Deference to Weak Brethren

By Cecil B. Douthitt (1896-1971)

Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 have been erroneously used and misapplied to teach that certain religious activities projects and methods of church work should be abandoned merely because they offend the consciences of weak brethren. These chapters teach no such thing.

Romans 14:1-2 – Weak in Faith

The brother described in this chapter as “weak in faith” has a unwarranted scrupulosity toward lawful and harmless self-indulgences or pleasures. Due to his lack of understanding of God’s will, his faith is so weak that he cannot eat meat of any kind without violating his conscience; he eats herbs only. As long as he thinks it is wrong or doubts that it is right to eat meat, he cannot eat “of faith,” and he would sin if he ate it, because “whatsoever is not of faith is sin” (v. 23).

The brother whose faith is strong can eat all things without any doubt as to his God-given right to do so; because he knows and is “persuaded in the Lord Jesus, that nothing is unclean of itself; save that to him who accounted anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean” (v. 14).

Since nothing is involved but an innocent personal privilege neither the weak in faith nor the strong in faith has a right in the sight of God to judge or condemn the other. The brother with the weak faith must be received in Christian fellowship without any doubtful disputation, even though he does hold groundless scruples vv. 1-4).

Under certain circumstances, expediency may require the strong brother to forego his lawful privilege to eat meat, for the sake of his weak brother. (Expediency takes precedence over the lawful right of innocent self-indulgence.)

Expediency forbids the strong brother’s eating meat or indulging in any purely personal pleasure, if and when his doing so would persuade or influence the weak brother to do that which he thinks is wrong. The strong would thereby show lack of love in deliberately causing the weak brother to violate his conscience. By such conduct the strong brother could overthrow the work of God, and destroy him for whom Christ died (vv. 1-21).

The Point Illustrated

A man who had been a Seventh-Day Adventist from his youth learned the plan of salvation and obeyed it. He could make distinction between the law of Moses and the gospel of Christ with one exception: he still thought that it was wrong to eat pork or hog meat of any kind. He and other guests were invited to eat with a brother who knew how this former Adventist felt about eating hog meat. But ham was served. The host made a few jesting remarks about “unclean meat,” and others laughed. This made a refusal to eat the ham entirely too embarrassing for this brother of “weak faith.” Therefore, in violation of his conscience he ate a little of the ham; he did not eat “of faith”; he sinned. Everyone who influenced him to eat that meat sinned too; they did the very thing the Lord forbids in Romans 14.

Under the circumstances that host should have served food that his guests could eat without violation of conscience. Neither the work of the church nor the method of doing the work was involved, but only a personal lawful privilege, and that “liberty” should have been relinquished on that occasion.

On the other hand, if that former Adventist had tried to force his unwarranted scruples on others as an ordinance of God, it would have been the duty of the strong to tell him plainly that he had no right to legislate where God has not, and that “the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking,” neither the “weak” nor the “strong” should be permitted to make it such.

1 Corinthians 8:1-13 – Weak in Conscience

The brother described in this chapter as being weak in conscience can be emboldened or caused easily to engage in forbidden religious performance without any compunction of conscience whatever. Having been accustomed in former days to eating meat sacrificed to idols as an act of worship of that idol, he is unable to expel from his mind the idea or the opinion that he is worshipping every time he eats such meat. He does not know that a thing “may be morally right, but religiously wrong.” He is unlike the weak brother of Romans 14, who had groundless scruples against certain innocent deeds. Therefore, when he engages in the forbidden act of eating such meats as worship, he does not violate his conscience; he defiles it (v. 7).

Those who understand the will of God, and “by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern good and evil,” know that meat sacrificed to idols may be eaten to satisfy hunger, but must not be eaten as a religious rite or act of worship. They are able to distinguish between eating meat as an act of worship, and eating to satisfy hunger. Therefore, they can eat such food without sin. “Howbeit there is not in all men that knowledge”; they eat the meat religiously; they sin against God.

Here again, under certain circumstances the law of expediency takes precedence over a lawful thing, and forbids the brother with knowledge from exercising his lawful right to eat meat sacrificed to an idol, even though he eats it for the sole purpose to satisfy hunger. If and when the strong brother’s eating that meat encourages the weak and ignorant brother to eat it “as of a thing sacrificed to an idol,” the brother with knowledge becomes a stumbling block to the weak; he sins against his brother and against Christ; he may cause his weak brother to perish. God has always been exacting and undeviating regarding acts of worship and ceremonies.

Therefore, the brother with a properly educated conscience must “take heed lest by any means this liberty” to partake of innocent personal pleasures or indulgences “becomes a stumbling block to the weak” (v. 9).

The Point Illustrated

A brother with “knowledge” understands that instrumental music is nothing, and that he ordinarily has the liberty to play on instruments of music for pleasure or entertainment in the home, but never as an act of worship anywhere. Howbeit, there is not in all men that knowledge; but some being used until now” to instrumental music in worship, are not able to distinguish between instrumental music as an act of worship, and instrumental music as entertainment in the home or elsewhere. Therefore, under some conditions, a brother with “knowledge” must forego this “liberty” of accompanying his singing with mechanical instruments for pleasure and entertainment in the home, lest the weak brother be “emboldened” to return with good conscience to his instrumental music in worship to which he was long accustomed, and which he has tried to think is acceptable to the Lord.

These restrictions of “liberty” in the field of innocent pleasure are binding not only for the sake of weak brethren, but also for the sake of unbelievers (1 Cor. 10:23-33).

These difficult Bible chapters of deference to ignorant and weak brethren pertain only to personal liberties of the strong, and must not be applied to the work of the church. An interpretation or an application of these passages, which contradicts some other part of God’s word, is wrong. For the Bible does not contradict itself. Therefore, weak and ignorant brethren must not be permitted to do any one of three things:

1. They must not bind their wishes and scruples on others, or legislate where the Lord has not. Commandments of men always make void some part of God’s word (Matt. 15:1-6). Christians are forbidden to subject themselves to “precepts and doctrines of men” who say, “Don’t handle, don’t taste, don’t touch” (Col. 2:20-23). “The Spirit saith expressly, that in later times some shall fall away from the faith” by submitting unto religious laws which the Lord has not enacted (1 Tim. 4:14). In matters of private and personal liberty, the brother with knowledge is to voluntarily forego certain pleasures in garcious deference to the ignorant brother, and not because the weak brother has ordered or even requested it. If the weak brother demands it, then the brother with knowledge is forbidden by the Scriptures to submit.

2. The weak brother must not be permitted to prevent anyonefrom doing anything the Lord has commanded. When the apostles were charged by man to preach no more in the name of Jesus they replied, “We must obey God rather than men” (Acts 5:28,29). Whether that “man” be an officer of the law or an ignorant brother, the people of God must not let that “man” prevent them from doing the Lord’s will as revealed in his word.

3. The ignorant brother, weak in faith or conscience, must not be permitted to prevent either an individual Christian or a church from employing any righteous method of doing the work assigned by the Lord. The writer did not have “methods” of doing church work under consideration at all in these two chapters. Applying these restrictions of “liberty” in Romans 14 and I Corinthians 8 to methods of teaching in classes or the number of containers used in the Lord’s Supper or the way the collections are taken or anything else, except liberties in thefield of innocent andpersonal indulgences, would remove the oversight of the Lord’s work from the elders, and place it in the hands of cranks. The elders and the churches could not so much as begin the work assigned, if they were required to find ways and “methods” to fit the whims, opinions, scruples, and consciences of all the ignorant brethren. The elders have no more right to surrender the oversight to a few cranks in the congregation than they have to surrender it to the elders of another local church.

Some have argued that Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 teach that churches should not use instrumental music in worship, to contribute money from their treasuries to Bible colleges or missionary societies or any other centralized agency, because many good brethren cannot conscientiously support and participate in these unscriptural innovations, and all admit the work can be done acceptably without these unscriptural things, and, therefore, in deference to weak brethren, and in obedience to these two chapters, these things must be abandoned. These chapters teach no such thing, and he who argues that they do, must prove two things:

1. He must prove that the Holy Spirit in these chapters is discussing church work as well as private and personal liberties in things inherently innocent.

2. He must prove that the objectors to these innovations are ignorant of the truth, and that they would not object if they had more knowledge of the word of God.

These innovations – instrumental music in worship, church contributions to human societies and centralized agencies are unscriptural and wrong, and they should not be used in the work and worship of the church; but the mere fact that their use violates somebody’s conscience is no proof at all that they should not be used.


Two kinds of weak brethren are described by Paul in these two chapters under consideration. Their only point of similarity is their ignorance of God’s word.

The weak brother of Romans 14 has an unwarranted scrupulosity against partaking of things innocent and harmless and lawful. Strong brethren are warned lest they cause the weak brother to do that which he thinks is wrong.

The weak brother in 1 Corinthians 8 does not know the difference between doing a thing as an act of worship, and doing that same thing for some purpose other than worship. Strong brethren with knowledge are warned, lest they cause the weak brother to return with “good” conscience to unauthorized acts of worship which may still have a strong appeal to him.

Guardian of Truth XXXV: 3, pp. 76-78
February 7, 1991