We’ve seen that Christians can disagree about how to apply Scripture—about what sorts of things they ought to do, and what sorts of things they ought not to do, and why. In 1 Corinthians 8 Paul tells us how to treat one another during those disagreements. The key principle, he says, is not knowledge—which of you Gets It?—but love: we need to take care of one another.
In the situation Paul describes, one of the believers is mistaken; he thinks something is wrong that isn’t. But, says Paul, he needs to listen to his conscience and respect its restriction, even though his conscience is mistaken—because you don’t want to damage your conscience.
But, as I noted at the end of the previous post, that raises two very important questions—
- What exactly does it mean to be a “weaker brother”? and
- Is it OK to have a misinformed conscience? Shouldn’t we try to correct that?
Let’s talk about the first one here, and the second one in the next post.
Several times (1Cor 8.7, 9, 10, 11, 12) Paul calls the restrictive brother “weak.” What does he mean by that?
- I know several Christians who think that any Christian who thinks something is wrong is by definition “weak.” Well, that’s just nonsense. Some things are wrong, and people who don’t recognize that are not morally higher on the evolutionary scale. We’re not more godly by ignoring God’s moral nature. Hitler is not the best Christian ever.
- OK, then, maybe “weak” means somebody thinks something is wrong that isn’t. That would appear to fit the context. But I would suggest that it doesn’t fit the whole context. The situation has a believer not merely thinking that something is wrong, but doing that “wrong” thing despite his compunctions (1Co 8.10, 13). And that makes me think carefully about the core meaning of the word weak. I note that it is specifically the brother’s conscience that is said to be weak (1Co 8.7, 10, 12). What’s a “weak” conscience? Well, at the risk of being pedantic, I’d suggest that it’s one that is not strong. And what’s a strong conscience? It’s one that can do what it’s designed to do: stop you when you’re about to do something wrong.
- So I’d suggest that the “weaker” brother is not simply one who thinks a disputed action is wrong. He’s a brother who would be inclined to follow your example into doing something he believes to be wrong. He’s one who could be influenced to violate his conscience.
If my take on the language here is correct, then the problem we’re called to address is fairly limited. You don’t have to limit your practice just because another believer thinks you shouldn’t be doing it. You need to limit your practice only if your actions would encourage another believer to violate his conscience.
I’ve noticed that in many of these disputes—food, drink, clothing, music, whatever—both sides are pretty well dug in. Nobody on the “You shouldn’t do that!” side is going to start doing The Thing. In that case, this passage seems to give the Doer freedom to continue what he’s doing.
But while this understanding gives us greater freedom, it also requires a couple of things from us.
- First, the Doer can’t call the Non-Doer “weak” just because the two disagree. The Doer can’t think of himself as superior because of his understanding. Knowledge puffs up; love builds up (1Co 8.1). We need to treat one another better than we do.
- Second, Scripture holds the Doer responsible for what the Non-Doer might do. That means that we need to be aware of the consequences of our disputed actions; we need to know if there are people in our circle who might follow our example but who shouldn’t.
And that means that we need to know one another better than we do. We need to talk about these things. And that in turn means that we need to have the kind of atmosphere in our churches that encourages us to talk about things over which we strongly disagree. Our churches need to be Safe Spaces—yeah, I said that—where we can trust one another to listen and understand and care and love and embrace.
We need to not have wars, worship or otherwise.
Man, do we have a long way to go.
Next time, we’ll look at the second question: What do we do about a misinformed conscience?