Who are the “weaker brothers” anyway?
David W. Hegg
Growing up I regularly heard about the weaker brother and how it was my responsibility not to do anything to offend him. Consequently, all kinds of things were put in the “off limits” column. “You can’t do this, or that because … what if a weaker brother or sister saw you, and was offended? Then you’d have caused them to sin, and that would be sin for you!” I must admit I often thought it would be cool to be the weaker brother since he obviously had all the power.
And if this wasn’t bad enough, that same list of “don’ts and can’ts” was used to measure the spirituality of every professing Christian around. Apparently it was fun to do because it gave those in my faith community great joy to announce the audit exceptions discovered in other’s lives. “Did you see what she was wearing? Did you hear they actually _____________________?” (fill in the blank with saw a movie, played cards, went dancing, had a glass of wine, went shopping on Sunday, or missed prayer meeting.)
All this arose from some mysterious doctrine that centered on the weaker brother, and it seemed refraining from anything that might offend, or cause him to stumble, was the whole point of being a Christian. As I came to understand it, following Jesus was all about what you couldn’t or shouldn’t do … and it was always focused on that lousy, all-powerful weaker brother. Apparently he wasn’t weak at all because he ruled the roost. His feelings trumped everything else.
Eventually I worked up the nerve to ask where this super eingespritzen doctrine was found in the Bible. No sooner had the question sprung from my mouth than my ears were sent ringing with the response: “It is clearly laid out by Paul in Romans 14:13-23, and 1 Corinthians 8:1-13!” It was as though I was a dunderheaded fool not to know the biblical basis of this cardinal doctrine that formed the basis for our view of the Christian life. Duh!
Imagine my surprise when, during my college days, I took the time to actually read these texts in the context Paul placed around them! I found out they had been misunderstood, mangled, and mutilated to “prove” a legalistic mind-set I am sure to this day has ruined more lives than any bottle of beer, deck of cards, or Hollywood movie.
Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look …
Romans 14 starts with a healthy exhortation from the Apostle about the serious dangers involved in judging other Christians. (Apparently the party of judgmental legalism skips these!) By the time we get to vs. 13-23 Paul has moved on from judging to the idea of putting a “stumbling block or hindrance” in the path of a fellow-believer.
Paul’s topic in this text is the matter of people disagreeing over what they should or shouldn’t eat and drink. At issue is whether the dietary laws of the Old Covenant still pertain. That is, whether some foods are still to be considered “unclean” and off limits.
Paul’s exhortation runs like this, and it will help if you have an open Bible in front of you (and an open mind won’t hurt either!):
1. No food is really unclean (vs. 14a, 20b)
2. But, if your conscience tells you it is unclean, and should not be eaten, don’t eat it because it is sinful to go against your conscience. (vs. 14b, 23)
3. So, if you’re with someone whose conscience is still uninformed as to the reality that in God’s eyes no food is unclean, please, please, please don’t flaunt your right to eat it. If you do, you may maneuver your friend into eating something that goes against his conscience (see point #2). (vs. 15,16, 20, 21)
4. If you do flaunt your rights, and cause another believer to act against his conscience you have disregarded the highest law (love) and are grieving your brother, and perhaps guilty of “destroying the one for whom Christ died.” (see point #2) (vs. 15,16, 20)
5. After all, the kingdom of God is not about what you eat or drink. It is all about righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. What he is really saying here is the kingdom is supposed to bring unity in Christ, and judging one another (vs. 1-12) and influencing another brother to sin by going against his conscience (vs. 13-23) is actually divisive.
1. The person who is “offended” is the one who is uninformed about the reality that no food is unclean. (In 1 Corinthians 8, the “weaker” brother is the uninformed, untaught, biblically ignorant brother. And, as we will see, there is an important question that needs to be asked: Is it loving to allow that brother to remain ignorant, untaught, and uninformed?)
2. The meaning of “stumble” is not that someone is offended, miffed, ticked off, disgusted, or otherwise incensed by the action being taken, but that they engage in an activity that goes against their conscience. It is essential to understand that “stumble” does not mean “to be offended.” It means to sin by acting against your conscience.
And note, the concern here is the person with the weaker, untaught, uninformed conscience might be led to sin by the action of the stronger person even though the action at issue is not wrong!
Now, let’s look at the more clear text from Paul … 1 Corinthians 8. Again, having the Bible open in front of you will make it much easier to understand Paul’s meaning.
Paul’s argument can be summarized this way:
1. When it comes to dealing with the issue of food that has been previously offered to idols, everyone claims to have “knowledge.” In some cases, this knowledge has led to puffed up pride, but what is really needed is love, and it is by our love that we demonstrate our relationship with God. (vs. 1-3)
2. There is nothing wrong with eating food offered to idols because, in reality, idols have no more spiritual power or properties than do the stones they are made of! There is only one God, and we know who he is, and you can put filet mignon in front of a block of rock till the cows come home and it won’t get anything except rancid. The meat will not be imparted with any idolatrous juju at all.
Second, if you eat some prime rib that once sat in front of a statue, it doesn’t mean you have any connection to some idolatrous ideology. Eating the meat does not signify you have unknowingly offered worship to a pagan deity. (vs. 6)
3. But, not everyone understands point #2. Some with an extensive background in idol worship still have weak, uniformed consciences in this area.
(Note: Here, as in Romans 14, the “weak” person is the one with the uninformed, ignorant, biblically illiterate conscience. In vs. 7, 9, 10b, 11, 12 the word “weak” is used 5 times, and each time it refers to the person whose conscience is uninformed as to the true nature of the meat).
It is this uninformed, ignorant, “weak in the conscience” person we are to be especially considerate of so as not to, in any way, cause him to sin by acting against his conscience.
4. Food actually has no power to merit either God’s love or his condemnation. (vs. 8)
5. What God really cares about isn’t food, but how we treat those with weak, uninformed, biblically ignorant consciences. (vs. 9)
6. Those who know the meat is good to eat, and who are dining with someone with a weak conscience must not flaunt their knowledge by eating it in front of the weaker brother, and thereby influence him to eat as well, and thus, sin by going against his conscience. (10-13).
7. As in Romans 14, to “stumble” is not to be ticked off, disgusted, angered, miffed, incensed or otherwise put out by someone who is eating something you think is unclean. To “stumble” is to act contrary to your conscience and eat meat you actually think is morally tainted, or eat when you really think to do so is an act of worship to a pagan deity. (vs. 10). Bluntly put, to “stumble” is to go against your conscience and do what you believe is sinful.
1. The person being protected here is one who does not yet understand that the thing he is afraid of, or offended by, is actually permissible in God’s eyes. Mark it down … eating food offered to idols is permissible in God’s sight.
2. The problem here is not that someone might be offended, angered, or incensed at some other believer’s actions in eating meet previously offered to idols, but that a weak believer might actually be led to sin against their conscience and eat the meat.
3. The harmful teaching too often added through a legalistic, gerrymandering misinterpretation of this biblical text is that believers are mandated to refrain from a permissible activity just in case someone who has no intention of joining in that activity thinks that activity is just plain wrong! Please don’t miss this! Paul says nothing about some believer who might be self-righteously indignant at seeing him eat the “forbidden” meat! He has no care about that. His only care is for the person who might actually join him in eating, but in doing so go against his conscience.
4. The scenario Paul creates has only two cast members: First, we have the believer whose conscience is informed about the permissibility of eating the meat, and understands how to enjoy a good steak purchased at a discount from the pagan meat distributor.
Second, is the believer whose conscience is uninformed, and as a result, he is still troubled about eating that steak. Note that there is no third party who gets to use either Romans 14 or 1 Corinthian 8 to argue that no one should eat the meat just in case someone else might be offended. Paul only speaks to an actual occasion where a weak brother would truly be influenced to sin against his conscience.
My Take: Here’s the deal. In my experience, when it comes to areas of permissible Christian liberty, those who get most offended seeing a Christ-follower drink a beer, or attend a movie, or whatever, are never those who are then tempted to drink, or attend and thereby, act against their consciences. No, they are just miffed, and in their “miff-ness” they have banded together, ripped the heart out of these two texts, and created a legalistic ethos that has made it almost impossible for several generations of young Christ-followers to understand what it really means to follow Christ, passionately, biblically, and from the heart.
So, next time you see a believer drinking a beer, unless conscience starts shouting “that’s sinful” and you are tempted to drink one too, - and thereby have to admit you’re the weaker brother - turn your anger off and walk away. You don’t have a case, and you no longer get to make other believers, engaged in permissible activities, feel like second-class Christ-followers on the basis of your legalistic Scripture twisting.
And to those of you who have Scripture-steeped consciences, and consider yourselves mature, heed this warning. Just because you are allowed to do something doesn’t mean you should do it, or that there are no dangers attached to it. Never be so immature as to think you’re mature enough to push through the boundaries of your liberty into the bondage of excess. Many things that are permissible in moderation can become subtle tyrants when used in excess. Lastly, remember, pride in being “right” is never acceptable to our Lord. Arrogance is never an attractive accessory for the one who has denied self and taken up the cross to follow Christ closely.
My Hope: I’ve shared all that with you so I could say this: It just isn’t loving to let the believer with a weak, uninformed conscience remain ignorant of God’s true view. To do so creates at least two problems:
First, it is never right to knowingly leave someone thinking something God doesn’t think. It is never loving to leave someone believing error if it is in our power to bring the necessary correction.
Second, weak, uninformed people are in danger of sinning against their consciences, and that’s really bad for them, and the testimony of Christ. That happens to be why Paul wrote as he did in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8.
What we need is a renewed commitment to God’s Word as the only infallible authority in our lives. For those who teach the Bible, it means doing so in a way that the original author would applaud. For those who listen, it means being careful to get the whole picture, to read the Bible broadly and consistently, and to make sure God’s truth overrules our pet peeves and traditional preferences.
The weaker brothers and sisters have had their day, and I say let’s inform them and take away both their fears and their power. After all, we’re all servants of Christ, bound by his Word, and anything that tears down our unity is an enemy to us all.
Who’s with me?