dangerous concessions

I read this story in Todd Billings’ award winning book, Union with Christ, and thought there might be a devotional in it. I know I should post more than my latest drafts for Our Daily Journey, but it’s either this or give all my students incompletes for the semester.

       In 1857 a few white members of the Dutch Reformed Church in South Africa asked permission to celebrate the Lord’s Supper separately from their black brothers and sisters. The General Assembly believed their request was wrong, but it acquiesced “due to the weakness of some.” This concession soon became the norm, as white Christians increasingly chose to observe the Lord’s Supper without their black siblings. Their racism prompted the unwanted black Christians to leave and start their own churches. And so the South African church, divided by race, eventually became a vocal supporter of apartheid. In 1924 the DRC argued that the races must remain separate, for “competition between black and white on economic levels…leads to poverty, friction, misunderstanding, suspicion, and bitterness.”

        How might the history of South Africa be different if the church had not conceded to the sinful request of a few “weaker brothers”? We are thankful for leaders such as Nelson Mandela who gave their lives to end apartheid. But it’s a shame on the church that their sacrifice was even needed.

        Peter gave in to the “weaker brothers” in Antioch. He knew they were wrong to insist that Gentiles live like Jews, but afraid of what they might say, he refused to eat with Gentiles when these Judaizers came to town. Paul recognized this was a big deal, for the reason these Jews split from the Gentiles put the gospel at risk. How would the history of Christianity be different if Paul had not stood up to Peter’s shameful concession?

        It’s never right to do wrong because others think it’s right. We must not violate our conscience on the flimsy ground that “They wouldn’t understand,” “It’s what they expect,” or “Just this once, what will it hurt?” It may seem easier to give in, but our concession will make life harder down the road.

7 Comments

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  1. Well said, Dr. Wittmer, well said.

  2. Another excellent devotional, with one suggestion: Be careful not to imply that Mr. Mandela died for the cause. “Devoted their lives” might be more appropriate than “gave their lives.” The latter is true in one sense of the word, but that’s not how your readers will read it. Related, watch the use of “sacrifice” in the sentence that follows.

  3. Yes, an interesting devotional, with another suggestion, if I may: I’d like to suggest that Peter and the Judiazers are not “weaker brothers” at all. The weaker brother of Romans and 1 Corinthians is dealing with issues of conscience, not false teaching or sin. The whole topic of Christian liberty and conscience deals with issues of adiaphora — matters that are indifferent in terms of sin. If Paul knew the Judiazers were “wrong” then it is not a matter of adiaphora or conscience that was involved in Antioch at all.

    We must be careful not to automatically assume that “weaker brothers (and sisters)” are legalists, because legalism is false teaching and sinful, guarding against making our brothers and sisters actually fall into sin ought to be all the way on the other end of the continuum in terms of motive. Furthermore, by attempting to synthesize the weaker brother and the Pharisee, we risk forgetting that there actually are “weaker brothers (and sister)” in our churches over whom we will be held accountable for their souls. I pray we may not fall into sin ourselves for causing them to stumble simply because we felt we had the right to exercise our liberty.

    Thanks for letting me comment!

  4. ^I think by putting “weaker brothers” in quotes, Dr. Wittmer is not actually identifying them as such, but demonstrating how an appeal to “weaker brothers” is used to justify not standing for things that must be stood for. When you avoid alcohol to prevent offending truly weaker brothers, no sin has been committed. When you avoid fellowship with certain kinds of people (other races, other classes, people with tattoos, people who smell funny, people who need your financial assistance) to prevent offending the sensibilities of falsely “weaker brothers”, grave sin has been committed.

  5. Thank you all for these helpful comments. I appreciate the caution about Mandela and the “weaker brothers.” I considered how that might be misleading, but I opted to use the phrase because of the South African church’s reasoning that they were conceding to “the weakness of some.” I thought I’d save the weaker-stronger distinction for another time, but I do like how crisply and clearly you made the distinction, Deb. And thanks for catching my meaning, Seth.

  6. Thank you, Mike and Seth! God bless. I’ve enjoyed your blog quite a bit and appreciate the engagement🙂.

  7. Mike,

    As for Mandela, I think you could accurately say that he nearly gave his life for the cause because he was shot at even in the security of his own home. In 2002 I visited the “museum” that was his home before he was imprisoned. The house still has the bullet holes left by snipers attempting to take his life. Before traveling there to visit a home for children orphaned by AIDS, I read everything I could find to attempt to understand how the DRC came to justify their actions. The history you provided is new information to me and certainly serves as a great teachable moment. Thanks.

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