One of the most common objections to allowing expletives into Christian fiction is that of potentially “stumbling weaker brothers.” The argument is based off of two sections of Scripture: I Cor. 8: 9-11 and Romans 14:13-23. It usually goes something like this:
Everyone is not at the same level of spiritual maturity. Those who are more mature and can handle more things should not allow their liberty – in this case, tolerance for or use of expletives – to offend those less mature in the faith.
My recent post Thank You, Bethany House Publishers and a spin-off article at Novel Rocket by Sally Apokedak, Realistic Christian Behavior, both addressed the inclusion of “vulgar” language and expletives in Christian fiction. Each post received a lot of comments and the aforementioned objection was, indeed, brought up. The following comment on Sally’s post is representative of those who seek to keep Christian fiction “clean”:
I think some of us feel this is a major issue at stake. When SOME vulgar language is let in the door (of Bethany House, no less!), who’s going to say “that’s enough!” Better to object to something offensive at the onset, than to complain when the words slipping into the CBA are progressively more offensive to many of our Christian brothers/sisters. (emphasis mine)
This commenter is hardly alone. But is it right to object to allowing some vulgar language into the CBA on the grounds that it might be “offensive to many of our [weaker] Christian brothers/sisters”?
In a fine essay entitled The Tyranny of the Weaker Brother, the author exegetes Romans 14 and concludes that the Apostle Paul’s concern is to
“…protect Christian liberty in both directions, liberty to partake and liberty to abstain. This protects the stronger brother from the tyranny of the weaker, and as well diligently warns the stronger brother not to ignore the weakness of the weaker brother and draw him into behavior that is contrary to his conscience.”
The author rightly argues that liberty is a two-way street: liberty to partake and liberty to abstain. And both freedoms must be protected. However, the goal of the “weaker brother” defense is not to protect the spiritual freedom of both parties, but to impose only theirs.
In the case of the use (or abuse) of spiritual freedom, we often (mistakenly) portray the more mature individual as the one with the “power.” Not only can they partake of questionable elements with a pure conscience, they can potentially offend or confuse those who don’t share such liberties. This is a legitimate concern. However, in doing so, we often fail to acknowledge the equally destructive power of the “weaker” party. By decrying an action on the grounds of being offended, the weaker brother wields a sort of “tyranny.” Anything they deem offensive can be demonized. So if someone is offended by women wearing makeup, we must comply and ban makeup (or at least not wear it in mixed company). If someone is offended by dancing, drinking, going to the movies, or gambling, we must enact rules to keep from stumbling “the weaker brother.” But if the guiding principle is to “Avoid whatever offends someone else,” then we become prisoners to each others consciences.
The prescription given by Scripture is twofold: Love and Grow. We must love people where they’re at, respect their conscience, and seek to maintain the bonds of peace. This is foremost. But we must also serve to help each other grow. In fact, inherent in the “weaker brother” defense is the implication that they still need to grow.
Weaker brothers must become stronger brothers. Remaining weak — much less defending ones right to remain so — is equivalent to permanent adolescence.
Thus, our goal in this conversation mustn’t simply be to not offend “weaker brothers,” but to help them mature. And in this case, maturing means getting beyond being offended.
John MacArthur, in discussing Romans 14 and the issue of liberty and conscience, suggests that part of Serving Christians Who Are Needlessly Restrictive is to slowly re-educate their conscience. (Note: the following quote is a paraphrase taken by an attendee during a Q&A session at the 2007 Shepherd’s Conference):
“When it comes into the Christian realm, you have a dilemma between re-informing them [and] at the same time that you don’t train them to ignore their conscience or after they’re re-informed, they’re gonna be used to doing what their conscience tells them. That’s why Paul is so clear on that at the end of Romans. . . . You can’t train people to ignore conscience. You have to take the long-term approach to re-inform the conscience.”
Part of loving the “weaker brother” is to “re-inform [their] conscience.” Allowing other Christians to remain hyper-sensitive to others freedoms or preferences is unloving. The short-term approach — the approach taken by many in the Christian fiction industry — is to avoid doing or saying anything that offends them. The “long-term approach,” the more loving approach, is to help them grow out of this “tyranny.”
It can (and I’m sure does) appear to many that I am arguing FOR cuss words in Christian fiction. I’d like to think I’m aiming for something much more altruistic: Christian maturity.
If you are stumbled by certain things, then by all means avoid them. You might personally dislike cussing, dancing, smoking, or gambling. That is totally within your right to do so. What you must grow out of, however, is being chronically offended by brothers who “partake” in such matters and, even worse, hold an entire industry hostage to your preferences.
And this is where the “weaker brother” defense breaks down. Not only is the Scripture misinterpreted to mean only deference to the weak, it is wielded as a means of bondage. In this sense, I’d agree with the commenter on Sally’s post that “this is a major issue at stake.”
Rather than “protect Christian liberty in both directions,” the Christian fiction industry is in danger of caving to “the tyranny of the weaker brother.” For the moment we say “this will offend them” or “that will stumble them” and adjust our fiction accordingly, we normalize a specific cultural preference or moral sensibility. Christian liberty must exist in both directions, not just toward those who advocate “clean fiction.”
“Weaker brothers” should become “stronger brothers.” The goal of the “weaker brother” defense, however, has no such aim.