March 24, 2003
A reader of these Reflections from the state of Washington posed a question to me recently that has been on the hearts and minds of many concerned disciples over the years. I have been asked this question countless times, as I'm sure many of you have also. She wondered, "Is the 'weaker brother' to control the 'stronger brother' by insisting on his way about things that are not even biblical issues?" Later in this same letter the reader again asked, "What happens when some brethren insist on binding their traditions where even Christ did not bind?" The dilemma faced by this reader is this: "Are we to continue on within such a congregation that is more concerned about law than the lost, fussing about these things year in and year out, or do we agree to disagree and part company, continuing to love them as brothers and continuing to do and teach what God has asked of us?" An additional concern of this reader was that by staying, wouldn't one in essence be giving in and surrendering to the control of such "weaker vessels"? She concluded by asking, "Is that what God wants?"
The so-called "weaker brother" appeal has been used as a mechanism of manipulation for generations. Sadly, it has also been used very effectively over the years to stifle those with differing perceptions and to solidify the preferences of these "weaker" brothers and sisters. They appeal to Romans 14 as their "authority" for seeking to impose their views upon those about them, insisting that this passage demands all others concede to them as the "weaker brethren." Stated very bluntly, it is little more than a terrorist tactic employed to hold a congregation hostage to the will of a few.
The apostle Paul urged the Roman brethren to "accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions. One man has faith that he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats vegetables only. Let not him who eats regard with contempt him who does not eat, and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats, for God has accepted him. Who are you to judge the servant of another?" (Romans 14:1-4). "Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this -- not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother's way" (vs. 13). "If because of food your brother is hurt, you are no longer walking according to love. Do not destroy with your food him for whom Christ died. Therefore do not let what is for you a good thing be spoken of as evil; for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (vs. 15-17). "It is good not to eat meat or to drink wine, or to do anything by which your brother stumbles" (vs. 21). "Now we who are strong ought to bear the weaknesses of those without strength and not just please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to his edification" (Romans 15:1-2).
As one can easily see, it would be a simple matter for people to profess to be "weaker brethren" and thus demand others give in to their scruples so that they not be caused to "stumble" in their walk with the Lord. This certainly sounds plausible on the surface. However, a careful examination of this passage will reveal that these self-professed "weaker brethren" have completely misunderstood and misapplied the teaching of Paul. This is not an inspired treatise giving apostolic guidance on how to hold a congregation of believers hostage to one's own convictions. It is not a mandate from above on how to force one's brethren to bow to one's personal perceptions, preferences and practices .... although it has far too frequently been used that way!
There are several things that need to be examined in the context of this passage from Paul's epistle to the brethren in Rome. First, it should not be overlooked that he had advice for both sides of the issues under examination. Yes, those who are "stronger" are not to "pass judgment upon" or "regard with contempt" those who do not share their convictions and freedoms. Neither are they to knowingly do anything that would undermine the walk or faith of a fellow believer in Christ Jesus. Genuine regard for those "weaker" is a critical aspect of godly behavior. One who is "strong" should even be willing to make personal sacrifices for the spiritual good of one who is "weaker."
On the other hand, those who are "weaker" are not to judge and condemn those whose convictions differ from theirs. "But you, why do you judge your brother?" (vs. 10). The "weaker" brother has no right to judge the brother who differs with him on some matter of personal conviction. For the "weaker" brother to characterize the "stronger" brother as an "apostate," or a "heretic," or a "false teacher," for example, because of differing convictions, is just as much a sin as the "stronger" brother regarding with utter contempt the "weaker" brother who has not yet come to appreciate his full freedom in Christ. Both must accept the other.
Just who are these "weak" and "strong" brethren? What was the apostle Paul suggesting by these terms? Are those professing to be the "weaker brethren" today really "weak in faith"? Typically, they come across as anything but. The Greek word Paul employs for "weak" in Romans 14 is astheneo which means metaphorically "to be weak, to doubt, hesitate, be unsettled, timid" (The Analytical Greek Lexicon). Paul uses this same word again when he writes, "Take care lest this liberty of yours somehow become a stumbling block to the weak" (1 Cor. 8:9). He goes on to explain in the next two verses: "For if someone sees you, who have knowledge, dining in an idol's temple, will not his conscience, if he is weak, be strengthened to eat things sacrificed to idols? For through your knowledge he who is weak is ruined, the brother for whose sake Christ died" (vs. 10-11).
Who is this "weaker" brother or sister? It is the one whose faith is unsettled. It is the person who is still filled with personal doubts and misgivings about their freedom in Christ Jesus. It was, at that time, typically the person who was having a hard time reconciling living under bondage to LAW with the freedom our Lord had extended to live under GRACE. Although there was nothing wrong with eating meat which had been placed before some idol in a temple and then later sold in the market place, these people were "unsettled" on the matter. They still felt in their hearts that maybe one could not eat that meat. Paul points out that there is nothing wrong with that meat, however they still have doubts. Thus, they are filled with timidity, and they hesitate in embracing such freedom as some of their brothers and sisters have found in Christ. This does not make them bad people, it just means their faith is "unsettled" and filled with "doubts." Thus, they are timid and hesitant to walk with the same boldness as some of their fellow believers.
Those who are more "settled" in their faith on these particular issues are to be sensitive to their brothers and sisters who have not yet come to the same level of understanding and conviction. Rather than exercising their freedom IN SPITE OF their brethren, they are to exercise their freedom WITH A VIEW TO their brethren. You do not live in grace in another's face!! Thus, one exercises his freedom responsibly --- i.e., with a view to helping settle/strengthen the faith of those still struggling with their freedom in Christ. Do the "strong" surrender their freedoms? Never! But neither do they flaunt them in a hurtful way before those who are still doubting. Freedom demands one exercise and enjoy it responsibly, and that means with consideration of others. This is what Paul is teaching in Romans 14. He is also cautioning those still unsettled in their faith not to judge and condemn and question the faith of those who have progressed farther in their freedom in Christ than they themselves.
Frankly, the above is not what we typically find in the "weaker brother" scenarios played out in the church today. Those professing themselves to be "weaker brethren" .... ARE NOT. Indeed, they are very much "settled" in their convictions, and have no doubts whatsoever as to the correctness of their position. On the contrary, they perceive themselves as the perceptive ones with regard to the matter in question, and the "stronger brethren" are actually, in their view, the "apostates" who have failed to perceive Truth. Their convictions are carved in stone and their minds set in cement. They are not hesitating between convictions; their convictions are settled. Such disciples remind me of the bumper sticker I saw some years back in Hawaii --- Often in Error, Never in Doubt.
Such persons have no doubts in their settled minds that their views are the only correct ones. However, their view is frequently the minority view in a congregation. Therefore, how do these persons go about imposing this minority view on the majority. Ahhhhhhh .... Romans 14 and the "weaker brother" tactic. Play that ace up the sleeve and the rest must then fold and concede to your whims. After all, Paul says so .... right?! Tragically, this tactic has been used countless times to hold a congregation hostage. And it is wrong! Daniel Defoe, in the year 1701, wrote, "Of all plagues with which mankind are curst, Ecclesiastic tyranny's the worst" (The True-Born Englishman).
When a brother or sister is genuinely unsettled in their faith, THEN we are obligated by love to make their ultimate good a personal priority. Love demands it. However, when a person is simply determined to "rule the roost" and impose his/her convictions upon the rest, we are not obligated to surrender our freedom in Christ. Truth demands it. Unto such persons we must never give in. Paul points out this distinction quite clearly in his epistle to the Galatian brethren. He speaks of the "false brethren who had sneaked in to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, in order to bring us into bondage" (Galatians 2:4). Were these "weaker" brethren? No! Paul characterizes them as "false" brethren. Why? Because they were very much SETTLED in their convictions, and their goal was to "bring into bondage" to their own will all other disciples. Did Paul surrender his freedom in Christ to such persons? NEVER! What was Paul's solution? "But we did not yield in subjection to them for even an hour, so that the truth of the gospel might remain with you" (vs. 5).
A few years ago a beloved brother in Christ coined a phrase to describe such persons as Paul was forced to deal with in his Galatian epistle, a phrase which I think is very appropriate. He called them "Professional Weaker Brethren." I think that about sums it up!!
The reader from Washington wondered if one should ever give in or surrender to the control of such "weaker vessels." My answer is an emphatic NO! If a congregation has been taken over by such persons, and if one's effort to turn the local body back to Truth fails, then my advice is to move on to more fertile fields and more open minds. After all, trying to harvest fruit from a petrified forest is a fruitless frustration!
Several people have embraced the vision of these Reflections and have chosen to promote them in their own published periodicals, in their newsletters, and on their web sites. I thank each of these individuals who have stepped forward to help spread the word about this effort to bring about responsible reformation among the disciples of Jesus Christ. Edward Fudge and Buff Scott, Jr. (in his Reformation Rumblings) have both been very helpful in this respect, and many people have asked to be placed on the mailing list through their efforts alone. Over 200 precious brethren, for example, subscribed as the direct result of a single recommendation by Edward Fudge in his GracEmail.
A couple of days ago brother Dallas Burdette, from Alabama, decided to endorse these Reflections, and for that I sincerely thank him. He has placed links to my web site on his own web page --- Freedom In Christ --- and has also placed some very gracious, and humbling, remarks in a special mailout to his readers. For those kind words, which are recorded below, I thank this dear brother with all my heart. I encourage each of the readers of these Reflections to please visit his web site often and support Dallas with your encouragement and prayers. He is doing a vital work for the Lord.
Dallas wrote to his readers:
I want to make everyone aware of an excellent web site by Al Maxey. Al, in my judgment, is one of the most powerful writers in our day, promoting unity within the Stone/Campbell Movement based upon one's acceptance of Jesus as the Christ, not upon doctrinal agreement based upon traditions of the forefathers. His essays on Reflections Regarding Responsible Reformation are some of the most insightful reflections that one can read. Al seeks to call attention to the context before one interprets a passage of Scripture. One cannot read his essays without a consciousness of his emphasis on how to read the Word of God. His rule for interpretation appears to be: CONTEXT, CONTEXT, CONTEXT. If you wish to understand the Word of God more clearly, I highly recommend that you read his writings. His writings are not influenced by 200 years of traditions handed down to us from our forefathers -- Alexander Campbell to the present.
I pray that God will continue to use Al Maxey as God uses other men like Carl Ketcherside, Leroy Garrett, Pat Kilpatrick, Cecil Hook, Joe Beam, Lee Wilson, Buff Scott, Fred Peatross, Neal Griffin, Ray Downen, and a host of other men that are too numerous to list.
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