Tuesday, 24 March 2009

The Tyranny of the Weaker Brother

Another cracking White Horse Inn podcast this week. On the Christ and Culture theme, Horton and co. have been analysing Christianity in the pre-Christian culture of Corinth. This week, they were looking at issues involving the freedom of the believer. They quoted Calvin's classic remark:

... the knowledge of this freedom is very necessary for us, for if it is lacking, our consciences will have no repose and there will be no end to superstitions. Today we seem to many to be unreasonable because we stir up discussion over the unrestricted eating of meat, use of holidays and of vestments, and such thing, which seem to them vain frivolities.

But these matters are more important than is commonly believed. For when consciences one ensnare themselves, they enter a long and inextricable maze, not easy to get out of. If a man begins to doubt whether he may use linen for sheets, shirts, handkerchiefs, and napkins, he will afterward be uncertain also about hemp; finally, doubt will even arise over tow. For he will turn over in his mind whether he can sup without napkins, or go without a handkerchief. If any man should consider daintier food unlawful, in the end he will not be at peace before God, when he eats either black bread or common victuals, while it occurs to him that he could sustain his body on courser foods. If he boggles at sweet wine, he will not with clear conscience drink even flat wine, and finally he will not dare touch water if sweeter and cleaner than other water. To sum up, he will come to the point of considering it wrong to step upon a straw in his path, as the saying goes.

Institutes of the Christian Religion, III.19.7

Christian freedom is a necessary consequence of justification. If we start enslaving our conscience or the conscience of others in matters indifferent, then we've betrayed justification and betrayed the gospel. We've committed the error of those in Colossae:

Since you died with Christ to the elemental spiritual forces of this world, why, as though you still belonged to the world, do you submit to its rules: "Do not handle! Do not taste! Do not touch!"? These rules, which have to do with things that are all destined to perish with use, are based on merely human commands and teachings. Such regulations indeed have an appearance of wisdom, with their self-imposed worship, their false humility and their harsh treatment of the body, but they lack any value in restraining sensual indulgence. (TNIV Col. 2:20-23)

Those who think like this, according to Paul, have "lost connection with the head" (v19). Freedom is a gospel issue. To forsake it is to forsake Christ.

Therefore, if I need to refrain from drinking beer in an evangelistic context in order not to cause unnecessary offense, so be it. If, though, I'm expected to refrain from beer so that brother so and so isn't offended, then I'll say "Pass the Stella, and give me a pipe while you're at it."

On the WHI they made the point; why is the 'weaker brother' so often the most vociferous? The reason is because he's often a self-righteous Pharisee. So if I need to protect the weaker brother, I'll curtail my freedom, but I won't curtail my freedom for older/wiser saints who have foolishly confused worldliness with random practices they conveniently dislike anyway (e.g. cards, cinema, dancing, etc).

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