Friday, August 17, 2007

Who are the "Weaker Brothers"

I have always wondered about Paul’s references to “weaker brothers” in the New Testament, and how those arguments apply to the modern church. After a lot of reading, studying, and exegesis of 1st Corinthians and Romans 14 I am convinced that Paul is not talking about people who’d be upset that their narrow understandings were being violated. He isn’t speaking about them being offended. He’s addressing a very real possibility of falling away. They had come out of paganism. They remembered those pagan temples; they could recall the thrill of the meals; they still had memories of the way moral restraint was lifted in that environment. One smell of that meat might lead them down a road to their old lives. That's why he talks about their faith being "destroyed." The “strong Christians” might know that it isn’t a package deal; but these weaker brothers and sisters might be caught up into idolatry. It’s important to know what he’s saying. And it’s equally important to know what he’s not saying. These “weaker brother” passages have been used too many times to endorse the position of the person with the most narrow way. It has nothing to do with that.

Here is a very insightful comment from my favorite New Testament Scholar, N.T. Wright:
“Sometimes people from a very narrow background, full of rules and restrictions which have nothing to do with the gospel itself and everything to do with a particular social subculture, try to insist that all other good Christians should join them in their tight little world. But in a case like that the rule-bound Christians are in no danger of having their consciences damaged. They are not being ‘led astray.’ They are quite sure of their own correctness. Paul is dealing with a very different case.”


Brian England said...
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Brian England said...

Alright, I'll play devil's advocate. I understand your point and agree with the sentiment. But, I think your reading of the text is much too narrow. I'm not sure you can limit it to the problem of new pagan converts falling away. That may have been an issue Paul was addressing--even the main issue (but, there is also textual evidence that something else was going on as well). Such a reading is certainly convenient for the more "progressive" thinkers/doers among us. There has been more than one occassion where I have felt that a small group of people were holding the entire community hostage because they were merely offended. Taking your reading of that text, in such a situation, I would simply say, "I do not have to temper my actions or constrain my freedom because this text is only dealing with matters that might cause people to completely lose their faith."

Assuming Romans was written to address many specific problems, it seems there is one central concern he keeps going back to, how to keep the body from splintering. Love. Love. Love. Way too touchey feeley for me. But, I digress. Many good men, who are way smarter than me, have adopted your reading of the text. I'm just not convinced when you look at the letter as a whole. I prefer a much broader reading, which would require, at times, the sacrifice of personal freedoms for the sake of all members. This type of ethic consistently weaves its way in and out of the letter. I would say a word study of "destroy" would be helpful (but, still not conclusive). I'll leave that to you. One's faith can be destroyed by other ways then just returning to paganism or completely falling away.

Here's a slippery slope argument: If you are told a certain activity is wrong your entire life, your conscience will bother you, even if the thing is morally good or neutral.

Regardless of whether a conscience is properly or improperly informed, it is still best to never violate one’s conscience. As Martin Luther famously said, “To go against conscience is neither right nor safe!” Everytime that a person violates his or her conscience it becomes easier to do so the next time. If one violates one’s own conscience in even a morally neutral matter, it is still a violation of conscience and will result in a weakening of your conscience in other areas which require moral judgment. Does this qualify as destroying one's faith?

Assume we adopt your reading of text, how do you apply it today?
Would this apply to brothers and sisters who have quietly left their church because changes have come too fast and too far for them to accept? Think about the family that grew up in a place like Kaufman and felt they needed to leave. I try to imagine how hurt and betrayed they may feel. They often leave bitter, angry and resentful (sometimes with pure hatred). Can these feelings not lead to destruction of their spirit? Are we to just dismiss them without taking any responsibility for their reactions? I can certainly rationalize my responsibility away. Lets hear it.

Charles Sean North said...

That's precisely my question - how to apply a teaching very specific to problems in Corinth and problems in Rome to the church today? It's not easy. For the sake of love and unity the strong very often should bow to the weak, which is very interesting, because in Romans those who are doctrinally right need to give in to those who are wrong for the sake of peace. But what about freedom in Christ, and Paul's eviscerating (there's that word again) those who would seek to hamper that? This is a very confusing question. I'm not sure there is a right answer.

Bill Jordan said...
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Bill Jordan said...

Oh, I think there's an answer. We just don't always like it. It's called "The Golden Rule."

Charles Sean North said...

Because of my earlier rant I'm real hesitant to give concrete examples, but I can say this - following your own conscience is commendable, along with avoiding the proverbial "slippery slope," but the moment you assign another Christian to hell because they differ from you, you have lost the moral high ground, you are no longer entitled to "weaker brother" status, your attitude is sinful, you are a schismatic (that's just one notch down from heretic), and you are guilty of violating every love command in the NT.

Brian England said...

I agree. It would be hard to imagine a situation where it would be appropriate for someone to use this scripture claiming "weaker brother" status to constrain others from acting in a manner he is uncomfortable with. This is a passage we should all use to curb our OWN behavior for the benefit of others. Unfortunately, many use it to attempt to curve the behavior of others for their own benefit.

Charles Sean North said...

That's really good!

Charles Sean North said...

I think you guys will really like Sunday's sermon - "Open Our Eyes Lord"

Bill Jordan said...

I've had to ponder this and study for a couple of days. I may not have had enough time to wrap my mind around it like I want to, but I know you'll move on to another topic soon, so I'll share what little I've got "figured out."

... and Charles, before I forget, today's sermon was good. You may not really understand the impact that you delivered by having Terry give that short report today. But for many in the congregation it was an "eye opener" because he's been in torment about the church plant, or the problems associated with the church plant, for a long time. It was like him really saying, "ah, I've had my eyes opened, now I see the good that's happening and I'm not focused on the bad or hurt that's come from all this any longer."

... anyway, back to the subject:

I Corinthians 10: 29 says, "... for why should my freedom be judged by another's conscience?

I know we all know what Paul says there, but it runs in the opposite direction of our way of thinking. And yes, it runs in the opposite direction most of the time when we use it along with the "weaker brother" way of thinking.

But the real message I think that Paul is trying to get across is is down in verses 31 thru 33.

Is our action "doing it all for the glory of God?"

Maybe Charles can explain this, I can't, but verse 1 in chapter 11 really sounds like it needs to be verse 34 of chapter 10.

Jesus no doubt had to deal with some "weak" thinking. Actually, that's an understatement for the ages! But what he was doing or saying certainly was for the glory of God. So do we follow Christ' example in dealing with this question?

There were probably a lot of Pharisees who had their conscience tested by Jesus but he didn't back off just to protect them as "weaker brothers." He pressed ahead for the glory of God.

The reality is we really don't see any "weaker brothers" about to stumble and fall away. We see "weaker brothers" who are pressed outside of their comfort zone. We should be patient and loving with them, but we need to press on for the glory of God.

Finally, we need to be smart enough to know the difference in "the glory of God" and glory for ourselves. The truth is we press too hard and too far sometimes because of selfishness or the simple fact that we want to move ahead and get to a place where we are comfortable.

Sorry I couldn't think of any big words to throw in with this comment, but the word, "patient" is about as deep as I can be on this topic.

Brian England said...

Bill, in regard to what Jesus was doing, is there a distinction between the actions and people he challenged and the behavior Paul was addressing?

mike holder said...

It is said that pain accompanies growth. While I understand that this is not always the case, it is a usable generality. Maybe the place we should find ourselves is somewhere in between where I think my freedom allows and where someone else thinks we've gone to far.

If we are all stretched, all be it in different directions, maybe we will all experience growth together.

This begs the question, "Can I grow if I am not moving what I perceive as forward?"

This is something I really struggle with and I am fairly confident I am not alone.

Charles Sean North said...

I struggle with that all the time - and I'm really impatient about growth as well! Here's a saying I ponder a lot, and it may be relevant here - "There can be no resurrection without death first." That applies to individuals and all kinds of institutions as well.

Brian England said...

Imagine that, a preacher being impatient about growth. It is ironic that preachers lead institutions that are so slow to change.

My point about Jesus is that he was generally speaking to matters that were essential to Kingdom living. In Romans 14, Paul was addressing matters of one's conscience. I think Bill is 100% correct when your talking about matters that are keeping "outsiders" out and the lost from being saved. But, can we honestly say that the matters that have caused the most division qualify? It seems to me that this always comes up when dealing with how to keep the saved motivated, interested and engaged in church. Those of us that are impatient with those who are stunting progress, want to move foward in regard to matters that are more about style than substance.

Jesus focused on practices that kept a large segment of the population from participating in community because of the strict interpretation of the law. He opened the door for outsiders. Rarely, does this come up today.

Lets be honest, we are not talking about changing practices that are keeping the "outsiders" from experiencing Life in the Kingdom. We are talking about matters that benefit us "insiders."

Brian England said...

BTW, I reserve the right to change my opinion on this matter depending on the situation.

As an example (one which most here will disagree with me to some extent)--women's roles. I consider women today to be our "outsiders." I believe women should be invited to full participation, including preaching (sorry Charles). We have allowed our culture to dictate the extent to which women can participate in our community. Now, this is a subject that I agree with Mike--pain accompanies growth. Since most of you are my shepherds, don't worry, I'm not trying to push this agenda.

Anyway, my opinion is rather fluid.

Joe D said...

I have been out of town the last couple of days and have not been able to participate in this debate. I hate that because it is the first one I have seen that didn't quote 77 facts and figures from the restoration period.

Anyway, I think that Charles is right in that Paul was dealing with a very specific problem and a very specific people. Taken in strict context, it obviously deals with an issue of "weaker" brother and guarding their new and fragile "citizenship" in the kingdom. In that regard you can say that it doesn't apply to any contemporary situation unless there is a danger of offending a weaker brother and they would "fall away" if the behaviour continued. Taken in the strictest of context, it would not apply to a situation where there is a person or group of vocal people who are fussing about an issue. However if we take things in the strictest of context, then many things in the Bible would be invalid due to the fact that the writer was talking to a specific group of people about a specific problem that is out of context for today. However our approach to the Bible has never been quite that way in that everything has relevance in some way. Even this passage has some relevance and application for us. The bottom line in my mind is that we ALL need to be sensitive to the needs and feelings of others. On one hand, the person who is "offending" needs to rethink his activities or views if it is "offensive" or uncomfortable to the other person. On the other hand, the one who is "offended" needs to realize that he has a responsibility as well to not be offensive or rash with his complaints and not hold the entire congregation at gunpoint threatening to leave if things do go their way.

In the strictest of contexts, the contemporary application of this would be if there was a "new convert" that came out of say-- Buddhism or Islam or even Catholicism and was offended at a statement or reference to idolatry for instance. We would then be bound to protect the fragile nature of the new convert's feelings. However the IMPLIED application is that we need to bear with one another and know that we all come from different backgrounds and we are all inherently different by nature. We can't be caught fighting and debating and wrestling with each other over matters that are individual and preferential. If we are seen fighting and bickering over matters of debatable significance and consequence, how "offensive" are we then to strong and weak brothers alike?

Joe D said...

How did this morph into women's roles? Did we make some quantum leap? Brian are you just LOOKING for a "weaker" brother? You--- "pot stirrer", you!!

When I read your comment about women's roles, I think I distinctly heard in the back of my mind the bugle sound that signals the beginning of a horse race and the sounds of horses entering the gates!!!!!!!

Charles Sean North said...

Brian - I actually agree with you on woman's roles. I don't want to get into it any further here (sorry Joe D.), but maybe I will fine tune my exegesis and present my thoughts as a post soon.

Bill Jordan said...

I guess I need to try and answer Brian's first question, or at least give my opinion.

I'd say there was a big distinction between the people Jesus was challenged by and the situation Paul was refering to in the passage.

The Pharisees were all wrapped up in traditions, laws, ceremony. The "weaker brother" Paul referenced in my way of thinking would be a new convert to The Way or one that had not matured as quickly as Paul would have liked to have witnessed.

That's not to say a Pharisee couldn't have a conscience, because I'm sure there were plenty of them who felt deep down inside their faith and where it was based was true and just. But for the most part those that cause the real controntation with Jesus were not in a battle with their conscience as I see it. They were in all-out war to protect their turf, their comfort zones, their way of living. They were a people that claimed to be looking for the Savior, but refused to see him when he stood right in front of them healing the sick and speaking with authority. Basically, they were hanging on for dear life and were willing to take Jesus life to protect their own.

That's not the same subject matter as someone that Paul is talking about being sensitive to and protecting just because they might still be searching for better understanding.

In today's context, if someone complains that "I'm just not comfortable with this or that" I accept and appreciate their honesty and feel I should be patient with them. But when somone complains about the same subject matter and wraps it up with a defense that is a clear mask just to protect their comfort zone then I become frustrated pretty quick.

We never hear the voice of a Pharisee in the Bible saying something like, "But Christ, I don't understand." Or, "We've done this for so long it's hard for me to change my way of thinking."

On the other hand, especially in the context Paul was talking about, I can see people looking at what was going on with wondering glances and expressing feelings of uncertainty. I think those looks and expresssion prompted his advice on dealing with "weaker brothers." He was dealing with people who's spirtual lives were in transitions and he didn't want them swept away by confusion.

P.S. I refuse to be drawn into the topic of "women's roles" by Brian until that is the subject Charles picks.

Brian England said...

[grinning ear to ear]

I Really wasn't trying to hijack the thread, but the responses give me great amusement. I was just making the point that my convictions on this matter are subject to change when things that I consider important are being discussed.

Speaking of women, the way you "men" ran from that subject reminded me of early morning shoppers waiting for the door to open at Target to run down the isle back toward the limited panty sale.

Charles Sean North said...

Brian - is this you being provocative?

Joe D said...


I think I know what subject comes with the next blog!!!

And Brian--- just how do you know enough about the subject to intelligently compare the retreat to "early morning shoppers waiting for the door to open at Target to run down the isle back toward the limited panty sale"? Interesting point of reference. We may be realizing the real source of Brian's views on women's roles.

And yes, Charles--- well known fact about Brian. He chooses to be provocative for the sake of being provocative.

Bill Jordan said...

It concerns me more that he apparently hangs around the door at Target in the early morning hours.

Brian England said...

I now know the exact picture of myself I need to post next to my comments.

mike holder said...

We may be learning more about Brian than we ever wanted to know.

Joe D said...

Personally, I am not LEARNING anything about Brian, just getting confirmation of what I already strongly suspected. Maybe he's hinting at the picture of the "GOOD SIDE" he referenced earlier.

Bill Jordan said...

I feel compelled to invite all of you over to my blog where we are discussing manly things like Ice Road Trucking today. It may not improve the level of conversation any, but at least over there I don't have to worry about Brian soiling Charles' blog and good reputation.

Brian England said...

Hey now, I haven't "soiled" anything (at least not recently).