1 Corinthians 8 talks about food sacrificed to idols. The Corinthian church was infamous for it’s in-fighting and divisions, it’s unfairness and inequality, it’s acceptance of sinning sinners and the sins they sin, among other things. If there was a church that didn’t get anything right, that is, if they got anything right at all, it would be the Corinthians. Scholars believe that Paul wrote at least four letters to the Corinthians, but the whole story has long been lost to time. But that doesn’t matter in the least. Because everything in the bible has a profound double-meaning with a universal application. Which is why when Paul writes about food sacrificed to idols, we can just delete these cultural references and distill this everlasting principle that applies to us even today: “Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak. … When you sin against them in this way and wound their weak conscience, you sin against Christ.”
Romans 14 forms a link in Paul’s defense and explanation of the Gospel to the church in Rome, the seat of power for the emperor who didn’t particularly like Christians. Paul’s teachings are all connected, building off of the point made previously and adding to the upcoming points. Remove a link from that chain and the whole passage is weakened – after all, they weren’t written with chapter and verse separations, they were added in much, much later. But because there’s a universal application to all scripture then you can just pull out the weak and the strong teaching as something you can use anywhere for any reason. “Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister…So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the one who does not condemn himself by what he approves. But whoever has doubts is condemned if they eat, because their eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.”
Would you look at that – two passages that tell stronger believers to not put up stumbling blocks before weaker brothers and connect the idea of doing so with sin. We can work with that.
If you want to eat kosher or halal food, but a weaker brother would have a problem with that even if you don’t know them personally, won’t be eating at the same time and places they will today, you can’t eat it ever for their sake.
If you want to get a tattoo but a weaker brother would have a problem with that you can’t get get them for their sake.
If you want to be a gun enthusiast but a weaker brother would have a problem with that, then you can’t ever own or shoot a gun for their sake.
If you want to wear a particular outfit but one weaker brother thinks it is too short, another weaker brother thinks it is too revealing, and another brother thinks it is too attention grabbing then you can’t wear it ever for their sake.
As the ‘stronger’ brother, you’re always on the losing end of this equation. Not only that, you can’t read people’s minds to know what they will or won’t have a problem with until they tell you. I suppose you could always act and dress in a preventative manner. If you know that women enjoy looking at men in suits, then you should never wear a suit. And if you know that men enjoy looking at women in dresses, then you should never wear a dress, either.
Weaker and stronger are two adjectives that are subject to change. A weaker brother who is constantly not asked to exercise restraint, not asked to exercise consideration, and not asked to exercise common sense will always be the weaker brother. A stronger brother who is constantly asked to exercise restraint, asked to exercise consideration, and asked to exercise common sense will always be the stronger brother. I remember listening to a NPR broadcast about modesty, how Amish boys who had grown up as the ‘weaker brother’ around the Amish women who were the ‘stronger brother’ had never seen a lot of skin growing up. When they would go to a convenience store and shop among non-Amish people, their eyes would bounce around as they saw women wearing shorts (not short-shorts mind you), tank tops with spaghetti straps, sandals, for the first time. The women were dressed comfortably in a heat wave. The non-Amish men, by the way, were just fine, having grown up seeing a fair amount of skin, they just went about their business and didn’t really notice the women. The Christian women among them would have had no way of knowing that morning that later on in the day that they would meet some Amish boys who would have a problem – not that they’d actually tell the women that they do.
When using the weaker brother stumbling block teaching on modesty, you create a sort of self-perpetuating lie; it serves as an excuse for men to control what women do and wear for their sake and keeps them weak. Why should a man exercise restraint when he can just be the weaker brother and tell the woman not to wear something? Why should he be considerate of her when he can just have her change her outfit just to suit him? The real problem with the ‘weaker brother’ teaching is that it’s just assumed that men are always the weaker brother who cannot control themselves when they see women.
I don’t believe for a moment that what Paul was getting at was the idea that these teachings are meant to be used this way. He fully expected Christians to put their old ways behind them, to grow up from spiritual milk to eating meats, and to grow stronger and stronger. He would be the first one to tell us that we’re not getting it right. Strength takes exercise and it’s long past time Christian men stopped accepting their weakness as a fact of life.