“All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient” (I Cor. 6:12). By “all things” Paul certainly does not mean all things absolutely, without exception. For from the preceding context we learn plainly that idolatry, coveting, drunkenness and extortion are unlawful, thoroughly condemned. In the context following we learn that fornication is not one of the lawful things. Paul is not speaking of anything which is forbidden by the Word of God, for every divine prohibition is inflexibly unlawful. Nor is Paul speaking of anything commanded by the Word of God. For he is not stating the obvious. He is not telling us that things commanded are lawful. He speaks of things neither commanded nor forbidden — so called indifferent things — not matters of specific requirement or forbiddance.
The so called indifferent things, such as eating and drinking of certain foods, are neither, in themselves, good nor bad. “Meat commendeth us not to God: for neither, if we eat, are we the better: neither, if we eat not, are we the worse” (I Cor. 8:8). Such a thing may be right or wrong, depending on the motive for doing it and the circumstances. The plowing of the wicked is sin; and the eating and drinking of the righteous is not without sin, as Job’s concern for his children’s eating and drinking shows (1:5). Therefore, eating itself or what we eat is not always a matter of indifference. The eating of meat which has been offered to idols is something indifferent, but an indifferent thing can become wrong, as when by eating of such meat a weak Christian brother is offended, or is himself emboldened to eat against his conscience.
It is therefore lawful to eat meat which has been offered to an idol. The Christian has liberty to do so, if he desires, but not if doing so would offend (lead others to think he condones idolatry) or cause others to offend (trample the weak conscience of unenlightened believers). But no one has the right to pronounce it unlawful to eat meat which has been offered to idols. No one has the right to declare that unlawful which is not prohibited by the Word of God. It is not a sin to be circumcised, to eat meat, to have two cars, or two coats. To think so is to show a weak faith. It is to be weak in faith to impose one’s opinions of right and wrong relative to so called indifferent things upon others. The weak brother insists that it is wrong under any circumstances to eat that meat offered to idols. To him it is wrong not to observe Maundy Thursday, Palm Sunday and Flag Day. He is the weak brother because his conscience is weak (I Cor. 8:12), as he regards even a moderate use of temporal things as sinful. He lacks the liberty in Christ of the strong Christian. He does not appreciate the fact that he has liberty in the matter of things indifferent. He does not have the assurance and clear conscience of the strong in the faith. He may not only entirely abstain from meat, but he may regard it as wrong for anyone to eat meat (Rom. 14:2). He may suppose it a lack of faith for himself or anyone to have life insurance or keep a bank account. When it comes to matters not specifically commanded nor prohibited in Scripture, but matters left to the sanctified judgment and desires of each individual Christian, he is as hazy as a man walking in a fog-laden field full of fox holes. He is a Mr. Ready-to-halt. He is not yet strong enough to see that relative to material things, sin is not in things, nor in places. He does not know the full meaning of “nothing is unclean of itself” and “all things indeed are pure” (Rom. 14:14, 20). Part of his weakness is the fact that he does not recognize his weakness. It will then be difficult for anyone to get him to put away obstinate prejudices and to examine with an open mind the reasons for differences among brethren. To him it is not a matter of liberty in indifferent things what doctor you go to or what medicine you take. You gravely err in not taking his advice or following his practices in such matters. Or it may be that he regards the strong as weak for ever having anything to do with doctors and medicine. Such a brother is not apt to be willing to receive instruction and enlightenment in these matters of Christian liberty. Nor will he be very ready to retract former opinions and practices proven to be erroneous.
Nevertheless, “Him that is weak in the faith receive ye” (Rom. 14:1). The Christian who is weak as to the faith is to be received into the communion of the saints. He may not be excluded because of his weakness. This does not mean that his reception will have the effect of making the weakness of the weak the standard for the church. That is an error into which we need never fall. A weak swimmer becomes strong by swimming with strong swimmers. The strong must welcome Him among their number and not make him feel like two cents because of his weakness. To “receive” him does not mean that he be officially recognized by the consistory as a communicant member, nor that he be allowed to “join the church,” for reception into the church is realized by “the Son of God who gathers to Himself by His Spirit and Word a church chosen to everlasting life.” But it means to give him recognition as a brother in Christ, to pray with and for him, to bear patiently with his weaknesses, to give him spiritual instruction, to endeavor to edify him in the faith and to strengthen him in his weak points. This is particularly the duty of the strong toward the less instructed who have lesser liberty of conscience than others.
The reception of the weak is to be done “not to doubtful disputations,” i.e., not to the deciding of his doubts. Don’t receive a weak brother by pressing him to adopt opinions and practices which his conscience condemns. Do not try to induce him to agree to a point, or to adopt a view, when he has no enlightened conviction about it. Give him time to decide his own doubts. It is not polite Christianity for the strong to carry on a conversation among themselves in his presence on topics of which he is ignorant without kindly drawing him into the discussion and explaining briefly salient points and main issues. The weak must be led into more adequate views of the truth in Christ. But to accomplish such a pleasant task we must avoid unpleasant disputations over the points wherein he is weak. He is not to be pushed into liberty faster than he is taught by the Word and Spirit or he will stumble and injure himself, rather than grow stronger. The weak brother needs something more than arguments. He must learn to appreciate a few basic facts before he can appreciate the interpretation of the facts. But this is not likely to happen by arguing him into a conviction against his conscience! The indifferent things, the adiaphora, as they are called, are for the strong believer lawful. But the weak who do not have a more enlightened faith, and hence not a freer conscience, cannot act on this principle, and therefore should not be encouraged to do so.
On the other hand, since our criterion is not the weakness of the weak, he is not to be permitted to pester his stronger brethren by attempting to impose his views on them. For many of the weak seem to think that if their fellow Christians refuse to live by their rules, that they are guilty of acting without love, or are causing others to stumble. It is lawful for us to run a “News from Our Churches” feature in our Reformed bimonthly even though some may feel it is out of place, it publicizes trivia, or encourages love of the lime-light. We have the right to publish lists of contributors, though some, overly scrupulous, might object to the practice. We are not bound to refrain from such usages out of deference to a so called “conscientious objector,” because by them no real offence occurs. One religious sect deems is sinful to make use of the auto and other modern conveniences. Another considers it wrong for a Christian man to shave (the writer envies their custom of beard growing). Many regard it sinful to use wine in the Lord’s Supper. One denomination believes that there is no baptism unless it is performed by trine immersion. The weak, then, are they who condemn those who decline to conform to their pet ideas. Where God’s law commands we are bound, and allowed no liberty (except that the law itself is the perfect law of liberty). Where Scripture does not command, the church has no right to command. Where God has never forbidden total abstinence is not required. If some people wish to deprive themselves of some of the things that God has given us richly to enjoy, they have that right; but they have no right to demand that others adopt their austerities. It is not lawful to hamper or attack the liberty of any Christian.
It is for every Christian to “give none offence, neither to the Jews, nor to the Gentiles, not to the church of God” (l Cor. J0:32). How difficult this — to avoid offending anyone! It would seem that we are certain to offend some one, for who can please everybody! But we must distinguish between our giving offence and men’s taking offense. We ought to so live and minister that we give no offense. If men take offense at what is objectively inoffensive, that is no fault of ours. If I be invited to speak before an Arminian group, I know that offense probably would be taken at my discoursing on unconditional election, but must I for that reason avoid such a topic? It is not the truth, nor the speaking of the truth in love, which gives offense; it is rather that despite the truth, and the love in which it is presented, men will unwarrantably take offense at it. That we cannot help. There is no liberty to compromise.
“Receive him who is weak in the faith.” This injunction requires our distinguishing between those who are weak in the faith and those who are enemies to the faith. We are to welcome to our fellowship the former and withdraw from the latter. Tea and coffee abstainers may very well be our brethren. But not so vegetarian Seventh Day Adventists. European Christians who out of custom drink wine are of the same spiritual body of Christ as we. Bacchanalians have no part nor lot in that body. Men who believe that salvation is of the Lord, by grace through faith, plus nothing of man, we must recognize and encourage. Others, who “seek their salvation and welfare of saints, of themselves, or anywhere else” than in the name of Jesus Christ, we must beware of and avoid. It requires that we bear with the mistakes of our brethren, their infirmities, and to take into consideration their faulty education, their partial training, their long residence in error. It requires that the strong do not make their views the standard of the church. Nor to dictatorially insist as certain which appears to others very doubtful. We cannot expect all men to see as we see. Nor ought we to expect new converts or less enlightened Christians to learn what is to them new truth overnight, nor expect them immediately to agree to all the great detail of truth which we have been studying and loving for years. There must be neither, by overindulgence of the weak, the ousting of liberty by love, nor, by our greater strength, the oppression of the weak. We must adapt ourselves to the smaller capacities of others, consider what they are able to receive, put our doctrines in a form simple enough for them to grasp, and lead them to advance as far as they are able to go. Nor should it be difficult to receive and have fellowship with those who have been received by the Lord, and who enjoy the glory of His presence. Our purpose in such an association should be the seeking of an opportunity to testify to them the Reformed truth that “others may be gained to Christ” and become more firmly entrenched in His cause.