The Misconception About Weaker Brothers

Since I discovered an online group of Christian writers, there’s been discussion about what ought or ought not to be allowed in Christian fiction. Can writers address difficult topics–adultery, pornography, abuse. Is magic OK? How about cussing and swearing, when the character in question surely would cuss and swear in real life if he or she were in the situation of the fictitious individual. Then there’s sex, or any suggestion of sex, promiscuous or other wise. Can it be shown, should it be shown?

Inevitably someone brings up the idea of not offending the “weaker brother,” a concept taken from Romans in a section of Paul’s letter dealing with not eating meat offered to idols. This is usually understood as a “gray area”–an activity not clearly defined, but one which Paul seems to say it’s better for the strong believer to give up his freedom for the sake of the weaker brother.

From that point the debate may rage about who is actually the strong brother–the legalist or the one enjoying freedom in Christ–and whether or not Paul is giving weaker brothers the right to dictate legalistic behavior to the rest of the church.

This issue becomes a problem because of a great misunderstanding–the belief that eating meat offered to idols was a gray area. It was not.

When Paul first began preaching Christ to the Gentiles, there was a council in Jerusalem to discuss whether they needed to abide by the Mosaic Law. As a result, “the apostles and the elders came together to look into this matter.”

They examined Scripture, they listened to Peter’s testimony about the Holy Spirit manifesting Himself among the Gentile believers, and they listened to Paul and Barnabas’s witness about the miracles performed among the Gentile converts. In the end, here’s what James concluded:

Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols . . . (Acts 15:19-20a)

Whether James was the final authority or whether he was merely voicing the decision of the gathered church leaders, this decision was the one they passed on to the Gentile churches, delivered by letter. In this communication, they added one other significant fact. Here’s the pertinent statement:

“For it seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay upon you no greater burden than these essentials: that you abstain from things sacrificed to idols . . .” (Acts 15:28-29a–emphasis mine)

In other words, the church leaders had no thought that this was something they personally preferred. They understood this to be a sure direction from God.

There’s more. In Revelation 1-3 John records Christ’s message to seven churches. To two of them, he chastises them in connection to eating what has been sacrificed to idols. First to the church in Pergamum:

‘But I have a few things against you, because you have there some who hold the teaching of Balaam, who kept teaching Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols and to commit acts of immorality.’ (2:14–emphasis mine)

Granted the actual eating of that which was sacrifice to idols was something the people of Israel did, but Christ was explicit with the church in Thyatira:

‘But I have this against you, that you tolerate the woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, and she teaches and leads My bond-servants astray so that they commit acts of immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols.’ (2:20–emphasis mine)

There’s no idea here that eating meat offered to idols was a “gray area,” a take it or leave it, depends on whether or not your conscience bothers you or not, issue. It was wrong. Clearly wrong.

So what was Paul going on about?

He was addressing two particulars. First, some people, in order not to eat meat offered to idols accidentally, decided to become vegetarians (See Rom. 14:2). Second, some people decided they needed to research any meat they ate to know if it had been offered to an idol–including what they bought in the market and what they were served when they went to someone else’s house for dinner.

About the first matter, Paul said, don’t criticize each other–the meat eater (not the meat-offered-to-idols eater, because there should not be any believes who would fall in that category) and the vegetarian. One position is not better than the other.

Regarding the second issue, he essentially said, Don’t ask. In other words, it wasn’t their responsibility to go out of their way to find out the history of the meat they ate.

However, if a weaker brother who felt compelled to do the research, told them that the meat they were being served had indeed been offered to idols, then they needed, for the sake of the one who told them, to refrain from eating.

What does that have to do with writing and the subject matter an author can or can’t include in his fiction? Very little. Unlike the issue of meat offered to idols, we have no explicit command about what we are to put in our fiction. We know we are to refrain from coarse jesting, taking the Lord’s name in vain, unwholesome words, but does that mean our characters must refrain in the same way?

Similarly we are to be self-controlled, patient, joyful, kind. Does that mean all our characters are to exhibit those qualities? Add in the fact that we ourselves don’t live the holy lives God calls us to, and it seems logical, then, that our imperfect characters should act imperfectly.

There’s one more thing to keep in mind, though, and it does have to do with thinking about others. I’ve argued before that swearing in literature is harmful to the reader in ways that other “sins” aren’t. As a reader, I “sub-vocalize,” or essentially pronounce the words to myself. I’ve discovered that when I read a novel with considerable swearing and cussing, and I’ve been sub-vocalizing those words for a time, I begin to think them when I’m away from the novel. My choice then, for myself, is to avoid books laden with bad language.

In no way do I want second rate or inferior stories, however. I want what the classics offered–great stories which, for the most part, didn’t require expletives. I believe Christians can write such stories.

Do they have to? This is not a meat-offered-to-idols issue. Otherwise it would have a cut-and-dried answer. Whatever else Christian writers find in Scripture to guide their decisions, I would hope we put to bed the “weaker brother” argument because that’s a different discussion and not applicable to the determination of content in fiction.

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26 Comments

  1. Interesting and thoughtful take on this issue, Rebecca. And interesting about your sub-vocalizing the words–I hadn’t thought of that. I guess we can all find verses to justify what we feel is or isn’t godly…for me, it’s the “Let no unwholesome talk come out of your mouth” verse. But I know everyone has different takes on what’s unwholesome.

    I agree with you that many of the classics portrayed truly evil characters without overly profane/blasphemous language. As for me, I just won’t be buying books from the CBA that include that stuff. It seems to defeat the purpose of Christian fiction for me. I can read plenty of godless fiction in the ABA–in fact, I expect it there. But in the CBA, why stoop to the lowest common denominator? Why push the door open wider to worldliness? Lots of us have come OUT of that worldly lifestyle and we see it as a trap. As for me, I won’t be writing it into my novels. But I’ll try not to publicly blast fellow authors who do (working on that!).

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    • Heather, thanks for your kind words and for taking the time to engage this material.

      I’ve said for some time that I don’t believe in “safe” fiction. One of the disservices Christian fiction does is to anesthetize readers into thinking that as long as certain externals are met, we can put our thinking caps away.

      All that to say, I make decisions all the time about what movies I’ll see or what TV programs I’ll watch. I think it’s good to do the same with books.

      So, yes, I suspect I’ll be putting down more CBA books in the future or crossing certain writers off my list. I’ve done a little of that already, to be honest.

      But everyone has to formulate their own reasons for reading or not reading. I don’t believe I should impose my standards on anyone else. They are the ones God has led me to.

      One of the reasons I want to put an end to this “weaker brother” issue is to put an end to the idea that one side or the other should impose their standards on the other side.

      If some people want clean fiction, why are those on the other side intimidated or offended by that? Why do they insist that Christians “should” read horror or stories with cussing or vivid sex?

      On the other hand, if others feel free to engage “gritty” fiction with crass language and “difficulty” subjects, why should the other side care? We are not in the other person’s head, knowing that they have sinful motives or are yielding to sinful temptations. To assume so is to be judgmental, I think.

      In the end, I think this subject is complex enough without throwing in a misinterpretation of Scripture too. 😕

      Becky

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      • Yes, I see what you’re saying about some feeling led to include the language for the purpose of getting their characters’ lifestyles/worldviews across.

        I’ve been reading about the whole circumcision vs uncircumcision issue in the NT and I’m thinking that, as writers, we have spiritual gifts and ministries. Some are burdened for our Christian brothers/sisters, and want to exhort them. Some want to engage more NON-Christians, and minister to them. Some (like me!) might be crazy and think they can reach both. I truly wanted to do that w/my historical fiction, but I had to commit to CBA or ABA for my book. So I chose CBA, since the ABA might not like the underlying Christian worldview. And in the CBA, our audience is primarily already Christian (which is why I’m stymied by the 5-point Gospel sermons in many CBA books!).

        I’m at the point where I just accept that there are Christian brothers/sisters who are writing stuff I don’t want to read, whether it’s Amish fiction or stuff w/vulgarities. I’m not going to slam them with bad reviews. I won’t be buying their books, either. And I think that’s what discretion is about.

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  2. Well done, Becky.

    It isn’t about including “bad language” (or sexual issues) for me. It’s about an authentic story. Cussing and swearing can effectively be written around most of the time. They aren’t essential. However, sometimes a word (or two) places the real emphasis on a circumstance and creates a distinct and impacting portrayal of situations which require extra drama. It’s not about including words or characterizations or scenes for the heck of it or to get away with something. It’s to create an indelible story.

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    • I agree, Nicole–not necessary, but not something to censor either, I don’t think. Perhaps one of the “worst” novels I ever read, was required reading for a history class at my Christian college. It was also one of the most important pieces of fiction I’d read. Stories like Shindler’s List and even The Passion of the Christ are rated as they are because they are difficult, but should they be “cleaned up”?

      Becky

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  3. I think cursing in Christian fiction definitely falls into the “disputable matters” category (Rom. 14:1-12). Notice that Paul doesn’t base his argument simply on food sacrificed to idols. There are larger principles at play for judging “disputable matters.” In that culture it was idols, ceremonial days, Sabbaths, slaves, etc. In ours it’s language, media, dress, etc., etc. (See this outline from CARM: http://carm.org/christianity/sermons/romans-141-12-dont-pass-judgment .) So I don’t think you can just wedge out the food sacrificed to idols issue from its larger context.

    Becky, this post feels like you are more trying to get to your “sub-vocalize” theory (which I also don’t really agree with, at least in its application) than you are trying to dispel the “weaker brother” argument from the Christian fiction debate. And, for the record, it is the proponents of “clean fiction” who most often wield that argument than those of us who push back. Now why do you think that is?

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    • Mike, as you rightly said in a comment to your FB update, I am saying that the meat sacrificed to idols issue is NOT a gray area. This passage in Romans 14 is about accepting “the one who is weak in faith.” Paul brings up the fact that some stopped eating meat altogether (14:2) to illustrate what he meant by “weak in faith.” He never contradicted James or Christ, for that matter (though what Christ told John came after what Paul wrote). I don’t know how this idea got into our thinking that Paul was putting eating meat offered to idols up for grab. It never was. He himself delivered the message to the Gentile churches that they were NOT to eat meat offered to idols. I can postulate that in I Cor. 10 he was answering the inevitable question, Why?

      Undoubtedly there were debates about what was appropriate and what wasn’t–should they keep the Sabbath any more, or the other Jewish festivals. But they were in agreement and said they had the confirmation of the Holy Spirit that they were not to eat meat offered to idols. Paul made a clear statement of this in the I Cor. passage:

      You cannot drink the cup of the Lord and the cup of demons; you cannot partake of the table of the Lord and the table of demons.

      Yet we still come up with the idea that eating meat offered to idols was a “gray area.” It simply was not, though how to obey that injunction had gray applications.

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    • Mike you said

      Becky, this post feels like you are more trying to get to your “sub-vocalize” theory (which I also don’t really agree with, at least in its application) than you are trying to dispel the “weaker brother” argument from the Christian fiction debate.

      I’m not sure how you arrive at that. I spent two paragraphs of twenty-five on the subject. I’m not sure why you give that so much weight.

      First of all, it’s not a “theory”; it’s a personal experience. I pronounce the words I read in my head–it’s why I’m such a slow reader. I don’t know how to do it any other way, though I recognize others have a way of reading that I don’t understand which allows them to see and know without the intermediary step of see-say-know.

      And for the record, I don’t care which side wields the weaker brother argument–they are missing the intent of Scripture by applying it to a non-black-and-white issue when Paul was applying it to a black-and-white one.

      The Christians understood they weren’t to eat meat offered to idols. Their question was, to what lengths should we go to stay in compliance? How is there a parallel with the use of swearing and cussing to that?

      Becky

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  4. Has anybody ever done a survey of readers to see what they want? Is there a survey result out there that tells us whether or nor they prefer swearing or not in Christian Fiction? If we’re trying to market our books to a particular audience I’d think that would play a major role, spiritual considerations aside.

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    • Lol. Who would have thought of art as a democratic process? Can you imagine Picasso polling his audience to see if they might be offended by cubist nudes? Art is about truth-telling, which is why you can’t poll readers.

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      • Jill, I don’t think this is a fair argument b/c Picasso didn’t have an understood CHRISTIAN audience to answer to. The CBA is a very well-defined group, which is why there are some established hoops to jump through and boxes to check off. Not saying I agree with all those, and I’ll say that all these hoops and boxes sometimes lock out TRUE ART from getting in. Sad but true. But since it is such a targeted audience, I think it’s wise to see what that audience wants. And from what I hear in the reading/writing world, it’s not just Amish romance, either.

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        • It’s a perfectly fair argument. Artists don’t ask what their audience wants. They ask what their audience needs. These approaches are both audience-based, rather than self-centered. But one creates art, and the other creates….I don’t know. Entertainment? So I guess it depends on what your goal is. Many writers and readers claim to only want entertainment, which feeds the juvenile disease. Our society is filled with full-grown babies who want to be entertained.

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          • I agree, many Christian readers just want entertainment. But wasn’t that what Shakespeare was all about, in his day? I’m not saying I approve. I don’t enjoy reading CBA books that are vacuous and sermonizing, whose MC’s names I forget almost immediately. But they are filling an entertainment need for many Christians, Christians who want clean fiction. So I don’t look down on them just b/c they don’t resemble the classics I love.

            And a select few in the CBA combine art AND meaningful entertainment. Those are the books that will stand the test of time.

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          • My point, Jill, was that if the CBA audience doesn’t like reading swearing in their books and you want to get that audience to buy you book, don’t put swearing in. It’s economics.

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    • Steve, the problem here is the definition of “readers.” Are you talking about readers or readers who buy books only from Christian book stores? As I understand it, the latter has been the target audience for Christian publishing houses for some time, but I think that’s changing, especially with the growth of Amazon and the ebook revolution.

      I doubt if you’d get a consensus either way, though. By asking, you’d force the readers involved to form an opinion, so the losing side would inevitably feel disappointed and you might lose their business altogether.

      Becky

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      • I have a hard time believing that there are readers who are disappointed when they read a book and find no swearing. And what’s wrong with asking readers to form an opinion? They freely give opinions all the time in their reviews on Amazon, BN, Goodreads and who knows how many other places.

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  5. Briefly on the “sub-vocalizing” part: this would still seem to be an issue of one’s own personal temptation levels! With you, Becky, I am also tempted to think or say such words in moments of anger when the world isn’t working just the way I want it to work. But the silent or spoken syllables words, then, are the symptom of the real sin: idolatry and thinking of myself as the “god” of the universe. The real cure is to put to death, in Christ, the sin within, not only target an outward Thing that could cause temptations. Of course, to be sure, someone may need to avoid swearing movies, books, friends, and such, in order to cut off temptations for a time. But the goal is to be able not to fear such things, or do them, but to expose them (Eph. 5:11). We may agree that having a character swear, in the context of showing this as negatively “human” behavior, is a good way to expose evil.

    Becky pointed out that Paul in Romans 14 was addressing particulars. Yet in Acts 15:28-29, the Jerusalem council is also addressing particulars. In this case, they are addressing a specific situation, early in Jew-and-Gentile “integration” in the Church, in which people were perceiving Gentile believers’ choices as being sinful. Thus, when the council says to abstain from meat offered to idols, their intent — and the Holy Spirit’s intent — is likely to forge peace between Jews and Gentiles. In fact, almost every recommendation the council makes is not against sinful behavior under the New Covenant (such as eating strangled animals; God made it clear to Peter in his sheet-with-animals vision that He has declared all animals, also symbolic of Gentiles, “clean”). Of course, the sole exception is the council’s warning against sexual immorality!

    Here is why I offer this: because otherwise we have a contradiction. These believers would have been absolutely responsible to follow this edict, which would mean “[going] out of their way
    to find out the history of the meat they ate.” Notice that the council does not suggest such a “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy about the meats. Paul does, in “honing” the reasoning later for all believers. He also states, in the essential and related text of 1 Cor. 8:1 – 11:1, that nothing is intrinsically wrong with eating meat offered to idols, either by accident or intention. The only sin that could result is if:

    1) The brother who feels free disregards the “weaker brother” and fails to love him in Christ (yet note that Paul writes this “in public,” where “weaker brothers” may hear and presumably want to grow).

    2) The brother doesn’t follow warnings against actual idolatry, and, for example, partners with demons by attending pagan ceremonies.

    Matching with no. 2 there, John in Revelation condemns actual sin:

    But I have a few things against you, because you have there some who hold the teaching of Balaam, who kept teaching Balak to put a stumbling block before the sons of Israel, to eat things sacrificed to idols and to commit acts of immorality. (Rev. 2:14; emphasis added)

    But I have this against you, that you tolerate the woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess, and she teaches and leads My bond-servants astray so that they commit acts of immorality and eat things sacrificed to idols. (Rev. 2:14; emphasis added)

    Clearly, the real sin here is in their committing acts of immorality (it is the same phrase in both verses), which leads to the sinful symptom of eating meats that had been previously offered to idols. They were not eating based on a “don’t ask, don’t tell” practice, or eating because “’an idol has no real existence,’ and […] ‘there is no God but one’” (1 Cor. 8:4), or eating because “ ‘the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof ‘” (1 Cor. 10:26)! One could also guess that surrendering their legitimate rights to enjoy these foods, so as not to cause others to stumble, was far from their minds. Thus they warranted just rebuke.

    With that extra evidence in mind, it seems that this:

    There’s no idea here that eating meat offered to idols was a “gray area,” a take it or leave it, depends on whether or not your conscience bothers you or not, issue. It was wrong. Clearly wrong.

    … Is contradicted by this:

    Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience. For “the earth is the Lord’s, and the fullness thereof.” (1 Cor. 10:25-26)

    Yet I agree with you that the issue of fiction content can be much murkier. We likely agree the solution lies in teaching better truth about God and the Gospel, based on Scripture and applied in love to life, which familiarizes more of God’s people with the Epic Story and thus better informs how and why other stories should be told. Otherwise, we may resort to fighting fire with fire, trying to impose our own “scruples” on Christian publishers — claiming, without Bad Words, this Christian novel makes me stumble!

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    • Stephen, the way I read and absorb what others write is very much a personal issue. It is precisely why we ought not make determinations what OTHER people should or shouldn’t do because no one knows what those others are dealing with. You misunderstood one point, however. I simply am an imitator. So when I’m around someone for long who speaks with an accent, I can easily fall into it. I used to pick up my junior highers’ slang without realizing it until someone pointed it out. So too with cussing and swearing. Without a thought, I might easily substitute an innocuous exclamation with God’s name, vainly.

      But you bring up an important point. When I call someone, in my mind or behind their back, a jerk, is that really OK since I didn’t use one of the great no-no’s? I don’t think so. I’m not to think about other people in a dismissive way–not if I am to love them.

      Your differentiation between the external and the internal is a bit stretched though, I think. Yes, Christ said pointed both to eating meat offered to idols and immoral acts, but neither is subjugated to the other. They are combined with a coordinating conjunction, indicating equal value.

      Regarding the language in Christian fiction debate, I think the first step is for the two sides to stop telling the other side what to think. I think it’s healthy and good to explain what I think and why. I don’t think it’s healthy and good to say, Therefore you ought to go and do likewise.

      Becky

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  6. Okay, I know Shakespeare used all kinds of foul language, but he wasn’t a novelist, so I’ll leave him out of this. At the beginning of the English novel as we know it, you have authors like Swift who used very crass language, even writing an ode to sh*t. But, of course, many of those classic novelists were Brits. We are still heavily influenced by Puritan culture here in the U.S., and we are painfully middle class. Middle class Christians do not use bad words. I think they still have sex, though.

    Your issue–the one of the weaker brother is an interesting one. I think what you don’t want to do is to compell people to read books that violate their conscience. I know someone who puts a book down if it even appears it will go in a direction that will bother her, or that she won’t approve of. You could call this ego-protection, or you could call it spirit-protection. I think it’s ego-protection. Why? This same woman throws out parts of the Bible that offend her. The Bible is truthful. Hence, it will obviously offend many people, just as content in fiction will if it is truthful.

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    • Jill, I’m not sure how the logical leap is made that just b/c you don’t like cursing/bad language in CBA books, you’re going to throw out portions of the Bible. WHAT? The Bible is truth. Books are subjective. And some people have the moral preference NOT to buy/read Christian books that include foul language.

      I accept the Bible and love it, and I don’t throw parts of it out. I don’t love foul language in Christian books. So maybe I’m the exception to your rule?

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    • It sounds like the main point is that if we’re basing discernment on little more than feelings, there is no logical reason to prevent throwing out the Bible. It is the reductio ad absurdum. Discernment should instead be based on Scripture itself, as axiomatically true. And I think we would all agree that Scripture contains many truths that make us feel bad or uncomfortable — but not for that purpose, or for the purpose of Being Realistic, but for the purpose of showing what man is like apart from God. Great stories that glorify Him should do the same thing.

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    • I know this isn’t a big deal, Jill, but I have seen statements about Shakespeare that are misleading. These get repeated and people start believing something that isn’t true. (It’s sort of what I’m standing against in this post–people saying something about eating meat offered to idols that simply isn’t true.)

      Shakespeare hardly “used all kinds of foul language.” He did use crass language on some occasions, but it’s not like every other line all through his plays had some crude, sexually explicit words. In fact, the education editions we read in high school edited out those scenes without affecting the story at all.

      Plus, he was good at using words that had more than one meaning. It was part of his humor, but it also obscured the “foul-ness,” even in that day.

      “Suggestive” might be a better term of some of his language rather than “foul.”

      Becky

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    • Now, to the point of your comment, Jill, you said:

      I think what you don’t want to do is to compell people to read books that violate their conscience.

      That’s my point exactly. I don’t think either side should guilt the other side into reading or not reading, in violation to their conscience.

      I can’t speak for that woman you mentioned. From what you’ve said, it seems she is simply making up her own standards based on her own preferences. “Ego protection” you called it, and that might be as good a term as any. It’s very postmodern–to believe what I believe because I believe it.

      I don’t think that’s what discernment means. Rather it is examining our culture by seeing how it stacks up with Scripture. Sometimes I will read things that reflect the truth of Scripture that reveals the ugliness of sin. In fact, Christians are called to expose that which would hide in the dark. How can we writers do that if we can’t write about them?

      But just because someone chooses to write in such a way does not mean everyone therefore has to read it. I have to exercise discernment about what I write and what I read.

      Becky

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  7. […] already did refrain from eating meat offered to idols, so no special letter went out to them). See “The Misconception About Weaker Brothers” for more on this […]

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  8. […] I entered the Christian fiction wars again last week with my Thursday post, “The Misconception About Weaker Brothers.” The irony is, I actually intended to remove some of the shrapnel the combatants so often use to […]

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  9. […] few weeks ago I wrote a post (The Misconception About Weaker Brothers”) about the way many writers–well, Christians in general, I suppose–inaccurately use […]

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