Just about every congregation has a story about some brother or sister who has, through various means, been able to have the entire congregation submit to their will, opinions and preferences.
For example, one sister is “offended” by clapping so the elders forbid clapping (even for baptisms) to appease her. In her opinion, clapping is a response to being entertained and we aren’t to be entertained in the assembly. A brother is “offended” because during the communion talk someone said that Christ’s blood was “spilled”. He reasons that “spilled” implies an accident; like when someone spills a glass of milk. So, to pacify the brother, the elders speak to those who serve communion and effectively ban the word “spill” from communion devotionals. Examples, much more serious than these, could be multiplied.
Some people say things like this aren’t a big deal and since we love brother so-and-so and don’t want to upset him, let’s just go along with him. Others give in to unreasonable demands for the sake of unity and still others say that since these folks are the “weaker brother” the strong have an obligation to sacrifice for them. Setting policy for an entire congregation based on the whims of one or two sets a dangerous precedent because appeasement only makes the aggressor more aggressive. Not only that, but the morale of the congregation goes down the tubes with each new rule and participants are slowly turned into spectators because it's easier to sit on the sidelines than risk being in someone's crosshairs.
While the examples given above, though troubling, are relatively minor in the big scheme of things, other demands are very serious. It is not unheard of for practices that are clearly supported by scripture to be prohibited in the name of keeping the peace.
What does it really mean to “offend”?
Perhaps we have the King James Bible to thank for our misuse of the word “offend”. Or, more accurately, a failure of KJV readers to realize that the word usage has changed over the centuries.
Mat 5:29 KJV And if thy right eye offend thee, pluck it out, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.
The word appears several times in the New Testament, but it is not used in the sense of being annoyed, upset, displeased, distressed, etc. While this is the way we typically use the word today, in its archaic sense it meant to cause someone to fall into sinful ways. Modern translations use words such as “stumble”, “trouble”, “fall into sin”, “fall”, “lose faith” to more accurately present the idea.
Mat 5:29 ESV If your right eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. For it is better that you lose one of your members than that your whole body be thrown into hell.
We learn in 1 Cor 8 that we are not to do anything which causes a weaker Christian to sin by violating his or her conscience.
Who is the “weaker brother”?
In Paul’s day, idol worship was normal and some former idolaters who had become Christians were unable to put the idols out of their minds. Of course, an idol was nothing more than sculpted stone, wood or metal and Paul states that idols don’t truly exist because there is only one God (1 Cor 8:4-6). However, some Christians who had given up idolatry had not yet matured to the point of feeling fully confident about this fact. They had yet to put behind them the idea that the idol was a sculpted representation of a real god (1 Cor 8:7). Therefore, because they were committed to the true God of Heaven, their conscience would not allow them to participate in anything related to idolatry including eating meat that had been sacrificed to a “god”.
It is easy to come to the conclusion that the strong are those who are able in good conscience to engage in a practice, while the weak are those who cannot in good conscience engage in the same practice. However, this is not exactly what Paul taught. According to 1 Cor 8 and Rom 14, the weaker brother is the one whose salvation will be jeopardized because he sees others do something he believes is wrong and then joins in doing it with them. Even though the activity is not wrong, if it violates your conscience to you it is sin (Rom 14:23).
Paul says there are some things that are right in and of themselves, but not every Christian will be fully convinced in their own mind (Rom 14:5).
Rom 14:14 ESV I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean.
1Co 8:10 ERV You understand that it's all right to eat anything, so you can eat even in an idol's temple. But someone who has doubts might see you eating there, and this might encourage them to eat meat sacrificed to idols too. But they really think it is wrong.
If engaging in a liberty tempts another Christian to do something he believes is wrong we must give up our liberty rather than entice him to sin. The strong give up their liberty in Christ not because the weaker brother is right, but because he is weak. Abstaining from that which is right for the sake of the weaker brother shouldn't be a permanent situation. With time and maturity, the weaker brother or sister should grow strong and be able to overcome their hangup.
Who is NOT the weaker brother?
By the Bible’s definition a Christian is not weak unless she is tempted to join in doing that which she believes is wrong. Therefore, no one can legitimately claim to being “offended” (as the KJV uses the word) unless they have been enticed to sin by following the example of others.
A Christian who believes something is wrong but is not tempted to engage in the activity is not the weaker brother. He is actually strong in his conviction regardless of whether he is correct or not. The weak are weak because they are unable to resist the temptation to do that which they believe is sinful.
The one who pounds his fist on the table and threatens conflict unless people see things his way is not a “weaker brother.” He has a spiritual problem and should be disciplined.
The “offended” are not brethren who think they know the Bible better than others and dislike it when something they perceive to be incorrect takes place. They are arrogant and prideful. “Knowledge only fills people with pride. It is love that helps the church grow stronger.” 1Co 8:1 ERV
God requires the strong to relinquish privileges only for the sake of those who are weak. For everyone else, some other arrangement must be arrived at that maintains peace and unity. Under circumstances where unity or the gospel itself is being undermined, confrontation may be called for.
Gal 2:11-14 ERV When Peter came to Antioch, he did something that was not right. I stood against him, because he was wrong. (12) This is what happened: When Peter first came to Antioch, he ate and associated with the non-Jewish people. But when some Jewish men came from James, Peter separated himself from the non-Jews. He stopped eating with them, because he was afraid of the Jews who believe that all non-Jewish people must be circumcised. (13) So Peter was a hypocrite. The other Jewish believers joined with him, so they were hypocrites too. Even Barnabas was influenced by what these Jewish believers did. (14) They were not following the truth of the Good News. When I saw this, I spoke to Peter in front of everyone. I said, "Peter, you are a Jew, but you don't live like one. You live like someone who is not a Jew. So why are you trying to force those who are not Jewish to live like Jews?"
Let us pray for wisdom to handle every situation in a Christ like manner.
The weak aren’t meant to remain weak.
Heb 5:12-14 ESV For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, (13) for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. (14) But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.
It is an unfortunate truth that many churches are unintentionally stunting spiritual growth by perpetually indulging the weak, the stubborn, the selfish, and the arrogant. We are not sufficiently encouraging such brethren to become strong, mature Christians. We've been content to let them wallow in immaturity as the rest of the congregation suffers and sacrifices while the kingdom’s borders remain stagnant. God expects those who are spiritually immature to grow up!
Is unity to be found only through pacifying the most rigid, legalistic and inflexible among us? Does unity require that the congregation is forever prohibited from doing anything that the most uncompromising among us disapprove of? Is this real unity? Is this a picture of a functional congregation or a dysfunctional one?
Most often we don’t find ourselves sacrificing liberties for the sake of a brother or sister who is weak in the Bible sense of the word, but for those who are actually dysfunctional. Typically they merely disagree with something and want to impose their preference upon the rest of us. Which, by the way, is nothing more than a power play and violates the intent of Mk 9:35, 10:42-45, Eph 5:21, etc.
Paul, who “did not yield in submission even for a moment” (Gal 2:5 ESV) to those who were imposing rules that God did not give, never intended for us to capitulate to the unreasonable demands of the perpetually selfish.