAMPLES OF “WEAK” CHRISTIANS

Read the following excerpts thoughtfully. Has God carefully and intentionally placed some of the following people in the part of Christ’s body where you live?

In the Church, too, there are many and diverse members, some more honorable and some less… One person gives away everything, others desire only to be self-sufficient and to have the bare necessities, while still others give alms from their abundance. Nevertheless, all adorn each other, and if the greater reckons the lesser as nothing, he does great harm to himself… If someone who gives everything away reproaches someone who does not, he has forfeited much of the fruit of his efforts. –John Chrysostom6

Is the weaker member in your church someone who does not give as much as you think they should? Someone who lacks the gift of giving (Rom. 12:8)? Or perhaps the weaker person is someone who gives so freely that they don’t seem to be planning wisely for future needs?

There are choirs of virgins, the assemblies of widows, the company of those whose glory is in chaste marriage. These exhibit many degrees of virtue… If the virgin treats the married woman with contempt, she loses no small part of her reward. –John Chrysostom7

Is the weaker member in your church someone who married because they didn’t have the dedication to remain single? Or, perhaps more likely in our culture, is it the older single who is considered weaker—not “marriage material”?

What is of less account than beggars? Yet these, too, have a major role in the Church: they stand as fixtures and splendid adornment at the doors of the sanctuary. Indeed, without them the Church would not attain its full stature… While we preachers sit before you and recommend what will do you good, the one who sits before the doors of the church addresses you no less than we do, by his mere appearance, without saying a word… “My friend, do not be proud. Man’s life is a shifting and precarious thing. Youth hastens to old age, beauty to deformation, strength to weakness, eminence to disgrace…” This advice and more like it the poor give us by their looks and by what has happened to them, which is an even clearer warning. –John Chrysostom8

Are you too poor to give much? Too poor or sick to devote as much energy as you wish to Christian service? Is there someone in your church who is always needing a handout from the deacons, or perhaps from anyone they know still cares enough to give?

Garland brings us back to Paul’s “head” and “eye” language, adding observations about class divisions:

“Eye” and “head” are transparent metaphors for those in leadership roles, who are more likely to be more affluent and better educated. The “hands” and “feet” represent the laboring class or slaves. “Eyes” and “heads” in the church always get special treatment and then begin to think that they are special. A sense of superiority can breed notions of self-sufficiency…, since those who think that they are all-important can imagine that the minor players are superfluous and dispensable.9

Are there stark differences of wealth or education in your church? Are you just a “dumb farmer” or a “dumb welder”—or perhaps just a “dumb college student”? Do you or others feel you have little to offer either because you lack education or you possess a kind of knowledge that isn’t valued in your social world?

Thiselton surveys Paul’s use of the language of “weakness” throughout 1 Corinthians. Drawing on other scholars, he concludes that Paul is likely referring to people who seem to lack things such as social status, psychological disposition, aptitude, or maturity:

Paul refers to people in the church whose role, or more probably temperament, or perhaps both, present them as less endowed with power or status than others. The “strong” or the “gifted” perceived them as not providing much effective weight or power in the church’s mission, and not much confidence borne of status. They were insufficiently impressive to count for much, either socially or spiritually, within the church, or in terms of what “contacts” or ability they might show for mission or for speaking with wisdom and knowledge to outsiders. Probably they never did effective mighty works or healing, seldom or never prophesied, and perhaps never spoke in tongues.10

Are there persons in your church who are awkward or fearful in social interactions? Do they show, by a hundred involuntary subtle cues, that they are (or see themselves as) poor or inferior?

Do you lack the gift of abundant faith (1 Cor. 12:9)? Does it take as much of your faith for you to get out of bed in the morning as some of your Facebook friends use of their faith when they cast out demons or heal the sick? Do you or does someone you love have mental health challenges (read this)  or wrestle with depression like many great saints past and present (read this)? Do you lack the exhilarating spiritual feelings or experiences that the more expressive saints around you frequently display?

MORE EXAMPLES OF “WEAK” CHRISTIANS

Other examples have been or could be suggested. What about the physically disabled? Those with overwhelming suffering? Those with crooked teeth or weight challenges? Those with awkward grammar, poor spelling, or the wrong accent? What about those who suffer great financial loss rather than pressing their rights in court? Those who unfairly suffer tarnished reputations rather than proving their innocence in a public relations campaign?

What about those who are too black, too brown, or too white? What about those who are not Anabaptist enough (or Baptist or Pentecostal or…)—or those who still smell too Anabaptist? What about those who don’t keep their house or yard or vehicle clean enough—or those who keep everything so polished that you are scared to set foot on their property? What about those who talk too much, or who are too quiet? What about those who share their spiritual struggles too freely, or those who are uncomfortable sharing their struggles in public?

Could we also include those who wrestle for years with the same temptations? Even those who fall into the same sin far too frequently? What about the “weak person” Paul talks about in Romans 14, who is wrongly sensitive about how certain days or foods should be handled?

Examples are endless, and we won’t agree on all of them. I would love to hear your examples! 

WEAK? ACCORDING TO WHOM?

Notice the precise imprecision of Paul’s language:

The parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable, and on those parts of the body that we think less honorable we bestow the greater honor. (1 Cor. 12:22-23)

Paul is talking about persons who “seem to be” weaker, those whom “we think” are less honorable.

Paul is saying that the weakness is, at least in part, in the eye of the beholder. Put more strongly, he is indicating that the persons you and I consider weak may not be weak at all.

On the other hand, they may be weak. But that does not reduce their value. Value in Christ’s body is not measured by either strength or the appearance of strength. No one loses value by being weak or by appearing weak. All alike have been placed by God, who values each and who “composed the body” (1 Cor. 12:24) according to his infinite wisdom.

Why, then, does God include seemingly weak members in Christ’s body? We’ll consider that question in the next post.


Are there weak Christians in your church? Are you, perhaps, a weak Christian? Do you think others consider you one? What values do we tend to use to measure who is strong and who is weak? How valid are these values?

Share your insights in the comments below. And thanks for reading!

  1. John Chrysostom, Homily 31 on First Corinthians, trans. Judith L. Kovacs, as quoted in 1 Corinthians: Interpreted by Early Christian Commentators, The Church’s Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), 208-209.
  2. David Garland, 1 Corinthians, BECNT (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 595, n. 7.
  3. Anthony C. Thiselton, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, NIGTC (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2000), 1008.
  4. Craig Blomberg, 1 Corinthians, NIVAC (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 246.
  5. In 1 Corinthians 11:30 Paul says “many of you are weak and ill” because of partaking wrongly in the Lord’s Table. Almost all commentators agree that here Paul is using the term “weak” in a literal manner, to describe how rich Christians (probably members of the upper social classes) experienced physical illness as God’s judgment. This usage of “weak” (non-metaphorical, given by God as judgment, experienced by the social elite) contrasts sharply with the other examples in this paragraph. Therefore, I don’t think we should count the weak Christians of chapter 11 among the weak Christians Paul is describing in chapter 12.
  6. Homily 30 on First Corinthians, ibid., 208
  7. Ibid., 208
  8. Ibid., 208
  9. Garland, ibid., 595.
  10. Thiselton, ibid., 1007.

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