What does Paul mean when he speaks of God distributing a measure of faith to those in the body of Christ? Is faith a thing that can be measured and bottled up?
“For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, according as God hath dealt to every man the measure of faith.” (Romans 12:3)
The common interpretation of this verse argues that faith is a gift of God and that each one of us is given a measure or quantity of faith that acts in accordance with the spiritual gifts God has given us. It’s easy to see why this has become the commonly agreed upon reading, however, in the social context of the ancient world we see that Paul had an entirely different point in mind.
I’ve noted elsewhere that in the ancient world of the Bible relationships between higher and lower classes functioned within a structure known as patronage. Within this structure, a low-class citizen acted as a client to a willing high-class citizen who acted as his patron. The patron would offer provision and support to those who needed it in return for their work and loyalty. It is through this setup that the ancients would have understood their relationship to God. The wealthy (God) acted as a patron to the poor (us) through a covenant broker (Jesus). In return for our loyalty and service, the patron would give provision, favour, and care to his client, essentially forming a circle of reciprocity. God gives grace and we respond with faith and gratitude.
Notice how faith is not one of the gifts God offers us. God offers His gift of grace (salvation, provision, and atonement) and we are the ones who are expected to respond with faith (trust and loyalty). The patron doesn’t give his client faith (I’ll direct readers to another article at the link below that will provide more information).
This social context is vitally important when it comes to our interpretation of Romans 12:3. If faith is a gift then we can not help but read this verse as if faith were a thing that can have various levels or amounts. But clearly, faith isn’t a thing that can be handed out at your local kitchen for the homeless. Faith isn’t something that can be stored in bottles and measured. Faith is an active relationship of trust and loyalty to someone who has proven himself to be trustworthy and loyal.
We can begin to uncover what Paul had intended to say by finding out what the original Greek language said. The Greek word for “measure” in this verse is metron. The NAS New Testament Greek Lexicon defines it as,
An instrument for measuring
a vessel for receiving and determining the quantity of things, whether dry or liquid
a graduated staff for measuring, a measuring rod
proverbially, the rule or standard of judgment.
A metron isn’t a unit of measurement but the tool that is used to determine the measurement. In other words, it helps us determine the standard. If something is off the tool gives us the ability to know that something needs adjusting to make it level. To every one of us, God has given the perfect standard with which to measure our dependence on Him with. We can look and compare ourselves with the standard.
What is the standard? It is God’s faithfulness. It is His trustworthiness, His ever-reliable provision and care, His truth, and His active love towards us. God has given each of us this metron of faith, a measuring stick that enables us to know what is perfect and good. The spiritual gifts that Paul goes on to mention do not and can not come from us. They depend on God’s act of giving. What we do with that gift is measured by the standard of faith that Christ has shown us.
Paul instructs his audience to not be boastful and proud and to do this he tells them to judge themselves according to the standard of faith; so now we can read the verse like so, “For I say, through the grace given unto me, to every man that is among you, not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think; but to think soberly, judging yourselves according to the standard of God’s faithfulness, a faithfulness that He has shown to each one of us.”
In conclusion, if we choose to follow Christ we will discover His standard and we will know how to carry out His will by using the gifts He has given us. Your gift doesn’t require less faith than another’s for although we each have a different function and part to play we all get to know and experience God’s faithfulness and unconditional love for us.