Faith and Gaming: Weaker Brothers

Most of the arguments which are raised against role playing games have by now been answered. They no more involve consorting with demons than reading The Screwtape Letters or That Hideous Strength by C. S. Lewis. The magic in them is about as like witchcraft as that of Penn and Teller. They are less violent than most action movies and television shows, and more likely to present the negative consequences of such violence. And in very few games do characters actually get away with evil.

But still, we are told that we should refrain from playing such games out of respect for the weaker brother.

This weaker brother argument is, of course, based on a section of Paul’s First Epistle to the Corinthians (which was not his first epistle to them, as it mentions an earlier one, but is the first one of which we still have a copy), concerning meat offered to idols. This section has been used to warn Christians against involvement in all sorts of activities, from listening to Christian rock music to belonging to civic organizations to celebrating Halloween. It’s not surprising that it would also be used to warn against playing role playing games. After all, it might be that pretending to use magic or imagining slicing a space pirate in half with a laser sword isn’t a problem for some of us, but others might be tempted toward real magic or real violence, and that would be wrong.

And if meat causes my brother to stumble, as Paul says, I will never eat meat again.05Pig

There’s a funny thing about this weaker brother argument as it applies to role playing games: I’ve never heard it made by a weaker brother. That is, most of those who object to role playing games on the basis that they might cause someone to fall into sin aren’t the least bit tempted either to play such games or to fall into the particular sins they believe the games promote. They aren’t going to become witches or sorcerers; pagan worship or ritual does not appeal to them. There is probably less chance that they will suddenly go on a violent rampage than that nuclear war will break out by three o’clock tomorrow. They aren’t in the least bit concerned that these games are going to lead them to sin. Rather, they imagine that there might be someone else—some hypothetical other brother somewhere in the universe—for whom the ideas within these games might present a temptation. They don’t know any such person, but the possibility that he or she might exist gives them a basis on which to condemn the game.

But let us suppose that there is such a person, somewhere in the universe, who might actually be tempted to sin by role playing games in ways that go beyond the ordinary temptations of life. After all, every day we are tempted to sin, by our friends, our families, our jobs, our churches, everything around us. It’s not enough that something provide a circumstance in which temptation is possible; it must be the case that the thing itself drags us into guilt. Perhaps there is someone somewhere for whom role playing games create a stumbling block. Should we not care about this person, about his feelings and the temptations he faces? And should we not therefore stop doing whatever it is that causes this problem?

We should certainly care. But we cannot possibly cease all conduct which might be a stumbling block to someone somewhere, and we are not expected to do so.

Years ago when I was in ministry in broadcasting, someone called me from several states away, from beyond my listening area by hundreds of miles, to get help. While he talked about his problems, it came out that he had a fetish—he was sexually excited by people taking off their shoes. I think that it would be quite in keeping with this scripture that I should not remove my shoes in the presence of this person. But it would not be in keeping with this scripture that I never remove my shoes again. I would not invite someone with a gambling problem to a friendly card game, or ask someone wrestling with greed to play Monopoly, or take someone with a history of violence to an SCA melee. There are some things that are quite all right for most of us, but from which certain individuals need to be shielded. That is the nature of the weaker brother argument.

That is, just because there is a weaker brother (if there is such a one; no one has demonstrated that there is in regard to role playing games) doesn’t mean that that which might lead him to stumble should be anathema for everyone else. Even in this passage, as we’ve already noted, Paul says if eating meat causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat again—but the point is that whether or not Paul eats meat, or meat offered to idols, is not the issue. It is whether or not the weaker brother does this, and whether others try to push him to do so. Clearly Paul did not cease to eat meat; he did not even tell the Corinthians that they should be careful about the meat that they eat, and assure themselves that it is not offered to idols (and he had far better grounds for why such meat might be dangerous than the critics of role playing games have for their assertions). He told them that if someone else was present who was bothered or concerned, they should have respect for that and not press the issue, but otherwise they should go ahead and eat.

It is also worth noting that a few years later, while he was staying not far from Corinth, he wrote a letter to Rome in which he recalled this passage. In Romans 14:3 he writes The one who eats is not to regard with contempt the one who does not eat, and the one who does not eat is not to judge the one who eats, for God has accepted him. In other words, the stronger and weaker brothers have obligations to each other. The stronger brother shouldn’t tempt the weaker brother, nor consider him somehow inferior because he cannot find the freedom in himself to participate in something Jesus allows. Likewise, the weaker brother should not criticize or condemn the stronger for his involvement in something the weaker brother perceives as dangerous to himself.

I am convinced from scripture and from life that we all experience the same kinds of things. Each of us is, in some place in his life, the weaker brother; each is also the stronger. Some of us cannot listen to particular music; some cannot read certain kinds of books. Some are always tempted to check their astrological forecast, needing to be shielded even from decorations reminiscent of their signs, while to others those symbols have only astronomical significance, serving as useful shorthand for stargazing. Some would find Charles Williams’ The Greater Trumps an inspiring encouragement to believe in the power of God to overcome all things, while others would be reminded too strongly of fortune-telling and divination. Where you are strong, enjoy your freedom, but don’t flaunt it. Where you are weak, watch your step, but don’t begrudge others the freedom Christ gives.

And if you are not the weaker brother, do not criticize those who enjoy the freedom to explore that which doesn’t interest you. It is before our own Master that we stand or fall, and not before each other. Be mindful that God has permitted you to do some things which for others would be difficult; He has done the same for all of us.

This article was originally published in September 2001 on the Christian Gamers Guild’s website. The entire series remains available at its original URL.

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