The attitude of Christians should be gracious, not judgmental. In most cases, Christians have generous attitudes (i.e. compassionate, understanding, forgiving, respectful, giving the benefit of the doubt, thinking the best of, etc.). If they have not been gracious to you, either as a non-Christian or as a fellow believer, then there could be an underlying reason which isn’t God’s fault and is not in harmony with biblical Christianity. This blog post is about discussing one of the reasons a self-proclaimed Christian might not be gracious–the “weak conscience” debate.
In the weak conscience debate, there are, of course, two sides. The one who is “giving up” or abstaining from things in order to be “more holy” thinks he is more holy and “right” and strong in faith by keeping these external standards. Often times, this person wants to bring the other to his way of seeing things, because to him, it is a matter of being holy and pleasing to God. The other person in the debate, the one who sees nothing wrong with these external matters, is assured of his being holy and pleasing to God, whether or not he follows the other’s viewpoints. Furthermore, the latter thinks the former is extreme or maybe even a little fanatical, and the first thinks the last is “carnal” or “not right with God.” But, the trouble comes when BOTH parties judge one another and get into arguments (vv. 1 & 10). And, the answer is not to create a higher or “safer” man-made ‘standard,’ so that everyone is silenced.
Let’s start out by recognizing the relevant passages: Romans 14, 1 Corinthians 8, 10:14-33, The Book of Galatians–particularly 6:12 , and also Colossians 2:20-23. Since Romans 14 is the best place to start, and the point by which all of the other passages can be discussed, then let’s use it as our base text for study. Romans 14 mentions our 2 parties, one person is called “weak,” the other is not. Obviously, being weak is the opposite of being strong; and we are talking about faith matters, so weakness is a matter of weak faith, and strength is a matter of being strong in the faith. “Whatever is not of faith is sin,” reads verse 23. No one wants to be weak. No one wants to sin. Yet, as the passage unfolds, one person eats certain things, the other does not. One person observes certain holidays or even specially reverences certain days of the week, the other does not. The list could go on and on toward things like what one should wear or not, the kind of music one should listen to or worship with, where one should go or not, the diet one should have, what kind of hair styles one should wear, what one should drink or not… you get the point.
The Bible gives us the real answer to the debate, and it begins with determining who is the weak brother/sister in Christ. Evidently, the Christians at Rome questioned Paul about some of the disharmony going on among them. Also apparently, things got so bad between the Roman believers that some of them wondered if they should invite each other to dinner; because when they did eat together, things always turned out to be a words fight about what is right and what is wrong. In the first verse of Romans 14, Paul writes that the one who is weak in faith is the one coming over for dinner, or being “received” as a guest. Furthermore (v. 2), the weak one is vegetarian, not because of animal cruelty awareness, but because he/she (having a Jewish background) doesn’t think eating certain meats should be allowed for a Christian. Now, verse 14 declares there is nothing “unclean” (as in dietary laws) for a Christian, but when someone thinks a thing is forbidden, it is unclean to him. The rest of Romans 14 talks about the host being gracious by not forcing someone to do something against their perceptions.
So, a big take-away truth is found as the Bible reads, “whatever is not of faith is sin.” Someone who, like the vegetarian of Romans 14, doubts a thing that is actually biblically sound is called “weak” by God. If you do not have an assurance that something is ok, then don’t, because your conscience is precious before God. One should not do a thing unless he knows and feels it is acceptable, according to God’s Word. [By the way, this is quite different than assuming.] When one doubts a thing, he isn’t assured it’s alright–it is a faith matter; and if someone is not assured a thing is alright when in actually it is perfectly fine, then that one needs to grow in grace and understanding. Until that time, Christians should be gracious to one another and to others. That being said, we all know that weakness in faith is supposed to be temporary. When someone has a history in another religion (ex. Jewish) or has grown up in a culture that says one is made holy by what he allows or does not allow, then strong Christians need to realize their heart is growing in grace. The conscience is being retrained to what the true God approves. 2 Peter 3:18, Ephesians 4:13 and other passages indicate clearly that weakness is a thing to be outgrown by growing in grace and by believing biblical truths. For example, again about food, “the earth is the Lords in all its fullness” (1 Cor. 8:26-28) or “…concerning the eating of things sacrificed to idols, we know that there is no such thing as an idol in the world, and that there is no God but one” (1Cor. 8:4). [see also Acts 10:15, 11:9; Romans 14:14; 1 Cor. 10:28; 1 Tim. 4:4]
In the mean time, we must build one another up in love, not tear each other down or “condemn” or pass judgment on one’s opinions. We need to give each other room to grow, and resign ourselves to the fact that God the Father is the One who tends the vineyard of each person’s life (John 15). The strong Christian should not tear down his own spiritual walk by not being sensitive to the weakness of others’ faith. As our example goes, it’s a good thing in a household dinner setting NOT to eat or drink in front of someone what they have determined is “bad,” because when one does so, it is a form of cruelty… and Christ is not cruel. At the point in which such an ungracious host forces the matter, the host has sinned in what normally would be no sin at all–since otherwise all things can be eaten by Christians (Rom. 14:15-21). If we’re talking about application of biblical principle, then it is not necessary to call anything a standard. Obedience is the proper term. Clear biblical command and principle is the only thing from which one can draw absolute assurance. What is more, one’s conscience can conform to his standard (or someone else’s) and suddenly, one feels like he is sinning, when actually he has broken no biblical command or principle. Confidence in one’s own relationship with God will never come from another man’s application of a principle. Since clear biblical command and clear biblical principle are what matter, then one should disregard “standards” and just be obedient and/or ask the Holy Spirit to apply the principle to one’s own life, regardless of what others do. [See An Argument for Silence]
“Standard” is not a biblical term. It is man-made. It is supposed to be one’s setting a perimeter around his weakness that makes it more noticable to himself when he is in the flesh. That is, it makes it harder for him to sin when he’s really wanting to sin. Relying on standards is the utilization of a flesh restraint to fight the flesh. Therefore, it is dangerous to depend on standards, because the person depending on the standard tries to prove to himself that he is right with God based on his own merits. “No, I haven’t done that or gone there… I must be able to pray now or have God’s power now.” That is the wrong focus, because it is not being honest with what is happening in the heart. Instead, one must walk in the Spirit (Gal. 5:16). By staying connected to God, he partakes of God’s nature. I am not saying he is careless, but all the same he doesn’t walk around feeling threatened by what he must encounter in daily life. And should he encounter something which would normally be a temptation, he sees it as Jesus saw it and responds as Jesus responded when He was on earth. After all, isn’t the Christian life about “Christ in you” and “You in Christ”? If one is in obedience to the commands of Scripture, then he is obedient. Everything else is reducing the Christian life to an abusive policing agency, where one tries to determine who is right with God and decide who is “fit” to serve God … and that is exactly what Romans 14:4 prohibits.
The biblical solution for the weak conscience debate is 5-fold. First, Romans 14 clearly defines who is weak and who is strong; these definitions must be accepted by both parties. Second, Romans 14 prescribes self denial (deference) by the strong Christian–the one who is assured by the Word a thing is okay–when in the presence of the weak one. Third, Romans 14:3 prescribes the weak Christian should not judge the strong one. Fourth, the weak Christian should seek to grow in grace, according to 2 Peter 3:18; and Fifth, both should walk by the power of the Spirit (Gal. 5:16) which is faith–trust, belief, assurance–working through agape love (Gal. 5:6, 13-15).
However, let’s note what this is not. It is not the strong Christian’s continued self denial when the weak Christian is absent. In other words, as the context indicates, this is a situational matter. When situations arise (i.e. inviting one to dinner), and when the strong knows about the weakness of the other, then the strong honors the weak instead of having contempt for or belittling him/her. That is far different than the strong one’s permanently taking on the weak-in-faith law-living of the weak Christian. It is a violation of the maxims found in Romans 14 when someone approaches you in order to make demands that you conform to their “standards,” so that you can become as spiritual as they. [The book of Galatians corrects that error, especially in chapter 6, verse 12.] We are to make a difference between living by others’ consciences (1 Cor. 10:29) and showing deference to a weaker brother. Christians are commanded not to place a stumbling block in front of a fellow Christian whom I know to be weak. There is a difference between that and someone demanding one’s taking on their personal standards for life. Yet, if someone makes a humble admission to a brother that he is weak, then (as Christ would) that brother should gladly serve him however possible, because the weak one is trying to grow in grace. But, when someone arrogantly thinks another unspiritual, no one owes anything, because the judgmental Christian wants to make a “show of one’s flesh” (Galatians 6:12) and does not realize he erroneously thinks God is pleased with him by law-living instead of by Grace. [Please see Correctly Defining Legalism] These sort often do not accurately define the World / Worldliness or Holiness, in the biblical sense. So, they are kept in perpetual weakness.
The solution also has nothing to do with the creation of a new, higher or safer man-made rule, so that both sides are trumped and silenced. Some may say, “Well, let’s just be as safe as possible; it is more spiritually reasonable to be safer than less safe.” While that is good human logic, it is not what the Bible prescribes, and that logic is what led the Pharisees to begin the man-made traditions Jesus condemned. The Bible is as safe as God can make us. Are we holier or safer than God? These sort erroneously feel their holiness can be threatened by where they go and who they’re with. They may isolate themselves, forgetting that Jesus said we are “in the world but not of the world.” In a way, it is as if they think situations and people can make them sin. That is just not true. But again, they are kept in perpetual weakness by not growing in grace.
IN CONCLUSION, the “weak conscience” debate is settled when each side gets honest and humble. One of the two is “weak” and needs to accept that and grow. The other needs to honor the weak but not bow to the demands of living by another’s conscience. All Christians should live and rejoice in God’s grace, and so, be gracious to whomever they meet, Christian and non-Christian alike.
*ABOUT GOING TO SOMEONE ELSE’S HOUSE/DINNER AND THEY WANT TO GIVE YOU IDOL OFFERINGS AS A WAY OF RECOGNIZING AND/OR WORSHIPPING THEIR GOD WITH THEM
1 Corinthians 8 & 10:14-33: To a Christian, false gods are simply that: empty, vain, false deities made up by mankind and promoted by the Adversary of our souls. When one overcomes the fallen world and its false Gods by placing faith in Christ Jesus, all these things are seen for what they are–empty religions (1 Cor. 8:4). That being said, Christians are supposed to and should eat dinner and “hang out” with lost people, so they can have the chance to know a Christian and the Gospel (John 17:15-18, 1 Cor. 5:10, 10:27). HOWEVER, if someone offers you their food while proudly stating that it is in honor of their god, then the Christian must not partake. Yet, if they set it before you and say nothing about it’s being religious, then assume the best and eat it with thanks to God (1 Cor. 10:25-28). In the same vein, God commands the new believer to “avoid idolatry,” and again eating anything from the temple meat stands is okay if one doesn’t ask questions about it (1 Cor. 10:25). This sort of principle can be applied to many situations, and so, at certain times you may hear another Christian say, “don’t ask,” and they are referring to the principle found in 1 Cor. 10:25. That being said, it is never acceptable for a Christian to mix his worship with non-Christians (1 Cor. 10:21,22).
*ABOUT NEW CHRISTIANS AND ONE’S ASSOCIATING WITH/VISITING THEIR FORMER RELIGIOUS SITES
1 Cor. 8 is about more than food. It is about being seen by new belivers at their former religious sites (1 Cor. 8:10). In 1st Century A.D., a pagan temple was the place to get the best cuts of meat. Also, new Christians of 1st Century A.D. were redeemed out of paganism. So, it stands to reason from 1 Cor. 8, that a Christian who knows that idols are nothing and things offered to idols are offered to nothing, can eat such things in good conscience. He is neither worshipping that idol or believing in it. HOWEVER, if a young Christian who is not yet convinced that idols are truly nothing should see the strong Christian eating idol offerings at the temple, then the weak Christian’s conscience/faith will be wounded. It is good for a Christian to not associate with or visit religious sites representing the religion out of which a new believer has been redeemed. It is confusing and hurtful. Your love is greater than your knowledge in this case. Love your fellow Christian (1 Cor. 8:1-3). Hence, one will decide to never eat temple meat again, so that he will never be mistaken by a new believer who happens to see him there… or, (as is implied by 1 Cor. 8) until that believer grows in grace and understanding, becoming strong himself/herself.
*”BAD COMPANY CORRUPTS GOOD MORALS”
1 Cor. 15:33 is often lifted out of its context by the over-zealous in order to prove that Christians should not have lost people (with their bad influence) as companions. In actuality, it is bedded in the context of teachings on the resurrection of believers. The passage is Paul’s inspired combat with the idea that Christ did not raise bodily from the dead. In light of that false teaching, Paul states that if there is no resurrection of Christ, then there is no resurrection of believers, which in turn means the breaking down of the entire Christian faith. In fact, that breakdown is what was happening in the Corinthian church. Some believers had given into the false teaching, and they lost hope. As a result, they began living a hedonistic life, because if there is no Christian faith based on a resurrection, then one might as well espouse a “live it up” mentality as described by the Greco-Roman philosophical proverb “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Cor. 15:32). [Notice that v. 32 does precede v. 33 directly for this reason] Moreover, Paul reassures the believers that there indeed was a bodily resurrection of Christ, and so, they should STOP SINNING, sober up in their thinking, and be witnesses to the world around them again. The bad company (“communications” in some translations) is actually fellow Christians who have espoused false doctrine and are living hedonistic lives as a result. So, if you know Christians like that, then try to restore them if they will repent, but do not condone them (1 Cor. 5). Let it never be doubted that Christians are supposed to befriend, associate and give a witness to non-Christians everywhere (John 17:15-18, 1 Cor. 5:10, 10:27).