The Weaker Brother, Part 2: A Q&A

(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.)

"Excuse me, I have a question."

“Excuse me, I have a question.”

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?

SmokingA: 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?

BeerA: 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:

Helmut ThielickeThe 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.

6 comments on “The Weaker Brother, Part 2: A Q&A

  1. I think this entire discussion is inundated with religious bull-crap. Maybe I am one of the few who read your blog…most are intimidated by your intellectual prowess. But I am compelled to say that this type of theological banter is an abomination of the Spirit. Shame on you for your pride, shame on you for your ideological stance without love! The gospel is the “good news” , not the theologically, philosophically challenging mind-games of some religious dogmatic standard. This is the type of banter that would make Christ cringe!!! Don’t you know that God takes the weak things of this world to confuse the wise? What in the heck are you doing here? What good can come of deriving some doctrinal benchmark? It is deplorable and embarrassing for a man of God to engage in such minutia! Stop leaning unto thine own understanding, and seek the true endowment of love in the Holy Spirit; for any other pursuit is foolishness.
    I am aghast at the rhetoric contained in this discourse. It is truly an abomination. If you Michael are a man of God then you should seek beyond your intellect; for to lean on your intellect is folly. I have tolerated your posts for a while, and I cannot help but to point out the fact that you are in love with your mind.
    Forgive me for saying so, but enough is enough…stop with this incessant intellectual exegetical explanation for your faith…it is quite pitiful. Enter into a place that surpasses all understanding…I know that will be difficult, but you simply must go there!
    Call me a jack-wagon, call me an ass-hole, call me whatever you wish, but realize I am reaching out to you in love. Stop the candor, stop the madness (you know what I mean), stop the questioning, and enter by the narrow path…it takes more than a thought…it takes laying all at the foot of the cross…I love you my friend, but I can’t listen to any more of this theological suicide…

    • jmichaelrios says:

      Hi Gideon,

      Off the bat, I must confess my confusion. I’ve read your comment a couple of times, and while clearly I’ve struck a sour note with you, I can’t quite figure out what that might be. I wonder if there’s been a misunderstanding? Perhaps you could explain more clearly how I have misrepresented the love of Christ, or done something unjust with the Scriptures, or even exegeted them falsely? What, also, is the “doctrinal benchmark” that I’ve raised–even specifically in this post–other than talking about grace and love in the life of the church? In fact, quite clearly, I think I’ve pointed out that benchmarks of culture driven conduct are opposed to the message of Christ–a reflection of weakness of faith. Maybe you thought I was arguing for the opposite?

      It also seems possible, reading your comment, that you are opposed to thinking as thinking–the “incessant intellectual exegetical explanation” which you have labeled “pitiful.” If you think I’m out of balance, I wonder what you hold to be the correct balance? Because, of course, if our faith is real, and if our Scriptures are true, then they are things that we can rightly think about and must rightly exegete. Otherwise we believe what we wish and our faith is grounded in nothing better than the self. That, I think, would be hateful.

      Every Blessing,

      Jeremy

      • Jeremy,
        I’m sorry for busting out on you so vehemently…I have always enjoyed your writing and thoughts. I just have this desire to hear your heart, not your mind. I am out of line and I apologize for my rant. Please forgive me.
        I know somewhere inside of you lies the impetus for supernatural potential. I have seen, heard, and broken bread with many men of God that are simply not willing to step into the spiritual realm of the “cloud of unknowing”. I see great potential in you as a man of God, but the potential frustrates me. It frustrates me because I wonder if you will ever tap into the Holy Spirit’s full anointing. Smart and intelligent folks like you are tough to break; not by me but by Him. I am passionate about pushing men like you because I have seen too many “lean unto their own understanding”. I lead several Bible study groups, am engaged in many ministries, and I have seen intelligent people think their way right out of true faith. I’m not saying you are one of those, but your writing echoes a dependency on intellect instead of heart.
        I again apologize for unloading on you in such a harsh manner. Please, please, take my ranting and fold it gently into your paradigm. I see wondrous and amazing things in you…I just want to push your potential from your head to your heart just a little.
        Jesus tells us that to be a true disciple requires three things: 1. Stay in His word, 2. Love, 3. Bear fruit. Simple. I have found through the school of hard knocks that diving too deeply into simplicity produces confusion. And we both know whom is the author thereof.
        If I may make a request: please teach on application, comment on real-life ministry, and show at least me (us) your true heart. I can tell you have a pure heart for God and seek Him earnestly; I just want to hear your words reflect His love in a raw, unedited way. Call me selfish, call me obtuse, but I wouldn’t take the time to engage if I weren’t compelled to do so. You have a great potential inside of you that wants to be birthed…maybe it has been birthed…I just want to see it!
        I have been subscribed to your blog for a while…show me something off the chain…
        For His Glory,
        Gideon

  2. Kotynski says:

    Jeremy, I know the whole Weaker Brother Principle is a rather difficult subject to tackle. Definitely food for thought . . . and correct: it is about the Lordship of Christ and the love of the brethren. Regarding movie content, there is something I’ve been mulling about for the last several years. Most evangelical arguments about movie content focus on “how it affects me.” I have been very impressed lately with the question of whether I am supporting sinful activity in the actors. In other words, no matter how it affects me, are the actors sinning or required to sin in order to produce this movie. I have not seen anyone really follow up on this idea. Any thoughts?

    By the way, it has been a long time! Glad you are spending so much time thinking through this stuff. As to Gideon’s comment, I just wanted to say I think that he misunderstands you. If you are anything like me, your heart is deeply affected and it is the very reason why you work so hard to apply your intellect.

    εἰρήνη,

    Eddie

    • jmichaelrios says:

      Hey Eddie! I’m glad you’ve left a comment–it’s been far too long, and I’ve missed the camaraderie of my fellow Greek students.

      The movie content question is important, and I’ve spend the morning thinking about it. (Actually, I’ve spend some years thinking about it.) The particular question you pose is interesting: what if an actor has to sin to produce his content? What makes the question interesting to me is the definition of ‘sin’. Typically, we think of sin in movies as moral behaviour which offends our sensibilities–in particular, sexual activity. But sin is sin, and a lie is as bad or worse than unmarried sexuality. If a character has to lie as part of a role, isn’t that a sin as well? Even in the context of a passion play–a movie about Christianity–one character has to reenact the betrayal of Judas and potentially his suicide–one of the greatest sins of all time. Is it right for us to allow an actor to sin under any circumstances?

      And that, I think, will be the real question, because any movie plot which involves human characters and human character growth, in order to have a plot at all, must involve some kinds of troubles that are overcome. I don’t see how cinema could survive without it. If we conclude that for an actor to sin on screen (in any form) for our entertainment is a sin on our part, then the right response will be to renounce all cinema, television, and plays.

      However, there could be a more incarnational role in this (and it might be a role that the actor himself is unaware of), but a person can incarnate the story–becoming sin on our behalf–so that we can attain to a greater appreciation of righteousness. This, in fact, is how I would probably frame a theology of cinema. The representation of cinema, rightly applied for the Christian viewer, is an interpretive lens through which we can understand more of the gospel story. For an application of this, you might look at my review of the film “The Wrestler.”

      There remains the question of our pleasure at the events of cinema, and the need to guard our hearts (sourced, I believe, in Augustine). I must ask, “Am I taking undue pleasure in something that God despises?” We are constantly in danger of subverting whatever good we may attain from cinema–and not only cinema, but the world as well–by becoming unjust participants in it rather than wise judges of it.

      I’m sure there’s more to say–and I fear this isn’t all that clear–but I think that’s a start for now. Make sense?

      Jeremy

  3. Kotynski says:

    BTW, I have done a unit on ancient letters in my Greek III class the last few years, and the fact that they were meant to be read out loud has impressed me a lot. Your point about rebuke in Romans is apropos. We read Philemon and there are several very striking features about the letter, viz. multiple recipients despite the commands being to Philemon, his rhetorical similarities to Pliny in his letters on a runaway slave, his command of ancient Roman client-patron relationships . . . despite popular thinking, you cannot always get the meaning of the text without the socio-rhetorical context. You are right to challenge a “straight-forward” view of the text – it smacks of reader response theory, despite the protests of people who claim they care about authorial intent.

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