It’s been said that every family has a crazy relative. If yours doesn’t, it’s probably you.
That makes sense—especially if the premise holds true.
However, that approach doesn’t work when seeking to identify a weak brother. You see, the weaker brother will have no problem identifying other weaker brothers since, in his eyes, everybody is weaker than he is. Let me explain.
The apostle Paul spent his life evangelizing Gentile areas. In these regions, almost everything was linked to idolatry in some form or fashion. Even a simple act like buying meat at the local market brought about major concerns for some of these former pagans. You see, that meat had, in all likelihood, been sacrificed to a pagan god before the street vendor bought it to sell. Now, these new believers had to decide whether they were somehow unintentionally worshipping a false god by purchasing and eating such meat. Is it possible to unintentionally take part in pagan worship? Can one accidentally sacrifice to a false god?
Paul addressed this issue in two places—in 1 Corinthians 8 and in Romans 14. To the church in Corinth, Paul writes, “Therefore, as to the eating of food offered to idols, we know that ‘an idol has no real existence,’ and that ‘there is no God but one.’ For although there may be so-called gods in heaven or on earth—as indeed there are many ‘gods’ and many ‘lords’— yet for us there is one God, the Father, from whom are all things and for whom we exist, and one Lord, Jesus Christ, through whom are all things and through whom we exist.” (1 Corinthians 8:4-6). His point is clear. Pagan gods are fictional. They do not exist. There is but one true God and He is the God of all.
Nevertheless, Paul writes, “However, not all possess this knowledge. But some, through former association with idols, eat food as really offered to an idol, and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.” (1 Corinthians 8:7). The weaker brother was unable to grasp the disconnect between the meat sold by the street vendor and the pagan worship service it was part of prior. “Meat is just meat” is essentially Paul’s answer to this issue. But “not all possess this knowledge.” Those that maintain some connection to a fictional religion and a fictional god are “weak” according to Paul. The problem is, the weaker brother—because of his additional, extra-biblical standards—almost always considers himself to be strong. This is natural because man naturally loves religious rules. However, it is a false self-assessment. And it is a complete misunderstanding of what it means to be “weak” Biblically.
In writing to the churches in Rome, Paul instructs them to receive weaker brothers and sisters into their fellowship. He writes, “As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables.” (Romans 14:1-2). Once again, the weaker brother is the one with the excessive rules—extra-biblical rules. And once again I say that the weaker brother—because of his strictness—almost always views himself as the one who is strong. Even worse, he looks down his nose at those who refuse to adhere to his man-made scruples—considering them to be inferior to him. To this day, I have never once met a weaker brother (by Biblical standards) who didn’t seek to impose his “strictness” on fellow believers in one way or another. And all the while, the Bible is crystal clear as to who the weaker brother is. How is it so often missed?
To the church in Corinth, Paul tells the stronger brother to be mindful of his weaker brother’s conscience. He must not live in a way which would encourage the weaker brother to worship a false god. This would not have been accidental—as accidental worship is impossible. Paul’s concern is that a stronger brother might confuse a weaker brother into thinking some form of false worship was allowed. And Paul is so committed to his brother’s and sister’s well-being that he declares, “Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.” (1 Corinthians 8:13). Now, there isn’t so much as a hint that Paul ever actually became a vegetarian, even though there were clearly those adhering to a vegetarian diet. And he certainly isn’t commanding the stronger brother to eat a weaker brother’s diet. He is simply instructing the stronger brother to love his weaker brother enough to be cautious with his delicate conscience. Paul would have done this—if this was the way to save a weaker brother from resorting to idolatry.
Paul had further instruction in writing to the churches in Rome. There, he writes, “Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.” (Romans 14:3-4). Again, he instructs the stronger brother to be patient with the weaker brother—and gentle with his weak conscience. However, here he also adds instruction for the weaker brother—“let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him.” There is no suggestion that the stronger brother must live by the standards of the weak brother. On the contrary, apart from a Scriptural directive, the weaker brother is disallowed from judging his stronger brothers.
Understand, the Bible is quite clear on many instructions. It is not these things of which Paul was referring. If the Bible says do something, we are to do it. If the Bible says don’t do something, we are to refrain from it. There is no weaker brother scenario for clear, Biblical directives. The scruples of the weaker brother, though, are found in the white spaces—in what some might call grey areas. And, from group to group, these extra-biblical standards vary. And honestly, it doesn’t really matter what they are. If the Bible doesn’t condemn a thing (or in some cases even commends a thing), we cannot judge our brother concerning it—even if we personally choose to refrain (possibly even making ourselves the weaker brother). Just because we are unable to separate some idolatrous practice from 2500 years ago from an action doesn’t mean our stronger brother cannot. We would do well to identify which category we fall into Biblically.
One more thing—the weaker brother is not encouraged by Paul to remain the weaker brother forever. He is not encouraged to dig his heels in on his weak points. The weaker brother should grow—advancing in his understanding of Scripture. Issues in which he finds himself to be weak should fall away as he becomes stronger—more mature in his understanding of Scripture. The weaker brother should come to understand that “an idol has no real existence”--something his (hopefully) patient, stronger brother has known for some time. If a person continues to possess such a weak conscience after decades of being a believer, that person is either not studying the Word of God properly or is entrenched in a tradition-rich system with leaders that have weak consciences (a situation which should not exist). If “weak-conscienced” leaders are leading “weak-conscienced” people, a congregation itself will be weak—ever growing in extra-biblical standards by which they judge themselves superior to other “weaker” brethren. And all the while, according to Scripture, those congregations are actually the weak ones.
Let us all take time to weigh our practices Biblically before trying to instruct another. Let us measure our standards by God’s Word alone—and not by extra-Biblical teachings. Let us evaluate our conscience on any subject by Sola Scriptura—identifying whether we fall into the category of “weak” or “strong”. One last time, the weaker brother almost always views himself as the stronger brother. But understand this—if you have extra-Biblical standards by which you judge everybody else to be lesser than yourself, the weaker brother is actually you.
Todd Bryant is the Lead Elder at Sovereign Grace Baptist Church in Northport, AL. He has pastored there since 1998. For more more information on the church and links to audio sermons and apps for electronic devices, visit www.sovereigngrace.net