This is part of a series of posts on the doctrine of Unity. Click here to see the entire series.
Romans 14: 5 says, “One man regards one day above another, another regards ever day alike. Let each man be fully convinced in his own mind.” This is another crucial principle in the weaker brother doctrine that is totally ignored in our churches today. The sixth principle of the weaker brother doctrine is that both the weaker brother and the stronger brother are to be fully convinced of the truth of their positions in their own minds.
Any elementary student of logic realizes that this principle creates a logical dilemma. It is not possible for two men to have mutually contradictory doctrinal positions and both of them be correct. Either one is right and the other is wrong, or both might be wrong. However, it is not possible that both of them could be correct. Why would Paul establish a principle that necessarily involves a logical contradiction?
This principle, more than any of the other weaker brother principles, must be understood in order to fully understand biblical unity. Paul allows for a behavioral principle that necessarily establishes an intellectual self-contradiction because, when dealing with weaker brother issues, behavior is more important than belief. Verse 3 clearly states that God has accepted both the weaker brother and the stronger brother, despite the fact that their intellectual positions are mutually exclusive. This is a concept that the evangelical of today is incapable of understanding or accepting. Anyone who has been steeped in the principles of the sanctity of “division for the sake of unity” cannot comprehend how two men could both be fully convinced in their minds of a mutually exclusive doctrine and still remain united. However, they can and must remain united because, in weaker brother issues, behavior is more important than doctrine.
In the earlier discussion on conflicts due to sin it was necessarily the case that doctrine was more important than behavior. It is not possible for a man to hold to the doctrines of Unitarianism and not be subject to excommunication, no matter how sanctified a life he appears to have. With conflicts due to sin it is sometimes necessary to separate from one another by means of the judicial decision of excommunication. All of this changes when we come to conflicts due to weaker brother issues. The failure of the Church to recognize this change has brought about tremendous devastation to the unity of the Church throughout Church history.
Consider for a moment the undisputable fact that God accepts both parties in a weaker brother conflict even though they hold mutually exclusive positions. If God accepts both parties, who are we to not accept one of them? Who are we to pretend to be smarter than God and throw one of the parties out of our church? Who are we to divide the Body of Christ? Who are we to say that church leaders are to be held to a higher standard of doctrine that recognizes a third class of elevated truths? True believers who separate from one another over weaker brother issues have committed the sin of factionalism. There is never any reason or excuse for separating from a true believer over a weaker brother doctrine. There is never any reason for an elder to be qualified for office in one denomination while, at the same time, be unqualified for office in another denomination.
The simple fact that many Christians simply refuse to acknowledge is that many of our cherished denominational distinctives are not all that important. If they were, God would never have commanded that each party to the dispute be fully convinced of the truth of his position. If they were, God would never have commanded that men who hold mutually exclusive doctrinal positions remain united to each other. If they were, God would never have described the separation that weaker and stronger brothers practice as the sin of factionalism. Unfortunately, many church leaders have staked their entire careers on fighting for a weaker/stronger brother doctrine. That is a fight that never should have been fought. That is a fight that is actually working contrary to the purposes of God with His Church. That is a fight that must immediately cease if we are to expect any blessing from God.
The doctrine of baptism is one of the greatest examples of a weaker brother doctrine in our time. This single doctrine has divided millions of believers and tens of thousands of churches from each other. Hundreds of books have been written and countless hours of study, debate, and argument have been dedicated to the doctrine of baptism. You would think that a doctrine as important as baptism would be vitally important to the leaders of the apostolic church, wouldn’t you? Here is what the Apostle Paul had to say about baptism, “I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, that no man should say you were baptized in my name. Now I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized any other”! (I Corinthians 1: 14-16) Now does that sound like a man who would be pleased with churches dividing over the doctrine of baptism? Baptism was so relatively unimportant to Paul that he could not even remember who he had baptized.
This principle also tends to counteract a tendency that exists in both the weaker and the stronger brother. The weaker brother tends to expect the stronger brother to change his opinion in the light of the revelation of his weakness in that area. In other words, when I am informed by a weaker brother that it would violate the principles of his conscience if he were to drink alcohol, he usually expects me to respond to that revelation by promising to agree with him and never drink again. As I showed before, that is foolishness. I am fully entitled to remain fully convinced in my own mind that drinking is not a sin. What I am not permitted to do is behave in such a way that the conscience of the weaker brother is injured. The issue is an issue of behavior, not belief.
On the other hand, the stronger brother has no right to tell the weaker brother that it is his responsibility to “grow up” into agreement with the stronger brother view. This is a particularly notorious problem in Reformed churches where a strong emphasis is put upon the beliefs of each individual. Hundreds of times I have heard the statement out of Reformed pastors that it is the duty of the members of the church to “make progress” in their understanding of some particular doctrine that is not essential for salvation. By “make progress” they simply mean that the weaker brother has to eventually come to agree with the position of the church, the pastor and the confession. To this Paul clearly says, let each man be fully convinced in his own mind. Although the weaker brother is in an inferior position (because of his weakness), he is not a second-class believer. God has accepted both the stronger and the weaker brother.
Now, does this mean that the weaker brother should never be challenged to examine his position? As I pointed out before, of course not! The weaker brother and the stronger brother should continually challenge each other with respect to their views. What this principle does mean is that they should accept each other. There should be no separation. There should be no attempt to force or coerce a weaker brother to change his view. Once he has become fully convinced in his own mind that his view is correct, so be it. To try and force the weaker brother to violate the principles of his own conscience is a sin (the seventh principle) and the stronger brother must respect the right of the weaker brother to hold, defend and teach his position.
Sometimes a doctrine comes up in which it is difficult to determine who is the weaker brother and who is the stronger brother (of course, in my own mind it is always perfectly clear). Baptism is a good example of such a doctrine. Although a few churches hold the extreme position that their doctrine of baptism is necessary for salvation, I believe most would agree that the doctrine of baptism is a weaker brother issue. But, who is the weaker brother–the believer baptist or the infant baptist? For all practical purposes, it doesn’t matter. Remember, behavior is more important than belief with this weaker brother doctrine. Both parties in the dispute are required to respect the other view. Both are required to not judge the other view. Both are required to accept a person who holds the other view. Both parties are to be fully convinced in their own minds. Both are required to remain united, despite their differences of opinion about the doctrine. God has accepted both positions, who are we to act differently?
The Seventh Principle of the Weaker Brother
Romans 14: 13 says, “Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this–not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way.” Paul goes on in verses 14-23 to explain the doctrine of the “stumbling block”. What is a stumbling block?
First of all, the concept of stumbling block does not mean causing a weaker brother to commit an actual biblical sin. The common evangelical error with the concept of a stumbling block fails to recognize this truth. According to evangelicals, if I speak to a married woman I will put a stumbling block in front of a weaker brother and he will commit adultery shortly thereafter. As should be obvious by now, Paul is not talking about doctrines that are related to actual sin. Paul is talking about weaker brother doctrines where the sin that is committed is the sin of violating the principles of one’s own conscience. Verses 22 and 23 say, “The faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves. But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and whatever is not from faith is sin.” There is no way that actual biblical sins could be in mind in what Paul is saying.
This reality raises the interesting probability of a weaker brother believing the wrong thing for the right reason. If what the weaker brother believes is wrong (it is a sin to drink), but he is fully convinced that it is true and he makes the decision to not drink by faith, he is not drinking for the right reason. Conversely, in this case the weaker brother would sin if he were to do the right thing (drink alcohol). Why? Because his drinking would not be of faith. All of this conclusively proves that weaker brother doctrines are all about behavior, not belief.
To put a stumbling block in the way of a weaker brother is to behave (not believe) in such a way as to encourage him to violate the principles of his own legalistic conscience and, thereby, create a crisis of faith for him. To drink wine in the presence of a weaker brother who has declared his weakness to me is to put a stumbling block in front of him. If he stumbles and drinks wine he has committed no biblical sin. However he has sinned because he violated the principles of his own conscience and engaged in an action that was not from faith. It is my responsibility, as a stronger brother, to never put a stumbling block in the way of a weaker brother. As I mentioned earlier, it is the responsibility of the weaker brother to tell me what his weaknesses are; otherwise I might cause him to stumble inadvertently (in which case it would be the fault of the weaker brother for not disclosing his weakness). It is the responsibility of the stronger brother to never engage in any behavior that might cause the weaker brother to sin against the principles of his own conscience. It is the responsibility of the stronger brother to accept the opinions of the weaker brother and not try to coerce him into stronger brother behavior. The stronger brother has the greater responsibility because he is in the superior position.
One last thing the stronger brother must do is determine if the legalism of the weaker brother is an example of private, personal legalism or the legalism of the Pharisees.