What is a “weaker Christian”?

Several times in his letters, Paul explains how Christians should handle debatable matters—that is, areas of behavior that aren’t definitively addressed in Scripture. One example in his day was whether it was allowable for Christians to eat meat that had been used to worship idols and then later sold in local markets. Paul’s answer is a carefully nuanced, “Yes, it’s fine, but be very careful of weaker Christians.”

Who is he talking about? What exactly is a “weaker Christian”?

It’s important to realize that weaker Christians actually have a higher, more restrictive standard. The weaker Christians in Paul’s day were the ones who refrained from eating meat because they believed it was sinful. But it wasn’t their restrictive viewpoint that made them weak. Rather, it was their weakness that made them so restrictive.

As Paul explains it, they are weak in at least 4 areas. First, they are weak in knowledge, not fully informed about what the Bible says. The weaker Christians in Paul’s day didn’t realize that an idol was nothing (1 Cor 8:4-7). Second, they are weak in conscience, condemning themselves for something God does not (1 Cor 8:7). Third, they are weak in will, easily influenced to act contrary to the voice of their own (weak) conscience (1 Cor 8:10). And fourth, they are weak in faith, not fully convinced of the liberty they enjoy in Christ (Rom 14:1, 23).

Stronger Christians do not have these problems. They know what the Bible says, their conscience allows them the freedom to enjoy their liberty, they are not easily influenced to go beyond what they believe is right, and their faith is firm. Obviously, stronger is better, in this respect. That is why God puts the onus squarely on the strong Christians to make sure they don’t do anything that would cause a weaker Christian to stumble (Rom 14:20-21, 1 Cor 8:13).

What does that mean? Stronger Christians cause weaker ones to stumble when their actions influence weaker Christians to sin against their own conscience. In other words, you cause someone to stumble when your example emboldens them to do something they believe is wrong. This is not the same as when someone gets offended because you exercised your liberty in Christ. That would be “taking offense”; Paul is warning against “giving offense.” Weaker Christians are susceptible to the latter, so we must do all we can to avoid giving offense to them. Pharisees are susceptible to taking offense, and I’ll write more next week about how to handle them!