Confessions of a Weaker Brother

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Over the years I’ve seen my share of potentially divisive issues in the church. Perhaps because I grew up in a more liberal church tradition, my sympathies have tended to fall more on the side of Christian liberty and the freedom we have in the gospel. To the extent that I struggled, it was to accommodate the “weaker brother” described in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 – the brother or sister whose conscience constrains them to abstain from certain practices. However, the current controversy over our nation’s pandemic response has given me some new insight into what it feels like to be the weaker brother. My conscience tells me to observe all the pandemic restrictions. Others sincerely believe that our fellowship should be unrestricted. The struggle to reconcile my conviction with the contrary views of my brothers and sisters has led me to examine the Word of God to understand the scriptural commands for the weaker brother.1

Romans 14 is often applied to appeal for Christians to restrain their liberty for the sake of the weaker brother. But a careful reading of the text reveals that Paul has a lot to say to the weaker brother, too. The clear admonition to the weaker brother is to stop passing judgement on others who do not share your conviction. This command is repeated twice in Romans 14:3 and 14:13. Paul is saying that their “passing judgement” – calling someone else’s liberty sin – must not continue. The reason given is that each brother has been received by God and is accountable ultimately to God.

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. (Romans 14:4)

…For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.” So then each of us will give an account of himself to God. (Romans 14:10-12)

This is particularly convicting to me when I struggle with the temptation to judge my fellow believer’s behavior during the pandemic. For me, disregarding CDC guidance is like yelling “FIRE” in a crowded theater – I can’t know beforehand if anyone would get hurt but I’d be recklessly putting everyone at risk if I did it. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not afraid to take risks for the sake of the gospel or to do acts of mercy. I just view the inconvenience of COVID-19 restrictions as a necessary cross to bear for the sake of others.

This is how I love my neighbor during pandemic. I share this not to justify myself or condemn my brother, but to explain why this issue is so difficult for me.

When I’m distressed by my brethren who are not socially distancing, or when I’m annoyed at the brother worshiping next to me without a mask, I need to remind myself that judging others is putting myself in the place of God – it’s sin. For those who share my struggle, I’ve found the following insights to be helpful:

=          The messaging from the government, media pundits and public health officials has been confusing and seemingly contradictory at times. 

=          The logic behind some restrictions is counterintuitive. For example, I normally think of a mask as something to protect myself, not as something I wear to protect other people.

=          The country’s shutdown and ongoing restrictions bring real harm to  families and individuals. It’s extremely difficult for people to assess the potential future risk from a virus versus the tangible and immediate negative effects of the shutdown.

=          Many Christians are justifiably concerned about some incidents of government overreach and potential infringements of religious liberty during the shutdown.

=          We are living through a perfect storm comprised of fear, civil unrest, economic melt-down, and a contentious election year. In times when it seems like everyone has a political agenda, it is hard for some to trust government officials who advocate painful restrictions. 

For reasons stated above it is safe to assume my brother with opposing views is probably working from a very different frame of reference than I am. What I consider obvious and established truth is dubious to him.

The point is that I cannot know if my brother’s actions are sinful because I don’t know what his conscience is telling him, or if his conscience is informed differently than mine. I need to remind myself of this time and time again. He is my brother, and we both answer to God. Instead of getting caught up in controversy, we are admonished to pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. (Rom 14:19)

I frequently feel misunderstood by people who assume that my adherence to coronavirus prevention rules is driven by fearful anxiety or a lack of faith, when the opposite is true. My faith compels me to accept this sacrifice and encourage my brother to do the same for the sake of others.

For this reason, I strive to 
respectfully explain my presupposi-tions and the biblical basis for my conclusions to others. If I am following the Romans 14 mandate to pursue peace and mutual upbuilding, I must try harder still to understand where others are coming from and humbly entertain the possibility that I might be wrong.

Some aspects of the current controversy do not completely match the situation that Paul was addressing in his letters to the church in Rome and Corinth. The big issue for the church in that day was eating meat sacrificed to idols. For the newly converted gentiles, eating meat sacrificed to idols was part of their pagan worship prior to coming to Christ. After conversion they were free to eat this meat, but continuing this practice felt like idolatry to them and therefore violated their conscience. Both sides would agree however that meat sacrificed to idols has no physical power to harm people. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of coronavirus. The debate in the church today is fueled by differing opinions on just how harmful the virus really is, or whether the pandemic restrictions do more harm than good. This dispute is not fundamentally doctrinal; it is perceptual. I know mature believers who share all my doctrinal convictions but come to opposite conclusions because their judgements are based on vastly different perceptions of reality. In my experience, bridging that perception gap is extremely difficult.

Another thing that is different from the matters addressed in Romans 14 is that COVID-19 unavoidably impacts the way we worship and fellowship together. A Christian in the early church could perhaps exercise his freedom to eat meat sacrificed to idols in private without bothering the conscience of others, but current restrictions intended to contain the virus change everything that I love about our fellowship and church ministry. Like most people, I’m sick of Zoom and hate the masks and I yearn to greet my brethren with a hug. This thing is right in our face 24/7. Even our most beloved religious practices are not left untouched. When you combine the rising tide of tribalism and political strife in our country with the inevitable impact on the way we “do church,” the stage is set for an unprecedented challenge to our unity.

The Bible’s answer to this challenge is to love Christ and consistently submit everything to His Lordship, including our racial and ethnic identity, our generational preferences, our cherished traditions, and our political sentiments. The early church had similar struggles with diverse perspectives, to whom Paul offered the following insight:

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (Gal. 3:28-29)

Interestingly, how Paul argues against tribalism by emphasizing the spiritual reality that we are all of one tribe (Abraham’s seed). Lackling issues of this type requires an identification with Christ that trumps all other allegiances in this world. If our local church is going to survive this test, we need to collectively embrace the hard work of humbly listening to one another, earnestly seeking to understand, and sacrificially loving our brother for whom Christ died.

by David Marks, Elder at Grace BFC, Quakertown, PA.

For further reading on this topic, I commend the following articles:

The Gospel Coalition Ð Church, Don’t Let Coronavirus Divide You thegospelcoalition.org/article/church-dont-let-coronavirus-divide

9Marks Ð Reflections on Recent Conversations about Christian

Freedom (9marks.org/article/a-time-for-civil-disobedience-a-response-to-john-macarthur/)

(9marks.org/article/further reflections-on-recent-conversations-about-christian-freedom/)

Over the years I’ve seen my share of potentially divisive issues in the church. Perhaps because I grew up in a more liberal church tradition, my sympathies have tended to fall more on the side of Christian liberty and the freedom we have in the gospel. To the extent that I struggled, it was to accommodate the “weaker brother” described in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 – the brother or sister whose conscience constrains them to abstain from certain practices. However, the current controversy over our nation’s pandemic response has given me some new insight into what it feels like to be the weaker brother. My conscience tells me to observe all the pandemic restrictions. Others sincerely believe that our fellowship should be unrestricted. The struggle to reconcile my conviction with the contrary views of my brothers and sisters has led me to examine the Word of God to understand the scriptural commands for the weaker brother.1

Romans 14 is often applied to appeal for Christians to restrain their liberty for the sake of the weaker brother. But a careful reading of the text reveals that Paul has a lot to say to the weaker brother, too. The clear admonition to the weaker brother is to stop passing judgement on others who do not share your conviction. This command is repeated twice in Romans 14:3 and 14:13. Paul is saying that their “passing judgement” – calling someone else’s liberty sin – must not continue. The reason given is that each brother has been received by God and is accountable ultimately to God.

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. (Romans 14:4)

…For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.” So then each of us will give an account of himself to God. (Romans 14:10-12)

This is particularly convicting to me when I struggle with the temptation to judge my fellow believer’s behavior during the pandemic. For me, disregarding CDC guidance is like yelling “FIRE” in a crowded theater – I can’t know beforehand if anyone would get hurt but I’d be recklessly putting everyone at risk if I did it. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not afraid to take risks for the sake of the gospel or to do acts of mercy. I just view the inconvenience of COVID-19 restrictions as a necessary cross to bear for the sake of others.

This is how I love my neighbor during pandemic. I share this not to justify myself or condemn my brother, but to explain why this issue is so difficult for me.

When I’m distressed by my brethren who are not socially distancing, or when I’m annoyed at the brother worshiping next to me without a mask, I need to remind myself that judging others is putting myself in the place of God – it’s sin. For those who share my struggle, I’ve found the following insights to be helpful:

=          The messaging from the government, media pundits and public health officials has been confusing and seemingly contradictory at times. 

=          The logic behind some restrictions is counterintuitive. For example, I normally think of a mask as something to protect myself, not as something I wear to protect other people.

=          The country’s shutdown and ongoing restrictions bring real harm to  families and individuals. It’s extremely difficult for people to assess the potential future risk from a virus versus the tangible and immediate negative effects of the shutdown.

=          Many Christians are justifiably concerned about some incidents of government overreach and potential infringements of religious liberty during the shutdown.

=          We are living through a perfect storm comprised of fear, civil unrest, economic melt-down, and a contentious election year. In times when it seems like everyone has a political agenda, it is hard for some to trust government officials who advocate painful restrictions. 

For reasons stated above it is safe to assume my brother with opposing views is probably working from a very different frame of reference than I am. What I consider obvious and established truth is dubious to him.

The point is that I cannot know if my brother’s actions are sinful because I don’t know what his conscience is telling him, or if his conscience is informed differently than mine. I need to remind myself of this time and time again. He is my brother, and we both answer to God. Instead of getting caught up in controversy, we are admonished to pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. (Rom 14:19)

I frequently feel misunderstood by people who assume that my adherence to coronavirus prevention rules is driven by fearful anxiety or a lack of faith, when the opposite is true. My faith compels me to accept this sacrifice and encourage my brother to do the same for the sake of others.

For this reason, I strive to 
respectfully explain my presupposi-tions and the biblical basis for my conclusions to others. If I am following the Romans 14 mandate to pursue peace and mutual upbuilding, I must try harder still to understand where others are coming from and humbly entertain the possibility that I might be wrong.

Some aspects of the current controversy do not completely match the situation that Paul was addressing in his letters to the church in Rome and Corinth. The big issue for the church in that day was eating meat sacrificed to idols. For the newly converted gentiles, eating meat sacrificed to idols was part of their pagan worship prior to coming to Christ. After conversion they were free to eat this meat, but continuing this practice felt like idolatry to them and therefore violated their conscience. Both sides would agree however that meat sacrificed to idols has no physical power to harm people. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of coronavirus. The debate in the church today is fueled by differing opinions on just how harmful the virus really is, or whether the pandemic restrictions do more harm than good. This dispute is not fundamentally doctrinal; it is perceptual. I know mature believers who share all my doctrinal convictions but come to opposite conclusions because their judgements are based on vastly different perceptions of reality. In my experience, bridging that perception gap is extremely difficult.

Another thing that is different from the matters addressed in Romans 14 is that COVID-19 unavoidably impacts the way we worship and fellowship together. A Christian in the early church could perhaps exercise his freedom to eat meat sacrificed to idols in private without bothering the conscience of others, but current restrictions intended to contain the virus change everything that I love about our fellowship and church ministry. Like most people, I’m sick of Zoom and hate the masks and I yearn to greet my brethren with a hug. This thing is right in our face 24/7. Even our most beloved religious practices are not left untouched. When you combine the rising tide of tribalism and political strife in our country with the inevitable impact on the way we “do church,” the stage is set for an unprecedented challenge to our unity.

The Bible’s answer to this challenge is to love Christ and consistently submit everything to His Lordship, including our racial and ethnic identity, our generational preferences, our cherished traditions, and our political sentiments. The early church had similar struggles with diverse perspectives, to whom Paul offered the following insight:

There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus. If you belong to Christ, then you are Abraham’s seed, and heirs according to the promise. (Gal. 3:28-29)

Interestingly, how Paul argues against tribalism by emphasizing the spiritual reality that we are all of one tribe (Abraham’s seed). Lackling issues of this type requires an identification with Christ that trumps all other allegiances in this world. If our local church is going to survive this test, we need to collectively embrace the hard work of humbly listening to one another, earnestly seeking to understand, and sacrificially loving our brother for whom Christ died.

by David Marks, Elder at Grace BFC, Quakertown, PA.

For further reading on this topic, I commend the following articles:

The Gospel Coalition Ð Church, Don’t Let Coronavirus Divide You thegospelcoalition.org/article/church-dont-let-coronavirus-divide

9Marks Ð Reflections on Recent Conversations about Christian

Freedom (9marks.org/article/a-time-for-civil-disobedience-a-response-to-john-macarthur/)

(9marks.org/article/further reflections-on-recent-conversations-about-christian-freedom/)

1. Identify with the weaker brother in this instance because Paul uses that language to describe people who are tempted to judge others who are exercising their freedom in good conscience. It’s worth noting that people on both sides of this debate can be tempted in this way – both those who believe all should comply with government restrictions, and those who believe all should participate in civil disobedience against government restrictions.

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