Saturday, May 30, 2009

On Offending the Weak

In recent days Fr. Beane has masterfully recast the issue of the weaker brother, and demonstrated that the "weaker brother" is often a bully in disguise (see here, here and here. His essays follow an argument which arose when Fr. Petersen offered advice to new pastors on how to introduce catholic ceremonies(here).

The controversy has reminded me of the origin of the "weaker brother" concept. It comes from St. Paul: "To the weak became I as weak, that I might gain the weak: I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some" (I Corinthians 9:22). We Gottesdienst editors agree that St. Paul did not say, "to the strong I became as strong," and hence Fr. Beane's rejoinder is very helpful.

Not only so, but I am reminded of St. Paul's own example in a matter which in itself would have to be considered an adiaphoron, namely the question of circumcision. The Apostle circumcised Timothy "because of the Jews" who were in the place to which they were about to go, "for they knew all that his father was a Greek" (Acts 16). On the other hand Titus, who was himself a Greek, he did not compel to be circumcised (Galatians 2).

What accounts for this difference? Context: In the case of Titus, they were headed for Jerusalem, land of the Jews, and in the case of Timothy, for Derbe and Lystra, the land of the Gentiles. Thus we find that in both cases, Paul did the 'offensive' things. The uncircumcised Titus was an offense to the Jews who insisted upon circumcision, while the circumcised Timothy was an offense to the Greeks who were inclined to reject Moses altogether.

The evidence here provides a compelling case: St. Paul's counsel against offending the weak should not be interpreted as a willingness to lay off, when Christian customs came into conflict with prevailing paganism, or judaism. On the contrary, he seems to have been eager to confess the Gospel by means of laying an offense in the path of unbelief.

His attack on "circumcision" in Galatians shows a willingness to confront the unbelief of the Jews, and yet his circumcising of Timothy shows a willingness to confront the paganism of the Gentiles.


  1. Interesting observation, Pastor Eckardt. Good point and nicely stated.

  2. It would seem to rule out what some have called, admittedly in jest, the "Weaker Brother Gambit"...

  3. "Thus we find that in both cases, Paul did the 'offensive' things. The uncircumcised Titus was an offense to the Jews who insisted upon circumcision, while the circumcised Timothy was an offense to the Greeks who were inclined to reject Moses altogether."I don't see how the conclusion follows from the evidence of the text. Luke explicitly tells us that Paul circumcised Timothy "because of the Jews who lived in that area" (Acts 16:3) not because of the Gentiles in the area to which they were heading.

    Another explanation would be that circumcision would grant Timothy access to the synagogues. In Galatians 2, Paul is making an argument from precedent that the Jerusalem church did not compel Titus to be circumcised in spite of clamorings by the "false brethren."

    So it would seem that in the case of Timothy, Paul was going out of his way not to offend the Jews on the principle of love, but in the case of Titus, he would not relent under pressure from the legalists on the principle of the Gospel (Gal 2:5).

  4. Pastor Cwirla,

    I have wondered about this possibility as well, and I think your interpretation has merit, especially due to the fact that the Jews in the area were aware that Timothy's father was a Greek.

    On the other hand this is a land of Gentiles, and Timothy was already well spoken of among "the brethren" there, so it seems unlikely that Paul would have needed to circumcise him out of love for them.

    More likely, it seems to me, is the necessity that Paul affirm that the Torah is the Word of God, among the Gentiles who were not given to accepting any of it.

    But admittedly the passage itself is a bit of a mystery.

  5. Good points, but I thought the "weaker brother" issue was from Romans 14. I see 1 Cor. 9:22 used more as a do whatever you want for the sake of evangelism excuse.

  6. Ryan,

    You're right, Romans 14 is another sedes regarding the weaker brother: "If thy brother be grieved with thy meat, now walkest thou not charitably. Destroy not him with meat, for whom Christ died" (v15).

    As you are probably aware, this passage is also often abused, as it happens. As I understand it, the meat referred to here is meat sacrificed to idols, a point often missed when the passage is generally used in support of refraining from practices anyone might consider offensive for any reason.

  7. Actually, "Carol" was me, signed in under my wife's name.


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