What about the weaker brother?

The other day I wrote a post about whether women should think about the clothes they wear. You can read that post here. In essence, I said they should – just as men should too – but the big question is about motivations. Why am I choosing to wear this in particular? The issue is not, primarily, about the potential thoughts that might trigger in somebody else’s head based on our otherwise entirely innocent, non-sinful choices.

Of course, the issue that inevitably cropped up was, ‘what about the weaker brother?’ Surely, 1 Corinthians 8 has to come into play. If my right to wear what I want will cause another brother to sin, then isn’t it appropriate for me not to wear it? Isn’t that what Paul is saying here? There is lots worth saying about that particular argument. So, let me land on a few things.

First, I don’t think Paul is saying anything that might cause your brother to think sinful thoughts in his head must be avoided. And this is not some woolly liberal argument I am concocting here so I can defend my right to wear whatever I want (remember, this issue doesn’t really affect me at all!) This is a case – albeit applied to a different scenario but resting on 1 Corinthians 8 – I heard from Kevin DeYoung, at the front of a conference no less. Now, he may disagree with my application of his understanding of 1 Corinthians 8, with which I happen to agree, but I do think it is a logical extension of it.

DeYoung (rightly, in my view) said many of us have gotten 1 Corinthians 8 wrong. The principle here is not that I can stop you doing anything I don’t like on the grounds of my conscience. The principle is that it is not right for me to force, or even to encourage, someone to do what they believe to be sin (even if I don’t think it is). So, to take the example of drinking alcohol – which from memory was the one DeYoung used – it is not a legitimate application of 1 Corinthians 8 for me to say, ‘I think drinking alcohol is a sin and therefore you should never drink alcohol around me.’ Indeed, Romans 14 makes clear that is not what should happen.

The key issue in 1 Corinthians 8 is about encouraging someone to do what they think is sinful. Indeed, v11f says ‘if someone with a weak conscience sees you, with all your knowledge, eating in an idol’s temple, won’t that person be emboldened to eat what is sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother or sister, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge.’ The issue is about encouraging another believer to go against their conscience. If a person who thinks it wrong, but they are encouraged by us to do it anyway, this is sin for them. We need to be mindful of not encouraging somebody to do what they think is sinful. But if we know somebody will see us having a drink, but they won’t in any way be encouraged to drink themselves because they believe it is wrong, we are not destroying anybody else’s conscience. Romans 14 tells both to not judge each other. 1 Corinthians 8 is dealing with a situation whereby somebody might be encouraged and actively enticed to do what they think is wrong. That is what we shouldn’t do.

Now, when it comes to clothing, a 1 Corinthians 8 issue is not one person wearing something another person doesn’t like. 1 Corinthians 8 would be validly applied here if I wore something somebody else thought was inappropriate, but my wearing it encouraged them to also wear the same thing, even though they believe it is sinful to do so. If there is an item of clothing that I think is fine to wear, but another person doesn’t but may be encouraged to wear it themselves because I did, that would be a 1 Corinthians 8 situation where it is better for me not to wear it.

But what we can’t do with 1 Corinthians 8 is say, I don’t like that or I don’t agree with that, and therefore you are not allowed to do it. That is not the principle. Indeed, Romans 14 makes clear that is not the principle. The principle is to do with a believer who is without your knowledge who might be enticed into doing what they believe is sinful. The issue is to do with encouraging somebody else to break their own conscience on a matter where your conscience is not held captive. The whole issue is about one person encouraging another person to do something themselves that the first finds acceptable but the other believes is sinful. It does not, therefore, seem to me that men policing the clothes women can wear because it might trigger sinful thoughts in their own heads is a valid application of 1 Corinthians 8.

Indeed, if we apply 1 Corinthians 8 in the way many want to do, we inadvertently end up making everything unacceptable. If you must alter your behaviour entirely based on my potential thought life, then what is to stop us from insisting everyone must stay locked in their own houses with no contact with the outside world. After all, anything you might do could cause another believer to sin in their thought life. We can try and brush that away as impractical, but that is just pragmatism if we really do believe scripture teaches in 1 Corinthians 8 what many seem to imply it does. If our behaviour might cause another believer to sin in their thought life, if we’re being consistent with the principle many want to apply, then we shouldn’t do it. Given that virtually anything might lead someone to sin in their thought life, we’re going to have difficulty implementing that as a principle. Thankfully, I don’t think that is what 1 Corinthians 8 is teaching.

Conscience, despite what we’re often told, is not an inner feeling that something just ain’t right. I have spoken about this before here. Our conscience, by it’s very nature, is about what we know. Therefore, when we speak about troubling another’s conscience, we are talking about what they believe. Not a feeling they have, but a conscious belief they hold that something is or is not right. Romans 14 tells us that it is before our own master we stand or fall. We are not to judge one another over matters we believe to be wrong, but that scripture itself does not expressly forbid. At the same time, 1 Corinthians 8 tells us we shouldn’t encourage those who believe the thing to be wrong to do it against their conscience – what they know (or believe) to be wrong – without it saying that we cannot do the thing at all. Their conscience does not bind our freedom and our freedom ought not to force them to sin against what they believe to be right.

When it comes to the clothes others wear, then, if I believe some clothing is sinful, but the Bible doesn’t expressly say so (my application, interpretation or cultural understanding leads me to it), that clothing would obviously be wrong for me to wear. But if somebody else wears it, it doesn’t become wrong because I think it would be for me. It doesn’t even become wrong if I think it is for them (if the Bible doesn’t expressly say so). Nor is that person in sin for wearing what they do not believe to be sinful. It would only be a sin-issue if I, believing it is wrong, decided to wear it myself. The other person would only be at issue if they knew their wearing it would encourage me to wear it. But if we all know there is no danger of my ever wearing it, because I think it is wrong, there’s no issue of sin by anybody here.

What Romans 14:15 does tell us is that we are to act in love towards one another. If our doing something causes distress to a brother or sister, then we should set that thing aside for their sake. The passage goes on, and mentioned before this, about those who eat not according to their conscience. The scenario in view here would seem to be someone else eating particular meat because they think it’s fine, but then causing distress to their brother who thinks it is wrong because they either must eat (against their conscience) or appear rude by rejecting it when another Christian is sat there happily eating it. We’ve all been there when another believer does something we wouldn’t and others ask, ‘why won’t you, they are!’ The issue seems to do with defiling the conscience of another by forcing them to do what you are doing when they think it is wrong or not doing it and appearing rude and inappropriate. In their mind, you are forcing them into sin one way or the other by eating in that particular scenario. And what the passage is at pains to point out is that forcing someone into what they believe is sin is totally inappropriate, even if you feel at liberty to do a particular thing. But the emphasis is on forcing them, or encouraging them, into it.

What, then, of the person who might wear clothes that another person finds distracting? As we saw earlier, anyone might find anything distracting. Anyone might find anything potentially triggers sinful thoughts. This is the pervasive nature of sin. But we do not reckon the answer to that is for everyone else to alter what they do and how they live because of potential sinful thoughts that might occur in the mind of somebody else. The answer to the sinful thoughts that occur in the mind of somebody else is for them to address the sinful thoughts that they might have. If somebody knows particular things have a tendency to cause them to have sinful thoughts, they need to find strategies to address those tendencies rather than insist everybody else wears a burqa just in case.

What we are all called to do is ask questions of our particular thoughts and motives. So, we should all ask ourselves, why am I doing this? Why am I wearing that? There are godly and ungodly motives in all these things. If our culture largely considers something to be inappropriate, we have to ask why we would think it is right and proper? If we know certain clothes are likely to trigger particular sinful attention, we ought to ask ourselves why we are choosing to wear such things knowing that is the case? It is right to ask, am I doing this for the ungodly attention? Am I seeking that attention? Even if I am not doing this for that reason, am I fairly confident that will result if I wear this? If so, am I loving people rightly and helpfully by wearing this? Those are valid questions to ask ourselves. But they are based on what we know and our motives. They are not rooted in what we cannot know or what might trigger in someone else’s head.

We are not called to second guess every choice we make on the off chance somebody might have sinful thoughts about it. We cannot account for every sinful thought somebody might have. We equally need to recognise that if somebody is having sinful thoughts of that nature, and another person is innocently and innocuously wearing something that triggered it (and the thing is not sinful itself or more broadly culturally inappropriate), we need to make the person sinning the one to address the sin in their mind, not expect someone who has no control over that sin to make sure they never again trigger such sinful thoughts.

Let us think of another serious scenario. Imagine a converted repentant paedophile comes to your church (and you are able to safely manage them). This necessarily involves safeguarding assessment and careful handling. Almost nobody thinks the answer to that safeguarding issue is to curtail everybody else, to stop them from worshipping as they normally would, in order to not tempt that person back to their sin. What would happen in most cases is that person may be kept from certain activities, they may be stopped from attending certain meetings, they may have a series of strict criteria that they must abide by so that they are not tempted back by their sin. Churches that cannot provide such strictures tend to say these people are unable to attend because they cannot ensure safety from their sin.

The irony about the ‘what clothes should women wear’ discussion, is that we frequently treat women like the equivalent of the paedophile. They need to be put under strictures in order for other men to be kept from their sin. Whereas, it seems to me, if men are prone to sin in that way, isn’t it more appropriate for those men who find such things difficult to be the ones under stricture? We don’t say to the children in church that they will have to alter all their behaviours so the paedophile can come. We say to the person tempted that way let us put strict and tight measures in place to keep you from temptation and to ensure everyone else is safe from your potential to sin. But, for some reason, women – who are not sinning – have to completely alter their behaviour so that lustful men can manage not to sin in their own minds without having to adopt any strictures themselves. That neither seems equitable or right to me.

In conversation with my Muslim friends – who would take such a line – they resolve the problem by insisting on a strict code of dress for women and, often, segregating their mosques. This keeps the men from any temptation. The Christian answer to why we don’t feel the need to go quite that far is because we have the Holy Spirit dwelling within us. We believe that we can change by the work of the Spirit. We also recognise that we may struggle with certain besetting sins. But when we do, it is we who need to place ourselves under strict efforts to avoid such sin, not everybody else’s duty to keep us from it.

What does not seem at all appropriate is to shift the blame for our sin onto others. If only they dressed differently, I wouldn’t have this problem. I can’t think of any other issue of sin where we would make this sort of case. If I am punched in the mouth because somebody didn’t like an innocuous opinion I shared, I struggle to see anybody saying it was my own fault. If I hadn’t said what I did in the hearing of that angry person, they wouldn’t have sinned in that way. We all recognise the sin in that scenario needs to be dealt with by the angry person doing the punching. We generally do not reckon the sin in the mind of somebody else needs addressing by others, but by the person. We let our brothers off their own sin too lightly when we expect our sisters to totally adjust themselves because they cannot cope. Nor do we give the Holy Spirit due respect by reckoning him unable to do anything about that particular sin.

Let us encourage men to address their sin. Let us not assume it is beyond the Spirit to help. Let us not lay burdens upon our sisters that can cripple them with fear of what they might possibly trigger. Instead, let us ask sinners that sin to seek the Spirit’s help to put it away. Let’s help them and encourage them to put it away rather than insisting everybody else change because, ultimately, we don’t think they can. As Paul himself said: ‘may the God of peace himself sanctify you completely, and may your whole spirit and soul and body be kept blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. He who calls you is faithful; he will surely do it.’