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The Weaker Brother Principle: A Critical Appraisal Applying the Alcohol-Prohibition Archetype

by | Dec 17, 2020 | Apologetics, Opinion, The Church, Theology | 0 comments

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Editor’s note: This is a theological work and should not be construed as an advocacy for indulging one’s self against their conscience or any biblical prohibition on drunkenness (too much wine) or any matter involving Christian liberty.


Is the use of the ‘weaker brother principle’ found in Romans 14 sufficient to ground the modern view that Christians should not partake in the use of alcoholic beverages? Should leaders and pastors invoke the supposed ‘weaker brother principle’ introduced by Paul in the New Testament as a means to instruct Christians to abstain from alcohol consumption for the sake of other Christians with different opinions regarding its use? In order to answer this question, it will be necessary to offer a summary exegetical treatment of the passages that are most germane to this subject. Second, it seems reasonable that one should examine the teachings of Scripture itself on the subject of alcohol consumption. After all, our final authority for faith and practice is Scripture alone. Additionally, it seems that a brief survey of Church history is in order so that we might ascertain how the Church has historically viewed the use of alcohol. Lastly, an assessment of the relationship between the temperance movement of the 19th century and modern views regarding the Christian and alcohol is fitting in order to determine how and to what extent the mindset produced by this movement has impacted attitudes of Christian piety moving into the 21st century to include the current landscape.


A conscientious assessment of a proposition that represents itself as true necessarily includes an understanding of the epistemic authority by which such propositions are weighed. For the Christian, propositions are warranted only if they are the direct teaching of Christian Scripture, or if they are a necessary inference derived from Christian Scripture. In other words, Christian Scripture alone serves as the epistemic authority for the truth-claims of all propositions. This raises the question as to how Christians should approach the Bible. For starters, one’s view of Scripture will determine, to a great degree, how one interprets it. The basic presupposition that the Christian makes about the Bible is that it is God’s Word, the product of divine intervention with supernatural origins. However, God speaks through men who live in a specific culture and if we are to understand God-speaking, we must understand something about the event(s) surrounding His speaking. To put it simply, we must take the Bible at face value within the historical, cultural, social, and political context in which it was written. It is only from that context that the Christian is able draw inferences and reach conclusions about questions like the one concerning this paper. Properly interpreting Scripture requires original language resources, grammatical tools, historical support, background studies, and sound theological principles. For starters, it requires the presence of the Holy Spirit actively illuminating the regenerate mind. However, being filled with the Spirit is no substitute for doing the hard work of research, of exegesis, whether you are trained in the languages, or relying on excellent commentators who are. Biblical hermeneutics is within the grasp of every individual Christian, but that does not mean it is uncomplicated. It is not that. A guiding principle is well stated by Eugene Merrill, “It is wrong to assume that a given practice of another time and place matches something in the modern day. Biblical passages must always be placed in their appropriate contexts literarily, historically, theologically, and culturally.”[1] Understanding the Bible can be easy at times, but much of the time, it requires work. In fact, most of the time it requires effort, energy, time, and patience, not to mention a great deal of humility. The Bible is accessible to all, but it is not equally accessible in all that it teaches. The plain things are the main things and the main things are the plain things. Of course, you do not have to attend seminary in order to understand the Bible. But I highly doubt you can understand it like you should if you spend more time watching American Idol than you do studying the Bible. The Bible is clear, but it is not simple.

This paper will treat a number of issues that touch on what has become known as the weaker brother principle which is itself designed to encourage Christians not to drink alcohol solely on the ground that some Christians believe that to do so is sinful. To that end, this paper will touch ever so slightly on the teachings of Scripture regarding the consumption of alcoholic beverages. However, it is not the purpose of this paper to provide a robust biblical case for Christian liberty on the use of alcohol. The crux of this project is to deal with several basic concerns external to Scripture’s view of alcohol. I am convinced there is a much bigger problem on the other side of the curtain that is getting lost in this discussion.

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The concerns with which this paper deals are specifically related to the weaker brother principle and the arguments that rest upon what I believe is a misunderstanding of that principle. It is for this reason that this paper begins with an exegesis of Romans 14, and 1 Corinthians 8-10. These texts are the most commonly used to instruct the stronger brother to accommodate the weaker one. In other words, the proponents of abstention call upon supposed principles from these texts in order to justify instructing Christians to not drink alcohol when it may offend other Christians to do so. The second concern is the historical view of the Church on the use of alcohol. What have the voices of the Church said about the subject over the last 2,000 years? The third concern is related to how the current state of affairs actually obtained. This concern will require a very short exploration and evaluation of the modern temperance movement of the 19th century and how that movement served to shape and contribute to the prevailing stigma and erroneous views surrounding the use of alcohol in the modern Church. Hence, the heart of this project is to ask whether or not modern Christians who oppose the use of alcohol can properly be viewed through the same lens as first-century Christians who abstained from eating meat that may have been offered to idols, or that was generally suspect when originating from Gentile sources. The goal is to provide a way forward around this issue that avoids sin on the one hand, and the embarrassing situation of obvious contradictions in our Christian doctrine and praxis on the other hand. If we are not careful, we will set Paul in opposition to Paul on this issue, and it seems to me that any reasonable person would see this as an error to be avoided at all costs. After all, there are no contradictions in Scripture, and wherever one lands on this issue, it must be in a place that preserves the cogency of divine revelation and consistency of the Christian system of truth. Protestants refer to such cogency as the analogy of faith. The principle of Scripture interpreting Scripture remains at the center of biblical hermeneutics. One writer of Scripture cannot be understood to contradict another writer’s position. And surely, a writer cannot issue universal, timeless imperatives in one place only to retract them in another place.

The Bible and Alcohol

Since the Bible is the Christian’s final authority for faith and practice, it follows that every Christian belief, and especially every Christian belief where morality is concerned, where right and wrong behavior is the focus, must come under the authority and governance of Scripture alone. Thus, the Bible, as the infallibly inspired revelation of God to sinful man, stands before us as that light in terms of which all the facts of the created universe must be interpreted.[2] To answer the very basic question, “is it sinful to drink a beer or have a glass of wine or any drink considered to be an alcoholic beverage?” one must turn their attention to Scripture alone. What does the Bible say about the use of alcoholic beverages? Ken Gentry lays out the three basic positions on the issue of Christians and the use of alcohol in his book God Gave Wine. Basically, three classic positions prevail on the question of drink; the prohibitionist, the abstentionist, and the moderationist views.[3] The prohibitionist view is exactly as it sounds. This view maintains that alcohol is prohibited by Scripture for those naming the name of Christ. The absentionist view contends that while alcohol is not prohibited by Scripture, nevertheless, it is wise in our social context to abstain from its use. Finally, the moderationist view contends that Scripture does not prohibit the use of alcohol and that Christians are free to enjoy its use in moderation which is exactly what Scripture teaches regarding its use.

It is important to note that this project deals with the proper use of alcohol according to Scripture. The Bible provides clear instructions around not only if alcohol is permitted, but also how alcohol may be enjoyed. Arguments that begin with drunkenness or abuse are summarily dismissed as red herrings and irrelevant to this conversation. That is to say that moral character of drunkenness is uncontroversial among Christians. Scripture clearly forbids drunkenness and abuse. Therefore, this project will not use precious space dealing with the mundane or the obvious.

Wine in the Old Testament

There can be little doubt that the Hebrew word, yǎ·yin connotes fermented wine. Noah was clearly intoxicated where this word first appears in the Pentateuch at Gen. 9:21. This is by far the most important word for wine in the Old Testament. The Talmud gives evidence to the idea that this word signified an intoxicant. In Yoma 76b we read, “It is called “yayin” because it brings lamentation into the world, and “tirosh” because he who indulges in it becomes poor.”[4] This word occurs 141× in the OT in many different settings and with both literal and figurative usages. Wine was a mainstay of the sacrificial system and festivals, so the nom. may also be translated as banquet, wine offerings, wineskins (etc.).[5] From its first mention in the Hebrew text referenced above, there is no indication that the word experienced a change of meaning throughout the later unfolding of the Hebrew text. It was clearly an intoxicant. It will not do to claim that wine is intoxicating wine where it is spoken of negatively and merely grape juice where it is spoken about positively. Such special pleading has no place in sound biblical exegesis. Isa. 55:1 compares God’s gracious mercy to the free offer of wine. Abundant wine is a good sign of blessing. (Jer. 40:12) With all the prohibitions given in the law, there isn’t a single prohibition given against the use of wine. There is only a prohibition against drunkenness.

The next word that deserves attention is the tîrōwš (tirosh). This word appears 38x in BHS. Clearly in Hosea 4:11 it refers to an intoxicant. Even new wine could result in intoxication if one consumed enough of it. It is a word that describes the early stage of yayin.

But unfermented grape juice is a very difficult thing to keep without the aid of modern antiseptic precautions, and its preservation in the warm and not overcleanly conditions of ancient Pa[6]l was impossible. Consequently, tīrōsh came to mean wine that was not fully aged (although with full intoxicating properties [Jgs 9:13; Hos 4:11: cf Acts 2:13]) or wine when considered specifically as the product of grapes (Dt 12:17; 18:4, etc).[7]

The consumption of wine is spoken of positively on several occasions in the Old Testament. The Psalmist sings that God has given us wine to make our hearts glad. (Ps. 104:15) The preacher wrote, “drink your wine with a merry heart for God has already approved of what you do.” (Ecc. 9:7) Its intoxicating properties are mentioned at least twenty times. It is mentioned as a common drink, an element in banquets and as the material used in libation offerings.

Another word that finds relevance for this discussion is the Hebrew word shekar. This word is clearly associated with strong drink and even drunkenness. In the Qal, it means to be or become drunk; in the Niphael and Piel, it means to make someone drunk, and in the Hitpael it means to act drunk. Yet, it is not always used in a negative sense: Prov. 31:6; Num. 28:7; Deut. 14:26. Two facts are unavoidable where this word is concerned: it is used to refer to an intoxicant and it is used in a positive sense. These two facts are undeniable. In conclusion, I want to refer once more to Ken Gentry and his final observation. Gentry refers to the “Study Committee on Beverage Use of Alcohol” of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Evangelical Synod from 1977: “The selective specific cases of abstinence are an indicator that the Mosaic code did not make total abstinence a universally absolute rule in Israel.”[8] According to the Old Testament text, there are no prohibitions against the use of alcohol. The next step is to turn to the New Covenant for an examination of that document to see if things are different.

Wine in the New Testament

The Greek word most commonly translated wine in the New Testament is oinos. This word appears some 34x in 26 verses in Nestle Aland 28. BDAG defines it as a beverage made from fermented juice from the grape. It corresponds to the Hebrew word yayin.[9] Liddell and Scott agree that it is a fermented juice.[10] A few texts from the New Testament will settle this question for any honest inquirer. In Eph. 5:18, the believer is commanded not to be drunk with wine (oinos) but to be filled with the Spirit. In 1 Tim. 3:8, deacons are commanded not be addicted to much wine (oinos). It seems unimaginable that Paul would have had unfermented grape juice in mind. Paul extends the same imperative through Titus to the older women in that community. (Titus 2:3) Yet, in John 2, Jesus produced fermented wine by way of a miracle for the consumption of the wedding guests. The prohibitions of the New Testament against the use of oinos then is solely restricted to its abuse: do not be drunk with it and do not be enslaved to it! The deacons are commanded not to be enslaved to wine. The word prosecho means to occupy oneself with, to pay close attention to something. The same idea appears in Titus with regard to the older women. They are commanded not to be douloo, enslaved to wine. The idea is one of control. In every case the issue comes down to control. A drunk person is not in control of their consumption. They are being controlled by the intoxicant as is the case here with the deacons and the older women. This points us to an improper use of alcohol. The improper use of wine points to the reality of the proper use of wine. Specifically, we would see the New Testament condemning the practice of abusing alcohol.

In addition to the evidence above, we have the evidence coming from Luke 7:33-35. In this pericope it is clearly admitted that Jesus drank wine contrary to John the Baptist who did not. Not only this, our Lord instituted the Lord’s Supper with the use of wine. The expression is found in the Passover blessing in the Haggadah: The formal grace having already been recited, after the fourth cup of wine, a blessing that is a “summary of the three [first sections of the grace]” is recited, thanking God for the fruit of the vine, the land of Israel, and requesting restoration of the Temple.[11] To suggest that the Passover instituted by the Lord was something other than fermented wine is nothing more than the product of an extreme bias on the part of the interpreter. This means that Jesus drank wine, he made wine, and he instituted the New Covenant in religious ritual with the use of wine. The suggestion that the consumption of wine is ipso facto sinful has absolutely no basis whatever in the special revelation of Scripture. More than that, the logical conclusion that drinking wine is ipso facto sinful unwittingly indicts our Lord himself. To say that Christ sinned is blasphemy.

Exegesis of Romans 14


The ancient Roman Church was a church of mixed races. People were coming to Christ from a variety of religious backgrounds, both Jewish and non-Jewish. In order to understand the issue with which Paul was dealing in Romans 14, we must look at it through the lens of the culture in which the Roman Church was situated. One thing most commentators agree on regarding the make-up of the Roman Church is that there is some concern in Rome about the Gentiles precluding Jews, about anti-Semitism, and even some potential degree of Gentilizing. In other words, there seems to be genuine concern about ethnic relations between the Jewish and Gentile believers that make up this young Church.

By the first century BC, Rome possessed a large Jewish population perhaps as many as fifty thousand.[12] Clearly it seems quite reasonable to conclude that this is an ethnically diverse church. And as one would expect, an ethnically diverse community would possess a variety of religious backgrounds that are would be more likely than not to create a number of challenging situations, not to mention a good deal of tension, ethnic, religious, and otherwise. The potential for sinful attitudes and theological confusion would be ripe in such a community, and it seems this was the case. The mixture of cultures in the city ensured that the city would be home to a great variety of religions.[13] In fact, Cicero is quoted as saying, “If we compare ourselves with other peoples, in various things we appear equal or even inferior, except that of religion, meaning the worship of the gods, in which we are by far superior.[14]

One of the main reasons for Paul’s letter to the Roman Christians was unity, according to Kostenberger: “In particular, he wanted to call the churches to unity. He was aware that some of the differences in outlook between the Jewish and the Gentile Christians had produced disunity in the congregations at Rome…Paul wrote to unite the churches under his gospel.”[15]

Carson also lists, as one of Paul’s several purposes for writing this theological monograph to the Roman community, “the importance of unifying the divided Christian community in Rome around the gospel.”[16] And further, “We should note another factor that probably influenced Paul to focus on these questions: polemics against his theology as being anti-law, and perhaps anti-Jewish.”[17] The natural tendency to hang on to Judaism was difficult to resist for Jewish believers. Not only this, one has to wonder just how far the new teachings of infant Christianity had progressed in a community like Rome. Arnold says it well, “It is, rather, a person who has not yet come to the conviction—because of the “pull” of a life spent in Judaism—that the Christian faith allows him or her to eat meat, drink wine, and ignore Jewish holy days.”[18] The Christian Church is in its infancy in Rome at this time, and the new doctrines that will make up the system of Christian belief are in the process of being written even as these scenarios unfold. Failure to take this into consideration when approaching and interpreting this text is no small miss. Schreiner writes, “The main issue that surfaced was how Jewish and Gentile Christians could enjoy table fellowship together since they differed on which foods were permissible. Eating swine meat was especially popular and considered a delicacy in the Greco-Roman world, but this would be particularly offensive to Jews (so Heil 1994: 258).”[19] It is essential then to understand the background of the Roman Church, and the occasion for this letter, if we are to understand just how Romans 14 plays into the conversation of the modern weaker brother argument and its supposed inferential grounding for the more biblical concept known as the weaker-brother principle. Many scholars concur that Romans 14–15 is addressed to a specific situation taking place in the Roman community at a very unique time in the history of the Christian Church.[20] Disagreement still exists among these scholars on the nature of the situation addressed.[21] This cannot be overemphasized.


Ton de asthenounta tē pistei proslambanesthe, mē eis diakriseis dialogismōn. A rough translation of this verse reads: The one who is limited in faith, welcome, but not for the purpose of quarrelling with his opinions. What is clear from verse one is that those who are called ‘weak in the faith’ are deficient in their understanding of the relationship between the New Covenant and the ceremonial law (as context will indicate), and as a result, suffer a certain deficiency in their faith, their convictions, their assurance where old dietary restrictions are concerned. The Greek word asthenounta means “to experience some personal incapacity or limitation, weakness, to be in need.” This expression, ‘weak in the faith’ harkens back to Romans 4:19 where Abraham was said not to ‘weaken in the faith.’ The idea surely is related to a certain assurance or conviction. While our text does not involve issues of genuine salvation, it certainly includes that same concept of assurance or conviction that is included in faith. The idea then is not that these two groups were necessarily judging the genuineness of the other’s faith, but rather, specific behavior that may have been more or less pleasing to God. However, the idea of ‘welcoming’ or ‘not welcoming’ could indeed indicate an unwillingness on the part of the Roman Church to welcome Jewish Christians who had yet to arrive at a proper understanding of their liberty in Christ. This possibility cannot be ruled out. On the other hand, the community could have been placing an unacceptable condition on welcoming the Jewish believers: you must participate in the fellowship meal which includes consumption of certain food items even though the young converts were clearly not spiritually ready for such practices.

Paul’s clear imperative to the Roman Church regarding an individual fitting this description is to welcome him with no strings attached. Proslambanō is in the imperative mood which indicates Paul’s instructions were not optional. To overlook the significance of the first verse in this section of Romans is a critical misstep. The concern is first and foremost that the strong, or mature Christians accept the weaker Christians without looking down on them or possibly requiring more of them than they are prepared to do. The second verse reveals the nature of the practice that makes a brother ‘weaker’. He is eating only vegetables. Clearly, eating meat of some sort was understood by the weaker brother as problematic. Schreiner writes, I have already argued that “the weak in faith” (τὸν ἀσθενοῦντα τῇ πίστει, ton asthenounta tē pistei, v. 1) are primarily Jewish Christians.[22] Douglas Moo believes the weaker brothers were Jewish Christians and perhaps some God-fearers: These considerations suggest that the “weak” were Jewish Christians (and probably also some Gentile “god-fearers”) who believed they were still bound by certain ritual requirements of the Mosaic law.[23] C.E.B. Cranfield is another commentator who believes that the weaker brother here describes Jewish believers who had not yet reached a place in their faith where they could eat meat without injuring their conscience.[24]

This practice is not exactly new. If we travel back in time to the Babylonian exile, we see there some young Jewish men doing exactly the same thing. “But Daniel resolved that he would not defile himself with the king’s food, or with the wine that he drank. Therefore, he asked the chief of the eunuchs to allow him not to defile himself.”[25] It seems reasonable to conclude that meat and wine could not be trusted not to have been offered to idols in Rome, and therefore, in order to play it safe, the Jewish Christians had resolved to avoid meat entirely.

Now we come to two imperatives that are, for the most part, virtually ignored in the modern form of the weaker-brother argument. Or, at least, a full one-half of the imperatives is wholly ignored. “Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him.”[26] First, the stronger brother is commanded not look down on or belittle the one who is weak. ἐξουθενείτω (exoutheneitō): to show by one’s attitude or manner of treatment that an entity has no merit or worth; to despise something on the basis that it is worthless. The contempt this word describes is weighty. I cannot help but think of the ugliness of racism when I read this text. The stronger brothers in the community were clearly not adopting a Christian attitude toward those who did not share their understanding of Christian liberty. This word is used 11x in the NT. It is used in Luke 18:9 to describe the parable of the self-righteous Pharisees who treated others with contempt, while trusting in themselves. It is used in Acts 4:11 when referring to the Jewish rejection of Jesus. It is used in 1 Corinthians 6:4 to describe the world, the unbelieving courts who have “no standing” in the church. Rejection or disparate treatment in this culture by such a community would be no small matter. Clearly, the stronger Christians in Rome had some heart issues that required serious attention.

On the flip side of the command to the stronger brother is a command to the weaker brother. This command is just as firm but one that is almost entirely neglected by modern leaders addressing this subject. Paul explicitly commands the weaker brother not to judge the brother that partakes in eating meat. For some reason, the stronger brother is usually the only one spoken to when this subject comes up in our churches. The stronger brothers are scolded not to offend their weaker counterparts out of Christian love and sensitivity. But the weaker are never corrected or rebuked for ignoring the Biblical mandate. This seems a bit odd to me. The point is that however one interprets this text, it must be in a manner that is consistent with both of these commands. It is my contention that contemporary approaches to this subject in general are inconsistent in how they handle this text. I hope to demonstrate why I think this to the case in much more detail later in this paper.

Paul spends the next 10 verses making his case against both the practice of the stronger brother looking down with contempt on the weaker brother and the weaker brother judging the stronger brother. Who are you to pass judgment? says Paul. Each Christian, every believer will give an account to His Lord personally for his behavior, and more importantly, the motives for his behavior. If I esteem the Sabbath above other days and determine to observe that day differently, my motivation as a believer should be to honor God in my behavior. But the same is true for the brother who does not see the Sabbath that way. The things he does on that day and every day ought to be for the sake of God’s glory! How dare we set standards for each other that God himself has not put into place! After all, we belong to God. And if God has received us, how dare we not receive one another! But that is exactly the issue in the Roman Church. Paul can tolerate diverse practices, which do not violate any biblical or moral norm, as long as they are motivated by the glory of God.[27] Paul concludes this section by reminding the Roman Christians that each of us will give an account for himself to God. After this reminder, Paul reinforces his point: Therefore, let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.[28] We see instructions for the weaker brother and the stronger in this verse. Bother are prohibited from judging one another and the strong are also prohibited from engaging in behavior that would cause the weaker brother to stumble. It is here that the misunderstanding arises.

What does Paul mean by his use of words stumbling block and hindrance? The Greek words are proskomma and scandalon respectively. The word stumbling block means an opportunity to experience inward pain, to make a misstep, a cause for offense. The idea of offense here is not the way we think of it in modern vernacular. We think of offense as something that offends. In other words, we read into this word the idea of something that upsets us, or annoys us. We are offended that someone may say something negative about our political party, or our denomination. For example, to say that marriage is solely between a man and a woman is offensive to modern liberals. Reading this meaning into the word is clearly anachronistic. The offense spoken about here is the offense of action in that the weaker brother is potentially pressured to act or behave a way that will inevitably produce inward pain. The behavior of the strong is being hoisted upon the weak who are not ready. The pain is not the annoyance that we think about when someone offends us. It is the pain of personal, inward guilt. The Jewish believer is not yet ready to give up his practice of the ritual aspects of the law. He is immature and weak. But the behavior of the strong, eating meat and worse, looking down on him for abstention from eating meat is creating a scenario where the weaker are giving in to peer pressure from the group, and consuming the meat before their conscience is convinced that they can do so, and as a result, this leads to regret. Indeed, it may even be necessary for the “strong” to abstain from all meat and wine for the sake of the “weak” (v. 21). The peril for the “weak” is that they will condemn themselves (v. 23) when they eat (φάγῃ, phagē).[29] It is now becoming easier to see how one may interpret this passage without running into logical difficulties and contradictions. It makes very little sense for Paul to command the weaker brother not to judge the strong for eating or drinking while at the same time telling the strong they should refrain from eating and leaving it there. The issue is the pressure that is being brought to bear within a specific set of circumstances. And those circumstances are very probably the fellowship meal.

The weak in faith will be grievously hurt, he will have the integrity of his faith (i.e., faith in its deepest sense of fides qua) and obedience destroyed, and his salvation put at risk, if he is led by his strong fellow-Christian’s insistence on exercising the liberty which he (the strong Christian) truly has, into doing something for which he as yet does not possess the inward liberty.[30]

The issue here is not the fact that the stronger brother is doing something that leads to the weaker brother sinfully judging a fellow believer (even though that is true enough). The issue is the damage that is being done to the weaker brother’s conscience. It is the pain that results from behavior that the weaker brother still thinks is forbidden. “Stumbling block” translates a word that refers to that which causes a person to trip or stumble. The word took on a metaphorical sense and is always used in the NT with reference to a spiritual downfall. Similar is the origin and use of skandalon, “cause of offense.”[31] The nuance is seen in the definition. It is not that one is offended, but rather something that has caused them to offend, if even in their own mind. They have engaged in behavior that they were not spiritually or mentally ready to engage in. For the Jew, this would have been a very serious offense. The injury to their conscience is very difficult for modern readers to comprehend. Paul considers such a tragedy to be so serious that he informs the strong that this sort of practice is unloving and hateful toward one’s own brother. The rebuke is sharp because the violation is profound and the wound, deep.

In fact, the injury to the weaker brother that was so concerning was potentially eternal in nature. Thus, the grief inflicted on the weak is not merely a general feeling of sorrow or injury. The grief causes one to go astray in the faith and experience ruin.[32] The issue here is that weaker brothers stumbling into apostasy over this matter and suffering eternal ruin as a result according to Schreiner.

We come to verses 21-23. Paul has begun this pericope by demanding that the stronger brothers receive the weaker brothers without arguing and contending with them over the eating of meat. Clearly, the stronger were making demands on the weaker to participate in something they were not prepared to do. It seems reasonable that the event was the fellowship meal. It seems that some of the weaker brothers were refraining but not without creating an uproar of sorts. Some of the weaker brothers were participating in violation of their conscience. The weak that participated were injuring their conscience and those who were not were judging those who were. The strong were looking down on and pressuring the weak to engage in full-participating. This seems to be the most reasonable scenario in the Roman Church at the time of Paul’s letter.

Paul closes his instructions with three observations: 1) It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes another to engage in behavior that violates their own conscience; 2) If you have faith that you can eat meat, fine. Keep that between you and God and do not use your freedom to manipulate others who are not ready to advance to your position quite yet; 3) If you are not convinced that you can eat meat without sinning, then you should refrain until you are convinced that it is not wrong.

In summary then the following inferences may be draw from Romans 14. The pericope is not a general set of guidelines for “gray area” issues as is so often the claim. The setting for the text concerned a very specific community with very specific practices in a very specific scenario. The weaker brothers here are Jewish converts to Christianity. These converts are young in their walk with Christ living in the very early stages of Christianity. The relationship between Christianity and Judaism is quite strong. The Christians and the Jews shared the same Bible. The truths of Christianity are coming from the same source as the one used by the Jews. This is a time of transition. The exegete will ignore this setting to his own peril. The Jewish converts have a legitimate starting point for their refusal to eat meat in Rome. That starting point is the same one used in their new-found faith. To their situation the Gentile converts must surely be both sympathetic and sensitive. After all, they only wish to honor God with all their being. The same holds true for the Jewish converts. They must resist the desire to bring the Gentiles under the law. Acts 15 and the book of Galatians speak to this issue very clearly. A unity within the diversity of this Roman Church is what Paul is after. He does not intend to leave the Jewish converts wallowing in their immaturity nor does he wish to embolden the Gentiles who are already struggling with these sinful tendencies themselves. At the fellowship meal, there should be accommodation for the weaker brother, even if it means total abstention from meat and wine. That is, not only should the stronger brother not look down on the Jewish brothers, and not only should he not manipulate him to participate, he should be willing to refrain from including meat in the dinner until the Jewish brothers reach a better place. That is what it means to love your brother and to avoid placing a stumbling block in front of him.

1 Corinthians 8-10: A Short Excursus

It is also worth looking at 1 Cor. 8:8-13 before moving on to look at church history on this subject. Paul made essentially the very point to the Corinthians that he was making to the Romans in 1 Cor. 8:8-13:

8 Food will not commend us to God. We are no worse off if we do not eat, and no better off if we do. 9 But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. 10 For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? 11 And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. 12 Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. 13 Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.[33]

Clearly Paul is dealing with an issue not dissimilar to the one he dealt with in Romans. And in this case, the stumbling is without question that which leads to a brother actually engaging in a practice rather than that with which a brother disagrees. The brother is enticed to actually eat food offered to idols, something his weak conscience is not yet ready to do. And in so doing, the weak person is destroyed. It should not be missed that Paul quickly points out once again that this brother belongs to Christ. This brother “for whom Christ died” reminds us of the statement in Romans 14:15, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. It seems to me to be impossible to miss the connection between the two pericopes. Paul picks back up on this theme in 1 Cor. 10:29-31 where it closes it out by saying the following: I do not mean your conscience, but his. For why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience? If I partake with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of that for which I give thanks? So, whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God. Paul instructs the believer to eat whatever is set before them if they happen to be dining in the home of an unbeliever. But if the unbeliever boasts that the meat has been offered to one of the gods, then the Christian should refrain. He should not refrain for his own conscience sake but in order to make sure the unbeliever understands that Christians serve God through Christ exclusively and no others. It was critically important to testify to the monotheism of Christianity in such a polytheistic culture. Then Paul asks a very interesting question: “why should my liberty be determined by someone else’s conscience?” This points to the fact that Paul’s focus is quite narrow here. The setting is the home of an unbeliever who is involved in the worship of false gods and part of that devotion is the consumption of meat that had been offered to those gods. In other words, the meal itself becomes an act of worship to the gods. In that situation, the Christian is wise to refuse to eat the meat. But this does not mean that the Christian is under some general obligation not to attend the dinner at this unbeliever’s house on the ground that other Christians will know that he is going there and that he will eat meat offered to idols and that they do not think this is proper. Paul never makes such an argument either in Romans 14, or in 1 Corinthians 8, 10. If it is food that they can give thanks to God for, then it is permissible. He does not envision that libelous charges will be circulated by others because they ate in an unbeliever’s home. He means, “Why should anyone denounce such behavior by a Christian who genuinely gives thanks for this food and has no intentional connection with idolatry?”[34] Fee comments, “Instead, the idea of another person’s conscience as limiting the freedom on matters such as these where God cares not in the least whether one eats or doesn’t eat, suddenly causes Paul to burst out in rhetoric against his own accusers.”[35] Those who rush to judgment on the issue of alcoholic beverages would do well to spend a lot more time grappling with these three chapters.

Alcohol in Church History

I can think of no better case study for the weaker brother principle than the modern example of alcohol consumption. Christians have been given a number of arguments, in American culture anyways, regarding the Bible’s teachings on the subject of drinking wine or beer or anything with alcohol in it. We have heard that Christians are prohibited from drinking anything with alcohol in it. And in cases where the argument is not quite that harsh, we hear that it is wise for Christians to refrain from drinking alcoholic beverages. Finally, if we are told that it is not a sin, and that there is nothing wrong with it, we are told that we should not have a glass of wine or a beer for the sake of other Christians who think that it is a sin and if we love them we ought to be sensitive to their beliefs. This last statement is the most popular form of the modern use of the weaker brother principle. One of the aims of this project is to survey the history of alcohol consumption in the church in an attempt to determine just how deep the roots of this prohibition really are.

Likewise, when you open a jar of wine or oil, take the firstfruits and give them to the prophets.[36] The ancient Christian document known as the Didache instructs Christians to give of their wine and oil to the prophets. There is no hint of a prohibition against the use of wine in this ancient document. Clement writes, For the temperate drinker, one wine suffices, the product of the cultivation of the one God.[37] Clement goes on to speak of the partaking of wine as something as natural as being a man: In what manner do you think the Lord drank when He became man for our sakes? As shamelessly as we? Was it not with decorum and propriety? Was it not deliberately? For rest assured, He Himself also partook of wine; for He, too, was man.[38] Chrysostom makes a very sobering argument that points out how the slippery slope actually works:

And what great madness is this? What? did the wine, O man, produce this evil? Not the wine, but the intemperance of such as take an evil delight in it. Say then, “Would there were no drunkenness, no luxury;” but if thou say, “Would there were no wine,” thou wilt say, going on by degrees, “Would there were no steel, because of the murderers; no night, because of the thieves; no light, because of the informers; no women, because of adulteries;” and, in a word, thou wilt destroy all.[39]

It isn’t the gun that kills people, it is people who kill people. Chrysostom’s point is very well stated. The sin of drunkenness is not in the luxury of wine any more than the sin of adultery is in the luxury of a female. The sin is in an attitude of intemperance. As one moves into the Medieval period the situation does not change. It is a documented fact of church history that the monasteries mastered the brewing of beer and used the proceeds of those skills to fund church and charity alike. Of course, the drink became common among the clergy as the monks mastered brewing.

The great Catholic scholar Thomas Aquinas gives us his beliefs on alcohol in his Summa Theologica: I answer that, No meat or drink, considered in itself, is unlawful, according to Matth. 15:11, Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man. Wherefore it is not unlawful to drink wine as such.[40] Aquinas goes on to warn that alcohol can lead to unwise choices and can even be wrong in certain circumstances, pointing to Romans 14 as an example. But it is clear that Aquinas did not believe it was wrong to drink wine simply because it was an alcoholic beverage.

There is no question or disputing the fact that the great reformers openly drank wine and beer without reservation but not without wisdom. Both Martin Luther and John Calvin are clear regarding their views. Luther once said he drank freely to spite the devil. Calvin made the same public remarks about the use of wine. Calvin comments on Ps. 104:15, “Nature would certainly be satisfied with water to drink; and therefore the addition of wine is owing to God’s superabundant liberality.[41].” It is also well documented that other reformers like John Knox and Ulrich Zwingli had favorable views toward the use of alcohol.

As we move to trough the centuries to America, we find that the earliest Christians arriving in America had no problem with wine, beer, or even brandy. Francis Higginson recorded that he had brought with him 1200 gallons of beer, and 20 gallons of brandy. The Puritans were equally very comfortable with the consumption of alcohol. Puritan Minister Cotton Mather is said to have complimented the owner of one ale house for engaging in what he considered to be an honest trade and believing that the town will benefit considerably. This indicates that even though the Puritans were famed for their strict piety, abstinence from alcohol was not an item that made their list.

The final item that merits mention in terms of the history of alcohol must consider the prohibition movement. The prohibition movement had its origins in the 18th century perfectionist revivalism that led to the temperance movement. In fact, the movement was driven by Baptist and Methodist women whose lives have been negatively affected by their husbands frequenting the saloons. This was known as the Women’s Christian Temperance Movement. This also produced the Anti-Saloon League. What all this means is that the anti-alcohol attitude of some Christians today is relatively new in the history of Christianity. For 1800 years, this attitude did not exist.

Closing Remarks

The question around the weaker brother principle then becomes, how does this principle apply to us today? Can this text serve as the basis for a generic anything-goes weaker brother argument? I do not think it can. Indeed, it is difficult to find a parallel to the Roman scenario in American culture. The first criteria that has to be meet I think is that the behavior has to have a legitimate grounding. It seems highly unreasonable to think that Paul would have considered anything goes as a candidate for the weaker-brother principle. The only legitimate grounding I can think of is Scripture. That both the weaker and stronger brothers had a common source for their belief should not be overlooked. Can this be applied to the abstinence of alcohol? I don’t think it can. Schreiner remarks, “When we think of applying this text to contemporary situations, we must be careful that we have understood the Pauline context. There is not an exact parallel for those who abstain from alcoholic beverages since such abstinence is not rooted in ritual considerations (so Moo 1996: 881)”[42] He goes on to say that Sabbath observance gets us a little closer because there is a ritual basis, for that practice after all, is rooted in Scripture. Moo drives this point home, “Only, therefore, where the contemporary Christian is convinced that his drinking (or eating meat) might lead another to drink (or eat meat) in violation of his conscience is Paul’s advice truly applicable to the matter of alcohol.”[43] And even this point is not beyond dispute as has been argued above.

In closing then, there is no parallel between what we mean by offend and what Paul meant by offend in Romans and 1 Corinthians. When we read these texts, we must understand that to cause our brother offense or stumble means to cause our brother to engage in a behavior his conscience still considers sinful. Moreover, the modern attitude of the prohibition against wine was completely missing in the ancient culture.

  1. Eugene H. Merrill, Mark F. Rooker, and Michael A. Grisanti, The World and the Word: An Introduction to the Old Testament (Nashville, Tenn.: B&H Academic, 2011), 64.
  2. Van Til, Cornelius. The Defense of the Faith. Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Pub. Co., 1985, 105.
  3. Kenneth L. Gentry, God Gave Wine: What the Bible Says About Alcohol (Lincoln, Calif.: Oakdown, ©2001), 3.
  4. Ibid., 35.
  5. Willem VanGemeren, ed., New International Dictionary of Old Testament Theology & Exegesis (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 1997), 439.
  6. Burton Scott Easton, “Wine, Wine Press,” ed. James Orr et al., The International Standard Bible Encyclopaedia (Chicago: The Howard-Severance Company, 1915), 3086.
  7. Kenneth L. Gentry, God Gave Wine: What the Bible Says About Alcohol (Lincoln, Calif.: Oakdown, ©2001), 64-65.
  8. See the New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology and Exegesis.
  9. Henry George Liddell et al., A Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996), 1207.
  10. Jacob Neusner, Alan J. Avery-Peck, and William Scott Green, eds., The Encyclopedia of Judaism (Leiden; Boston; Köln: Brill, 2000), 1062.
  11. Gary M. Burge, Gene L. Green, and Lynn H. Cohick, The New Testament in Antiquity (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, ©2009), 325.
  12. Andreas J. Köstenberger, L Scott Kellum, and Charles L. Quarles, The Cradle, the Cross, and the Crown: An Introduction to the New Testament (Nashville, Tenn.: B & H Academic, ©2009), 519.
  13. Christopher H. Partridge and Tim Dowley, Introduction to World Religions, second ed. (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2013), 110.
  14. Ibid., 525
  15. D A. Carson and Douglas J. Moo, An Introduction to the New Testament, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, ©2005), 407.
  16. Ibid.
  17. Clinton E. Arnold, Zondervan Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary: Romans to Philemon., vol. 3 (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2002), 83.
  18. Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, vol. 6, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998), 708.
  19. Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary On the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., ©1996), 827.
  20. Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, vol. 6, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998), 706.
  21. Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, vol. 6, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998), 712.
  22. Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary On the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., ©1996), 831.
  23. C E B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary On the Epistle to the Romans, The International Critical Commentary On the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments (London: T & T Clark International, 2004), 696-97.
  24. The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Da 1:8.
  25. The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Ro 14:3.
  26. Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, vol. 6, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998), 720.
  27. The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), Ro 14:13.
  28. Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, vol. 6, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998), 729.
  29. C E B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary On the Epistle to the Romans, The International Critical Commentary On the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments (London: T & T Clark International, 2004), 714.
  30. Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary On the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., ©1996), 851.
  31. Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, vol. 6, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998), 734.
  32. The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton: Standard Bible Society, 2016), 1 Co 8:8–13.
  33. David E. Garland, 1 Corinthians, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2003), 500.
  34. Gordon D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, The New International Commentary On the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans, o 1987), 487.
  35. Kurt Niederwimmer and Harold W. Attridge, The Didache: A Commentary, Hermeneia—a Critical and Historical Commentary on the Bible (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1998), 191.
  36. Clement of Alexandria, “The Instructor,” in Fathers of the Second Century: Hermas, Tatian, Athenagoras, Theophilus, and Clement of Alexandria (Entire), ed. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe, vol. 2, The Ante-Nicene Fathers (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Company, 1885), 245.
  37. Ibid., 246.
  38. John Chrysostom, “Homilies of St. John Chrysostom, Archbishop of Constantinople on the Gospel according to St. Matthew,” in Saint Chrysostom: Homilies on the Gospel of Saint Matthew, ed. Philip Schaff, trans. George Prevost and M. B. Riddle, vol. 10, A Select Library of the Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church, First Series (New York: Christian Literature Company, 1888), 356.
  39. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, trans. Fathers of the English Dominican Province (London: Burns Oates & Washbourne, n.d.).
  40. John Calvin and James Anderson, Commentary on the Book of Psalms, vol. 4 (Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software, 2010), 155.
  41. Thomas R. Schreiner, Romans, vol. 6, Baker Exegetical Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 1998), 736.
  42. Douglas J. Moo, The Epistle to the Romans, The New International Commentary On the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., ©1996), 88 1.

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