The Bible identifies two groups who will disagree: The strong in faith and the weak in faith. The strong have liberty in Christ to engage in non-commanded behaviors, where as the weak are not persuaded as to the truth of a matter and their faith in Christ prohibits them from partaking in an activity where the strong will have freedom.
I addressed the strong in faith with my second post, and I noted that their freedom in Christ demands from them a great responsibility of not being an offense to the weak. The strong must do all they can do in order to prevent the weak from stumbling. With this third post, however, I wish to turn my attention to addressing the weak, because they also have a responsibility, a responsibility to grow to become strong in their faith.
I had a reader email me after I posted my second article addressing the strong and he asked about how we the strong should respond to what he labeled the tyrannical weaker brother. I believe that is an apt description, because the weaker brothers can easily become tyrannical with their self-righteousness. They puff themselves up, believing they are more spiritual because they nurture personal convictions and abstain from certain activities deemed “worldly.” They will often times quote scriptures (generally a-contextually) like “flee from all appearances of evil,” and present anecdotal stories that tell of a person being led into sin by the “freedom” of the strong in faith which is suppose to vividly illustrate why Christians should abstain from such-and-such activity in spite of the fact the activity isn’t a “sin.” In many churches across the land, the tyrannical weak govern the congregations. Their alleged outward piety helps them to ascend to positions of leadership where they begin to enforce their personal convictions upon everyone else as the biblical standard of true spirituality.
The weak, though, should not allow himself to remain in his weakness. It really is a form of spiritual laziness. It is much easier for a person to remain bound to a set of personal convictions that are sub-biblical, because training one’s mind to think genuinely along biblical terms takes work and study and the relinquishing of traditions that have erroneously shaped the way a person discerns spirituality.
I believe the scriptures can help a weaker brother strengthen his faith so as to move him from a state of spiritual lethargy stunted by erroneous “traditions” that have misguided his personal convictions. Paul’s words in chapters 8-10 of 1 Corinthians touches on this exact problem.
First Corinthians is Paul’s answers to questions sent to him in a letter by the Christians in Corinth. Similar to Romans, the church there also had groups of strong and weak Christians comprising its membership. The slight difference between the two groups was not between ethnic Jews converted to Christ who struggled with the gentiles’ liberty to eat non-kosher food, but rather between gentile pagans converted to Christ who struggled with other gentile pagan converts and their freedom to eat meat sacrificed to idols.
Beginning in chapter 8, Paul addresses the strong in faith and their need to take heed to the weak in faith. Toward the end of chapter 10, he lays out principles to help govern the strong in the decisions they make; however, I believe there are 4 principles that can also help the weak in faith strengthen their conscience.
1) Is the activity lawful? (10:23). Is the activity under consideration directly forbidden by God? If there is not a direct command from the Lord against whatever it is, then there is no need for us Christians to create one. Because it is such a touchy issue with Christians, take the drinking of alcohol. The Bible forbids drunkedness, not the drinking of alcoholic beverages. Though Christians will often times conflate the drinking of alcohol with being drunk, the two are not the same. Additionally, even if the activity could be a pathway to a sin does not mean the activity is a sin. Sex can lead to adultery, but sex as God prescribes is not sinful.
2) Is the activity unhelpful and unedifying (10:23) The idea of something being helpful and edifying is whether or not it is the best thing to do at the moment to build up a fellow Christian. For example, there are many Thai restaurants around my church, but those restaurants have little statues of Buddha in them and the owners do buy the food they serve from a genuine Thai temple where it has been blessed by Buddhist monks.
I have had one occasion in which I encountered a gal who was saved out of that temple experience, so dining in a Thai place down the street was still an anathema for her because of the religious connection. It was probably the closest, real life illustration of Paul’s directions in 1 Corinthians 8-10 I have ever seen. Us stronger Christians who have no spiritual connection to those restaurants are not helping her when we suggested them as a place to eat after church. Eating at a Thai restaurant is certainly lawful, I could care less if my fried bananas were sacrificed in a temple, but does it really help or edify my friend who still has bad religious connections to the fried bananas?
Now, Paul’s words here are more aimed at the strong to exhort them to check themselves as to whether their freedom is helpful and edifying, but the weak, if they see the convictions of the strong as being unedifying and unhelpful, also need to ask themselves why they believe that. In other words, why exactly, for instance, is it unedifying to you the weaker in faith to see a Christian brother enjoy a cigar? Why do you think it is unhelpful if you know your strong friends enjoy drinking a glass of wine or two with their meal? If the weak in faith cannot provide a reasoned, scriptural argument, then they need to shore up their conscience in that particular area and cease from judging their stronger brothers.
3) Can you give genuine thanks for the activity? (10:30) If a Christian who has liberty with a particular activity can, with a clear and biblically informed conscience, give thanks for what he is doing, then there is no reason why the weaker need to condemn him for his activity. So again, taking the drinking of alcohol, if a group of believers who are drinking beer in moderation can give thanks for their fellowship and the drink they enjoy together, why should anyone speak evil of them? It is the weaker who need to adjust their think concerning their activity, not the strong being required to give it up.
4) Does it dishonor the Lord? (10:31) If an activity is lawful and those partaking in the activity can give thanks to the Lord for it, then it glorifies God. The weaker, though perhaps opposed to that activity, should not judge those who can glorify God by partaking in it. No one is dishonoring the Lord. They only dishonor the Lord if the activity could potentially be an offense to unbelievers or some in the church. If neither one of those scenarios are present, then the stronger’s freedom is not in danger of dishonoring the Lord.
Now, as I wrap up this study, I completely understand there will be some Christians who will continue to maintain their personal convictions on a non-commanded matter all their Christian life. A person will always think smoking or drinking or attending movies is worldly and will never engage in those activities. I believe such a person is free to maintain those type of convictions; however, I would offer three directives:
Always remember your convictions are your personal convictions. They are not biblical commands for all to follow. Additionally, I would challenge anyone to re-evaluate those personal convictions in light of solid Bible study. It may truly be your personal convictions are merely derived from your up bringing, or some denominational traditions that are not supported by scripture, and you should be teachable to receive instruction in these matters even if they cut into your cherished convictions.
You cannot judge or separate from any other Christian who does not share your convictions. If you believe drinking wine is worldy, you cannot hold in contempt those Christians who disagree and partake in drinking wine.
Do not seek to enforce your convictions as authoritative standards of conduct in your local church. Again, your convictions are your own and it is draconian if you happen to be in a position of leadership or in a place of any significant influence to force those convictions on others.