Who Gets To Be The “Weaker” Brother?


Another mild surprise to me is that a site with a category with the label “church” in a section titled “practices” where the topics are to be about where the rubber of theology meets the road of corporate worship life, has no topics posts.
So I’ll give it a run…

I realize this might be an odd way of thinking about this problem, if it is a problem, but I’m wondering how helpful Romans 14 is to you as you worship in your churches each week.

It goes like this. Pick a subject. Preferably one that is at least a little controversial. And one with moral import. (You know, something like eating meat offered to idols.) Now go to church. Maybe your church. Here we find that, with regards to our subject, we have two who disagree. And often, each find that the convictions and sensibilities of the other … offends them. What happens next? Who backs down? Whose opinion wins the day?

We turn to Romans 14 for guidance with a discourse on the “Strong and Weak”. Here, we learn that it’s appropriate for the one who is (implicitly) “strong” to give way to the weaker brother. The weaker brother wins the day; gets his “way”. Matter resolved. (For now.) What’s important is that the faith of the weaker brother not be tested; not be strained; not be shattered. It matters not that the Stronger brother is actually correct; what matters is that the weaker brother is not diminished in his walk; incorrect as his conclusions – and current sensibilities – might be.

Next question: Who gets to be the weaker brother? Who wants to volunteer themselves, and their position, as the “weaker” one? If one holds a position, doesn’t he do so because he thinks it the superior way? If superior, why consent to being “weaker”?

To be fair, this passage in Romans appears to have been written to – and for – the spiritually mature. It’s as if Paul is saying: “Don’t let your advanced insights into God and truth hinder those who’ve not gotten as far as you have. Be gentle – and kind – to them.” Except here we are; all reading Romans, and having little clue who gets the role of “weaker brother”. Each believes he reads scripture as it is supposed to be read; each believing his position is not “weak”. Paul’s initial audience surely knew their role in all this; they were the mature – and were called to (well, why not some modern vernacular) “cut some slack” to the young in faith. The weak. The vegetable eaters. The ones who, (can we make this guess?) don’t realize they are the weak ones.

Given this dynamic, and this wise advice from Paul, it would certainly seem that the “weaker” brother has a distinct advantage; he has the upper hand in matters of conflict. He has, in fact, the power in this relationship. His tender sensibilities dictate the behavior of the rest. Not because he is correct, but because he is immature.

But (and this is not easy to say) it does seem that the ones most often, and most easily offended, are the ones who hold to “tradition”; the way things have been; the way we’ve “always” understood things. The ones for whom the world is black and white; for whom scripture is always literal. Sincere as they are, do they realize they have thereby assigned themselves the status of “weaker brother”?

This irony only deepens when we consider that these very ones who insist on being offended, also insist that their position is the correct, established, and proper (read “mature”) one. Thus, claiming maturity, they complete the irony by their revulsion at the laxity and error of their brethren. To make their point, to get their “way”, they resort to the status, and tactics, of the “weaker brother”. Curious isn’t it. Next time one considers calling attention to their revulsion and abhorrence at what their fellow Christian is doing, it could be important to remember that in so doing, they might be declaring themselves the “weaker brother”.

How does all this work out for you in your church lives??



Well, as a practical matter I’m more concerned about whether, as the “stronger” brother (the one who is quite sure he’s right, in other words), I’m being careful not to seduce those other people over there into sin by insisting they accept something they believe to be ethically wrong. A concept that goes beyond religious disputes as well, by the way.

On the other hand, I also understand that unless those in referrent authority take a stand on positions, there will be no ‘shape’ to the group in regard to beliefs. So while I wish those people would, from their own perspective, see me as the “weaker” brother and treat me accordingly (I mean in the few places I differ from referrent authorities), at the same time I try not to begrudge them their positive responsibilities either.

(Rom 14 is one reason why I accept dynamic complementarianism rather than either flat eglatarianism or mere hierarchialism in personal relationships.)

Back many years ago when Bishop Robinson decided to betray his wife and children in order to shack up openly (so to speak) and eventually marry (which I suppose was better than the immediate situation) the man he had been having adultery with for years–as might be detected, I wasn’t exactly on his side in that matter. :wink: (Not that I’m Episcopalian, I’m just saying in principle.) He then proceeded to screw over the Anglican communion even more (um, metaphorically speaking) by leading a movement that treated the conservatives as being the ones who were pressing for schism, when basically the conservatives were complaining about these “progressive” attitudes being the schismatic behavior.

Be that as it may. At the time, I pointed out in discussions on this issue (pro and/or con) that as a bishop with a substantial power-base, he had a responsibility to enact the principles of Rom 14 in regard to those people over there who (from his standpoint) were mistakenly under the impression that totally betraying one’s wife and rejecting the most fundamental cooperation between men and women as men and women, were sins. It was more than a little amusing, because it took me a couple of weeks to get people to understand that this wasn’t something that, in Bishop Robinson’s current position, would benefit himself. Then when the people on his side of things finally figured out what I was saying, they became stunned and offended. Opps! :laughing:

I bring this up, not to gripe about Robinson (primarily anyway), but because I’m obligated to wonder how someone who believes as I do, if I’m in authoritative power, should behave toward those people over there (if any) who believe they would be sinning against God and their fellow humans if they didn’t do some things I consider to be quite sinful. Note, I said which I believe to be sinful: not which I believe to be permissible. Rom 14 is clear enough abut that. (Which is why Robinson, for example, shouldn’t have been pressing people to accept his licence, or licentiousness, on their penalty if they didn’t. The same would go for me, which is why I would never try to use any authority of mine to insist that people under my authority should accept universalism if they thought it would be sinful for them to even accept my promotion and practice of universalism.) The even knottier issue is what should be done when conflicting ideas of sin (not merely sin on one side and permissision on the other) are at stake.

For which I don’t have a good answer yet, other than insofar as I’m the one in the authoritative right, so far as I believe, I ought to have charity on those I believe to be wrong. But how should I enact that charity? A very tough matter.