"As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. 4 Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand." (Rom 14:1-4)
Aside from Luther's famous tract, On the Freedom of a Christian, almost every article I read on Christian freedom is written as a warning against exercising one’s Christian freedom at the expense of the weaker brother. This bothers me for a couple of reasons. First of all, I do not think sufficient time is given to defining the identity of the weaker brother. Second, few ever take a minute to understand the original issue Paul addresses and if such issues could bring another person into perdition and cause them to lose their faith. Has anyone ever lost their faith because a Christian showed up at a high school dance? Has anyone lost their faith because they saw a pastor smoking, or drinking a glass of wine? And if so, what exactly was their faith in?
Modern issues such as drinking alcohol, dancing, and smoking are not a one-to-one issue here in regards to stronger brothers versus weaker brothers. In Paul’s day, there were two issues: meat offered to idols and the neglect of the Sabbath. Today, these are difficult topics for us to understand. While historically, God’s people held the Sabbath on Saturday, as Christians we purposely ignore this tradition. We do this in part to show that the law has no power over us, and therefore we celebrate the resurrection on Sunday because we find our rest in Christ who redeemed us from the law. Yet for a pious Jew in Paul’s day, the Sabbath would have been a hard tradition to give up. Paul says they are free to honor it as long as they do not make it binding on others.
Has anyone ever lost their faith because a Christian showed up at a high school dance? Has anyone lost their faith because they saw a pastor smoking, or drinking a glass of wine? And if so, what exactly was their faith in?
For Gentiles, on the other hand, the eating of meat was almost always associated with the worship of idols. This type of worship was something they gave up when they became Christians. But as Bo Giertz notes, “There were some things, such as meat offered to an idol and then sold, that for some was so insolubly connected to faith in idols that it could not be touched without experiencing it as an apostasy.” (Bo Giertz, Romans: A Devotional Commentary, 80) It seems many new converts would, therefore, abstain from eating meat to avoid falling into worship of the idols they had turned away from. This could be confusing for a young convert still learning the faith. Paul understands this, but he is adamant that the weaker brother who does not eat meat, cannot make this a rule for anyone else. That is crossing the line.
Here is the difference between a weaker brother and a Pharisee. As Luther notes in The Freedom of a Christian, Paul could honor the weak brother's faith when they could not yet grasp Christian liberty, but he could not abide with those who despised Christian liberty. Jesus did not come as a new Moses, and He did not come to give us new laws. He came to free us from the Law. He did not do this so we could go around making new laws and bind the consciences of others in the name of Christ to things that are neither commanded nor forbidden in Scripture. Instead, Paul "chose a middle way, sparing the weak for a time, but always withstanding the stubborn that he might convert all to the liberty of faith. What we do should be done with the same zeal to sustain the weak in faith, as in Romans 14:1, but we should firmly resist the stubborn teachers of works" (LW Vol. 31, 368-369).
So it is that a brother who has been brought up in a church falsely teaching that alcohol, dancing, smoking, gambling and the like are sinful in and of themselves is free to abstain from such things. Yet such things are neither prohibited nor commanded in Scripture. Christians are free in regards to these things. Some may choose not to drink because they have a hard time controlling how much they drink. Some may avoid dances because they have two left feet. There are a billion reasons why avoiding tobacco is a good idea. One does not even have to be a Christian to see the wisdom in that. Gambling does not appeal to everyone, and some see it as a waste of money. Tattoos and pork were forbidden in the Old Testament, yet there is no way of applying that blanket prohibition without turning everything Christ says about all foods being clean upside down. Still, tattoos are not for everyone. So while Christians can and will abstain from some or all the above, they are not able to ban others from partaking in such things.
Perhaps if we indulged our Christian freedom around them, they would come to see that “the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.
There is another weaker brother, however, that we must also consider. These are the brothers who are led to believe they cannot be Christian because of the doctrines of men. As a pastor, I run into these people from time to time. I remember getting a phone call once from a young man who wanted to come to church. But a pastor had already told him his tattoos were something that barred him from church and salvation. As a result, the young man was fearful whether he could ever attend any church. Others I know have been afraid to seek a pastor's help in a time of need because their use of "shop talk" had offended Christians in the past. Maybe these people are brothers and sisters who have fallen away from the church. Maybe they are friends, acquaintances or family members who were never Christian in the first place and don't see a reason to go to church due to the barriers and stumbling blocks we continue to put in their way. Perhaps if we indulged our Christian freedom around them, they would come to see that "the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit" (Rom. 14:17). It is this righteousness, peace, and joy that Christ has come to share with us, and it is this joy we share with others when we exercise our Christian freedom.