A friend in another town recently asked me about Paul’s instructions on the scruples of other Christians. It seems some brothers suggested to her that she should consider them the “weaker brother” described in Romans 14 and so refuse certain behaviors to avoid “offending” them.
Just so, many in the a cappella Churches of Christ are calling on the instrumental independent Christian Churches to give up the instrument for the sake of fellowship. They argue: shouldn’t you consider us the weaker brother and give up the instrument for the sake of our consciences?
Now, these arguments have been made in the Churches of Christ as long as I’ve been attending (that is, all 53 of my years). Rarely do they succeed in causing anyone to give up his freedom for the sake of the weaker brother. It’s not that we dispute the command. Rather, we just instinctively realize that this can’t be right. I mean, if these arguments have merit, then every single Church of Christ must yield to the scruples of the most conservative Church there is!
Freed Hardeman University had a debate on instrumental music last year between a Christian Church minister and an FHU professor. The FHU professor said, “Why don’t you just give up the instrument for the sake of fellowship?” The Christian Church minister responded, “Why don’t you give up Sunday School classes and go to a single cup for the sake of fellowship?”
Paul’s writings on the subject do teach important doctrinal points that are binding today and that we often ignore. So we need to take a fresh look at this part of Romans 14.
(Rom 14:13-23) Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way. 14 As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean.
15 If your brother is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy your brother for whom Christ died. 16 Do not allow what you consider good to be spoken of as evil.
17 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, 18 because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by men. 19 Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.
20 Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a man to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. 21 It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother to fall.
22 So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he approves. 23 But the man who has doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.
(In the KJV, v. 21 adds at the end “or is offended, or is made weak.” The NIV does not include these words. The oldest manuscripts omit these words, although the sense isn’t greatly changed.)
Verse 13 warns against placing an obstacle or stumbling block in the way of a brother. Verse 21 warns against causing your brother “to fall,” surely by tripping over an obstacle.
There’s little doubt as to the obstacles Paul has in mind. Verse 14 says food is unclean to someone who considers it unclean. Verse 23 say that eating with doubt “condemns” because the eating is not from faith, that is, is contrary to accepting Jesus as Lord.
Plainly, Paul’s thought is this. Suppose there are members of my church who believe it’s a sin to eat meat or to drink wine (v. 21). Now suppose that you invite that person to your home and the meal is meat and wine with no other drink offered. You’ve just imposed social pressure on your brother to sin. It’s not sin for you to eat and drink, but it is sin for him. And you sin by tempting him.
Consider a small group in someone’s home where wine is served and the more “progressive” members laugh at the scruples of the teetotaler. Again, it’s sin to be so insensitive, especially if you push someone to violate his conscience.
However, if a Christian drinks wine around his more conservative friends (or even most Baptists!), he doesn’t likely tempt them to sin. They might sneer at him, but they won’t join in because he doesn’t have that kind of influence over them. Rather, Paul is speaking of peer pressure. Remember: the early church met in small groups (30 or less) in homes. If meat sacrificed to idols was served by the woman of the house, it could have been hard to say no, even if your conscience said it was wrong to participate.
Or imagine inviting a Christian child over to a pool party, knowing that the child has been taught “mixed bathing” is a sin. And yet you have boys and girls there and no way for the child to avoid sinning against his conscience other than to sit in the corner and be miserable. This is sin.
In my wife’s home congregation–a church of 50 in North Carolina–they had some no-Sunday School members. These Christians skipped classes and were treated with respect even though most small churches would look down on those who skip classes. Neither bound their scruples on the other–which is really the lesson of Romans 14.
Hence, Paul would say, if your congregation has a Messianic Jew who keeps kosher, don’t invite him for a BBQ without something else on the table he can eat and keep kosher. If you’re kosher, go to the party and don’t condemn those who eat pork. But do let your host know how they can provide you food you can eat in good conscience. DON’T have two parties. Don’t look down on each other. The last thing Paul would have wanted is a meat-eating congregation across the street from a non-meat eating congregation!
Just so, if an eldership (or minister) wants to initiate a new practice at church, the membership must be forewarned and taught so they don’t find themselves encouraged to sin against their consciences–or leave! Teaching is always appropriate and likely the only way to completely overcome these kinds of issues.
We aren’t called to yield to scruples in general (or else we’d all be one cuppers with no Sunday Schools). Rather, we don’t cause a brother to stumble by doing something he thinks is wrong.
We have a lot of brothers! If we had to have unanimous consent from the entire Churches of Christ to do anything, we’d do nothing. The Churches have some members with extraordinarily heightened sensitivities! But they are not elders (at least not of my church), and so they shouldn’t set doctrine for the church.
Indeed, when we run our congregations to suit the sensibilities of our most easily offended members, we make these weak brothers–usually brothers with very bad theology–into de facto, unaccountable elders–which is very wrong. Men and women who don’t remotely qualify for leadership are given absolute control in many churches by using their easily offended natures as weapons. It’s wrong.
Particularly, teaching on grace is needed, rather than the peculiarities of the arguments for or against your position. Members have to be taught that, as Paul says, “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”
Teaching is the ultimate solution. But you can spend decades on the role of women, divorce and remarriage, mixed bathing, etc., etc., etc. There’s no end of “issues” for people to have scruples over. Far better to talk about the bigger picture and help your members learn how God wants us to understand our faith.
The solution to doctrinal disagreement is not yielding to the most legalistic in the community. It’s both sides learning to yield their scruples to Christ and so to be united despite their disputes.