March 26, 2014

The Question of the Weaker Brother

Don’t raise gray issues to the level of black-and-white. When you do, you’re speaking authoritatively where God has chosen to be silent. -Ben Reed
As I wrote in this recent post, there are some things that the Bible speaks to that are clear cut. We cannot argue that having an affair with someone who is not our spouse or sex outside of marriage is a gray issue because the Bible is quite clear that as Christians we're not to do either one of these things. We cannot justify that God approves of such actions or behaviors. God has not called us to become syncretists and adopt everything that the culture says is OK for you and I to do. The culture is not always right, nor does it always promote the truth. You and I have to be able to look at culture, look to scripture, then be discerning of that which the culture promotes that's wrong. Culture does not get to redefine scripture. Culture is not "above" God's Word. It's the reverse. So we cannot, and should not, turn what's black-and-white into gray. 

Likewise we cannot and should not turn what's gray into white or black.

The Christian life means living in tension, not adhering to boycott lists. It's a good kind of tension, but tension none the less. But we Christian love to argue about this tension. We argue about how a Christian ought to use their "Christian liberty" (how we each navigate those gray waters). Behind much of this arguing though, I think, is the question, "What about my weaker brother?"

Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 8 to watch out for the weaker brother who stumbles. I love how my pastor describes this as "love mitigating abstinence of ______ (fill in the blank)" (paraphrased). To mitigate means you're lessening something that's hard or intense... it's relieving pressure. So when put in circumstances where we know a friend struggles with a certain gray issue, out of love, we should abstain from whatever it is in order to relieve the temptation for the other. 

A common example to illustrate this is the consumption of alcohol. The Bible does not teach that drinking alcohol is a sin when it's done in accordance to the law (i.e. underage drinking would be breaking the law here in America) and one doesn't get drunk. Alcohol in itself is not evil, and can be enjoyed if done in moderation. But if you were to have... say a BBQ and you invite a friend who struggles with alcoholism, then the loving thing to do would be to put away the beer and not serve it. 

The greater or deeper meaning Paul is getting at: Don't love your Christian liberty/freedom more than you love your friends... otherwise it just makes you a really bad friend.

But at the same time, we ought to encourage "the weaker brother" to grow and become strong. We shouldn't be down with our weaker siblings in Christ staying in a perpetual mode of weakness. That's not the goal God has for them nor is "professional weaker brothers" a viable description He lets us have on our spiritual resumes. (Definition of a professional weaker brother/sister: People who expect all Christians to be bound to their views and practices on cultural things in all circumstances... which ultimately can lead to legalism... which if you've been around these types of people you know that they are so not fun to be around and they never get invited to parties). So while we shouldn't purposefully cause another to stumble and be considerate of one another, the weaker brother may not "bind" everyone to their weakness either (i.e. living in paradox):
The strong must limit their freedom in love for the weak, but the weak should never accuse the strong of being sinful when the Bible doesn't specifically call the behavior sinful. -Darrin Patrick
Navigating the gray is about growing and exercising [in] spiritual maturity, wisdom, and humility. There's absolutely nothing wrong with having a conviction on a gray issue... where we run into problems though, is when we enforce our convictions upon others, or puff up with pride thinking we're better Christians then other Christians. C.S. Lewis put it perfectly in his book Mere Christianity:
One of the marks of a certain type of bad man is that he cannot give up a thing himself without wanting every one else to give it up. That is not the Christian way. An individual Christian may see fit to give up all sorts of things for special reasons--marriage, or meat, or beer, or the cinema; but the moment he starts saying the things are bad in themselves, or looking down his nose at other people who do use them, he has taken the wrong turning.
N.T. Wright echos this thought as well...
Sometimes people from a narrow background, full of rules and restrictions which has 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.
Ultimately, at the end of the day we cannot allow another's conscious dictate our own on gray matters. I cannot make a gray issue an absolute because God has chosen to be "silent". One pastor put it this way: "Where the Bible stops, I stop" (Unknown). I'm not saying there isn't room for conversations and dialogue, but when we've reached the point where we judge who is a better or more spiritual Christian or who loves Jesus more, then we've crossed into something ugly (i.e. pride). The opposite of pride is humility, and often you'll notice that humble people are not easily offended by how others approach the gray.

We can't go through life always trying to cater to every Christian's preferences or worry about what they're going to think about us. We could spend our whole lives working at that... and I'm pretty sure that's not the goal. We're not to be legalists or separatists... nor are we to be syncretists (those who are in sync with everything the culture promotes without thought or care to their Christian beliefs).


  1. Hi Natalie! I love that quote from CS Lewis. What is black and white for me doesn't mean it's the same for you, or anyone else. Christianity is living the life of Christ in my life. And that's going to look different sometimes.

    But we are all driven, or should be, by love. That's a black and white that cannot be 'gray-ed'. And love means respecting myself and others too. I had to look up the word 'syncretist'. I have never heard that term before, so thank you for teaching me today!

    Your last paragraph is so lovely too. We can't cater to earthly preferences. God is our model and our yardstick.

    1. We should be driven by love, I agree. I think the problem becomes when we make what are gray issues into black and white issues, because there are black and white issues given to us from God (e.g. the ten commandments), but then there are things that come and go with each culture that are gray, and it's alright for Christians to come to differing conclusions on those. I definitely like how Elle below put it: open handed issues and closed handed issues.

  2. This is excellent. I feel sad for those, including myself at a certain time, who have been confused by what they should do or not do and feel conflicted, looking for a set of perfect rules. But even in a work as complete as the Bible, there are gray areas, as you've written, and that's okay. :) I like what Ceil has written about us being driven by love, and humility is a form of love, which takes a certain strength.

    1. Yes =) I think God let's us live in that good kind of tension to teach us so many valuable lessons.

  3. This is so great and much needed. Too often Christians hold gray issues as black and white issues and divisions of churches and relationships allow the enemy to take footholds in our lives. I like how Mark Driscoll explains "open-handed" and "close-handed" issues and it has changed the way I see these gray issues. Certain things (such as a Trinitarian God, salvation through Jesus alone, etc.) are close-handed issues. They should not be up for debate within Bible-believing Christians. However, other issues (like your example of drinking alcohol) are open-handed issues and should be dealt with in grace and humility, not out of pride and legalism. I regret a lot of things I believed years ago that made certain open-handed issues into close-handed issues and looked down on Christians who did not do what I believed was "right". Thank God for His grace for my own folly and pride, and for His ability to teach and renew our minds to better understand and extend grace even when we may not fully agree with other's opinions.

    1. I've heard it related with the open-handed and close-handed illustration as well, and I think that hits the nail right on the head. It's the illustration my church uses. Plus, I think being OK with people having differing opinions on open-handed issues frees us up to be better peacekeepers and promotes unity in Christ more in the long run.

  4. really great article right here! I wish every christian could read this.

    1. You're always way to gracious Ashley =) P.S. I plan on sending you some snail mail later this week!


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