What does it mean to be a “weaker brother”?

It’s Monday Grace!

There is a strange teaching among some legalists that we are all to submit our actions and decisions to the level of the “weaker brother.” It comes from Romans 14.

Receive one who is weak in the faith, but not to disputes over doubtful things. For one believes he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats only vegetables. Let not him who eats despise him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats; for God has received him.
Romans 14:1-3

Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way.
Romans 14:13

It is good neither to eat meat nor drink wine nor do anything by which your brother stumbles or is offended or is made weak.
Romans 14:21

In a rather bizarre twist of reasoning, these people say that the whole body should be limited to the practices and comfort of the one who is weakest.

For example, if one person in the church or group doesn’t watch television because of personal convictions, the rest should at minimum refrain from references to television shows or to using television-type media in the group. If another won’t eat pork because he thinks of himself as still under the law, then no one should bring a pork dish to a potluck for the group. Women should only wear clothing that does not tempt the weakest man of the group. As you could imagine, the list goes on and on.

The love and care of the passages above are evident and good. We don’t want to cause problems for those who are growing in their understanding. But here’s the rub: in my experience, the people calling for the rest of us to limit our actions to their standards were long-term believers who had gone back under the law. They had accepted some teaching that brought them back to the bondage of performance spirituality and wanted the rest of us to support them. They brought new restrictions into their lives and found it hard to live by these without a community of support. In fact, they were proud to be the “weaker brothers” because it meant they had higher standards than the rest of us.

There are so many things wrong with this. First, this is precisely what Paul warns us about in Galatians. Returning to the Law is a return to the bondage from which Jesus died to set you free. Don’t go back! Learn to walk in the freedom of your relationship with Him. No one has the right to demand that you return with them to the Law.

Second, under grace we have a personal relationship with the Spirit that guides us to do and to avoid certain things for our lives. In other words, the Spirit may lead someone to avoid certain things that others are free to do. There is nothing wrong with that, it is personal guidance. But that does not mean everyone is held to what the Spirit has revealed for us. Nor does it make us spiritually superior. In fact, it may call attention to a specific weakness or struggle the Lord is working on in our lives.

Third, those who are weak are supposed to be growing stronger. Weakness is not a goal for the Christian life. I understand that there may be nominal or uneducated believers who have to see that they are under bondage by walking the legalist path for a while. But they are to grow beyond that as they learn of grace. To be “under law” is not a good thing. We are to live as those “under grace.” That means we become more and more aware of the Lord’s personal leading and the acceptance we have in our identity in Him.

Finally, this truly disrespects the new believers who come out of paganism or religious bondage. Paul was obviously talking about Jews who found it very hard to release the rules of their culture and training. They believed they were in danger by breaking the dietary and festival laws of Judaism. The other believers were supposed to be patient and gracious toward them. Not to judge them. They were to trust that the Spirit would lead them into freedom and strength.

These passages were written to the community to remind them to love. Others may be on the same path as you but not as far along. Remember how you grew in understanding and allow them the same process. The weaker brother was temporarily challenged by the changes he was experiencing.

So, don’t be the weaker brother. Don’t return to the Law. Don’t let anyone pull you back under bondage. Just be kind.

1 Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

One response to “What does it mean to be a “weaker brother”?

  1. Mark

    My former church loved weaker brother arguments – they were often attached to a diatribe against something. Like, don’t drink alcohol, because it’s wrong, but even if it isn’t wrong, think of the poor weaker brother. I finally came to the conclusion that the weaker brother is a person with a name. If each and every aspect of our Christian liberty is subject to the possibility of a weaker brother, then we simply do not have Christian liberty.

    “I see you like football. Well, there could be someone who became a Christian whose family idolized football. What harm could be done if someone like that walked into the church and you’re talking about the big game yesterday? It might be a stumbling block, and you wouldn’t want to be a stumbling block for a weaker brother, would you?”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s