Tuesday, July 31, 2012

You Can’t Do That! – the “Weaker Brother” (Part 1)

Are we really allowed to do that??

So, what about the “weaker brother”? What about Paul’s instructions that we should not eat meat offered to idols because it could cause a brother to stumble?

There are several passages that Paul wrote dealing with this issue. We’re going to look at them in two sections, starting with the passages from Romans 14 and 1 Cor. 8.

Causing a “weak” brother to “stumble”… giving an “offense.”

In that heading, I’ve captured three of the primary terms used by Paul.

The phrase “weaker brother” comes from Romans 14:1-2, where Paul tells us how to treat “gray” areas when we are with someone who is “weak in faith.”

Twice in Rom. 14, Paul mentions “stumbling”… that is, putting an “obstacle or a stumbling block” in a brother’s way or doing something by which a brother “stumbles” (Rom. 14:13,21)

Finally, there’s a mention about giving “offense” (Rom 14:20).

The parallel passage in 1 Cor. 8 also talks about a brother that is “weak” and causing him to “stumble.”

Define the terms!

If we really want to know what Paul means in order to know how to apply this in our lives, we must know what Paul meant by these terms… and what he didn’t mean.

I’m not going to quote and explain the entire passage here, but I will give the definitions that are easily discernable from the text. I encourage all my readers to study the passages for themselves to see that I’m not just twisting it to my own preferred meaning.

Here are the significant terms:

  • In Rom. 14:2 and in 1 Cor. 8:7,10, we can see that the “weak” brother is one who believes that something is wrong when in fact it is not (this, too, Paul makes clear – 1 Cor. 8:8).
  • But it’s more than just that; the true symptom of his “weakness” is that he is susceptible to influence from others to violate his own conscience by doing that thing which he still believes is wrong.
  • In Rom. 14:14, 22-23 and in 1 Cor. 8:8-9, to “stumble” is a euphemism for participating in an activity in violation of one’s own conscience.
“Stumbling block”
  • in Rom. 14:13,20-21 and in 1 Cor. 8:9-10, the “stumbling block” is the action of the “stronger” brother who has freedom before God to participate in an activity, but when it is seen by the “weaker” brother, that brother decides to go ahead and participate, violating his conscience.
  • In Rom. 14:10, we can see that it is an “offense” to cause a weaker brother to stumble. It is literally a sin against him.

What the words DON’T mean!

The definitions above are easily discernable from the passage itself (please check my conclusions). These are the only things that these words mean in these passages, but just to be clear, let’s point out some things that these words don’t mean… although there are a lot of people that seem to think they do:

  • “Weak” does not mean that someone simply believes an activity is wrong. The person who strongly renounces you for doing something is not “weak,” he’s actually strong! That individual would steadfastly refuse to participate with you in the activity he’s condemning! As Paul said in Rom. 14:5… he’s “fully convinced in his own mind.”
  • “Stumble” does not mean that a person is startled, surprised, bothered, uncomfortable, or affronted by your participation in a “gray” activity. Nor is it a sinful response to what you did (more on that in Part 2)
  • “Stumbling block” is not the “drama” that can arise when one person does something that another person thinks is wrong.
  • “Offense” is not a person “taking offense” that you would “dare do such a thing.” It is not when a person feels insulted by your actions or words (compare Luke 11:37-54 and Matt 15:11-12).

What Paul Really Means:

When we really understand the definitions of the terms as Paul uses them, it’s easy to see what Paul is trying to communicate. Let me summarize:

If you have freedom to do something but your brother does not, if you can discern that he just might go ahead and participate in the activity if he sees you doing it, defer to your brother and don’t do the activity in his presence so that he won’t be tempted to violate his conscience.

The “weaker” brother will not be the one spouting off about how wrong an activity is. In fact, he may say nothing at all. It will take alertness, discernment, and understanding of that brother’s spiritual maturity to detect when an activity should be avoided.

What Paul DIDN’T Mean:

One time, I had a brother who confronted me about my involvement in a “gray area” activity. At one point, he actually told me that I should refrain from it because I should consider HIM to be the “weaker brother.” In other words, he was attempting to use this passage to place restrictions on my behavior in my own home (he lived in a different state!). This is an egregious abuse of Paul’s teaching. The “weaker brother” can never presume to attempt control of others’ behavior based upon this passage.

It also doesn’t mean that whenever people look at us and condemn our actions because they are “offended” by them, that we must stop. We might choose to stop out of politeness or deference, but that’s very different than someone demanding that we abide by their moral convictions.

Making the “Weak” Strong.

Finally, Paul didn’t intend that the stronger brother should never talk about, defend, promote, or even mention the activity in question.

If Paul describes someone as “weak,” what would be his expectation of the “strong” person?

Well, certainly, he does expect the strong brother to voluntarily restrict his own activities while a weak brother cannot yet participate with a clear conscience.

But at the same time, it would be ludicrous to suggest that the “weak” brother has the “right” to remain weak… that he must never be challenged to become stronger regarding what is truly right or wrong.

The strong brother should be prepared to walk a weak brother through the process of reexamining his convictions to ensure that they are based upon truth rather than impressions, misconceptions, or cultural norms.

As the writer of Hebrews indicates in Heb. 5:14, mature (strong) believers will train their consciences to correctly discern what is truly right and what is truly wrong. As a “weak” brother gains strength and matures, this should be happening in his life.

As Biblical Christians, we must be alert to the spiritual maturity of those who look to us for guidance… careful to avoid moving beyond their readiness, but discontent to leave them weak.

— Matthew Neal


In this Series:

You Can’t Do That! - Introduction
You Can’t Do That! - The “Appearance of Evil”
You Can’t Do That! – the “Weaker Brother” (Part 1)
You Can’t Do That! – the “Weaker Brother” (Part 2)
You Can’t Do That! – “For Conscience’ Sake”

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