The Fork in the Road: Scruples, Part 1

[A couple of commenters have asked about scruples — how Paul’s teachings in Rom 14 teach us to deal with those with weaker or stronger faith. This and the next post are from 2 1/2 years ago.]

A friend in another town recently asked me about Paul’s instructions on the scruples of other Christians. It seems some brothers suggested to her that she should consider them the “weaker brother” described in Romans 14 and so refuse certain behaviors to avoid “offending” them.

Just so, many in the a cappella Churches of Christ are calling on the instrumental independent Christian Churches to give up the instrument for the sake of fellowship. They argue: shouldn’t you consider us the weaker brother and give up the instrument for the sake of our consciences?

Now, these arguments have been made in the Churches of Christ as long as I’ve been attending (that is, all 53 of my years). Rarely do they succeed in causing anyone to give up his freedom for the sake of the weaker brother. It’s not that we dispute the command. Rather, we just instinctively realize that this can’t be right. I mean, if these arguments have merit, then every single Church of Christ must yield to the scruples of the most conservative Church there is!

Freed Hardeman University had a debate on instrumental music last year between a Christian Church minister and an FHU professor. The FHU professor said, “Why don’t you just give up the instrument for the sake of fellowship?” The Christian Church minister responded, “Why don’t you give up Sunday School classes and go to a single cup for the sake of fellowship?” It’s a good question.

Paul’s writings on the subject do teach important doctrinal points that are binding today and that we often ignore. So we need to take a fresh look at this part of Romans 14.

(Rom 14:13-23) Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way. 14 As one who is in the Lord Jesus, I am fully convinced that no food is unclean in itself. But if anyone regards something as unclean, then for him it is unclean.

15 If your brother is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love. Do not by your eating destroy your brother for whom Christ died. 16 Do not allow what you consider good to be spoken of as evil.

17 For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit, 18 because anyone who serves Christ in this way is pleasing to God and approved by men. 19 Let us therefore make every effort to do what leads to peace and to mutual edification.

20 Do not destroy the work of God for the sake of food. All food is clean, but it is wrong for a man to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble. 21 It is better not to eat meat or drink wine or to do anything else that will cause your brother to fall.

22 So whatever you believe about these things keep between yourself and God. Blessed is the man who does not condemn himself by what he approves. 23 But the man who has doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and everything that does not come from faith is sin.

(In the KJV, v. 21 adds at the end “or is offended, or is made weak.” The NIV does not include these words. The oldest manuscripts omit these words, although the sense isn’t greatly changed.)


Verse 13 warns against placing an obstacle or stumbling block in the way of a brother. Verse 21 warns against causing your brother “to fall,” surely by tripping over an obstacle.

There’s little doubt as to the obstacles Paul has in mind. Verse 14 says food is unclean to someone who considers it unclean. Verse 23 say that eating with doubt “condemns” because the eating is not from faith, that is, is contrary to accepting Jesus as Lord.

Plainly, Paul’s thought is this. Suppose there are members of my church who believe it’s a sin to eat meat or to drink wine (v. 21). Now suppose that you invite that person to your home and the meal is meat and wine with no other drink offered. You’ve just imposed social pressure on your brother to sin. It’s not sin for you to eat and drink, but it is sin for him. And you sin by tempting him.

Consider a small group in someone’s home where wine is served and the more “progressive” members laugh at the scruples of the teetotaler. Again, it’s sin to be so insensitive, especially if you push someone to violate his conscience.

However, if a Christian drinks wine around his more conservative friends (or even most Baptists!) who are convicted that wine is sinful, he doesn’t likely tempt them to sin. They might sneer at him, but they won’t join in because he doesn’t have that kind of influence over them. Rather, Paul is speaking of peer pressure. Remember: the early church met in small groups (30 or less) in homes. If meat sacrificed to idols was served by the woman of the house, it could have been hard to say no, even if your conscience said it was wrong to participate.

Or imagine inviting a Christian child over to a pool party, knowing that the child has been taught “mixed bathing” is a sin. And yet you have boys and girls there and no way for the child to avoid sinning against his conscience other than to sit in the corner and be miserable. This is sin.

In my wife’s home congregation–a church of 50 in North Carolina–they had some no-Sunday School members. These Christians skipped classes and were treated with respect even though most small churches would look down on those who skip classes. Neither bound their scruples on the other–which is really the lesson of Romans 14.

Hence, Paul would say, if your congregation has a Messianic Jew who keeps kosher, don’t invite him for a BBQ without something else on the table he can eat and keep kosher. If you’re kosher, go to the party and don’t condemn those who eat pork. But do let your host know how they can provide you food you can eat in good conscience. DON’T have two parties. Don’t look down on each other. The last thing Paul would have wanted is a kosher congregation across the street from a non-kosher congregation!


Just so, if an eldership (or minister) wants to initiate a new practice at church, the membership must be forewarned and taught so they don’t find themselves encouraged to sin against their consciences–or leave! Teaching is always appropriate and likely the only way to completely overcome these kinds of issues.

We aren’t called to yield to scruples in general (or else we’d all be one cuppers with no Sunday Schools). Rather, we don’t cause a brother to stumble by doing something he thinks is wrong.

We have a lot of brothers! If we had to have unanimous consent from the entire Churches of Christ to do anything, we’d do nothing. The Churches have some members with extraordinarily heightened sensitivities! But they are not elders (at least not of my church), and so they shouldn’t set doctrine for the church.


Indeed, when we run our congregations to suit the sensibilities of our most easily offended members, we make these weak brothers–usually brothers with very bad theology — into de facto, unaccountable elders — which is very wrong. Men and women who don’t remotely qualify for leadership are given absolute control in many churches by using their easily offended natures as weapons. It’s wrong.

Particularly, teaching on grace is needed, rather than the particulars of the arguments for or against your position. Members have to be taught that, as Paul says, “For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.”

Teaching is the ultimate solution. But you can spend decades on the role of women, divorce and remarriage, mixed bathing, etc., etc., etc. There’s no end of “issues” for people to have scruples over. Far better to talk about the bigger picture and help your members learn how God wants us to understand our faith.

The solution to doctrinal disagreement is not yielding to the most legalistic in the community. It’s both sides learning to yield their scruples to Christ and so to be united despite their disputes.

38 Responses

  1. I think the question is more complex. For many in the a cappella camp, they not only believe it is sin to play an instrument at a worship service, but they also believe it is sin to sing while someone else plays the instrument. So if there are some present who hold this latter conviction, and someone begins to play an instrument along with the singing, those with the conviction are pressured to sing along in violation of their consciences. They may even be ridiculed by others who don’t hold that conviction. It is very much the same situation as the teetotaler at the dinner where wine is served.

    Now I don’t hold those convictions about instruments being wrong. (In fact I’ll be playing my trumpet at worship this Sunday…) But I do think those in the instrumental camp are usually far too insensitive to the problems of conscience they present to the a cappella folks. Paul didn’t tell people they couldn’t eat meat due to the consciences of a few. But he did tell them there are circumstances in which they should not eat meat. I think that applies with the instruments also.

  2. Jay,
    I’d like to think teaching is the ultimate solution — and, it could be, but in theory only. The issue of one of the heart, not of the facts.

    Legalism behaves almost like a disease that is untreatable by humans. Only God can open eyes to the truth of grace and forgiveness.

    I believe all we can do is live, as best we can, according to our convictions, and not accept the condemnation of those who seek to impose their will on others. But we must be sure of our own motivation, as well.

    If we do the right thing, for the wrong reason, we fail.

    It is no better to beat someone with a club of freedom, than it is to beat someone with a club of legalism.

  3. Sometimes teaching has to have teeth.

    I follow a somewhat hard line on some scruples situations. Without touching IM I have had to listen to a lot of whining on simple generational differences. (dress, tats, piercings, hair length, songs, prayer style and length, use of powerpoint or choice of images for same, clapping, length of service, noisy kids, etc.) Eventually someone pulls the “weaker brother” card when they realize they have no other scriptural leg to stand on. At that point I gently suggest that someone who has been baptized longer than I have been alive (40+) and who still clings to childish things isn’t my weaker brother – he is my brother with a serious learning disability. As such we will make some accomodations for him but we will certainly not let him make decisions for the whole family.

    Yes I know, rude AND mean. Go read some Paul and get over it.

  4. I can relate to Todd. In the years we had “men’s meetings” it was not unusual for someone to pull the “weaker brother” argument out for the issues they couldn’t win with logic. We would be patient. However, about the 20th time the same brother pulled it, I patiently said, “No brother, there’s a difference between stumbling and stubborn and you’re just stubborn.” (That was a moving experience…in that I moved not long after.)

  5. One of the things that bothers me about playing the “weaker brother” card is that it just seems contrary to the heart of Paul’s teaching. He wasn’t admonishing the weaker brother to insist on his own way. He was exhorting the stronger brother to be loving toward the weaker brother.

    I think we get into a lot of problems when we try to enforce the flip side of something Scripture tells us to do. When I work with couples and the subject of submission comes up, I remind men that Paul didn’t tell them to insist on their wife’s submission, he told them to give themselves up for their wives as Christ gave Himself up for the church. Likewise I remind women that their responsibility is not to insist on the husband’s self sacrifice, but to submit out of love. And all of this under the umbrella command to “submit to one another.”

    My point is we are each responsible for our own obedience, not the obedience of others. The “weaker brother” argument seems to promote the latter, perhaps as a means to avoid the former. I suppose if I ever get my own obedience down perfectly, I might be able to help someone else with theirs, but I have a long way to go before that day comes.

  6. That’s a powerful insight, Pastor Mike

  7. Amen, Pastor Mike.

  8. The funnything about the weaker brother in Romans 14 is that he does not know he’s weak. He wouldn’t say “I am weak” because to admitt such would mean that he realizes there is nothing wrong with the stronger persons belief/behavior and thus would need to drop the issue. Thus for someone today to pull the “weaker brother” as a trump is absolute folly because they are essentially agreeing that there is nothing wrong with the stronger person’s position and therefore to continue on making an issue out of something that is not an issue would be wrong (and divisive) on their part.

    Grace and peace,


  9. I’m convinced that musical instruments are loved, not hated, by God. He commanded their use in His service. He never spoke of having changed His mind. But I (emphasis I) do not approve of use of musical instruments which prevent singers from hearing one another’s voices.

    In one revival service lately, I was treated to a “special.” A father and his son sang a duet with taped accompaniment. But neither voice could be heard to bring a message to the hearers. The “background” accompaniment drowned out the message–no words, just the musical sounds. Was this good? I think not.

    Is this a problem for weak and/or strong brothers? Am I weak in not appreciating the no-message of “the message in song”? I frequently present “special music” in Christian gatherings. Always now a cappella. If the hearers miss the message in the song, it’s not the fault of too-loud accompaniment! I also unapologetically appreciate hearing musical messages performed by artists inspired by God to be able to play with meaning.

  10. Rex,
    Excellent observation. Thanks.

    The problem about which you write is valid, but is technical, and needs to be addressed by competent sound people. You are absolutly correct that if there are words, they should be heard and understood. The instruments should support and accompany the singing, not dominate it.


  11. Ray,
    I think you make an important point, which is often missed. IM may have a place, but just like a cappella singing, it must contribute to the experience. It’s more difficult for me to appreciate “Christian rock” music in a worship setting than other styles.

    That does not mean that IM is wrong, only that like almost everything people do, it can be taken to such an extreme that is works against its fundamental purpose.

    And I should add, that I’m pretty sure there are folks that find Christian rock music worshipful — I’m just not one of them.

  12. Alan,

    I agree that an a cappella church could rarely switch to an instrumental service without severe Rom 14 problems. The solution is to go to two services, which is what nearly every congregation does. Often many members leave over the decision, but it’s not a Rom 14 decision. It’s legalism of the worst kind — the lie that they can’t be members together with those who use instruments and still go to heaven.

  13. David,

    I agree that some among us are pretty hard headed and well-nigh impossible to persuade. But in my experience, most people can be persuaded — 80% or better — if the leadership patiently teaches the truth gently with love. The approach of many young ministers — let’s push the envelope and show them how cool IM really is! — only offends and makes people defensive. It’s how ministers get fired and not missed. Careful, loving teaching changes hearts and minds — provided the teaching is about Jesus, the cross, and his grace. Never start with IM.

    The ones who can’t be taught often get taught by God — by finding themselves or their children in situations that make them yearn for grace. I’ve seen some stubborn old men broken and brought to grace in tears and anguish. It’s better to learn from the Bible than from the school of hard knocks, because the knocks can be really hard.

  14. Todd,

    One of the biggest events in the history of my congregation was when the elders (before my tenure) realized that when people leave and go to the church down the road, they aren’t leaving Jesus. Sometimes you have to let them leave. (And hardly anyone left — and most of those who did came back.)

  15. Jim,

    Did they insist that you move?

    I’ve always responded by saying, “Well, then, you should consider me your weaker brother. So you have to submit to me, right?” That always results in silence. Or “If we don’t do this, will you be tempted to participate?” They always avow how they’d never do such a thing! “Well, if we won’t tempt you to sin against your conscience by having this event, we aren’t really in that situation and so it won’t be a violation of Rom 14!”

    Of course, the real teaching of Rom 14 is “Don’t look down on your brother” and “Don’t judge” — and when we use the weaker brother argument to judge and look down on others, we’re severely abusing Paul’s command.

  16. Pastor Mike,


  17. I just realized something… The “Romans 14” argument is invalid regarding IM. The reason is simple common sense and that is that the common use of this passage violates its context. This passage’s context refers to eating and drinking food OFFERED TO IDOLS. Does standard Christian practices fall into this category? Is IM associated with Idolatry today? (Ask a “regular joe”…) I know that it is associated with Christian worship. Almost every church in Christendom has IM and a church without a piano or organ is considered very strange today. So the “weaker brother” is one that has a problem with a Christian being associated with practices of idolatries and paganism. Here is an example: the observing of Christmas and Easter, which is heavily pagan (Christmas trees and bunnies aren’t in the Bible story…), is our modern equivalent to eating meat offered to idols. I hope someone understands what I am saying… Traditional IM (piano, organ) is not associated with pagan religions or their practice.

    I think this argument is used by acapela churches solely to force others to do things “our way”, because “we have the truth” and “they” are “in error”. It is an arrogant approach to unity and that is why it has never worked. Also, there is no “command against” or “prohibition” regarding IM in the Bible, but there are commands to worship with instruments. If this is the only issue that separates “brethren”, then those that have “added to the Bible” by making a “law” that does not exist in the scripture, need to repent of THEIR error. But I don’t expect “c of C” ‘s to add a piano, for the sake of unity, anytime soon…

  18. Idolatry is worshiping anything in place of God. That can also include ourselves. If we put our own desires first and cherry-pick what we want to obey and what we want to ignore is also idolatry.
    And I’m not so sure that you can easily dismiss the principle involved. If everyone wants the unity they keep proclaiming then let’s give up the IM and all of this other and we only come together in unity and preach Jesus,” his death, burial and resurrection.”
    When my children have argued over a toy and I don’t know who had it first or who is in the right, I’ve taken it away from both. So let’s take away the object of contention. Isn’t that similar to the principle being taught. That’s is just too simplistic isn’t it and not deep enough.
    I’m not sure that anyone will be denied heaven because they worshiped with a musical instrument, (I’m still studying on that) but I also wonder about why we want them. In my humble opinion, it seems that they are wanted because it seems like the shiniest draw for people at the moment. “We can’t draw people to the church today without ___ (and put in music, drama, choreographed worship, etc.) Maybe we’ve forgotten that God told us to preach and he will provide the increase. And if that increase doesn’t come maybe it’s the hearts of the hearers and not because of our methods. If we are doing what we have been told to do then God will provide that increase when he sees fit.

  19. Anne, I believe I grasp what you are saying. Though I consider myself a very progressive Christian I have never thought it necessary for the Church of Christ to add the instrument. What makes a church a light in the community is what it preaches, how it is preached and the care and love toward those listening.
    If a church has a heart that already sees their neighbors as children of God and that bringing salvation is helping them become aware of it the acapela music of the congregation becomes a beautiful, binding of souls.
    I do admit to something I believe the CoC should add, though many have started; Christmas and Easter services. For those wanting to know the scripture for these special days, well they are just as scriptual as Vacation Bible School or Gospel Meetings…special times are special times, and the wonder of these two special seasons create miracles in our land.

  20. Let me see if I have this correctly. (I’m an outsider with regard to the CoC.) If Scripture doesn’t command it, implicitly prohibits it.
    Then how do the more “conservative” groups justify the use of a microphone, or recordings of accapella singing, or electricity, or indoor plumbing, or the wearing of a suit and tie? It would seem these are all things that we use because of convenience or cultural convention. But Scripture doesn’t command it, so how is that things get used.
    I do recall Paul saying something like, “To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some.” (I Cor 9:22 ESV)
    That leads me to think that Paul was willing to do pretty much whatever was necessary to preach the gospel as effectively as he could to maximize his chances of reaching as many people as he could. And I know there are a lot of lost people out there would not be drawn to non-intrumental music.
    Help me understand; What’s the point of insisting on non-IM? ( I have no problem with a person preferring it, but I just don’t understand how that became dogma.)

  21. The most general answer would be that those things are used to accomplish those thing which are commanded.

  22. Mario, I like your answer as it is simple and to the point. Wouldn’t IM fall under that rubric?

  23. It seems like it depends on who you ask. 😉

    If you’d ask me IM changes the nature of music. Others are not convinced. I came from a catholic background, perhaps that’s why it’s easier to see it that way.

  24. I have no doubt that IM changes the nature of the music, but so does sing in parts as opposed to in unison. My memory of my classes in Music History is fading (and it wasn’t that good when I took it, as I recall the grades) but I do recall that there were times in history when to sing in anything but unison was considered blasphemous, as well as anything that jumped more than a minor third in the melody.
    And yet, we are called to sing a new song to the Lord.

    I’m curious, are the anti-IM crowd opposed to all the Psalms, or just the ones that command us to play instruments in praise to Him? Or am I missing something else that makes those commands no longer relevant?

    I really am curious, because so far it jsut doesn’t make a lot of sense to me. What happened in the inter-testamental period that made IM such a problem?

  25. Yep even more controversies. I personally am against music sung in parts such that it no longer can teach, due to each part overlapping to the point the whole thing becomes an unintelligable mess.

    I haven’t met anyone oppossed to the use of any of the psalms. The usual response is that we are told in the NT to sing the psalm not to play them.

    The more relavant historical question is where in the history of the church did IM become a problem. If the earliest records indicate their absence. Who, when, and why did people look to add them?

  26. Mario,
    This blog has endlessly debated IM. There are many comments and posts on the history of the use of IM, as well as the meaning of the greek word, psallo, which can mean to play an instrument, sing a cappella, or sing accompanied with IM. As you unintentionally referenced, many of the Psalms, even call for the use of an instrument.

    Please review the extensive material before seeking additional comments on a topic which has been beat to death.

    thank you.

  27. If we are required to do things exactly the same way the historial record shows they were done in ancient churches, we are going to need to make a lot of changes.

  28. David,
    It was my posting that went down the IM path, and I have been following it in the blog for several months. I guess I was just trying to see if I got the gist of the general argument accurately enough to make sure I wasn’t disagreeing without understanding what I was disagreeing with. I see that it has been endlessly debated, but I am less inclined to buy the argument for non-IM than I was before I tried to hear the rationale.
    Pastor Mike

  29. Mike,
    Your observation pretty much sums up the silliness of trying to do things “like they did church in the New Testament”. I think we too often confuse method with message. It’s the message that’s critical. How we get the Word out, while important, is not as critical.
    Pastor Mike

  30. Mario,

    IM was introduced by different denominations at different times. Lutherans were always instrumental, because Luther thought the First Century practices were not binding any further than the scriptures explicitly make them binding, and he feared creating a new legalism. The Episcopalians were always instrumental — although the Puritan movement sought to remove them for a while. Bach was a good Lutheran.

    However, the Reformed/Calvinist Churches were largely AC until the 19th Century. That is, many Calvinist denominations went through the AC/IM controversy in the late 19th Century just as did the Restoration Movement churches. And they often created their own new denomination or subgroup seeking to preserve AC — or moved to a sister denomination that preserved AC. Thus, there remain AC Baptist and Presbyterian churches — just not in the largest denominations of those tribes.

    John Wesley is quoted by Adam Clarke as opposing instrumental music, so evidently the Methodists went through a similar transition, but I’ve seen no evidence of split over the issue. I rather suspect that Wesley’s objection was stated as a personal opinion and not doctrine — but I’ve not been able to source the quote other than from Adam Clarke to get the context or subsequent history.

    The reason the 19th Century triggered the controversy is likely that pianos and organs became much more affordable due to the industrial revolution and increasing wealth of the US. In western Pennsylvania in 1810, IM was a theoretical possbility only. In 1888 Louisville, it was easy to buy a piano from the piano store in town.

  31. Pastor Mike,
    I’m sure you’ve seem the relatively deep divide among CofC folks over the issue of IM. Our traditional practice has been a cappella music only. And I’m sure that’s still the dominant view. But equally clear is a growing number who do not concur in the doctrinal significance of the matter.

    This thread is really about Romans 14, so a discussion about how people who differ on IM fellowship with each other is appropriate and consistent with the thread.

    A new debate over psallo or the doctrinal implications of IM, itself, is not the focus of this thread.

    I only wanted to encourage Mario to not require the many who follow this blog regularly to suffer thru the “endless” repetitions of the the IM doctrinal stuff.

    I’m sure Jay, and others, appreciate your presence and comments here.

  32. David,
    Thanks for your gracious response. It was not my intention to co-opt this thread. As you most likely have seen, I weighed in on the Romans 14 issue, and the IM issue just kind of popped into my thinking.
    Pastor Mike

  33. I was just trying to answer Mike’s question.

  34. Mario,

    Don’t worry about it. It’s a been a good conversation. And Jay himself responded to you in this thread so he must feel this is a perfectly reasonable topic for this thread, and it’s his blog, not David’s.

  35. As you said, Mike

  36. For what it’s worth, the CoC is not the only tradition with issues that divide. I come from one of the “mainline” denominations, and there are times when I am fed up with the some of the quasi-, psuedo-, and anti- biblical arguments that proliferate. I have been gratified that in mine, as well as in yours, while opinions may be divisive, that majority of people simply want to honor and serve the Lord. And that really needs to be what it’s all about.
    Pastor Mike

  37. Good point Mike,

    I came to the CoC because I saw it as an antidote to all the division in protestantism. Well, I found the CoC had the same problem, but it isn’t a CoC problem. I think the problem is common to all branches of the radical reformation.

  38. Been reading some church history from a mostly Roman Catholic perspective, there seems to be a pattern in there, with all these disputes.

    Need to find a way out.

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