Weaker Brothers, Legalists, And Christian Fiction


The “weaker brother” concept comes from the Apostle Paul, writing in Romans 14 about Christians judging one another. He prefaces his remarks by saying,

and if there is any other commandment, it is summed up in this saying, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself.” Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law. (Rom 13:9b-10)

The next chapter opens with this directive:

Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions.

I surmise “accept” meant something different in Paul’s day than it does today, because in today’s understanding, if you “accept” someone, there’s no question about judging him. I’m thinking the connotation might be this: include the one weak in faith in your assembly (churches), but not with the goal to harangue him for being weak in his faith.

Paul’s first example of someone weak in faith was the believer who decided to become a vegetarian so he wouldn’t accidentally eat meat offered to idols–something the church leaders had specifically stated Gentile believers should avoid. (Presumably Jewish Christians, because of their adherence to Jewish law, 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 point.

What made this vegan “weak”? I’m not sure I get it. He’s trying to be hyper-vigilant, trying to obey the admonishment of the church leaders.

In some ways, though, he’s missing the point–the reason Christians weren’t to eat meat offered to idols. Paul spelled it out in 1 Cor. 10

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. (v. 21)

But perhaps Paul gave a window into understanding the brother of weak faith earlier. Leading up to verse 21, he said

What do I mean then? That a thing sacrificed to idols is anything, or that an idol is anything? No, but I say that the things which the Gentiles sacrifice, they sacrifice to demons and not to God; and I do not want you to become sharers in demons. (vv 19-20)

Perhaps, then, the one weak in faith did indeed think the idol was something. His faith in God as the One True God, was weak. He was thinking, there are many gods, and Yahweh is one more. Perhaps.

But is he a legalist?

I suggest he is not. The Oxford English Dictionary defines legalist in the theological sense as “dependence on moral law rather than on personal religious faith.” The Pharisees were legalists. They believed they could hold to the law in such a way that God would accept them for their righteousness.

They, in fact, were not Christians. No one who thinks he can earn his way into God’s good graces, is a Christian.

Is that what the vegans were doing? Some, I suppose, but I don’t think necessarily so. Paul called them brothers, for one thing. For another, he never chastised them for their decision to stop eating meat. He never said, Silly people, you’re being too picky. Don’t strain at gnats and don’t try to earn your way to heaven.

Rather, he told the meat-eaters to stop belittling the vegans and the vegans to stop judging the meat-eaters:

The one who eats is not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat, and the one who does not eat is not to judge the one who eats, for God has accepted him. (Rom. 14:3)

Which brings me to Christian fiction. I see a lot of contempt floating around on the Internet, some by Christian writers aimed at “vegan” Christian writers. I also see a lot of judgment, vegan Christians accusing or scolding meat-eating Christian writers.

It grieves me, because we use this passage in Romans to bolster our arguments, not our love for one another! And yet Paul, who started out by reminding Christians they were to love one another, wraps up his case in the next chapter by saying this:

Now may the God who gives perseverance and encouragement grant you to be of the same mind with one another according to Christ Jesus, so that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Therefore, accept one another, just as Christ also accepted us to the glory of God. (Rom 15:5-7–emphases mine)

One thing I think we can know for sure–if we dump on another writer, or on a reader who writes a review voicing opinions that seem vegan to meat-eaters or meat-loving to vegans, we can be sure we are in disobedience to Romans 15, and Romans 13, and to Christ’s admonition to love one another, to Peter’s command to love the brotherhood.

Love doesn’t mean we have to agree or that we need to change our convictions to match theirs. It does mean we don’t disrespect our fellow Christian because he embraces a different view, or hold his feet to the fire to try and convert him to our positions. It means we continue to love him even when he may not act in a loving manner toward us.

And therein might be the way we can differentiate strong Christians from weak.

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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.

Enjoyable Sin


Jimmy Dean -- actor, singer, entrepreneur who died at 81

Recently I read this line on Facebook, credited as a statement by Jimmy Dean: “Being a Baptist won’t keep you from sinning, but it’ll sure as hell keep you from enjoying it.”

Very funny. Several people laughed and more hit the “Like” button.

But what’s to like about the idea that sin is enjoyable? What’s to like about the idea that the enjoyment is spoiled by recognizing sin is sin?

The Jimmy Dean conclusion would seem to be, Better not to be a Baptist so you can enjoy your sin. How sad! Really. There are so many things wrong with this way of thinking, I’m not sure where to begin.

First, I suppose it’s essential to recognized the part of the statement that’s true: sin is enjoyable. If sin was only hurtful, heinous, disgusting, and it separated us from God, why would it hold a lure? It wouldn’t. But just like the Tempter who appears as an angel of light, sin is dressed up as something pleasurable — something good to look at or to experience or to own or by which to be empowered.

That pleasurable something, however, is temporary (Heb. 11:25-26). No matter how wise or wonderful or sexy or rich or strong sin makes a person, the end of is still destruction.

For many walk, of whom I often told you, and now tell you even weeping, that they are enemies of the cross of Christ, whose end is destruction (Phil. 3:18-19a)

Furthermore, the consequences of sin are here and now.

Behold, the Lord’s hand is not so short
That it cannot save,
Nor is His ear so dull
That it cannot hear,
But your iniquities have made a separation between you and your God
And your sins have hidden His face from you so that He does not hear. (Isaiah 59:1-2)

The third thing that makes this statement so not funny is the fact that personal enjoyment is held up as a higher good than obeying God or pleasing Him.

If you’re going to disobey God, you might as well enjoy it, is another way of saying human enjoyment supersedes the conviction of the Holy Spirit. So the real thing that is bad isn’t the sin but the guilt that spoils the fun of sin.

Note, the answer isn’t to stop sinning — that’s apparently something we humans must concede according to Jimmy Dean. The answer is to quench the Holy Spirit so we don’t feel His displeasure.

After all, life is all about pleasing ourselves, isn’t it?

Well, actually, no, it’s not. Which brings me to the next point that makes this quote anything but humorous. According to Paul in Colossians, we are to “walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, to please Him in all respects, bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God” (v. 10).

Our goal as Christians should be to live in obedience to God, not in submission to our fleshly lusts. When we sin, it’s something to grieve, not celebrate. James says our laughter should turn to mourning and our joy to gloom.

Of course there’s the chance that the Jimmy Dean quote was poking fun at Baptists who believe certain behaviors to be sin that others think are perfectly fine — not sins at all.

Well, that’s perhaps sadder than any of the others. To think that one Christian would be so arrogant as to think another’s convictions are laughable.

If he’s a weaker brother, the stronger Christian is expressly instructed in Scripture not to act in a way that would tear down his faith.

For through your knowledge he who is weak is ruined, the brother for whose sake Christ died. And so, by sinning against the brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. (1 Cor. 8:11-12)

If a person is in error, then he should be lovingly won to the truth. If he’s a false teacher, then he needs to be prayed for and perhaps rebuked.

But made fun of?

I know a little enclave of professing Christians that think mocking other people’s beliefs is the way to turn them from the error of their ways. The problem is, these arrogant self-appointed judges get those ideas from some place other than the Bible.

Scripture directs us to love — our neighbor, fellow believer, enemy, all men. There’s no room for mocking someone for their convictions.

Here’s the bottom line — sin might be enjoyable, but it’s no laughing matter. When Christians don’t see this, we’re playing right into Satan’s hands.

Published in: on October 27, 2011 at 6:01 pm  Comments (3)  
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