(WARNING: slightly longer than normal post)
So, I was reading in I Corinthians chapter 8 where Paul is addressing how our Christian liberty is to be held in Christian love. How we are not to do a thing that will cause a weaker brother to stumble. How exactly am I supposed to identify and respond to this weaker brother?
In my early years, this passage was used (along with Romans 14) to point to any action that, although Scripture didn’t condemn, someone else may think it is sinful so I should abstain from it. As I grew older, I began to notice that there was a word that wasn’t ever taught to me – Liberty. If a preacher, or pew-person, could possibly misconstrue something as sinful or be offended at my actions (this “offend” is not the biblical use of offend mind you) then I was told that I should not do said action. For example, I have been told that my going to a movie theater is wrong because it could cause someone else to stumble, so I was to avoid going to theaters. But is this really what this passage is teaching? If the action isn’t wrong inherently, but may bother someone else who has a sensitive conscience over the matter, am I to be bound by their sensitivity even if they’re not around? How are they to ever become strong in The LORD if all the stronger believers are never helping the weak understand?
One of the things we must do from the outset is define what Scripture is speaking of when it says we are not to cause our brother to stumble or cause offense. In I Corinthians and Romans we see that the offense is done when the weaker brother engages in an action that he believes in his conscience is wrong. It is not the brother looking at me with disdain, or disappointment, wondering how I could do such things and still love God. This can be seen contextually. In Romans, Paul tells the vegetarian brother who sees his meat-eating brother enjoying a steak to not judge him. So the veggie-bro actually sees the carni-bro eating meat. Paul doesn’t tell the carni-bro to only eat his meat in a closet or refrain from it all together. In I Corinthians we are told to not eat if we know it will cause a brother to stumble, and Paul uses some extreme hyperbolic language to get his point across – we know it’s hyperbolic because Paul didn’t become a vegetarian for the rest of his life after writing this passage. As a matter of fact, the whole reason Paul is addressing this is because the veggi-bros saw the carni-bros eat and each group didn’t know how to handle the other. Paul tells both groups from the outset of Romans 14 that when, not if, they see their brother doing the opposite of what they think if right not to judge or condemn him. So Paul is essentially telling them, “Don’t get all offended when you see your brother doing something that Scripture doesn’t condemn but you do.” A real world example of how silly trying not to “offend” any believer would be is this: I drive an ’05 Honda Odyssey (I make payments on it, which to some this in and of itself is a sin so they’re already “offended” at me). It’s got quite a few nice features on it. Now someone, without a doubt, will look at what I drive and think it’s more luxurious than necessary. Thinking it is a sign of me being consumed with the world, they will be offended at me and may even voice their issue to me. Yet, if I drive a “beater” there will be some who think I am not representing Jesus to the world in an honoring way. They will be offended that I drive such a junky vehicle (when I could have nicer) and the world sees it as if I don’t take care of things, or that God isn’t able to provide. (I actually know people who use this mentality to spend inordinate amounts of money on décor, so I’m not fibbing here.) Now matter what I drive, I will “offend” someone. Luckily for us, Paul isn’t speaking of this type of offense, or we couldn’t even sit at home without offending someone.
What Paul is teaching us, with the authority of Jesus Christ behind his words, is that we are not to flaunt our liberty. There is a temptation to use one’s liberty to the demise of another brother. This weaker brother is to be considered in love when it comes to our freedom. I can take my son to the movies without fear of being seen by someone who may think I’m sinning. If a weaker brother sees me walking into the theater, but I am unwitting of it, then I am not disobeying Scripture. (I can talk with my brother about it later if the opportunity arises.. I should do so.) But I am not to knowingly invite a weaker brother to the movies, for this may put undue pressure on him. He may rationalize that since I am a believer then he can come along even though his conscience is still screaming “SIN!” Although it isn’t wrong for him to go to the theater, he doesn’t have that liberty of conscience as of yet. He may one day, but not at this moment.
This is the weaker brother that Paul is speaking of. Often times, though, it is the Pharisee that employs this passage to “warn” us, and it is the Pharisee that is thought Paul is speaking of. It is vital that we differentiate between the two. For example, Jesus rebuked the Pharisee for their legalism. He harvested grain on the Sabbath knowing they would get all bent out of shape over it. Paul even made a difference when it came to circumcision. Timothy was circumcised, and Titus was not. Paul used Titus as an example of standing against legalism, and Timothy one of “becoming all things to all men”. There is a difference between a weaker brother and a Pharisee.
Here is something I found at Bible.org and found it helpful.
The Weaker Brother
An analysis of these passages reveals four weaknesses which define the weaker brother.
He is weak in faith (Rom. 14:1-2; cf. 22-23).
Faith as used here means a firm, intelligent conviction based on Scripture that something is okay or not okay. The Greek text has “the faith” which may sometimes refer to the body of truth which is to be taken in faith, but due to context (vss. 2, 14), the article should be taken as a personal pronoun, “his faith.”
He is weak in knowledge (1 Cor 8:7; cf. Rom. 14:14).
This is the reason for his lack of conviction, a lack of biblical understanding of God’s grace. His faith is either misinformed or lacking in biblical content which included three issues.
They did not realize the idol was nothing. They had not seen the implications that “there is only one true God” (1 Cor. 8:4-5).
They did not know that food offered to “a nothing” was not spiritually affected and that it could not be unclean in itself (Rom. 14:14).
Finally, they do not understand that food cannot commend us to God, that food in itself has no spiritual bearing on our spiritual lives (1 Cor. 8:8).
He is weak in conscience
This means his conscience is based on human standards and norms and is overly sensitive, condemning him for things Scripture does not (1 Cor. 8:7; 10, 12).
He is weak in his will
He is weak in his will because he can be influenced to do something contrary to his conscience, or to act without becoming fully convinced by Scripture that something is either right or wrong. In this case, the weaker person acts on the example of the stronger believer without biblical conviction and faith. This violates his conscience, and so causes him to sin against the Lord (1 Cor. 8:10).
The weaker brother is any believer who, because of the weakness of his faith, conscience, knowledge, and will, can be influenced to sin against his conscience by the example or life style of a stronger brother. The weaker brother is not just a new or immature believer; he is not a Christian who happens to differ with you or me on some issue, but he or she is one who can be influenced to act contrary to their conscience or personal convictions (14:23; 1 Cor. 8:9-12).
The Pharisee Believer
Warnings of Scripture regarding being judgmental of others such as Matthew 7:1-3 undoubtedly had in mind the Pharisees. The Pharisee mentality is a problem among all people, and God’s people are not exempt because we still have old patterns that need to be dealt with along with a sinful nature that wars against the Spirit (Gal. 5:16).
Not understanding God’s righteousness in Christ, this type of believer works to gain God’s righteousness or to be accepted with God (Rom. 14:1-10). The tendency is for such believers to look down on those who do not do and believe as they do in regard to debatable issues. This was one of the problems for the church at Galatia (Ga. 5:1-15). Romans 16:17 warns about those who cause dissensions, and a critical spirit is associated with such people. Those involved in the fan clubs mentioned in 1 Corinthians 3:3 were critical of others in an effort to promote their favorite teacher. In fact, Paul warns of this in 1 Corinthians 4:3 (cf. also 2 Cor. 10:7-12; 4:6).
This believer is characterized by a number of things.
He lacks in biblical understanding of the believer’s freedom in Christ and his deliverance from the works of the law, or from human works as a means of salvation or spirituality. So he is a legalist. Legalism is not simply the conviction certain things are wrong, nor the avoidance of certain things. Rather it is an observance or an avoidance done in order to merit favor with God.
He has very strong convictions about his list of taboos, but his convictions are based primarily on his own background and prejudices rather than the teaching of Scripture.
He is often strong willed. He is able to resist pressure from others to conform to their standards. He tends not to be influenced by the example of others and often takes religious pride in his taboos, for to him they are a sign of his super-spirituality.
Above all he tends to be hyper-critical and judgmental and seeks to get others to conform to his opinions. Those who will not conform he rejects and refuses to accept.
He is usually not too hungry for the in-depth study of Scripture. He tends to be superficial and an externalist.
So, here we see that we are to walk in love for our brother; and not to permit our liberty to be a stumbling block to the weaker brother. Yet when confronted with Pharisee-ism we are to rebuke and tenaciously defend the liberty we have in Christ, for to succumb to legalism is to distort that gospel. We may disagree with one another, and this isn’t grounds on which to refrain from something just because we see it two different ways. We are to refrain from placing a weaker brother in a position where he is pressured to act in opposition to his conscience in a matter. I show deference out of love for him. I can try to help him realize his freedom in Jesus, but am not to pressure him to act contrary to his conscience. The thing that makes this so difficult is there are pastors who are keeping the weaker brother’s soul emaciated by continually teaching as doctrines the commandments of men. The teach men a list of sins that are not based upon God’s word. Instead of being taught to walk by The Spirit, they are handed an extra-biblical rule book and told to walk by that. – but that’s another topic for another day.