Tuesday, July 19, 2022

Who is the Weaker Brother?

We all know Christians who get offended at just about anything: observing Christmas, reading Harry Potter, owning a deck of cards, instrumental music in church, the “wrong” hymnbooks … you name it, some believer will invariably have something bad to say about it, especially if you are the one doing it.

A pseudonymous writer on Christianity.StackExchange.com asks how to handle such situations in a post called “The Tyranny of the Weaker Brother”. To be fair, he had just given up a much-loved pastime out of respect for a self-professed “weaker brother”, and was probably in a bit of a snit.

Hostage to the Opinions of Others

Here’s how he expressed his dilemma:

“When you deal with larger, more diverse groups, like you tend to meet in Internet-based Christian communities, there’s always a weaker brother offended by some belief or practice of yours. Needless to say, there are also people ‘offended’ by mutually contradictory beliefs or practices.

Unfortunately, many of them like to use the weaker brother scriptures to justify why you should behave differently. It’s effectively the ‘you shouldn’t do anything I don’t like’ argument, or at least ‘you shouldn’t speak out about having a belief different than mine on this subject.’

How does one handle the ‘weaker brother’ issue? How does it not become carte blanche for people of a controlling mindset to manipulate you into behaving the way they think you ought?

How do you deal with these attempts at bullying?”

It sounds to me like our friend may be confusing legitimately stumbling a weak fellow Christian with offending an opinionated believer you disagree with. That is not quite the same thing. But in order to avoid stumbling the weaker brother, we need to recognize him. We need to ask ourselves “weak in which way?”

Weak in Which Way?

The Greek word for “weak” is astheneō, often translated “sick”, “diseased” or “impotent”, but also translated “weak” on a number of occasions, mostly in the writings of the apostle Paul. We could examine the entire New Testament with a concordance to see how the Holy Spirit has used astheneō throughout, but our best bet is to stick with a Pauline usage. After all, determining how this writer uses the word is more likely to be helpful to us than determining how other writers used it.

Unfortunately, there is more than one kind of weakness. Even Paul does not use astheneō to mean precisely the same thing every time he employs it. Nowhere is this more evident than in 2 Corinthians. In 11:21, Paul uses astheneō to describe his gentle approach to the Corinthians, in contrast to the tyrannical behavior of other so-called apostles. In 11:29, he uses the very same word to describe his anxiety for others. In 12:10, he uses it to describe his physical disability. Then in 13:4 he uses astheneō to describe what I think were probably self-imposed restraints on his exercise of apostolic authority in Corinth, just as Christ also was “crucified in weakness”, refusing to make use of the power available to him to deliver himself.

Doublemindedness and Instability

These are all different sorts of weakness. To top it off, in at least the first instance he is using the word ironically. I doubt very much that the “weaker brother” Paul writes about in Romans 14 or 1 Corinthians 8 is to be identified by his gentleness, anxieties, physical disabilities or self-imposed restraints. Moreover, these were all “weaknesses” Paul attributes to himself, and if the apostle Paul was a “weaker brother”, well … everybody is.

Personally, I think we find the best answer in Romans 4, where Paul uses astheneō in a passage about the faith of Abraham. Now, Abraham was the precise opposite of the weaker brother. He was not “weak in faith”. “No unbelief made him waver.” In other words, he did not vacillate. He did not go back and forth from one opinion to another. He held his ground.

Doublemindedness did not characterize Abraham, and it certainly didn’t characterize Paul. But it is a major problem for a Christian to be constantly vacillating about what he believes and unable to justify his choices from scripture. James writes that the doubleminded man is “unstable in all his ways” and therefore ineffective in prayer.

Stumbling and Getting Offended

This is not overly complex. If we wanted to, we could probably completely bypass the Greek word study (though I always enjoy doing them) and simply read the relevant passages in English to come to the same conclusion. In both passages Paul repeatedly uses the words “stumble”, “stumbling block” and “hindrance”. The danger is not that the “weaker brother” will take offense at your personal choices and rebuke you for them, or try to manipulate you into doing what he would prefer, but rather that he will follow your example without having a clean conscience before God, and that his resulting guilt will destroy his fellowship with the Lord. His weakness is a weakness of conscience (as it is put in Corinthians) or a weakness of faith (as it is put in Romans). This is the type of Christian we want to avoid hurting.

The guy who takes offense at you online is not a “weaker brother”. He’s a legalist who may or may not use the expression as spiritual cover for his efforts to manage your behavior. A legalist is in no danger of stumbling over your choices. His views are rock solid, even if they are all wet. In fact, you are probably making his day by violating one of his personal shibboleths. It’ll give him something to talk to his family about at dinner. The “weaker brother”, on the other hand, won’t critique you for your choices. He’s more likely to imitate them than chew you out for them.

So then, the weaker brother is not simply someone who holds a different opinion, and especially not someone who beats you over the head with it. Unlike Abraham, the weaker brother has doubts and risks sinning when he acts against his conscience, which is constantly telling him one thing and then another. Unlike the legalist, the weaker brother has no opinion, or at least no consistent opinion.

Wobbly and Unstable

David de Bruyn makes the same point more eloquently at his excellent blog:

The weaker brother is the brother whose conscience has not settled, who is prone to falling back into a pattern of sin. He is tossed to and fro in his understanding of the adiaphora. He may find refuge in extreme denials and abstinences, but he will just as quickly fall back into foolish indulgence. His weakness is not his abstinence, nor his thin skin. His weakness is his lack of stability in judgement, and the volatility of his conscience. This brother, whose conscience is wobbly and unstable, is to be carefully guided by those Christians whose consciences have settled. They are to limit themselves, sometimes denying their own freedoms, to protect the believer from unwise or foolish choices while he cements his convictions.”

Christians like this are not hard to spot if we are paying attention. They may be relatively new to the faith, or they may have personal issues that slow their maturity in Christ. They are easily led, insufficiently familiar with the Bible and may have difficulty understanding and applying scriptural principles to new situations.

The legalist may be wrong in his application of spiritual principles from scripture, and therefore “weak” in a different sense, but he is not the brother or sister Paul is concerned for.

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