(Note: The contents of this post reflect a real conversation I had with a friend. However, I have edited it into simple questions and answers for readability. He contributed as much, or more, to the “Answers” as I did, even though they’re in my voice below. For the full context you’ll want to read the original post, here.)
Q: You’ve claimed that the Weaker Brother Principle isn’t about personal sin but about community life, but can’t we still use the Weaker Brother Principle for some kinds of issues which are cultural in origin? For example, what about the church from the 40s and 50s–no drinking, dancing, playing cards, or cinema? If the conscience determines something is sin, isn’t it still sin, and doesn’t the principle still apply?
A: The answer to the question is “Yes, we can.” But we can only do it very advisedly.
The problem is twofold. In the first place, we must object to the manipulative use of the Weaker Brother Principle to maintain a centre while explaining outliers. The centre (who are proscribing behaviours) are by definition the weaker brothers–that’s how Paul has identified them in the passage. But they don’t apply the principle that way–they don’t actually think they are weak. To them it must be made clear that the proscription of activities which have no Scriptural or historical ground as sin is a weakness of faith (i.e., rather than an inward reality, faith is ‘proved’ by a set of predetermined actions–“We don’t smoke and we don’t chew and we don’t go with girls who do.”) The Weaker Brother Principle is, first of all, a public rebuke of sin. That’s what I was hinting at when I mentioned that Romans was originally read out loud. Don’t you see? Paul is publicly identifying one group of believers in the church as weak, and this is not a compliment but a rebuke.
The second problem is with the libertine use of the Weaker Brother Principle to permit some people in the church to abandon holiness in profligacy. These are not exercising their freedom in service but in rebellion. They cannot possibly fulfill the command because they have no actual strength of faith to lend to the brother who is weak in faith.
So, to round this out, for the Weaker Brother Principle to work properly there must be both these elements of rebuke for weakness of faith as well as call to service for those strong in faith. The Weaker Brother Principle exists to strengthen community, not to explain sin.
Q: Still, what about the conscience? If I can’t look at sexual content in movies because I recognize in myself that opening those doors will lead to sin, am I not still weaker? Are you not still stronger?
A: Perhaps you are weaker, and perhaps I am stronger, but that weakness and strength has nothing to do with our faith. This, in focus, was also the problem with the understanding of faith and holiness in the church from the 40s to 80s (or so). Leaders in the church defined ‘faith’ as a set of actions–it was a way of determining who was in and out of fellowship. If you drank, smoked, and danced, you were clearly out; if you avoided those activities you were clearly in. Public perceptions of sin, in other words, came to determine who belonged or didn’t belong in the church. But these were all about outward conduct, and had little to do with inward reality (although the two are, admittedly, linked).
In other words, honoring your conscience by not presenting you with sexual material doesn’t fall under the Weaker Brother Principle–it falls, rather, under the law of love from Romans 13–for if I am loving you, how can I possibly want to do you harm? Again, this is simple courtesy, not necessarily accommodation to weakness.
Q: But what about sins of conscience? What does it mean for one person to drink and another to abstain? For one person to view cinematic content that another must avoid?
A: The answer lies in self-knowledge. Let’s take alcohol as an example. Drinking, we know, is not in itself sinful (although drunkenness is clearly proscribed by Scripture). For you and me, we can visit over beer with no ill effect (quite the contrary, when we visit over beer we have conversations like this one!). But for another brother who struggles with alcoholism that beer–or even the smell of the beer–may be enough to tempt him into falling away from his sobriety. Now sin for our alcoholic brother is not in the alcohol itself but in the moment when he chooses against his conscience and his own limitations. Sin on our part is placing before him a condition which could make him stumble despite our knowing of his limitations. In matters of personal conscience, therefore, if the Weaker Brother Principle obtains it obtains at the level of self-knowledge. You are aware of your personal limitations when it comes to content of movies, as am I of my own for that matter, but we have different limits. It is not that I am particularly ‘free’ to watch whatever I wish–I, equally, am under constraints, but I have to attend to my own conscience to know when I am watching for the right or wrong reasons. That, really, is where sins of conscience fall–not in the activity itself (which, if it is a candidate for this kind of activity, cannot be a sin proscribed by Scripture), but in the limits of the conscience for the individual believer. Now if–and this is a big if–if the Weaker Brother Principle is going to work, then my strength of self-knowledge and maturity of conscience must be converted in accommodation to serve the weakness of your self-knowledge and immaturity of conscience. The goal, for us both, will be greater Christlikeness. But just to clarify, here again the failings of applying the principle to personal sin arise–in what way is an alcoholic’s inability to drink alcohol a ‘weakness of faith’? In what way is the gambling addict’s inability to play cards a ‘weakness of faith’? The Principle can only help to strengthen community, when it comes to matters of conscience and personal sin, when we are strengthening one another in self-knowledge in Christ.
Q: Okay, but how does this all tie in with Paul’s words about idolatry and idol’s feasts in 1 Corinthians 6?
A: It’s funny you should bring that up–weren’t you the one who was just talking to me about Helmut Thielicke’s thoughts on this very subject? In fact, here’s the book now, and here are the relevant paragraphs:
The statements occur in a discussion of the question whether the Christian may eat meat that has been dedicated to pagan gods. In brief, Paul’s position is as follows. In principle there can be no objection, since we have only one God, the Father of Jesus Christ (8:6). To that extent there are for us no other gods. No sacrifices can be made to beings that do not exist and have no significance for us. Hence the meat offered to them is only meat for us. It has no sacral implication. It is simply a means of nourishment. In principle eating idol meat is an adiaphoron, a matter of indifference.
If nevertheless Paul asks the Corinthians to refrain from eating it, this is for different reasons. Christians might participate whose spiritual understanding is undeveloped so that they do not yet see that idols are unreal. Their situation is thus very different from that of mature Christians who can eat without scruples. Since the immature still regard idols as realities, by eating they would be deciding against Christ, not accepting him as the only Lord. Hence those for whom Christ died might be destroyed (8:11). For they would be coming under the power of demons and letting ungodly forces come between them and the one Lord (10:18-22). In simple terms, the reasons why Christians should abstain from idol meats are not theological (there can be no theological reasons in view of the unreality of idols). They are ethical reasons which demand regard for weak and spiritually immature brethren.
The difference between the theological and ethical aspects reflects the ambivalence of what is said about the gods.
Theologically, since there is only one God, the gods are a negligible quantity. Ethically, however, their nothingness can suddenly become a real power which can captivate the weaker brother, who is not yet rendered immune by faith, if he comes under their influence (8:10ff). Perhaps one might put it this way. Whereas God calls things that are not as though they were (Romans 4:17), unbelief calls what is not as thought it were. It enables the idol’s nothingness to become a demonic power (1 Corinthians 10:20). Its nothingness is intrinsically an occasion for achieving freedom over it (10:23, 29). The moment, however, that God is no longer the one and only Lord for me, I am deprived of my freedom by what is outside God. This takes his place as a demonic alter ego. I come under the sway of a power that is nothing in itself but is something for me. It is because the mature Christian cannot let this happen that he must freely abstain from anything that might rob another of his freedom (10:24, 33). (Thielicke, The Evangelical Faith, 96, bold emphasis added)
I think Thielicke ties up our discussion nicely. These aren’t questions of sin per se (i.e., they are not “theological” questions), they are questions of idolatry and culture. Those who are free in Christ recognize that Christ is Lord over all and are free in their conduct. Those who are not yet mature in Christ continue to view the world and culture as having power. This is their weakness (one worthy of public rebuke!), and viewing these things as powers they give to them power. The idol meat is not idolatrous because it is idol meat (because an idol is nothing at all); it is idolatrous because the weak-faithed believer, out of his weakness, gives it power. The Weaker Brother Principle, then, is really about applying my strength of faith to help weaker brothers gain victory in Christ. And this is not a victory of conduct-holiness (proscribing certain behaviours, which is often how we speak of victory), but rather a victory that comes from the ingested knowledge of Christ’s absolute lordship over all things, powers, cultures, histories, events, and so forth. Naturally, when Christ indwells us in power more fully our conduct will change accordingly, holiness being a byproduct of Christlikeness, but the metrics of holiness are outside the Weaker Brother Principle, which is ultimately about knowledge of Christ’s absolute Lordship leading to service for the saints.