Decision Making And The Will Of God
by Garry Friesen

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Chapter 24:

Weaker Brothers, Pharisees, and Servants
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Martin Luther began his treatise, "On the Freedom of a Christian Man," with two striking statements:

A Christian man is a most free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian man is a most dutiful servant of all, subject to all.'

One could hardly expect to find a more concise summary of the apostle's thought in Romans 14:1-15:13. The first sentence captures the essence of the believer's freedom in Christ, the relational ramifications of which are developed in Romans 14:1-12. In the previous chapter of this book, the contents of those verses (and the parallel passages from 1 Corinthians 8-10) were discussed in terms of three principles.

Decision Making When Christians Differ
Romans 14:1-15:13

1. Learn to distinguish between matters of command and matters of freedom (14:14, 20).
2. On debatable issues, cultivate your own convictions (14:5).
3. Allow your brother the freedom to determine his own convictions even when they differ from yours (l4:1-l2).

Luther's second observation, that the "free" Christian is by vocation a "dutiful servant," captures the essence of Romans 14:13-15:13. These verses form the central passage for this chapter.

Ideally, if everyone in the Church followed Paul's directions as expressed in the first three principles of Romans 14, there would be no further problems. (And this book would be slightly shorter.) But the characters in the drama of real life tend to deviate from the script. So further instruction was given to guide our responses to those who are not inclined to leave well enough alone.


Such a person, failing to adopt God's perspective on different opinions in the area of freedom, invariably reacts in one of two ways. Either he tries to persuade others to adopt his viewpoint, or he immediately shifts his position into conformity with those who differ in violation of his own judgment.

Both erroneous reactions are abundantly illustrated in Scripture. The Pharisees in the gospels provide the classic example of those who pressure others to conform to their traditions. But Paul was apparently more concerned for the welfare of those who are too easily influenced by the opinions of others. He called them "weaker brothers," and his message to the church was "Fragile: Handle With Care."

Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother's way. I know and am convinced in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but to him who thinks anything to be unclean, to him it is unclean. For if because of food your brother is hurt, you are no longer walking according to love. Do not destroy with your food him for whom Christ died. Therefore do not let what is for you a good thing be spoken of as evil; for the kingdom of God is not eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. For he who in this way serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue the things which make for peace and the building up of one another. Do not tear down the work of God for the sake of food. All things indeed are clean, but they are evil for the man who eats and gives offense. It is good not to eat meat or to drink wine, or to do anything by which your brother stumbles. The faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God. Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves. But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and whatever is not from faith is sin.

Now we who are strong ought to bear the weaknesses of those without strength and not just please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to his edification (Romans 14:13-15:2).

Principle 4: Let Your Liberty Be Limited, When Necessary, By Love.

Previously, in a letter to the church of Galatia, Paul had written:

For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another (Galatians 5:13).

Sometimes, words like "love" and "serve" suffer from ambiguity. But Paul's instructions in Romans 14 move us out of the realm of the theoretical in a hurry. For it is one thing to graciously permit a brother to hold a different viewpoint; it is quite another to actually restrict my freedom because of his different viewpoint! On the face of it, such a requirement is unfair. But that is the nature of the love that is to characterize the Christian's walk (Romans 14:1). For agape love is other-centered, and it is costly.

Let us not, however, jump to the rash conclusion that this principle negates Christian freedom for all intents and purposes. It does not. The words "when necessary" are an integral part of the fourth principle. They indicate that the limitation of one's freedom is not always required. But they also imply that something is more valuable than the enjoyment of personal liberty. The key to obeying God's will in this regard lies in understanding what that something is.

And so we must begin with some definitions. You can't follow the action unless you know the players. And you can't tell the players without a program. Specifically, we need to carefully identify the "weaker brother" and the "stronger brother." Then we must determine what constitutes a "stumbling block." Doing that will greatly clarify the commands that apply to these relationships within God's family.

Those Without Strength

The weaker brother is recognized by his weakness in four areas of his life.

First, he is weak in faith (Romans 14:1,23). Paul is not in this instance speaking of saving faith. He means that "this man's faith is not strong enough to enable him to perceive the full liberty he has in Christ to partake."2 "'Faith: in this sense is a firm and intelligent conviction before God that one is doing what is right, the antithesis of feeling self-condemned in what one permits oneself to do." 3 The best synonym is "conviction."

2. One reason he is weak in conviction is that he lacks biblical knowledge: "However not all men have this knowledge; but some, being accustomed to the idol until now, eat food as if it were sacrificed to an idol; and their conscience being weak is defiled" (1 Corinthians 8:7). Those of whom Paul wrote in this verse were ignorant in several respects. They did not know that an idol was a nonentity (1 Corinthians 8:4). So they didn't know that food offered to a "nothing" could not be spiritually contaminated. In short, their faith was weak because it was misinformed.

3. The weaker brother is also weak in conscience (1 Corinthians 8:7,10,12). Essentially, that means that his conscience is overly sensitive, condemning him for things that Scripture declares are permissible.

4. Finally, this brother is weak in his will because he can be influenced to act contrary to his conscience.

For if someone sees you, who have knowledge, dining in an idol's temple, will not his conscience, if he is weak, be strengthened to eat things sacrificed to idols? (1 Corinthians 8:10).

Specifically, because he is not fully convinced in his own mind, and because of his respect for the judgment of a more mature Christian, the weaker brother might follow his stronger brother's example and violate his own conscience in the process. He is vulnerable to that kind of sin because his will is weak

With these facts in view, we can approach our definition of a weaker brother by recognizing, first of all, what he is not. He is not just any new or immature believer. He is not any Christian who differs from me on some issue. Neither is he simply a brother who differs from me and gets upset because he feels I am wrong. Such folks may have weaknesses, but they do not fit Paul's qualifications for "weaker brothers." They may have what I consider to be a weak viewpoint, but they are not weaker brothers. They are important to God, but they are not discussed in these particular passages on weaker brothers.

A weaker brother is a Christian who, because of the weakness of his faith, knowledge, conscience, and will, can be influenced to sin against his conscience by the example of a differing stronger brother.

Stronger Brothers Exercise

Not surprisingly, the stronger brother is strong in precisely the same areas where the weaker brother is weak: faith (Romans 14:22), knowledge (1 Corinthians 8:7,10), conscience (Romans 14:22), and will (I Corinthians 10:29-30).

Additionally, those who are strong are always pictured as influencing the weak it is never the other way around. As a result, the responsibility for guarding the integrity of the relationship is given to the strong (Romans 15:1). In these passages, it is also assumed that the strong are correct in their opinion (Romans 14: 14; 1 Corinthians 8:4-7).

However, the stronger brother is not necessarily strong in love (1 Corinthians 8:1), though he ought to be (Romans 15:1-2).

The stronger brother is a Christian who, because of his understanding of Christian freedom and the strength of his conviction, exercises his liberty with full peace of conscience without being improperly influenced by the differing opinions of others.

Thou Shalt Not Kick Thy Brother's Crutch

The third key term requiring careful definition is "stumbling block." The noun is prominent in Romans 14:13,20, and 1 Corinthians 8:9. The verb form is found in Romans 14:21 and 1 Corinthians 8:13.

Originally, the noun denoted the piece of wood that kept open a trap for animals.4 Later, it came to stand for the snare itself,5 and to still later, it was used of anything that caused a person to stumble (cf. Leviticus 19:14).

In the New Testament, "stumbling block" is used only as a figurative expressions.6 It refers to the tripping up of a person in some moral sense i.e., the individual stumbles into sin or unbelief.7

One fact that is of considerable significance to our study is that this word is employed in two different senses throughout the New Testament. When the verb is in the active voice, it means "to cause to fall or stumble." For example, Jesus had severe words for anyone who caused a little child who believed in Him to stumble or fall into sin (Matthew 18:6).8 In such instances, the fault is charged to the one who puts the stumbling block in the way of another.

But when the verb is in the passive voice, it signifies `'to stumble over, to be offended." In such cases, the blame is placed on the one who stumbles. For instance, when Jesus returned to His home town of Nazareth, the people "took offense at Him" (Matthew 13:57). Literally, "they stumbled over Him." He was the stumbling block, but they were at fault. For they did not believe in Him (Matthew 13:58).9

Give and Take

Another helpful way of explaining this important distinction between these usages of the verb is to say that the active voice means "to give offense," while the passive denotes "to take offense."10

This distinction holds up when the noun form is used. One of the most familiar instances of a blameworthy stumbling block is found in Matthew's account of an exchange between Simon Peter and Jesus:

And Peter took Him aside and began to rebuke Him, saying, "God forbid it, Lord! This shall never happen to You." But He turned and said to Peter, "Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me; for you are not setting your mind on God's interests, but man's" (Matthew 16:22-23).11

On the other hand, Jesus Christ is repeatedly described as a "rock of offense" over which people stumble in unbelief (Romans 9:33; 1 Peter 2:8).12

Having made a big deal over the difference between giving offense and taking offense, it is now appropriate to point out that in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8, Paul was concerned only with those who give offense.13 (The opposite thrust of taking offense is relevant to this discussion and will be considered again later.) Specifically, he warned stronger brothers not to cause weaker brothers to stumble. At no point is this more clearly evident than in 1 Corinthians 8:12-13:

And thus, by sinning against the brethren and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore, if food causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat again, that I might not cause my brother to stumble.

A stumbling block, then, is an action taken by a stronger brother which, though it would ordinarily qualify as a permissible act of freedom, influences a weaker brother to sin against his conscience. The responsibility for the sin is charged to the stronger brother because of his insensitivity to the vulnerability of the weaker brother.

A Misguided Missile

This concept is illustrated by something that happened to me when I was a boy. One evening, I was already late for supper when I started home. To make up for lost time, I planned to take a short cut across an open field. When I arrived, I learned to my dismay that the field was no longer "open." It was occupied by several people with bows shooting arrows at targets.

The route I had anticipated taking cut directly across the trajectory of the arrows. Yet to detour around the archers would cost precious minutes. I made a decision to stick to my original flight plan. When I discerned what I thought was a lull in the missile traffic, I took off.

The "whish" sound that I detected just behind my head and the gasp of the spectators confirmed that my decision had not been a good one. What I did, in my juvenile immaturity, was stupid. But the guy who let that arrow fly almost caused me to stumble.

The act of shooting an arrow is perfectly legitimate when done within legal restrictions. So a man may take target practice at an archery range with complete freedom. He is not compelled to do so; neither is he prohibited from practicing. He may shoot arrows if he wishes.

However, if a small boy in his ignorance wanders onto the archery range, the situation changes. The archer is no longer free to release the arrow, even if he has followed all the rules. It is not his fault that the child has crossed the line of fire. Still, he is required to refrain from shooting until there is no danger to the boy. There is nothing wrong with shooting an arrow in itself. But if such an act resulted in injury or death to a "weaker" child, the archer would be held accountable. Even on an archery range, the man with the bow must look before he shoots. The safety of others is of greater importance than the freedom to shoot an arrow.

Paul's logic follows similar lines of thought. Earlier we said that something is more important than one's enjoyment of his Christian freedom. Now we can see what that something is the spiritual well-being of a weaker brother.

Some Essential Definitions

Weaker Brother a Christian who, because of the weakness of his faith, knowledge, conscience, and will, can be influenced to sin against his conscience by the example of a differing stronger brother.

Stronger Brother a Christian who, because of his understanding of Christian freedom and the strength of his conviction, exercises his liberty with full peace of conscience without being improperly influenced by the differing opinions of others.

Stumbling Block an action taken by a stronger brother which, though it would ordinarily qualify as a permissible act of freedom, influences a weaker brother to sin against his conscience.

A Pound of Prevention

Having defined our key terms, we can now turn our attention to the verbs that really explain the nature of the stronger brother's responsibility that is, what it means to let one's liberty be limited by love.

An analysis of Romans 14:13-15:2 reveals an even balance between negatives and positives. Since Paul begins this segment with a negative exhortation, we will look first at that side of the relationship.

How to Care for Weaker Brothers
Romans 14:13-15:2

Do Not

1. Put a stumbling block in his way (14:13)
2. Destroy with food (14:15)
3. Let your good thing become evil (14:16)
4. Tear down God's work (14:20)
5. Give offense (14:20)
6. Cause a brother to stumble (14:21 )
7. Just please yourself (15:1)

By now, we are accustomed to the meaning of "stumbling block" and "give offense." But the severity of the other terms "destroy," "evil," "tear down" may be a little startling. That impression is further reinforced by similar expressions in 1 Corinthians 8: "ruin" a brother for whom Christ died (verse 11); "sin" against the brethren (12); "sin against Christ" (12). One gets the idea that Paul considered this stumbling block business to be pretty serious. The question is, why?

The answer lies in the nature of the weaker brother's vulnerability. In the first place, he is liable to sin against his conscience (1 Corinthians 8:10). To some people, that might not sound as serious as the violation of God's law. But God makes no such distinction! (Romans 14:23).

Our Moral Guidance System

The conscience is that part of a man's soul that judges right from wrong. It tells him when he is about to veer off his moral course with some improper thought or action. When he ignores that warning and does what he senses to be wrong, the conscience hauls him into court and condemns him for his transgression. That transaction is experienced as guilt.

At any given point, the standard by which the conscience judges is absolute. It may not be precisely correct in comparison to God's perfect holiness. But the conscience declares guilt or acquittal on the basis of what it construes to be right and wrong at that moment, and does so unequivocally.14

Understanding these things can help one appreciate the seriousness of sinning against the conscience. For even if the standard by which the conscience is judging is not as perfect as God's own moral law, the individual reacts as though it is. Therefore, to disregard the warnings of the conscience is to choose self over God. And that constitutes rebellion the sin of going one's own way (Isaiah 53:6).

The Danger of Moral Drift

That is bad enough. But there is a second potential threat to the spiritual life of a weaker brother. For the sin against the conscience can lead just as easily to sin against God's commands. Author Jerry White cites an infamous case-in-point:

Former presidential aide Jeb Stuart Magruder, commenting on the Watergate scandal said, "We had conned ourselves into thinking we weren't doing anything really wrong, and by the time we were doing things that were illegal, we had lost control. We had gone from poor ethical behavior into illegal activities without even realizing it."15

This tendency of the flesh to edge us over the line from liberty into license is one of Paul's themes in 1 Corinthians. And so it would be helpful at this point to observe the outline of the apostle's thought through chapters 8, 9, and 10.

He began his response to a question about the propriety of eating meat offered to idols in chapter 8. Though such food was free from any spiritual contamination, Paul declared, there were many believers who were unaware of that fact (8:1-7). So rather than influencing these weaker brothers to sin against their conscience, those with knowledge should refrain from eating this meat (8:8-13).

Chapter 9 consists of a personal testimony by Paul in which he first established his rights as an apostle (9:1-14). He then explained how he had chosen to forego those rights for the spiritual benefit of others (9:15-27).

By way of contrast, he introduced in chapter 10 the contrary example of the children of Israel. Though they had been given tremendous spiritual privileges and resources (10:1-4), they experienced a moral erosion that degenerated from discontent to disobedience to destruction (10:5-10). Their example should serve as a warning to all of God's people that no one is immune to such failure (10:11-13).

The Seduction of Idolatry

The fact of the matter was that the Corinthian believers were in danger of succumbing to the besetting sin of Israel: idolatry (10:14). If they weren't careful, Paul warned, they could slip into idolatry almost without noticing it. For while there was nothing wrong with eating meat that had previously been offered to idols, there was something very wrong with partaking of the temple feasts in which that meat was offered as a sacrifice. In that culture, to participate in a meal that was dedicated to a deity was tantamount to worshipping that god. Furthermore, the Corinthian "gods" were, in fact, demons. So to share in a pagan feast was to have communion with the archfoes of Christ (10:14-22).

That is why, back in 1 Corinthians 8:10, Paul asserted that a stronger brother shouldn't be seen eating in a pagan temple (apparently apart from an official feast). For a weaker brother imitating his example would not only sin against his conscience, he might not possess the spiritual insight to discern any significant difference between obtaining meat at the temple and eating it in the context of a pagan feast.16

To sum up: The reason the stronger brother must be careful about harming a weaker brother through his liberty is twofold: (1) the weaker brother might be influenced to sin against his conscience, which is to sin against God; and (2) such an act could be the first step in the downhill slide from liberty into license. It is because of the severity of these potential consequences that Paul admonishes us with such strong terms.

Bricks Are for Building, Not Throwing

To this point, we have emphasized that aspect of Paul's instruction that is essentially preventative. Paul intentionally stressed restraint in the exercise of freedom to keep from hurting a brother. And yet, a mature Christian could conscientiously limit his freedom by love and still fall short of his obligations to his brother. The reason, plainly, is that love is not merely preventive in its expression it is constructive.

That positive side of the currency of love is readily seen in the rest of the verbs employed by Paul.

How to Care for Weaker Brothers
Romans 14:13-15:2

Do Not…

1. Put a stumbling block in his way (14:13)
2. Destroy with food (14:15)
3. Let your good thing become evil (14:16)
4. Tear down God's work (14:20)
5. Give of tense (14:20)
6. Cause a brother to stumble
7. Just please yourself (15:1)


1. Walk according to love (14:15)
2. Serve Christ (14:18)
3. Pursue peace (14:19)
4. Build up one another (14:19)
5. Bear the weaknesses of the weak (15:1)
6. Please your neighbor for his good (15:2)
7. Edify him (15:2)

Though not expressly stated, it is implied throughout that the weaker brother's lack of strength is temporary. To use a currently popular metaphor, he is under construction, and "God Isn't Finished With Him Yet" (Romans 14:19-20). The responsibility of the stronger brother, then, is twofold: he is to refrain from tearing down what God is building; and he is to participate constructively in God's work in his brother's life.

Paul is really not as concerned about "not being a stumbling block" as he is about "becoming a stepping stone." In so many words, then, Paul is saying that to not be a stumbling block is good, but to seek to be a stepping stone is even better. To be a stepping stone means that you are actively seeking ways to help others draw closer to Christ. Being a stepping stone implies that you will be walked on.17

The key to a proper attitude, it seems, is perspective. The stronger brother could technically comply with Paul's admonition to limit his freedom, and go around muttering to himself about how much he had "given up for this weakling." But Paul wasn't looking for martyrs he was recruiting investors to contribute to God's work. The initial investment, the incalculable cost of Christ's life, has already been made (Romans 14:15; I Corinthians 8:11). The stronger brother is invited to chip in his two-cents worth to assist in the completion of the project.

That Man in the Hard Hat Is Paul

For Paul, this matter of being a builder, a stepping stone, an investor, was more than just a good preaching point. It was a matter of personal practice:

For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, that I might win the more. And to the Jews I became as a Jew, that I might win Jews; to those who are under the Law, as under the Law, though not being myself under the Law, that I might win those who are under the Law; to those who are without law, as without law, though not being without the law of God but under the law of Christ, that I might win those who are without law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak; I have become all things to all men, that I may by all means save some (1 Corinthians 9:19-22).

Give no offense either to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God; just as I also please all men in all things, not seeking my own profit, but the profit of the many, that they may be saved (1 Corinthians 10:32-33).

F.F. Bruce offers this insightful summary:

Paul enjoyed his Christian liberty to the full. Never was there a Christian more thoroughly emancipated from un-Christian inhibitions and taboos. So completely emancipated was he from spiritual bondage that he was not even in bondage to his emancipation. He conformed to the Jewish way of life when he was in Jewish society as cheerfully as he accommodated himself to Gentile ways when he was living with Gentiles. The interests of the gospel and the highest well-being of men and women were paramount considerations with him, and to these he subordinated everything else.18

Accordingly, Paul could write: "Be imitators of me, just as I also am of Christ" (1 Corinthians 11:1).

Careful Enjoyment

To be faithful to Paul's instruction regarding weaker brothers, we need to add a couple of qualifying, and very practical, footnotes. The first is recorded in 1 Corinthians 10:25-27:

Eat anything that is sold in the meat market, without asking questions for conscience' sake; "for the earth is the Lord's, and all it contains." If one of the unbelievers invites you, and you wish to go, eat anything that is set before you, without asking questions for conscience' sake.

Essentially, Paul's message was, "Enjoy your freedom." The stronger brother is not required to go around taking surveys to determine if a weaker brother is in the vicinity. If the coast appears to be clear, he may proceed to do anything endorsed by his conscience, without worrying about phantom weaker brothers.19

Of course, if a weaker brother identifies himself, or if specific clues make the presence of one a distinct possibility, then immediate restraint is in order as the subsequent verses declare (1 Corinthians 10:28-30).

The second qualification provides the appropriate balance to the first one without canceling it out. It consists of two words: "with discretion." Enjoy your freedom with discretion. Put negatively, don't flaunt your freedom.

That piece of wisdom lies behind the rhetorical question of I Corinthians 8:10: "For if someone sees you, who have knowledge, dining in an idol's temple, will not his conscience, if he s weak, be strengthened to eat things sacrificed to idols?"

One problem, as Paul saw it, with eating in an idol's temple was that one was more likely to be seen by a weaker brother. To exercise that freedom with discretion entailed eating the meat at home or at the private residence of a friend (I Corinthians 10:25-27). In an environment where it is known that there is widespread disagreement over some matter of conscience, the mature Christian will exercise great care in where and how he enjoys his freedom.

Recognizing Weaker Brothers

As Jews and Gentiles were brought together in the first century Church, one clear evidence of God's grace in their lives was the replacement of hostility and prejudice with a spirit of compassion. The Gentile believers showed sensitivity for their Jewish brethren by avoiding practices that were offensive to them because of their strict upbringing (Acts 15:28-29). And the Jewish saints came to appreciate the revulsion that many Gentile Christians had for certain aspects of their pagan background (I Corinthians 8:7). In short, they learned where to particularly watch out for weaker brothers.

In our day, there are at least four categories of Christians that merit our loving attention. First, a young adult who is in the process of leaving the parental nest will need some time to sort out his own convictions. Extra sensitivity will be required for those who were reared in a strict, legalistic environment.

The second group is composed of relatively recent converts out of a background of licentiousness. Often, such babes in Christ immediately reject virtually every aspect of their former life style including some practices that may be perfectly within the believer's sphere of freedom. Such radical purging of the "old" is probably necessary for self-protection until they can gain the spiritual perception to responsibly discern their own perimeters of freedom. It would be a mistake to push these spiritual infants too quickly in the direction of liberty.

A third category would include believers from another country or culture. It is impossible to comprehend the impact our societal milieu has on our convictions until one spends some time in an alien culture. While we would not wish to be offensive when moving to or traveling in some other part of the country or world, the weaker brother with whom we have contact is more likely to be the foreigner in our midst. His adjustment to our standards may take some time. And we will help if we are sensitive to those areas that he finds difficult.

The fourth group is made up of dependent children of convinced differing brothers. For example, two fathers may hold differing positions regarding attendance at movies, and still accept one another fully. But each man needs to remain alert with respect to his influence on his brother's children. That is especially true when children are seeking external justification for rebelling against parental standards and authority.

These categories of potential weaker brothers are neither ironclad nor exhaustive. But they are worth noting by those who wish to obey God's will and promote His work in the lives of others.


In all, there are three categories of differing Christians to whom we must properly relate. The believer who is correctly responding to biblical guidelines about decisions in debatable areas is a convinced differing brother. I am to accept him and refrain from judging him for his opinions, as he is to do for me. The other classification we have discussed is the weaker brother. I am to be alert for him, limiting the exercise of my freedom when my influence might tempt him to sin against his conscience.

There remains a third kind of differing believer that we an counter from time to time. He is one who does not accept me with my differing convictions; who puts pressure on others to conform to his point of view. In terms of stumbling blocks, he takes offense when no offense is given. The cause of the offense is his own pride or unbelief, rather than improper behavior on the part of the other. He becomes upset, but is not "destroyed." He is not a weaker brother for he is strong in his convictions and will not blindly follow a contrary example. Nor is he a stronger brother, for he is not strong in understanding. He has not fully grasped the nature and reality of Christian freedom and responsibility, especially as it affects relationships with other Christians.

Though not given the same systematic treatment in Romans and I Corinthians as the weaker brother, this third character appears frequently on the pages of the New Testament. For purposes of terminology, we will employ the title of the classic example to designate this category of debater the--Pharisee.

[PMI--Editor's Note: I feel it stronger to say at this juncture the term Pharisee is used here NOT to represent the historical sect but rather represents the unchristian spiritual heart condition exhibited through behaviors and attitudes condemend by Christ in Matthew 23. I prefer Friesen's use of the term "professing believer," as it's inclusive of those individuals who are in process of spiritual growth and correction , as well as persons who have spiritually removed themselves from Christ's Body--HIS Church--by their stubborn unchristianity and refusal of Biblical correction. Friesen's treats this subject extremely well.]

By way of definition, the Pharisee is a professing believer with strong convictions who, because of his own pride, takes offense at those who resist his pressure to conform to his point of view. By his nature, the Pharisee is most in need of the correctives set forth in Romans 14:1-12. Of the three types of differing brothers, he is also the most difficult to get along with.

Since definitions are often clarified through comparison and contrast, Figure 36 has been prepared to reveal significant differences and similarities.

Categories Of Differing Brothers

Weaker Brother

He differs from my opinion at times
He is not fully convinced
He is sincere
He needs teaching and is open to it
He is surprised at my use of freedom
He does not think he can teach me
He is influenced by my example I can cause him to stumble into sin
He is caused to sin by my wrong use of freedom
When I cause him to stumble it is an "offense given"

Convinced Brother

He differs from my opinion at times
He is fully convinced
He is convinced and humble
He has been taught but is open to correction
He accepts me with my differing opinion
He is willing to discuss why he differs
He is not improperly influenced by my example I cannot cause him to stumble into sin
He is not caused to sin by my use of freedom Since he does not stumble, there is no offense at all


He differs from my opinion at times
He is fully convinced
He is convinced and proud
He has been taught, but is not open to correction
He judges or rejects me for my differing conviction
He seeks to make me conform to his viewpoint
He is not influenced by my example
His pride will cause him to stumble
He becomes upset by my use of freedom
When he stumbles over my freedom, it is an "offense taken"

Jesus' Thorns in the Flesh

When it comes to responding properly to Pharisees, the disciple would do well to observe the example of the Lord Jesus. For through His interaction with the Pharisees of His day, Christ provided a practical model that determined the outlook of His apostles. 20

A survey of Jesus' encounters with the Pharisees in the Gospels reveals a progressive pattern of increasing hostility. That is, as Jesus refused to conform to the world view and life style of the Pharisees, their antagonism toward Him intensified. Without wishing to be dogmatic, we believe that that pattern can be traced through seven levels of opposition.

Level I Observation: When Jesus emerged on the religious landscape, it wasn't long before the throngs were infiltrated by pharisaic investigators. Almost immediately, tensions began to develop when some Pharisees observed Jesus and/or His disciples doing things (or not doing things) that violated their tradition: dining with "sinners," not fasting on prescribed days, and picking grain on the Sabbath (Mark 2:16, 18, 23-28). In those first encounters, the Pharisees expressed their amazement in the form of a question: "Why?" In each case, Jesus simply gave the reasons for His actions.

Level 2 Scrutiny: The Pharisees began actively watching for infractions of their tradition with the intent of accusing him (Mark 3:2). Jesus' emotional reaction to their hardened hearts was grief and anger (Mark 3:5). He publicly justified an act of healing on the Sabbath, and then He did it in their presence (Matthew 12:11-13).

Level 3 Conspiracy: From that point, the Pharisees "counseled together against Him, as to how they might destroy Him" (Matthew 12:14). Jesus responded by withdrawing from them (Matthew 12:15).

Level 4 Slander: When Jesus expelled a demon from a man who was blind and mute, the Pharisees made their rejection of Him official by attributing His miraculous works to Satan (Matthew 12:22-37). Jesus refuted their faulty logic and rebuked them personally for the first time.

Level 5 Accusation: The conflict escalated as Pharisees accused Jesus' disciples of violating the tradition of the elders (Matthew 15:1-2). Jesus' response was very frontal. This was the first time He called them "hypocrites" to their face (Matthew 15:7). This was the first time He challenged them on the cardinal error transgressing the commandment of God for the sake of their tradition (Matthew 15:3). And this was the first time He spoke of the Pharisees directly to His disciples:

Then the disciples came and said to Him, "Do You know that the Pharisees were offended when they heard this statement?" But He answered and said, "Every plant which My heavenly Father did not plant shall be rooted up. Let them alone; they are blind guides of the blind. And if a blind man guides a blind man, both will fall into a pit" (Matthew 15:12-14).

Level 6 Manipulation: Thereafter, all questioning by the Pharisees was designed to incriminate Jesus with the authorities or alienate Him from the people (Matthew 22:15; Mark 10:1-12; 12:13-17). For His part, Jesus skillfully parried all attempts to impale Him on the horns of a dilemma (Luke 20:26, 39-40). He also began to warn His disciples and the multitudes about the hypocrisy and false teaching of the Pharisees (Matthew 16:6-12; 21:33-46; Mark 8:15; Luke 12:1; 18:9-14).

Level 7 Destruction: As the Pharisees were plotting with the rest of the religious establishment to kill Jesus, He delivered a scathing denunciation of them and their form of "religion" (Matthew 23).

Fencing With Pharisees

While the encounters that we are likely to have with "Pharisees" will never be as severe as those experienced by Christ, the fact that He had to deal with His antagonists at every stage is of benefit to us. With our situation in view, the following observations seem relevant:

1. Jesus did not go out of His way to avoid doing things that He knew would offend the Pharisees.

2.The Pharisees always took the initiative in the various confrontations.

3. When questioned or accused by the Pharisees during the early stages, Jesus simply answered their questions and explained the reasons for His actions.

4. At the point where the Pharisees began to effectively dissuade people from following Him, Jesus began to rebuke them with greater force.

5. He also, at that point, began to warn His followers about them, instructing the multitudes in parabolic form about their teaching.

6. The specific instructions that Jesus gave His disciples were: Beware, and leave them alone.

7. When Jesus challenged the Pharisees personally, the target of His attack was the content of their doctrine (i.e., when they supplanted the commands of God with their own tradition), the phoniness of their practice (hypocrisy), and the destructive effect of their influence in the lives of others.

Bending Over Backwards

Now, by placing the pertinent apostolic exhortations alongside the patterns of Christ's example, we can establish some specific guidelines for relating to the pharisaic brethren among us.

1. Beware of becoming a Pharisee (Matthew 16:12; Luke 12:1; Romans 14:3). Basically, a Pharisee is one who fails to distinguish between divine command and personal application. He absolutizes the application not just for himself, but for everyone else as well.

2. When questioned by a Pharisee, graciously explain the reasons for your convictions (Colossians 4:6; 2 Timothy 2:24-25; 1 Peter 3:14-16).

3. Don't capitulate to his pressure to conform to his absolutes (Colossians 2:8, 16-23), especially on matters of gospel principle (Galatians 2:3-5).

4. Pursue peace (Romans 12:18; 14:19). Your goal is to build him up. If he rejects your efforts to establish harmony, leave him alone and commit him to God (Matthew 15:12-14).

5. Admonish everyone in the church to beware of the dangers of Pharisaism (Romans 15:14). Instruct and exhort the Pharisee in the context of public ministry to the members of the Body.21.

Pulling the Thorn

The first five guidelines are applicable to relationships with "passive Pharisees" that is, those who take offense at the liberty of others but don't otherwise create division in the church. The final two steps are reserved for the "aggressive Pharisee."

6. At the point at which the Pharisee begins to cause spiritual damage to others, the church, and/or the reputation of the Lord, confront him privately and seek to help him change his course (Matthew 18:15; Galatians 6:1; 1 Thessalonians 5:14; 2 Thessalonians 3:14-15).

7. If private reproof does not restore the brother, then the steps that Christ spelled out for church discipline are called for (Matthew 18:15-20). The final step of excommunication is equivalent to Christ's public rebuke of those who so vigorously opposed Him (Matthew 23).

As brothers and sisters in the family of God and fellow members of the Body of Christ, we all have responsibilities to one another. Most of the relational imperatives in the New Testament are constructive in nature. But some are corrective. When correction is called for, the straying brother will more readily respond with repentance when confronted by one who has earned the reputation of a servant through a consistent ministry of edification. As much as anyone in the church, the Pharisee needs the loving upbuilding of a caring family. To conclude this portion of our study, we return to a comparison of the three categories of differing brothers. This time, our focus is on the manner in which the mature believer is to relate to each of the three.

Relating to Differing Brothers

Weaker Brother

I need never give him offense
I become a willing slave to his conscience
I must limit my freedom to avoid sinning against him

Convinced Brother

I will not be able to give him offense
I am free to exercise my freedom
I need not limit my freedom on his account


I will not be able to prevent his taking offense
I will not allow him to enslave me to his standards
I may choose to limit my freedom to keep him from getting upset at me

The Bunker Hill Principle

One final question: What should I do if I cannot determine whether my differing brother is a weaker brother or a Pharisee? Apply the Bunker Hill Principle: Don't fire until you see the whites of his eyes. That is, assume he is a weaker brother and refrain from exercising your freedom until the person in the line of fire is correctly identified or removed from the area of danger. Even if he proves to have pharisaic tendencies, you may find it expedient to sacrifice your freedom for the sake of removing obstacles to his spiritual growth (cf. Acts 15:28-29).

Decision Making When Christians Differ
Romans 14:1-15:13

1. Learn to distinguish between matters of command and matters of freedom (14:14, 20).
2. On debatable issues, cultivate your own convictions (14:5).
3. Allow your brother the freedom to determine his own convictions even when they differ from yours (14:1-12).
4. Let your liberty be limited, when necessary, by love (14:13i15:2).


Principle 5: Follow Christ as the Model and Motivator of Servanthood.

While virtually everyone recognizes that society would be delightfully transformed if all men would live in accordance with Paul's principles, perhaps the most striking thing about his instructions is how contrary to human nature they are. Men don't naturally extend such consideration as he has been describing to others. In truth, unless men adopt a servant mentality, Paul's exhortation is hopelessly unrealistic. Men want to be sovereigns, not servants.

But therein lies the supernatural character of Christianity. When a human life is infused with the divine Presence, the quest for sovereignty is superceded by a compulsion to serve. In fact, the more the saint becomes like his Savior (which is the whole point of God's construction project), the more servant-minded he becomes. Which is why the apostles so frequently paused in the midst of their expositions to point to the Example. And Romans 15 is no exception.

Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to his edification. For even Christ did not please Himself; but as it is written, "The reproaches of those who reproached Thee fell upon Me." For whatever was written in earlier times was written for our instruction, that through perseverance and the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. Now may the God who gives perseverance and encouragement grant you to be of the same mind with one another according to Christ Jesus; that with one accord you may with one voice glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.

Wherefore, accept one another, just as Christ also accepted us to the glory of God. For I say that Christ has become a servant to the circumcision on behalf of the truth of God to confirm the promises given to the fathers, and for the Gentiles to glorify God for His mercy. (Romans 15:2-9).

Christ's School for Servants

There are a number of reasons for this apostolic habit of clinching a point by focusing on Christ as the Prime Example. The first concerns perspective and is well described in Everett F. Harrison's comments on verses 5-6:

So Paul prays for a spirit of unity (like-mindedness) that will minimize individual differences as all fix their attention on Christ as the pattern for their own lives (cf. v. 3). This does not mean that believers are intended to see eye to-eye on everything, but that the more Christ fills the spiritual vision, the greater will be the cohesiveness of the church. The centripetal magnetism of the Lord can effectively counter the centrifugal force of individual judgment and opinion.22

The second reason for pointing to Christ is motivational. Those who are the beneficiaries of the Servant's love ought to be compelled thereby to accept and serve others (Romans 15:7).

The primary benefit in throwing the spotlight on the Master Model is instructional. Beyond telling us that we ought to be servants, He shows us how. When Paul says, "Christ has become a servant" (Romans 15:8), we are reminded of both the nature and scope of that self-humiliation as described in Philippians 2:5-11. And that, in turn, calls to mind Paul's plea to those believers to manifest that very same servant's attitude in their relationship with one another:

Make my joy complete by being of the same mind, maintaining the same love, united in spirit, intent on one purpose. Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind let each of you regard one another as more important than himself;. . .Have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus,…(Philippians 2:2-3,5).

What the apostle is saying to these people is that the next time they find themselves squaring off in a fighter's stance they should switch to a servant's posture. For that is what the mind of Christ is more than anything else a posture, kneeling and washing one another's feet. It's loving and giving as we have been loved and given to.23

Only the Strong Serve

The final point may be the most important: The ability, the enablement to serve others as Christ serves comes from God Himself.

Now may the God who gives perseverance and encouragement grant you to be of the same mind with one another according to Christ Jesus (Romans 15:5).

That's why the fifth principle points to Jesus not only as the Model but also as the Motivator of our obedience. For all the instructions, even with the complete diagram, would only mock us if His enablement was lacking.

A significant part of the excitement that comes in understanding and then responding to these truths stems from the realization that God's construction projects are not limited to weaker brothers. As we follow Christ as the Model of servanthood, He will give the perseverance and encouragement that we need. Now that's motivation!

Decision Making When Christians Differ
Romans 14:1-15:13

1. Learn to distinguish between matters of command and matters of freedom (14:14, 20).
2. On debatable issues, cultivate your own convictions (14:5).
3. Allow your brother the freedom to determine his own convictions even when they differ from yours (14:1-12).
4. Let your liberty be limited, when necessary, by love (14:13-15:2).
5. Follow Christ as the model and motivator of servanthood (15:3-13).

You are encouraged to send a gift to Garry Friesen (Galatians 6:6) at
Multnomah School of the Bible, Portland, OR.


1. F.F. Bruce, The Epistle of Paul to the Romans: An Introduction and Commentary (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1963), p. 246, quoting "On the Freedom of a Christian Man." (Cf. I Corinthians 9:19.)

2. Frank E. Gaebelein, gen. ea., The Expositor's Bible Commentary, vol. 10: "Romans" by Everett F. Harrison (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1976), p. 145.

3. Bruce, Romans, p. 253.

4. Colin Brown, ea., The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, s.v. "Offence, Scandal, Stumbling Block" (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1976).

5 W.E. Vine, Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words, vol. 3 (Old Tappan; N.J.: Fleming H. Revell Co., 1940), p. 129.

6. Ibid.

7. Brown, Dictionary of New Testament Theology, s.v. "Offence, Scandal, Stumbling Block."

8. Other verses where skandalizo occurs in the active voice with the sense of "to cause to stumble" include Matthew 5:29-30 and the parallel passages in Mark and Luke.

9. Other verses where skandalizomai occurs in the passive voice with the sense of "to stumble over" include Matthew 11:6; 15:12; 26:31,33; and other parallel passages in Mark and Luke.

10. Brown, Dictionary of New Testament Theology, s.v. "Offence, Scandal, Stumbling Block."

11. Other verses where skandalon represents a stumbling block that causes others to stumble include Matthew 18:7; Romans 16:17; Revelation 2:14; and parallel passages.

12. Other verses where skandalon represents something at which others take offense include I Corinthians 1:23 and Galatians 5:11.

13. In Romans 14:13, the synonym to stumbling block, translated "obstacle," is proskomma which is literally something against which someone may strike his foot. The verb, proskopto, is found in I Corinthians 10:32, and is translated "to give offense." Paul used these synonyms in the same way that he employed skandalon and skandalizo.

14. Jerry White, Honesty, Morality and Conscience (Colorado Springs: Navpress, 1979), pp. 28-29, 35-36. White's second and third chapters, "Your Conscience Friend or Foe" and "How to Use and Respond to Your Conscience" are recommended for his development of the biblical data regarding the conscience.

15. Ibid., p. 83.

16. This paragraph offers one possible view of harmonizing I Corinthians 8:10 and 10:19-22. In the former, eating in an idol's temple is considered a sin because it causes the weak to stumble. However, in 10:19-22 the eating of meat sacrificed to idols in the temple context is viewed as idolatry and always wrong. The view suggested in this book takes 8:10 to be eating in the temple apart from a pagan festival and thus not worshiping demons (I Corinthians 10:20). It is possible to harmonize also by saying that eating in the festival was not pagan worship if the believer had no part in the sacrifice of the food. Even better is the alternative suggested by Hodge that eating in the idol temple in 8:10 is wrong for two reasons (hurting the weak and idolatry), but Paul only mentions its harm of the weak until he gets to the second problem of idolatry in chapter 10. "Here he views the matter simply under the aspect of an offence, or in reference to its effect on the weaker brethren, and therefore says nothing of the sinfulness of the act in itself." Charles Hodge, A n Exposition of the First Epistle to the Corinthians (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., n.d.), pp. 14748.

17. Fritz Ridenour, How to Be a Christian In An Unchristian World (Glendale: Regal Books, 1967), p. 136.

18. Bruce, Romans, p. 243.

19. This is supported by C.K. Barrett's observations on Romans 14:21: "This does not mean that all Christians should take vows of abstinence. The infinitives 'to eat' end 'to drinks are florists, and the meaning seems to be that if on any particular occasion it seems likely that to eat flesh or to drink wine will cause a brother to stumble, it is right on that occasion to abstain. Eating and drinking are not wrong in themselves, and on other occasions the danger may not arise." C.K. Barrett A Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans (New York: Harper and Row, 1957j, p. 266.

20. A systematic treatment of Christ's encounters with the Pharisees is found in John R.W. Stott's excellent volume, Christ the Controversialist (Downers Grove, 111.: InterVarsity Press, 1970).

21. In the New Testament epistles, admonition is a form of exhortation, often with the idea of warning. Most of the time it refers to preventive warning rather than confrontation over a specific problem. In every instance but one (2 Thessalonians 3:15, where "admonish" is used in the sense of "reprove"), the admonition is directed toward a group of people. Of primary concern in admonition is the attitude of the one who is doing the exhorting. Key verses on this ministry include Romans 15:14; Acts 20:31; I Corinthians4:14, Colossians 1:28-29 and 3:16. See also the very practical discussion by Gene A. Getz in Building Up One Another (Wheaton: Victor Books, 1979), pp. 51-59.

22. Harrison, Expositor's Bible Commentary, 10:152-53.

23. Ben Patterson "A Small Pump at the Edge of the Swamp?," Leadership: A Practical Journal fo; Church Leaders I (Spring 1980): 45.