The Weaker Brother

big boy little boy

Ever since colleague to Richard Muller, New Testament professor Jeffrey A.D. Weima, opened this up for me this is how I have understood the doctrine of the weaker brother in 1 Corinthians 8.

Essentially, the dichotomy is indeed between those who are strong and those who are weak. But the strong are those who are made up in their own minds, one way or another over a thing and are necessarily mature in faith. The weak are immature in faith and are necessarily not sure in their own minds.

Contrary to majority views, the weak brother isn’t the one who refrains from that behavior which is in question. The better reading seems to understand Paul to be speaking about one who is relatively new to faith. After explaining that we know idols are nothing in 1 Cor. 8:4-6, he then explains that not everyone knows this. He seems to have in view the one who is emerging from the status of unbelieving pagan to a believing Christian, one who is moving out of idolatry and into knowledge of the one true God. His conscience is weak because he has begun to grow sensitive to the things of God. He finds himself navigating his former, ungodly lusts with that which is true and pure. In 9-13, contrary to what many tend to convey, Paul’s problem isn’t with eating the sacrificed meat of the temple. It isn’t with finding Christians coming out of bars and theatres. It is with the destroying this weak conscience. Like a child who is beginning to grasp that there really isn’t a troll beneath his bed waiting to scoop him under each night, he is beginning to understand just what idols are (or aren’t, as the case may be). Yet, understandably, in his relative immaturity he may still think they hold some sway or that they are something. And as a parent endures a maturing child who still tip-toes and jumps his way to bed each night, strong brethren are charged to guard the conscience of a weak brother. Good parents don’t force maturing children to behave like full-blown adults, and good brethren don’t destroy another’s conscience and cause stumbling.

Most times we hear that he who refrains from something is weak. But this really seems more insulting and judgmental than edifying. More often than not, one senses this to be a sort of underhanded way on the part of those who partake to collar those who don’t as less-than. What naturally ensues is a battle between strong believers casting each other as weak. As if this weren’t bad enough, the real weak brother gets lost in the melee.

If the strong partakers cast their strong refraining brethren as weak, the latter strike back by either describing the former by some left-of-center definition of “weak,” or they go the route of legalism. They may make the ignoble attempt to make noble the ability to resist a thing, to transcend human desire. To some extent, then, the strong partakers make their own problems since they have portrayed their strong refraining brethren as weak.

Moreover, if we allow the strong refrainer the status of weak brother it seems to fuel more tyranny than love. After all, the weak brother is entitled to our sympathy and subsequent self-sacrifice—we are commanded to be his slave. It seems the natural consequence of a sinful human nature to want to lord it over others. If he who is strong yet refrains is given the opportunity to have bestowed upon him the status of master he will likely take and abuse those who assume the position of slave in order to simply get his way. Deference is defaulted to those who “in conscience” cannot accept this or that thing.

Thus, because either strong partakers use the status to cast aspersions or strong refrainers abuse it to tyrannize and formulate legalisms, those who refrain should not be afforded the status of weak.

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8 Responses to The Weaker Brother

  1. Cosmin Pascu says:

    Thanks for the picture and also for the article.

    It is worth pointing out that the weak brother reminds us that before God, we are all weak. That in terms means that we should be proud that we have a powerful Father.

    There is ofcourse a great danger for us all, and that is to think that we are stronger than Him.

    Thanks again, Cosmin

  2. sean says:

    So, can i keep my loophole as long as I don’t share that loophole with others?

  3. sean says:

    As it regards “deference” within the context of 1 cor. 8, isn’t that “deference” necessarily conditioned upon newness of faith?

  4. RubeRad says:

    We had a bible study last week on Rom 14, and our pastor drew out the behavioral patterns from 14:3 of “despising” vs. “judging”. This pattern shows up very clearly, for instance, when it comes to alcohol, or Old-earth vs. Young-earth creation (OEC looks down on stupid fundy YECs, and YECs consign OEC to hell for unbelief).

    Also, he noted that the consistent biblical usage of “stumble” is “apostasize”. So if you walk out of a bar, and someone else sees you and thus gets upset (or even sees you and thus gets drunk), that’s not stumbling.

    As for OEC/YEC, there are countless who have stumbled and shipwrecked their faith on the false dichotomy of YEC vs. secular atheism (and there must be some as well who sailed past OEC into unorthodox, liberal antisupernaturalism).

  5. sean says:


    The bar anology works well. One more text sheds behaviorism

  6. Zrim says:


    “As it regards ‘deference’ within the context of 1 cor. 8, isn’t that ‘deference’ necessarily conditioned upon newness of faith?”

    Good question. I think strictly speaking, yes, that is the immediate point of the passage. The majority views on just who the weaker brother is (i.e. the refrainer) seem to have to also assume that is not a reality. But you really can’t escape it in the passage. The weak brother is a sensitive soul, not a refraining person. And what makes him sensitive, it seems, is his relatively new conversion.


    “So if you walk out of a bar, and someone else sees you and thus gets upset (or even sees you and thus gets drunk), that’s not stumbling.”

    The argument that says this is stumbling is what kills me. I mean, think about it: just because one person sees another do something the first one is going to ape it. Huh? I see people do stupid things all the time but I don’t mimick it (well, mostly).

    Typically, this is just a noble attempt to justify ignoble legalisms, which relies on a sustained plea for us all to exchange what we know about reality and human nature. My beloved legalists use it all the time. They’d get further with me if they’d simply admit they don’t do certain things because they 1) don’t personally care for it or 2) they don’t want to be judged by others around them (which may be harder to admit since it would also be to admit they are legalists). But don’t try selling me on the idea that you simply looking out for someone who is going to not only do it because you are but likely ruin his life. Admit that you are looking out for your own interests when you refrain from certain things and not others.

    The OEC/YEC thing is a good example of distraction and seems like an unfortunate leftover from the Modernist controversies. I am glad for the likes of Machen who steered fairly clear of the doctrines of relevancy and didn’t get too caught up in it. He diagnosed Liberalism as not even being a form of Xianity and Fundamentalism “sounded like a new religion.” With a confessional intuition like that, everyone should be better off.

  7. RubeRad says:

    I mean, think about it: just because one person sees another do something the first one is going to ape it. Huh?

    This reminds me of another great observation from this bible study (this time from my wife): concerning sensitivity to (recovering) alcoholics where communion wine is concerned: sure, it’s a nice thought to provide grape juice so as not to trigger a bender, but what about the glutton who will be tempted to grab the whole loaf as it passes by, instead of just tearing off a little chunk? How come nobody’s fencing that guy’s lack of self control for him?

    It seems our society, through decades (centuries?) of legalism, has demonized alcoholism into more of a bogeyman than it actually is. Reminds me of your analysis of pornography, that men need to stop being boys and just grow up:

    they have simply chosen to meet their juvenile behaviors by further treating themselves like little boys via baby sitter software

    Not to open a can of worms, though, but “just grow up” is a kind of legalism itself, isn’t it? Assuming that a particular problem is really small enough that we should be able to deal with it on our own?

  8. Zrim says:


    Re the communion point, this was one of the issues with which candidate Blacketer (to Calvin CRC) had to defend himself quite vigorously. It was something of a controversy, as he blogged his wine-only views and members on search committee got a hold of it, the same ones who have managed to pull off glutton-free wafers there now (ack!). Needless to say, Blacketer is gone and we are still stuck with Welch’s and glutton-free bread. That stuff is just nasty. It was quite an interesting, albeit quite lame, brouhaha.

    Re your “just grow up” question, I suppose you could make that point. Anything could become some kind of legalism. But it seems to me it could be to miss the better point. Remember, my point also comes with a context that understands real people have real problems. I have absolutely no use for bootstraps approaches to pathologies. Some people need to grow up, others really do need legitimate therapy, etc. It seems to me that those who don’t want to grow up try to steal the status of those who need real help…sort of like how strong refrainers want to steal the weak brother’s status and enjoy the benefits.

    I say, Fubar to both.

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