“You Don’t Have to be the Weaker Brother”

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.

–Thomas Hersman

‘How “True” is Your Intuition?’

How would you rate your intuition? You know, that sixth sense that you get about people or situations, which you can’t quite define. Intuition is as human as walking upright on two legs. We all learn to trust it, and I would venture to guess that most of us consider it highly reliable. Those whose occupations depend upon intuition in life or death situations have overwhelming justification to declare their own intuition of greater value than a million books or pontificators. Or so it might seem. The question is, does a believer’s intuition uncover truth and reveal proper moral choices? Can we always trust our intuition?

I have written and spoken many times about the dangers of living the Christian life based upon feelings, but intuition deserves a separate treatment. Clearly, it is a type of feeling, but also much more. Perhaps we can call it “informed feeling.” Reliable intuition comes from years of experience making choices and witnessing the outcome. Our brains calculate the sum total of those experiences, process them faster than we can consciously work though them point by point, and give us the result through a distinct feeling, or sense. That sense allows law enforcement and military members to predict threats. It gives investigators that gut feeling that a situation deserves further scrutiny. Even with years of education, medical professionals may rely upon it to make a necessarily quick choice between several available treatment options. Even with less at stake, occupations in sales, investments, animal stock breeding, and many others succeed or fail largely according to intuition. These are not people who are by nature irrational or overly emotional, but intuition is foundational to their daily lives and sometimes begins to form the core of their personal system for separating truth from fiction. However, in a culture that constantly says “believe in yourself,” and “trust your instincts,” we all have permission to rely heavily upon our own intuitions to read others and decide what is right or wrong.

Clearly intuition is itself good in the correct context, but it does have some severe limitations. This article in the Harvard Business Review by Connson Chou Locke provides some of those limits in a business context. In order to have reliable intuition a person needs no less than ten years’ experience making specifically relevant decisions with “rapid and accurate feedback.” If a person’s experience is not specifically relevant, his feedback incorrect or sparse, then his intuition cannot be trusted. That implies that intuition in one field of expertise does not automatically transfer to another. Intuition is further limited in that it works best only in instances that “lack clear decision rules or [have] few objective criteria.” Scripture provides the objective criteria for deciding what is true and what is right, and though intuition may figure into specific applications of Biblical principles, those principles must come from Scripture unfiltered by our presuppositions.

Jeremiah 17:9 tells us that the “heart of man is deceitful” and “desperately sick.” Within the scope of that truth is perhaps the best reason that we have to make sure that our choices are grounded in the truth of Scripture above all else – we humans are highly vulnerable to fooling ourselves. We aren’t particularly good at noticing when our gut instinct isn’t informed intuition at all, but some other strong passion such as fear. The lusts and desires of sin fool us into believing that our rationalizations are true and consistent with God’s will, and sometimes our minds simply give us a wrong interpretation of our experience. I once had a rather lively discussion with a well driller who was convinced that “witching” for water had for the entirety of his successful career predicted the best places to drill. I explained to him that an experienced well-digger drilling over an area full of underground water sources has a high probability of hitting water. I explained to him how confirmation bias distorts our memories, but that debunked unscientific belief persisted in an otherwise reasonable person. Another example is the gambler’s fallacy that tells us intuitively, albeit wrongly, that if I have lost the coin toss five times in a row, the chances are greater this next throw that I’ll win. Consider also the birthday paradox in which we find counterintuitively that in a group of 23 people the seemingly unlikely possibility of finding two people with the same birthday is actually 50%. (In a group of 75, that probably rises to 99.9%) In reality, our intuition is often not nearly as trustworthy as we might think, and we need something more when determining what is true and false, or right and wrong.

In practice, intuition is primarily concerned with what works and not what is true. That means it often provides biased results. Loving your friends and hating your enemies works, but that is not what God expects of us. Killing people off that are a “burden” and have low “quality of life,” might make practical sense, but violates Scriptural principles. Living the Christian life depends upon the ability to know and act upon truth, and that goal often clashes with mere utility. The utilitarian nature of intuition actually biases it against discovering truth. To be useful, intuition must provide a quick answer the first time with limited deliberation. If some new information challenges the validity of one intuitive decision, it attacks my confidence in my whole system of intuition. It’s easiest to simply defend and deny that I was wrong than to face an uncomfortable readjustment of my foundational beliefs.

Scripture affirms time and time again that the core structure of our moral and doctrinal thinking should be God’s Word. Psalm 19:7-9 tells us that Scripture is: perfect, sure, right, pure, enlightening, clean, and true. Jesus tells us that those who love Him obey His word (Jn. 14:23). 2 Timothy 3:16-17 gives the prescription of Scripture for teaching, correction, training in righteousness, and equipping for the Christian life. For believers, when the question is what ought I to do, or what ought I to believe, the answer begins and ends with the simple truth of Scripture. Any system of thought that adds our own feelings or intuitions into the equation falls prey to the errors and limitations discussed above.

Humanity’s hearts are depraved, and its cultures biased against the truth. The worse things get, the more that God’s Word becomes inconvenient to our modern sensibilities. That is of course why God gave us his Word, instead of leaving us to figure it out on our own. His Word, is the timeless truth unaffected by the corruption over time of a race in open rebellion to God’s authority.

–Thomas Hersman