‘Weaker Brothers’ Shouldn’t Boss Christians About Music or Fantasy

Biblical teaching and strong believes’ examples, rather than people vulnerable to temptation, should guide Christians’ enjoyment of good gifts.
on Oct 20, 2020 · 25 comments

When I was a child, Christian weaker brothers1 had authority to boss you about all kinds of things.

By weaker brothers, I mean Christians who, by their own admission, were vulnerable to certain temptations.2

In one case, Christian leaders held up one specific weaker brother boss: a (possibly apocryphal) witch doctor, and/or former African tribal worshiper, who had converted to Christianity. One version of this anecdote was printed in a booklet from a (nastily legalistic) outfit called the “Institute in Basic Life Principles” (IBLP). The booklet’s title: “Ten Scriptural Reasons Why the ‘Rock Beat’ Is Evil in Any Form” (underline in original).

In April 1990, a Christian from Zimbabwe, Africa, arrived for his first visit to the United States. He is a native missionary under the Awana Youth Association. When he turned on a Christian radio station and listened to the music, he was shocked. Here is his report:

“I am very sensitive to the beat in music, because when I was a boy, I played the drums in our village worship rituals. The beat that I played on the drum was to get the demon spirits into the people.

“When I became a Christian, I rejected this kind of beat because I realized how damaging it was.

“When I turned on a Christian radio station in the United States, I was shocked. The same beat that I used to play to call up the evil spirits is in the music I heard on the Christian station.”

Stephen Maphosah, Zimbabwe, Africa34

It wasn’t long before I realized the absurdity of this story:

Hey. Who put the witch doctor in charge of Christian moral practice?

This goes double if you heard, as I did, that the (apocryphal?) witch doctor was actually a new convert to Christianity:

With all due respect, why should new converts be the boss of Christian moral practice?

Scripture, in fact, specifically warns against letting a new convert become a church overseer. Paul says that if we do that, “he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil.”5

But what if the witch doctor wasn’t a new convert? What if the account is true?

Then it still makes little sense for Christians to let him become a music boss:

  • By all versions of the account I heard, the witch doctor wasn’t even trying to boss. He only made the observation about the music similarity. And/or a concern that it sounded like rhythms he and his witch-doctor friends used to try to summon spirits. It was someone else who later “weaponized” his words, as if they marked universal concern for all Christians.
  • By the account’s own terms, the witch doctor had his own personal history with similar music. In his past, he had used certain sounds or rhythms alongside sinful behavior. In the present, he couldn’t help making the association. His story doesn’t apply to everyone else.
  • Even if his story did apply to others, this does not overrule the path that God can redeem pagan practices and things—starting with us.
  • The person’s opinions are not the same as revealed Scripture.

Listen to our new Fantastical Truth podcast episode: Should Christians Enjoy Fantasy with Fictional Magic? Part 2

But Christians keep letting weaker brothers boss them about things.

Plenty of Christians keep going along with this weird tendency. They keep entrusting “weaker brothers” with unique authority over particular practices. Those relate to music, as we’ve seen. But they also related to things like food and popular culture:

What sorts of foods can we eat or avoid?

Let’s all listen to a person who has terrible food allergies, and/or terrible stories about what happened to her when she consumed a certain thing.

What kinds of fantasy stories can we enjoy or avoid?

Let’s all listen to a person who has a terrible backstory about being drawn into the occult and Satanism.

Are certain types of Christian music acceptable or too worldly?

Let’s all listen to a person who has a terrible backstory about being drawn into the occult and Satanism.

That last one is a particularly bizarre trend. Some Christians, historically, keep deciding to let Satan-worshipers be the best authority on the Devil’s powers and dangers. Sometimes it doesn’t even matter whether the Satan-worshiper has since received the gospel. I have heard Christians cite (apocryphal, anecdotal, or actual) current New Age or pagan teachers as authorities about spiritual warfare.

Shouldn’t we follow strong Christians instead?

The apostle Paul doesn’t venerate weaker brothers the way some Christians have.

He doesn’t say they’re strong. He says they’re weak. Weak means not strong. It means, “These are the people you should help.” It does not mean, “These are the people who have the inside view, so you should follow whatever standard they must follow.”

In fact, the very truth that Paul speaks openly about weaker brothers means he wants all the church, strong and weak alike, to adopt these categories.

Paul does not want stronger people to meet together and whisper about how legalistic the weaker brothers are. He doesn’t want weaker brothers to gather secretly and whisper about how the others keep compromising with the world. Instead, Paul wants the issues openly discussed. After reading his letters (probably publicly!) to the Roman or Corinthian church, everybody could meet together. They could figure out their strengths and weaknesses.

“Ah yes. I grew up in this particular Athenian cult. I can’t go near market so-and-so without feeling a compulsion to rejoin my old people.”

“Fascinating! I never have that issue. So I suppose if you need anything in that market, I could head out there for you.”

Stronger brothers and sisters have rarely if ever been tempted to sin by particular foods, holidays, popular culture, or more. Or they were once tempted to these sins, but through Scripture study, prayer, and hard holiness work, have achieved victory over those sinful temptations.

Weaker brothers, precisely because they’re weaker, don’t (yet?) have such victory. So they require special care.

By default, Christians should put the stronger believers in positions of authority. Because they’re, you know, stronger.

By default, Christians should not put the weaker brothers in positions of authority. Because they are weaker.6

  1. And sisters. As my study Bible is fond of pointing out, the Greek term adelphoi, translated brothers, is a catch-all term that refers to men and women.
  2. The phrase comes from Romans 14. Here, the apostle Paul urges Christians to be welcoming and sensitive to concerns of “the one who is weak in faith” (verse 1). See also 1 Corinthians 8–10. Here, Paul refers to “the weak” (1 Corinthians 8:9). Weaker brothers are not following a higher standard of holiness. They are weak precisely because they cannot help associating some behavior with sin—possibly because of their own background.
  3. I’ve copied the wording from this website. However, it credits only “guest article.” It does not give a date and does not mention the original source: the IBLP booklet “Ten Scriptural Reasons Why the ‘Rock Beat’ Is Evil in Any Form.”
  4. One commentator provides another version of the “witch doctor” story on the Recovering Grace website: “Bill (that is, disgraced IBLP legalistic seminar leader Bill Gothard) repeated (sic) stated in his seminars that the origin of rock music was from African voodoo type of music. He usually gave the story of an African witch doctor that was visiting and heard ‘rock music’ and stated that this was the kind of music that the former witch doctor used in his practice of witchcraft and voodoo. He (Gothard) had serial variations of this story that he used in the seminars.” Source: Comment dated June 8, 2015, from “rob war,” in response to “The Phony Consequences of Rock Music,” RecoveringGrace.org, Nov. 14, 2011.
  5. 1 Timothy 3:6.
  6. This article has been edited from its original version. In my original series, I continued to explore the one area where some “weaker brothers” are gaining power: social justice issues. Of course, this takes us further beyond the fantasy issues. If you want that series, here are the original links:

    Series: Weaker Brothers Shouldn’t Boss Christians

    1. Weaker Brothers Shouldn’t Boss Christians about Music, Food, or Fantasy
    2. How Weaker Brothers May Begin to Boss Christians about Social Justice Issues
    3. Weaker Brothers Shouldn’t Boss Christians about Social Justice Work .
E. Stephen Burnett explores fantastical stories for God’s glory as publisher of Lorehaven.com and its weekly Fantastical Truth podcast. He coauthored The Pop Culture Parent and creates other resources for fans and families, serving with his wife, Lacy, in their central Texas church. Stephen's first novel, a science-fiction adventure, launches in 2025 from Enclave Publishing.
  1. Jake says:

    Thank you for these thoughts. A lot of well-meaning Christians don’t quite understand this idea.

  2. Jill says:

    Others’ experiences can bring new insight or wisdom to the table. You just have to take it for what it’s worth. I found myself irritated with a friend who was always offering me unsolicited marital advice, despite that she had a trail of failed marriages behind her. It dawned on me that she had a perspective I couldn’t have. She knew why her marriages had failed. This didn’t mean she was a moral authority on marriage, but she was certainly worth listening to, just as an ex-alcoholic is worth listening to on the dangers of alcohol. They simply don’t have the moral authority to outlaw alcohol for all believers. That’s the way I feel about most of this type of advice. Listen and learn rather than entirely dismiss.

  3. notleia says:

    Oh, it’s definitely about jockeying for power. So is calling them “weaker” brothers/sibs. The worst part is, some of them might even be earnest about their “weak” concerns.
    The thing about arguments for purity is that the bolts tighten in only one direction. Anyone arguing against it is “compromising,” which has has already turned into a loaded word in fundagelicalism. Which is another reason why I’ve come to the conclusion that purity is not actually a virtue.

    I’m half-tempted to volunteer to fill the empty Wednesday slot, but Notleia’s Pinko Variety Hour would consist of rants about church culture and reposted memes. Plus it would take away time from my Stardew Valley fanfic project.

    (Free article idea: the pros and cons of writing fanfic. I know Travis is against, probably because he thinks it’s frivolous, but I can’t remember if I’ve offloaded all of my opinions on the pro side.)

    • I’ve considered writing blog posts that hone in and talk about some of the pros and cons of fanfiction. And role-playing and quite a few other things.

    • Brennan McPherson says:

      Purity: the absence of immorality/vices.
      Pride is a vice, and is talked of much more than sexual concerns in Scripture.
      “Everyone who is arrogant in heart is an abomination to the Lord.” – Proverbs 16:5
      The purity the Bible talks about includes the absence of pride. I’m pretty sure you want that?

      • notleia says:

        Have you seen an attempt to manufacture purity that’s actually worked? The only results I’ve seen from efforts like that is just ignorance, not purity.

        • Brennan McPherson says:

          That’s the point of the Gospel. That you can’t manufacture it.

          • notleia says:

            aaaaand here we go at cross purposes again….

            • Not exactly. If you argue that purity isn’t desirable or attainable, you’re essentially saying evil is irrelevant and there’s no way to change. Doesn’t matter if you believe the Gospel. What matters is that you believe there’s a way to live better *dare I say* more pure, and that such a life is desirable. So are you just referring to sexual purity? Or purity in the broad sense of the actual meaning of the word?

              • notleia says:

                This is our recurring problem: it feels like you want to argue from the abstract or the platonic when I want to deal with the cards that are actually on the table.
                In the same way that ritual cleanliness is not the same thing as hygiene, ideological purity is not the same thing as an absence of fault.

              • You said, “Purity is not a virtue.” You put those cards on the table. Yet you don’t want me to play with them at face value. It’s obvious now you used words that mean one thing while intending something else unclear. Hence the need for clarification. Just use clear terms and that helps a lot.

              • notleia says:

                For your consideration: maybe the more important concept to be deconstructed is “virtue” and not actually “purity.”

                Is an absence of evil the same thing as goodness?

                But maybe *just for you* I’ll make a whole bunch of footnotes or something on my future posts to itemize my definitions and contexts.

                But probably most of my comments can be framed in the context of wanting to deconstruct how much religion (organized or otherwise) is created and influenced by people versus how much is created and influenced by God/the supernatural/whatevs. Probably the one point where I’m sympathetic to Calvinists’ idea of depravity of the totality of people.

              • K. Now I’m tracking.

                Yeah… colloquial understanding of virtue could use some deconstruction. Out of curiosity, what do you think SHOULD be the definition of virtue?

                And you’re right, the absence of evil isn’t the same as goodness. Scripture makes that clear when it talks about Christ, who was pure/sinless, being “made perfect” through his suffering and obedience, etc. And in Genesis, before the first sin of humanity, God rested on the 7th day and “made it holy.”

                Honestly… I’m very sympathetic to that goal. But I think we’ll always differ on the granular level because I believe the Bible is divine and you don’t, and I don’t think that will ever change.

              • notleia says:

                My first reaction is to say a virtue is a trait that produces good results, but I’m sure there’s an assumption I haven’t thought through in there somewhere.
                Maybe it would get me yelled at on the grounds of a faith vs works argument.

              • Hm… I don’t think it’s a faith vs works argument.
                Google says the word means “behavior of high moral standing,” but that’s not satisfactory. Related: “goodness.” One of the definitions of goodness is: “the beneficial or nourishing element of food.” That seems better, and says essentially what you’re saying. Thinking about it from a bib perspective, it reminds me of the “fruit of the Spirit.” Fruit is something you eat. It offers true value/nourishment. It produces good results for others (and for yourself at the same time).

              • Rachel says:

                I’d say a virtue is intrinsically good on its own. Like human life it has inherent worth. For the virtuous person the means justify the end. If we do what is right–despite the cost–the end will be worthwhile. 🙂

    • E. Stephen Burnett says:

      “So is calling them ‘weaker’ brothers/sibs.”

      The Apostle Paul did this, writing with the authority of the Holy Spirit. It’s not a term of condemnation, but of care. This “power” is used for good, not abuse. Just like a good parent loves and cares for her weaker child. Such a thing does exist.

      • notleia says:

        Bruh, that very passage comes from the context of Paul doing power plays with competing teachers in early Christianity, so I IDK about what kind of traction that argument gets you.
        Plus, comparing your opponents to children is hugely condescending and passive-aggressive and not treating anyone in good faith, which is power play. If they’re in earnest, then so much the worse. What’s that quote about the worst tyrants being the people who are convinced they’re oppressing you for your own good?

        Actually that would probably be a rant featured on Notleia’s Pinko Variety Hour, the seemingly willful ignorance most (white) fundagelicals have about power dynamics.

        • notleia says:

          (Ugh I’ve talked about power so much I feel like I’ve been possessed by Michel Foucault I feel like I need to throw salt at myself)

    • Rachel says:

      Define “purity.” Purity of motive? Purity of thought? Purity of theology? Purity of heart? It’s inaccurate to restrict the concept only to chastity.

  4. Steve says:

    Of course, you can add the practices of card playing, movie going, dice rolling, and walking down the wrong aisle in the market. There could not be a movie in church, and of course, ‘contemporary music was outlawed. Anything that someone might be either offended by, or be tempted to re-engage in as a ‘sin,’ was/strictly verboten in the conservative churches of the 60s and 70s. And we see the results of such ‘rule-making’ in the disintegration of many church organizations and even churches in the recent decade. It was a worthless fear.

  5. Travis Perry says:

    There’s nothing wrong with your argument as far as it goes. People who openly profess to be weaker do not get to boss around everyone else. Sure, fine.

    But I think you are rather missing the point of Romans 14. Stronger brothers are to try to do what they can to avoid causing other people problems, that is, encouraging others to sin. Not the probably phony self-proclaimed weaker brother. The REAL weaker brother who will not tell you he or she is weaker but actually has a sin problem in a particular area.

    You have said this is unworkable elsewhere but that’s really not so…or not in a way that’s significant. Loving your neighbor as yourself is not workable thing, either. Or loving Jehovah with all our heart, mind, and soul. Christianity has lofty goals, my friend, we will not always obtain them. But we should care. And try.

    In particular, we should think about how what we do may affect others and try to avoid predicatible bad outcomes if we can. Again, not always easy, but always a good idea.

  6. Merri B. says:

    It seems so misguided to claim that a beat is inherently occultic. Arabic Christian hymns do the same yodeling thing that Islamic prayers do. Of course African music would use African musical conventions, regardless of its purpose. 6_6

    I guess these are probably the same people who think fairy tales are evil because some of them somewhere might be connected to dead pagan religions.

  7. I hate the weaker brother argument because it’s so hugely misused by someone who doesn’t like something and since it could cause some fictional person to sin, I can’t listen to my music (Sigh, so many arguments in college over this).
    However, where I’m in favor of the weaker brother argument is in the specifics.

    As an example of specifics, my brother is a recovering alcoholic. When he comes over we don’t offer him a glass of wine to drink because we don’t want to cause him to go back to his problems. But, when another friend comes over Jeff will offer him a glass of wine or a beer because that is not a struggle for that friend.

    • Rachel says:

      Good practice. I can’t do Harry Potter myself. For many this is not a problem. I don’t want to take away their fun, but just ask they not force me to watch the movies when I visit them.
      Been tempted with occult stuff in the past and I’m sensitive or weak there.

What do you think?