The answer to that question is in an email I got after a great discussion we had in our Sunday evening Bible study this week. I’ve posted it below. But let me put it in context for you.
Our study of Acts has reached the episode of the Jerusalem Council in chapter 15. This is the pivotal chapter where the Apostles and Elders of the church at Jerusalem wrestle with what to make of so many Gentile conversions to Christ – that is, whether or not they were really saved since they were not circumcised like Jews. As expected, they conclude that Gentiles are saved just like Jews are – by grace alone. Gentiles do not have to become Jewish (through circumcision) in order to become Christian.
Yet there is an interesting and unexpected twist in the plot. Not only does the Apostle James tells the Jews to quit troubling the Gentiles over getting circumcised, he tells the Gentiles to not do 4 specific things that are offensive to Jews: don’t eat meat offered to idols, don’t fornicate, don’t eat meat of things strangled, and don’t eat blood.
The Gentiles were not being apostolically bound under the Mosaic Law to not do these things* (the Apostles had just declared that Gentiles were not under the Law), but that they were to defer to the sensibilities of the Jews on these things because they offended the Jew’s consciences. So purely for the sake of love and unity in the church among these two groups, James tells the Gentiles to not exercise their liberty in these areas. (* It’s possible that the reference to fornication here was a specific reference to marriages among those in close blood relation, thus all four of these practices are found in Lev. 17-18.)
Since love and unity among Christians is the central issue here, that makes this otherwise odd text quite relevant to the church today. Whereas at least three out of four of the things James tells the Gentiles not to do would probably never show up on a list of practices that Christians should refrain from in our own day, there are plenty of ways we can defer to the sensibilities of other Christians on what are often called “debatable issues” (I’m sure you can think of a few), by simply not doing those things around them that we know will offend them.
Yet aren’t there times when you should go to the “weaker brother” (like the Jews in the Acts 15 story), and seek to educate them and help them overcome their weakness so that they can grow beyond their “hang ups” (for lack of a better word)? I think there are clearly times for that, and have taken the time and effort to do so on occasion, as an exercise in exhorting others to greater maturity. But how should you go about doing it?
To help answer that I want to share an email that was prompted by our Sunday night study that I received this week from one of our members. I’ve posted this with their permission, with only slight edits to conceal identities.
Dear Pastor Scott-
When shouldn’t we forebear but instead admonish one another on debatable matters in the church, especially in the case of what we see as a weaker brother?
When we believe God is leading us to not forebear but instead approach a brother maybe the primary goal should be that no matter how the person chooses to respond to the correction, they should undeniably know that the person approaching them truly loves them. They should sense that the admonishment comes from the best motives, to build up, rather than from frustration, irritation, pride, anger, or any number of fleshly motives.
This evening when [my spouse] and I got home from church we were reviewing our experience on this topic. As members of various [name of denomination withheld] churches in the past 9 years, we became aware of this nuance of love as we were the “weaker brothers” in our church communities due to our baptismal convictions. We witnessed many good examples of brothers earnestly concerned about our faith journeys, seeking to help us along in our understanding of theology, but we also had some painful experiences which opened our eyes to some sinful habits in our own hearts. Praise God for this!!! If you don’t mind I will share one or two of these experiences with you.
When a group of people are together who appear to be like minded on a matter, they tend to let their guard down. We have been in Sunday school meetings and even personal conversations where [our position on an issue] was openly mocked to the point of making it hard for us to maintain true, deep fellowship with some other believers. We think in most of these cases, the people mocking were not aware of our convictions, so they were not intending to be malicious. But we felt we couldn’t be ourselves without being shunned or looked down upon. And when the topic of wine in communion came up once, we whispered to each other, “I’m so glad so-and-so didn’t come to church with us this Sunday. They would have been REALLY offended by the joking and sarcasm…”
After these slightly painful experiences, [my spouse] and I became aware of times when WE were doing the same thing! We began to see that even our private conversations at home were sarcastic and jocular about the “weaker brothers” at church who thought our perspective was weaker. Ouch!
This has begun a slow heart change for us – we still slip up! To love brothers from the heart we have to practice doing so when we are not even around them. Then in the off chance that we are around someone of differing opinion and we don’t realize it, we will be less prone to hinder unity by a slip of the tongue, for our hearts will be prepared to humbly love them in a respectful and earnest manner. After all, out of the mouth comes the well-spring of the heart! So there are times when we need to approach a weaker brother as God leads us, but we need to be prepared to do so with a truly humble and loving heart, seeking to build up rather than destroy. We pray that Grace Church ([our family] included!) will continue to grow in understanding of God’s command to love one another deeply from the heart.
That’s my frequent prayer too, and it’s the reason why I took the the discussion in that direction. May humble love abound in both our forbearing one another and in our admonishing one another.