The person you think is a legalist … probably isn’t.

My dad has often said, “anyone who drives faster than me or slower than me, is an idiot!”  His sarcastic, self-aggrandizing point is that we judge everything through our own eyes and by our assumed standard of what is best.  If he believes that driving 59 is the right speed in a 55 mph zone, then the guy who slows him down since he is only driving 56 or the guy who speeds by him at 62, are both hazards to the welfare of other motorists.  He then makes a tongue-in-cheek comparison to Christianity and says that “anyone whose standards are stricter than mine is a legalist and anyone whose standards are looser than mine is a libertine.”  Frankly, his light-hearted banter has emphasized what has become a major misunderstanding among conservative Christians.

I think Christians have been mis-characterized because of an incorrect understanding of the categories which they are assigning to others.   Here is my thesis, the “legalist” is probably a “weaker brother” and the “libertine” is probably a “stronger brother.” Sadly, we have mis-named our brothers and sisters in Christ as something that is far worse than what they are.  Hopefully, this post will be enlightening and will help us to walk with a little more charity towards other believers.

If this post is of interest to you, I would suggest reading 1st Corinthians 8-10 and Romans 14-15 carefully, if you are not already familiar with the passages.  I’m not going to connect each of my assertions to a verse, but will assume you can see the connection from your reading of the passages.

First, I’ll create a small glossary, and then give a short commentary on each word.

GLOSSARY:

Gray Areas: matters of conscience which each believer is expected to develop through one’s own study of the Scripture.

Legalist: one who asserts that a religious rite or work is necessary for salvation.

Libertine: one who lives only for the satisfaction of the flesh.

Stronger brother:  one whose knowledgeable conscience does not convict him for participating in activities which are often referred to as “gray areas.”

Weaker brother:  one whose tender conscience prohibits him from participating in activities often referred to as “gray areas.”

COMMENTARY:

Gray Areas:  There are three gray areas inferred in Paul’s treatment of matters of conscience.  In 1st Corinthians 8-10, he writes of: the source of one’s meat and what a person may drink.  In Romans 14-15, he writes of: what a person may eat (one eating anything and another being a vegetarian), observance of or abstention from certain holidays, and what a person may drink (see also Colossians 2).  These are called gray areas because the Scripture is not dogmatic on these things and recognizes that one person may be able to participate in them with a clear conscience while another may not.  For one person, it offends their conscience and for another it doesn’t.  Though Paul only deals with what a person eats, what a person drinks, and what holidays a person observes, we are certainly able to see that there are many other gray areas on which the Bible, the N.T. especially, is non-prescriptive and therefore believers must exercise individual responsibility in ascertaining their position on a question.  Some things that I believe could fall into the gray area category: clothing, head-coverings, music, sports, entertainment, home/public/Christian school, organic food, essential oils, vaccinations, medications, whether one votes, self-defense, working on Sunday, etc. into infinity (almost).

Legalist: These were the Judaizers who followed the Apostle Paul from location to location, trying to teach his converts that they must adhere to the O.T. law, specifically the rite of circumcision.  Paul called this a false gospel and a perversion of grace; the entire book of Galatians deals with this problem.  Frankly, in all my years as an independent Baptist, I don’t know that I’ve ever known someone like this in any Baptist church.  I do know of denominations which have religious rites which they have added to salvation, but not in a church with which I’ve been affiliated.  A legalist is not a Christian who has strict standards of personal conduct.

Libertine:  These are hedonists and not unrelated to antinomianism.  I’ve known of few profligate people in my life who have little or no moral structure.  They live entirely for physical pleasure apart from any conscious inhibition; their curriculum vitae is, “whatever satisfies my desires.”  A libertine is not a Christian whose conscience allows them freedom in certain gray areas.

Stronger brother: The terms weaker brother and stronger brother are derived from Paul’s teaching in 1st Corinthians 8-10 and Romans 14-15.  The stronger brother is the one whose conscience does not convict him for various gray area activities.  Paul indicates that the stronger brother’s faith allows him to eat meat offered to idols because he realizes that the idol is just a piece of stone.  The Jewish stronger brother might observe the Passover because of its national or ethnic significance and not because he still lives according to the O.T. sacrificial system.

I’m convinced that there are two kinds of stronger brother: the first is the one like Paul, who even though he could do something, he may choose not to do it (1st Corinthians 6:12; 10:23).  He would not offend his brother by doing something in front of him which would be offensive (1st Corinthians 8:13).  The second is the one to whom Paul was writing in 1st Corinthians 8-10.  This stronger brother had the knowledge that he could eat meat regardless of its source, but he did so without care for the conscience of his brother.  Sadly, this latter kind of stronger brother is more prevalent than the former.

Weaker brother:  The weaker brother is the oft derided one that no one wants to be.  However, using a synonym for the word “weaker” would probably be helpful.  Consider the weaker brother as the one with a “tender” or “delicate” conscience.  The weaker brother is operating in faith (that was Paul’s expectation for both the weaker and stronger); he loves the Lord and doesn’t want to do anything which would offend Him.  He wants to make sure that nothing in his life is questionable so he has set strict guidelines for his own conduct to keep himself from anything he thinks might not be in harmony with a holy life.  He should not be condemned, but respected.  He should be loved, not ridiculed.

FINAL THOUGHTS:

  1. We all may be the weaker brother in one area and the stronger brother in another. The categories don’t define a person’s permanent or absolute designation, but how he thinks on a subject.
  2. The stronger brother is instructed by Paul to consider the tender conscience of his brother and to avoid being an offense to him. The stronger brother is the one charged with considering the conscience of the weaker. He is instructed to restrict the exercise of his liberties so as not to offend his more tender brother.  The weaker brother is not instructed to tolerate the liberties of his stronger brother (he probably doesn’t see them as such), the onus of understanding and deference rests entirely on the stronger brother.
  3. The accusation of “legalist” against one, who is in reality just a weaker brother, allows the supposed stronger brother to ignore his weaker brother’s conscience because that one is considered a false teacher at worst, and an adherent to poor doctrine at best. This is wrong, selfish, divisive, and uncharitable.
  4. The weaker brother’s conscience is not something to be maligned, but appreciated. He probably loves Christ deeply, is following Him as best as he knows, and lives in a holy fear of doing something that offends the Lord.
  5. I don’t want anyone to be able to tell if I’m a stronger or weaker brother. As you’ve read this post, perhaps you’ve tried to figure out which I am on various questions; I hope you can’t tell.  I want to be spiritual enough that you can’t tell if I have a delicate conscience or loving deference towards my brother.

So, realize that the one you think has restrictive standards is one who has a tender conscience and is fearful of offending the Lord.  He is not a legalist teaching a false gospel to you.  Learn to appreciate his delicate conscience, it is that way because he loves the Lord.  I’m convinced that if the things mentioned above are learned, much conflict and frustration will be alleviated in families and churches.

5 Responses

  1. Thank you for writing this. I think you are absolutely right!

    I have two questions from a practical standpoint:

    What happens when the “weaker brother” does not see the issue as a “gray area,” but as a dogmatic, Biblical principle? The weaker brother often looks at an issue and says, “It’s not a matter of conscience, it’s a matter of Biblical Conviction!” Once I have convinced myself that my position is the one that God would hold, then, how can you be anything other than a God-hating liberal for not holding it?

    On the other hand, what happens when the “stronger brother” does not see the “gray area” as being an issue at all? You rightly state that it is the responsibility of the stronger to defer to the conscience of the weaker. But what if the conscience of the weaker is “offended” by the absurd? For instance, there are some weaker brothers who, in their desire to avoid worldliness, believe it is wrong for preachers to wear colored dress shirts in the pulpit. Do I need to defer to them? Surely it would be nearly impossible to defer to every weaker brother’s personal standards.
    How does the stronger brother know when to defer or when to tell the weaker brother that it’s no big deal and he just needs to get over it?

    • Good points/questions!

    • I don’t know that a weaker brother has the ability to recognize that his standard is actually a preference/principle and not a conviction/mandate. If he had the ability to accurately interpret Scripture, he would probably arrive at the proper conclusion, Paul indicates that a characteristic of the weaker brother is a lack of knowledge (1st Corinthians 8:7). Frankly, I don’t know of a weaker brother who recognizes himself as such; that is likely why the passages are addressed to stronger brothers. In my own life, over years of study and growth, I have come to realize that some of the standards that I used to hold were mostly tradition and not based on solid exposition and application; some of those standards I still hold and simply can’t change, but I have come to realize that my brother who does not have the same practice is not a libertine.

      I don’t believe Paul expected the most delicate conscience of an outspoken individual to restrict the entire church. 2nd Timothy 2:23-26 is probably the best response that I can give. Patience, Biblical teaching, and prayer for that individual is probably the only solution.

      Practically speaking, the weaker brother will probably bring unintentional isolation on himself because the stronger brothers will – in obedience to Paul’s guidance – not do anything in front of him to wound his conscience. So, they may avoid his presence.

      The matter of deference is probably on a case by case basis. After knowing someone for a brief time, I can usually discern his motives and will act accordingly. If he is a belligerent individual with an assertive drive to impose his standards on everyone else, I would probably address spirit. If, on the other hand, he has a meek, teachable, and faithful spirit, I will be far more likely to patiently defer to his scruples – he will likely keep growing.

      I think all of your questions have been validated by some of the responses that I’ve seen to my article on facebook. We must be Spirit-led, Scriptural, patient, and charitable.

      Much more could be discussed…

      • Thank you for replying. You made some connections I’d never considered! Very true!

  2. Great article. Wish I had had copies of it to hand out in my college days….

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