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.