I gotta have my orange juice.

Jesu, Juva

No longer under a guardian

with 2 comments

Applying God’s commands requires wisdom.

Consider Romans 13. How shall we subject ourselves to governing authorities (Romans 13) when they reject or neglect God, when they have become a terror or nuisance, not to bad conduct, but to good conduct?

If there is ever an outright conflict, “we must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:29), but not all cases are so simple. Sometimes different authorities are in conflict: the statute says one thing but the magistrate says another. In these cases we may make appeals; or one magistrate may empower us to disobey another, such as bringing a case before a judge. In many cases we simply submit to unjust authority (Matthew 17:24–27, 22:15–22), trusting for final vindication from “him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2).

But God has also set out for us a pattern of righteous deception in the face of unjust rule. By their deception, the Hebrew midwives saved lives (Exodus 1). Moses was concealed in a basket (Exodus 2) and so was Paul (Acts 9). Abraham and Isaac both used righteous deception to protect the mother of the seed from the Egyptians and Philistines (Genesis 12, 20, 26). Luther held (and I agree) that Jacob and Rachel righteously deceived Isaac and Esau. Gideon hid wheat from the tax man (Judges 6); and Saul, Jonathan, and David did not have their firearm permits in order (1 Samuel 13, 21). David hid from and deceived Saul (foreshadowing Jesus’s messianic secret); and he hid from and conspired to deceive his son Absalom.

Much of how we think about this could be prudential: counting the cost of what is likely to be discovered, punished, and how (Ecclesiastes 9: “a living dog is better than a dead lion”), but also and especially considering what will bring the greatest advantage to the church and kingdom. Peter escaped jail when he had the opportunity in Acts 12, but Paul and Silas remained in jail in Acts 16. Our greatest heroes are men who valued God’s kingdom over their own lives. Paul knowingly exchanged his life for the sake of the kingdom with his submissive appeal to Caesar. The case of Daniel 6 and the decree of Darius is an equally notable sacrificial act of disobedience. Daniel could have easily modified his regular worship to avoid discovery, and without sinning, but he did not do so at all; in fact the text gives us the impression of haste on Daniel’s part to disobey the decree. God blessed his faithful disobedience, using it as a great occasion of public witness.

Romans 14 requires wisdom as well. Now, I take it for granted that believers may not despise one another and must walk with love and complete patience (2 Tim 4, 1 Thess 5) toward one another, whether we are strong or weak. What I want to consider is this: who is the weak man, and how might we cause him to stumble?

Setting aside for a moment the question of the weak man, we see that bearing with one another is a complex question: there are cases where Paul advises us not to eat (Romans 14, 1 Corinthians 8, 10), and cases where he requires us to eat (1 Corinthians 11, Galatians 2). There are cases where he will not circumcise someone (Galatians 2) and cases where he will (Acts 16). Clearly the right principle here is not to simply go with the flow. Paul wants us to “please our neighbor for his good, to build him up” (Romans 15:2), but this does not mean that we please every whim arbitrarily, because he immediately reminds us that it might result in our suffering reproach (v. 3).

Looking carefully at Romans 14, we see that our actions might be a “stumbling block or a hindrance” (v. 13), which might “grieve” our brother (v. 15). The actual stumbling occurs “by what he eats” (v. 20), that is, the weak brother. This process is more clear in 1 Corinthians 8, where weak brothers “eat food as really offered to an idol” (v. 7), and are “encouraged [by our example] to eat food offered to idols” (v. 10). So what Paul has in mind in these passages is that we should not partake of a Christian freedom where a new believer might be tempted to follow our example and be led back into sin or idolatry. The words for stumbling and offense both seem to have this fairly narrow meaning (compare 1 Peter 2:8; this passage is interesting because it highlights that there is a kind of strong–willed stumbling and offense that cannot be avoided).

This stumbling is a much more narrow case than the way we often casually speak of the “weaker brother,” but of course it is not the only case where God wants us to relinquish our freedom. Paul goes on in 1 Corinthians 9 to exhort us to “endure anything” for the sake of the gospel, and in 1 Corinthians 10 to not allow our Christian freedom to lead either a weak believer or unbeliever to stumble into sin. But remembering that Paul behaved differently in different circumstances, we recognize that wisdom is still required for us to understand a situation and discern what words and actions will bring about our brother’s and neighbor’s good, and will build him up. Today the case of the young believer tempted back into idolatry is somewhat rare in our circles. We can think of several additional cases that may require varying responses:

1. There may be a brother who rejects our own behavior in a disputable matter, but is not tempted to follow us in it. This brother’s conscience is actually strong; he is not the weak brother of Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8, so there is no need for either strong brother to voluntarily suspend their freedoms. Of course, neither may we be obnoxious; Paul’s exhortations to be fully convinced, but not to judge or despise, remain applicable. If either brother despises or rejects the other, he is liable to be walking out of step with the gospel as in 1 Corinthians 11 and Galatians 2. It is one thing to be personally scrupulous; it is quite another to be scrupulous on behalf of your brother.

2. There may be a brother who is actually injured or inconvenienced by our freedom. This is not a case of the weaker brother, but it is obvious that love may call us to joyfully “endure anything,” whether we alter the food we serve, the fragrance we wear, do a deep vacuuming before extending hospitality, etc.

3. We live in an anxious time, and there are sometimes cases where a brother has an unfounded fear of our freedom. Perhaps he fears that our freedom will reflect poorly on him, or that it will injure him or another. Although this brother may be beset with anxiety, he is not weak or grieved in the Romans 14 sense of being tempted to abandon the faith. It is better to think of him as immature. This clarifies what will be for his good, especially if we have some degree of spiritual authority in his life. The sin of anxiety is a fire: the more you accommodate it, the more you inadvertently fuel it. The parent whose only tool is to avoid his child’s fears and anxieties will have a child forever. Comparing Daniel 1, although there are a number of interpretations of why Daniel refuses the king’s food, it is clear that the chief of staff feared for his life and also that Daniel had great faith that this fear was unfounded. Although there was no clear command from God for his dietary practice, Daniel worked, urgently but patiently, to contradict the fear rather than cater to it.

Of course, this simple taxonomy does not exhaust the many factors we must consider: we ought to have a healthy sense of proportion; it may make a difference whether we are considering to give something up versus add something new; it may make a difference whether our neighbor is a believer or an unbeliever; things may be complicated (or clarified) if we are in authority or, as in Daniel’s case, under authority. In all cases, love and patience and humility must be guiding us.

May God grant us wisdom!

Written by Scott Moonen

May 7, 2020 at 10:21 pm

Posted in Essays

2 Responses

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  1. […] makes a simple but common category mistake: the man of weak conscience and the anxious man are not necessarily the same. As Friedman stresses, and as any good parent knows, our goal for the anxious is not to keep them […]

  2. […] (ha!) by treating this as a case of a stronger and weaker brother, rather than treating it as a case of two strong brothers. Thus, I would rather speak of the tyranny of the legalist, or of the anxious. However, we are […]


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