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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