Christianity isn’t about dos and don’ts. That’s true, sort of. Our salvation hangs upon God’s grace and not our ability to behave perfectly. Yet, as James reminds us, true faith is validated by actions. (James 2:18) For that reason, the question of “How ought we to live?” is essential for our daily lives. If you’ve been around Christendom for any length of time, you will know that there has been no little disagreement among Christians regarding the particular answers to that question. The Apostle Paul addresses one such dispute in I Corinthians 8, and it is here that he outlines for what modern Christians label “the weaker brother principle.” However, if we misapply this passage, it can turn into a de facto endorsement of legalism.
The Christian ethical system consists not merely of a black and white formula for right and wrong. True, we are given some iron-clad commands in Scripture such as don’t murder and don’t commit adultery, but many of our choices are governed by general principles, and by consciences trained by the Holy Spirit. How those influences fit together isn’t always clear, and that leaves some room for disagreement. In I Corinthians 8, Paul addresses one such disagreement that had arisen in the Corinthian church over whether Christians should eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols. The thing that every Christians ought to know is that an idol is just a lump of stone unable to curse or bless. However, many of the believers in Corinth still retained superstitions regarding the power of the idols, and to their own consciences, even though there was no Biblical reason to believe so, it seemed wrong to eat idol meat. Paul calls this a “weak conscience.” Paul’s council (the weaker brother principle) calls for mature Christians to sacrifice their own Christian liberty in cases where they risk leading others to violate their own consciences.
While the idol meat thing isn’t particularly relevant for 21st century America, this principle is still very important for today’s believers, because the conscience is such an important part of how humans perceive wrongdoing. While the term “weak conscience” implies imperfection that will be resolved through growth, Paul also speaks of how the conscience can be desensitized like cauterized skin (I Tim. 4:2). The clear implication is that a believer should never violate his conscience, or encourage another to do so, because even when there is room for growth, it still remains God’s tool for communicating that a person has done something wrong.
However, the weaker brother principle doesn’t apply every time there is a question about what is permissible in the Christian walk. If that were the case, then the entire body of believers would have to take the most restrictive option whenever there is a question, which is mandated legalism. Looking to the context of Scripture, we can make some observations that allow us to properly apply the principle:
- The weaker brother is someone whose conscience, due to immaturity and/or incomplete learning, causes him to think without Scriptural warrant, that something is wrong. Mature Christians have the responsibility to allow him to grow at the Holy Spirit’s pace, without pressuring him, or leading him to violate his conscience.
- It is not a person deciding, based upon his personal walk with God, to adopt an individual standard that is more restrictive than what is universally prescribed for Christians in Scripture. For example, I can’t use the principle to demand that others not drink simply because my personal conviction is that I abstain completely from alcohol.
- The implication in Scripture is that the goal for the weaker brother is that he become strong, not that he remain content where he is, and demand that other believers accommodate him. Ideally, Christians should be able to establish their own convictions regarding debatable issues between themselves and God without getting hung up on people that believe differently. (Romans 14:3-8)
- Taking a legalistic stance “just to be safe” isn’t what we are called to do. In fact, legalism is considered a weaker position than discerning where God’s will is for us (Romans 14:2). Some Christians seem to get this backward, by implying, for example, that the Christians who don’t watch TV at all are stronger than the ones who simply exercise wisdom in what they watch.
- The weaker brother isn’t simply someone who is offended because another Christian has a different viewpoint regarding where the church ought to stand on a debatable issue. These types of disagreements should be resolved according to other principles of Scripture, under which both sides should be willing to give up their own agendas for the sake of love for each other, God, and a desire for unity.
The overarching theme of these passages is that the good of the body is more important than an individual’s desires. That means that even if we are technically in the right, it’s usually up to the mature believers to make compromises to settle disputes when necessary, and to accommodate the less mature. Even so, we should all work to understand the proper application of the weaker brother principle, and its limits, so that we don’t steer into either of the two extremes of legalism or license. Both are destructive, and neither are best for the advancement of God’s kingdom.