I don’t intend to make an argument for or against social drinking by a believer. My challenge will not be addressed to those who identify themselves as unbelievers or non-Christian. And even for those who do consider themselves Christians, I’m mostly directing this towards those who would be considered evangelical. If you fit into this category, please hear me out.
It is impossible that the dispute over the acceptability of drinking alcohol will ever be settled to the satisfaction of all Bible believers. Most versed people are going to cling to their position quite tightly and many are even capable of asserting their arguments either for or against the topic at hand. I understand most of the arguments on both sides, but it is not my intent to extol or excoriate the assertions already posed (as is what happens in most debates).
I’ve been observing the online debates among Christians for some time regarding social drinking. As I’ve watched this argument unfold, I’ve failed to hear a key ingredient mentioned as often as it should be. Obviously, everyone’s scope is limited and I’ve not trolled the entire internet to find articles that may include this missing element, but in my observation of the articles on facebook and the blogs which are a part of my circles – I’ve seen very little inclination to show deference to the conscience of the weaker brother.
Individuals who believe that the Scriptures permit the usage of alcohol recognize that it is a matter of preference, soul-liberty, or conscience. That being the case, it is governed by 1st Corinthians 8-10 and Romans 14-15 (both of these portions of Scripture reference drinking along with eating meat offered to idols and observing certain holy days). In the context of these portions of Scripture, the one whose conscience would allow him to partake of alcohol, is the stronger brother. According to the same interpretation, the one whose conscience tells him that he should not drink alcohol, is the weaker brother.
I’m convinced that in these categories of the weaker brother and the stronger brother, there is also a distinction that needs to be understood in regards to both the stronger brother and the weaker brother. There are two types of the stronger brother. Paul was clearly a stronger brother! In Romans 14:1, he referred to the weaker brother in the 3rd person (meaning he didn’t identify himself as one); in Romans 15:1, he referred to the stronger brethren in the 1st person (meaning he did identify himself as one). 1st Corinthians 8-10 reveals the same thing. These two segments of Scripture are directed primarily towards the stronger brother. Paul was a strong brother who had an amazing ability to restrict the exercise of those things that his conscience allowed. He was writing to brethren whose consciences permitted them to participate in certain activities, but they were either unaware or unconcerned with the affect that their activities had on the weaker brothers.
I also believe that there is a misunderstanding about the weaker brother. There are Christians whose consciences are genuinely wounded by certain activities (I knew of a man years ago whose conscience would not allow him to play with face cards because they reminded him of his gambling days). But, there are also those, often considered legalists, which judge their own and other’s spirituality and sanctification (and perhaps even salvation) based on their lists of “do’s” and “don’ts.” He isn’t really a weaker brother. It is likely then, that one reason that many stronger brothers do not defer to the conscience of the weaker brother is because they have misidentified the weaker brother as a legalist. Paul did not consider the weaker brother in 1st Corinthians 8-10 or Romans 14-15 as a legalist.
What is the distinction between a legalist and the weaker brother? How can one tell the difference between the two?
It seems that the trait that Paul tagged on the weaker brother was a lack of knowledge. Often, new or immature believers misinterpret, misapply, or just misunderstand various passages of Scripture. Their lack of knowledge combined with their love for Christ causes them to take very strict measures to avoid sin. These are individuals who operate in faith.
Legalists, on the other hand, are described by Paul as those who live by the commandments and doctrines of men. They are intelligent and manipulative teachers who beguile others into thinking that their outward activities are a prerequisite of God’s favor rather than a proof of faith. These teachers operate in fear.
If the stronger brother has come to the conclusion that the weaker brother is actually a legalist, it absolves him of the obligation to defer to the conscience of the one who is offended by his activities. However, it is unlikely that many of the ordinary Christians accused of being legalists are actually so. Genuine love (which is how we demonstrate we are disciples) does not presume evil against a brother. I’ve known a few legalists, but I’ve known many more weak brothers whose consciences are simply mis-calibrated by a lack of knowledge.
In light of the previous explanations, I plead the following things with those of you whose consciences allow you to consume alcohol in moderation (most everyone agrees that drunkenness is wrong).
1. Don’t let the exercise of your liberty be a stumblingblock to your brother. Paul indicates that when a weaker brother observes the actions of a stronger brother, he may justify those same actions for himself – not because of knowledge – but because he’s observed you doing it (1st Corinthians 8:9-11).
2. Don’t sin against Christ by wounding the tender conscience of your brother. Paul considered it sin against the brother to exercise a liberty which caused him to stumble. Furthermore, by sinning against a weaker brother, the stronger brother was sinning against Christ (1st Corinthians 8:12). Is the personal exercise of a liberty so precious that one will sin against Christ?
3. Follow the example of Paul. In 1st Corinthians 8:13, Paul stated that he would eat no more meat (offered to idols) if it was an offense to his brother and therefore a sin against Christ. 1st Corinthians chapter 9 is a very personal illustration of Paul’s willingness to sacrifice personal rights for the sake of Christ. The apostle spent the first 15 verses of chapter 9 explaining why he had the right to be remunerated in the ministry: because of his experience in the ministry (9:1-2), because of normal expectations for a laborer (9:3-7,11-12), because of the exposition of the law (9:8-10), because of the example of the priesthood (9:13), and finally because of the expression of Christ Himself (9:14)! However, Paul declared that he had used none of his “rights” because doing so could hinder the work of Christ, in fact he would have rather died than to cling to his rights at the expense of the gospel (9:12, 15)! He then talked of how the ministry in the gospel is a reward, he spoke of his willingness to become “all things to all men” to be able to gain them (this was not compromise of truth but sacrifice of preferences). He concluded chapter 9 by using the illustration of a self-disciplined athlete to show how he refused to become a castaway – which would happen if he indulged self.
4. Don’t believe that just because something is permitted that it is actually good. Paul was pretty clear with this point in 1st Corinthians 10:23. There were many things that were within the realm of possibility for him, but he realized that they did nothing to build him up or to edify him.
5. Seek the good of your brother (the weaker one) (9:24). I’ve been memorizing the book of Philippians and chapter 2 is pretty explicit that the behavior of believers towards one another is to mirror that of Christ. He was not only willing, but did sacrifice more than any mortal will ever understand so that He could fulfill the will of God the Father. It is more Christ-like to sacrifice a privilege on behalf of a brother than to cling to it.
6. Demonstrate love instead of personal liberty (Romans 14:15).
7. Don’t let the good thing (Christian liberty) be despised by persisting in it (14:16). When a stronger brother is unwilling to defer to his weaker brother, Paul warns that liberty could actually gain a bad reputation because of its abuses.
8. Seek peace and edification (Romans 14:19). Unfortunately, many stronger brethren that I’ve observed have willingly provoked conflict in the name of the defense of their Christian liberty. It is unnecessary and contrary to the demeanor taught by the apostle Paul. Furthermore, the conflict prohibits one from fulfilling the responsibility of building up his brother.
9. If your conscience allows you to participate in certain activities – in faith, then let it be between you and God so that you don’t cause offense (Romans 14:22). Why is it necessary to reveal it publicly while knowing that there are brothers who would be offended by it?
A few final thoughts.
I understand that I’ve not comprehensively covered the 5 chapters in 1st Corinthians 8-10 and Romans 14-15; I know that there is much more that could be said from these chapters regarding these and other things – but I’m not writing a book nor intending to give a full exposition of these chapters – I’m attempting to bring to light an issue that has been neglected. I also know that this has been addressed almost entirely to those who are the stronger brother, that’s because that is primarily to whom Paul addressed these chapters.
Though these chapters written by Paul are specifically referencing meat offered to idols, consuming alcohol, and observing certain holy days, the application should apply to all perceived areas that are matters of preference, conscience, liberty, or gray areas. In other words, think of the things that may cause offense to your weaker brother: your food and drink choices (or restaurant choices), your entertainment choices, your clothing choices, your music choices, your holiday choices (or what you do on Sundays), your financial choices (debt or the lottery), and apply the principles that Paul taught.
I hope that I don’t seem self-righteous, vindictive or angry. I believe that at various times and circumstances any one of us can be the stronger brother in one matter and the weaker brother in another matter. I have wrestled through most of these “gray areas” in the last 15 years; I’m constantly trying to act in wisdom and balance. I’m sure there are times that I’ve taken the wrong stance, but as I grow in my understanding of the Scriptures and in submission to the spirit of Christ, the issues are becoming easier navigate.
Finally, I’m not judging your choices. If you can do any of the things mentioned above in good conscience, in faith, without causing offense to a weaker brother, and bring glory to God while doing so, you’ll hear nothing for me. But I am grieved at the conflict that has been bred due to stronger brothers exhibiting their liberty at the expense of the conscience of the weaker brother. I plead with you to be the kind of stronger brother that the apostle Paul was, one who chose to abstain from the use of his privileges so as not to be an offense to the weaker brothers.