Monthly Archives: May 2014

Unity: Private Legalism vs Public Legalism

This is part of a series of posts on the doctrine of Unity. Click here to see the entire series.


Private, personal legalism is acceptable to God.  As long as the weaker brother makes no effort to force his own rules of legalism upon others, there is no problem.  There is huge problem the moment a weaker brother makes his rules of personal legalism normative for the stronger brother.  In that case, all of the rules of personal legalism are to be ignored.  The sin of the Pharisees was not that they had created a system of laws for themselves to keep them from breaking actual biblical law.  The problem of the Pharisees was that they put the burden of obedience to their own personal laws upon all of the people of God.  This has direct application to evangelical churches today.

How many of our churches have elevated weaker brother doctrines to the position of authority?  I recognize that almost no one actually engages in biblical discipline but, how many of our churches practice informal discipline in the form of shunning, gossip, and slander against anyone who would dare to not conform to the legalistic rules of the church?  What if a person does not have the right hairstyle?  What if a person does not wear the right clothes?  What if a person does smoke, drink, dance, go to the movies, and otherwise engage in behaviors that the legalist finds objectionable?  Is it not the case that a real, informal, pressure is brought to bear to try and get that person to conform to the unwritten rules?  Is it not true that these issues are often considered to be some of the most important things that the church does?   We all know this is true.  I have talked to hundreds of people who have told me how they have modified behaviors that were sterling examples of Christian liberty in order to conform to the standards of public legalism that existed in their church.  Inevitably they tell me that they did so in order to “avoid conflict”.  But is that a conflict that should be avoided?

I don’t think so.  If  stronger brother believers are being informally punished for non-conformity to public legalism I believe they have a duty to break those rules and bring the issue into the public eye.  The church needs to be led by the spiritually mature.  Never challenging the immense codes of public legalism that many churches operate under is a sure guarantee that the church will never make progress in spiritual maturity.  Entrenched standards of public legalism must be challenged and overthrown if any progress in sanctification is ever going to be made.

Conclusion to Conflicts Due to Weaker Brother Issues

There are hundreds of weaker brother doctrines and behaviors.  No person is free of weaker brother beliefs and practices.  However, every believer is somewhere along a continuum of maturity based upon the number of weaker brother doctrines he practices.  The fewer the incidences of weaker brother doctrines, the greater the opportunity for spiritual maturity.  Conversely, the greater the incidence of weaker brother doctrines, the lesser the opportunity for spiritual maturity.  In general, the leaders of the church should be relatively free from weaker brother doctrines.  But, it must be remembered that no man is completely free of weaker brother doctrines and to hold that up as a standard for leadership in the church is ridiculous.

Most believers are totally unaware of the category of conflict associated with weaker brother doctrines.  In the eyes of most believers, disputes are either something that should cause a church split or they are unimportant.  This examination of conflicts founded in weaker brother issues has dramatically shown that there is no biblical reason for a church split to take place over weaker brother issues.  On the other hand, the previous section on conflicts due to sin dramatically illustrated that the false believers must be removed from the church by the process of church discipline.  Besides these two options, there is no other.  There is no category entitled “split for the sake of unity”.  There is no category entitled “go to a church that has doctrinal distinctives that you agree with”.  Quite the contrary, we have seen that the weaker members of the church are what strengthen it by giving the stronger brothers an opportunity to exercise agape-love.  Simply put, the twin practices of church discipline in cases of sin and mutual acceptance in cases of weaker/stronger brother disputes are the key to biblical unity.   If all conflicts are resolved by means of these two procedures there will be unity among believers.

Before moving on to a third source of conflict it is worth taking a moment to think about some of the weaker brother doctrines that have divided our churches.

Unity: The Sixth and Seventh Principles of the Weaker Brother

This is part of a series of posts on the doctrine of Unity. Click here to see the entire series.


Romans 14: 5 says, “One man regards one day above another, another regards ever day alike.  Let each man be fully convinced in his own mind.”  This is another crucial principle in the weaker brother doctrine that is totally ignored in our churches today.  The sixth principle of the weaker brother doctrine is that both the weaker brother and the stronger brother are to be fully convinced of the truth of their positions in their own minds.

Any elementary student of logic realizes that this principle creates a logical dilemma.  It is not possible for two men to have mutually contradictory doctrinal positions and both of them be correct.  Either one is right and the other is wrong, or both might be wrong.  However, it is not possible that both of them could be correct.  Why would Paul establish a principle that necessarily involves a logical contradiction?

This principle, more than any of the other weaker brother principles, must be understood in order to fully understand biblical unity.  Paul allows for a behavioral principle that necessarily establishes an intellectual self-contradiction because, when dealing with weaker brother issues, behavior is more important than belief.  Verse 3 clearly states that God has accepted both the weaker brother and the stronger brother, despite the fact that their intellectual positions are mutually exclusive.  This is a concept that the evangelical of today is incapable of understanding or accepting.  Anyone who has been steeped in the principles of the sanctity of “division for the sake of unity” cannot comprehend how two men could both be fully convinced in their minds of a mutually exclusive doctrine and still remain united.  However, they can and must remain united because, in weaker brother issues, behavior is more important than doctrine.

In the earlier discussion on conflicts due to sin it was necessarily the case that doctrine was more important than behavior.  It is not possible for a man to hold to the doctrines of Unitarianism and not be subject to excommunication, no matter how sanctified a life he appears to have.  With conflicts due to sin it is sometimes necessary to separate from one another by means of the judicial decision of excommunication.  All of this changes when we come to conflicts due to weaker brother issues.  The failure of the Church to recognize this change has brought about tremendous devastation to the unity of the Church throughout Church history.

Consider for a moment the undisputable fact that God accepts both parties in a weaker brother conflict even though they hold mutually exclusive positions.  If God accepts both parties, who are we to not accept one of them?  Who are we to pretend to be smarter than God and throw one of the parties out of our church?  Who are we to divide the Body of Christ?  Who are we to say that church leaders are to be held to a higher standard of doctrine that recognizes a third class of elevated truths?  True believers who separate from one another over weaker brother issues have committed the sin of factionalism.  There is never any reason or excuse for separating from a true believer over a weaker brother doctrine.  There is never any reason for an elder to be qualified for office in one denomination while, at the same time, be unqualified for office in another denomination.

The simple fact that many Christians simply refuse to acknowledge is that many of our cherished denominational distinctives are not all that important.  If they were, God would never have commanded that each party to the dispute be fully convinced of the truth of his position.  If they were, God would never have commanded that men who hold mutually exclusive doctrinal positions remain united to each other.  If they were, God would never have described the separation that weaker and stronger brothers practice as the sin of factionalism.  Unfortunately, many church leaders have staked their entire careers on fighting for a weaker/stronger brother doctrine.  That is a fight that never should have been fought.  That is a fight that is actually working contrary to the purposes of God with His Church.  That is a fight that must immediately cease if we are to expect any blessing from God.

The doctrine of baptism is one of the greatest examples of a weaker brother doctrine in our time.  This single doctrine has divided millions of believers and tens of thousands of churches from each other.  Hundreds of books have been written and countless hours of study, debate, and argument have been dedicated to the doctrine of baptism.  You would think that a doctrine as important as baptism would be vitally important to the leaders of the apostolic church, wouldn’t you?  Here is what the Apostle Paul had to say about baptism, “I thank God that I baptized none of you except Crispus and Gaius, that no man should say you were baptized in my name. Now I did baptize also the household of Stephanas; beyond that, I do not know whether I baptized any other”!  (I Corinthians 1: 14-16)  Now does that sound like a man who would be pleased with churches dividing over the doctrine of baptism?  Baptism was so relatively unimportant to Paul that he could not even remember who he had baptized.

This principle also tends to counteract a tendency that exists in both the weaker and the stronger brother.  The weaker brother tends to expect the stronger brother to change his opinion in the light of the revelation of his weakness in that area.  In other words, when I am informed by a weaker brother that it would violate the principles of his conscience if he were to drink alcohol, he usually expects me to respond to that revelation by promising to agree with him and never drink again.  As I showed before, that is foolishness.  I am fully entitled to remain fully convinced in my own mind that drinking is not a sin.  What I am not permitted to do is behave in such a way that the conscience of the weaker brother is injured.  The issue is an issue of behavior, not belief.

On the other hand, the stronger brother has no right to tell the weaker brother that it is his responsibility to “grow up” into agreement with the stronger brother view.  This is a particularly notorious problem in Reformed churches where a strong emphasis is put upon the beliefs of each individual.  Hundreds of times I have heard the statement out of Reformed pastors that it is the duty of the members of the church to “make progress” in their understanding of some particular doctrine that is not essential for salvation.  By “make progress” they simply mean that the weaker brother has to eventually come to agree with the position of the church, the pastor and the confession.  To this Paul clearly says, let each man be fully convinced in his own mind.  Although the weaker brother is in an inferior position (because of his weakness), he is not a second-class believer.  God has accepted both the stronger and the weaker brother.

Now, does this mean that the weaker brother should never be challenged to examine his position?  As I pointed out before, of course not!  The weaker brother and the stronger brother should continually challenge each other with respect to their views.  What this principle does mean is that they should accept each other.  There should be no separation.  There should be no attempt to force or coerce a weaker brother to change his view.  Once he has become fully convinced in his own mind that his view is correct, so be it.  To try and force the weaker brother to violate the principles of his own conscience is a sin (the seventh principle) and the stronger brother must respect the right of the weaker brother to hold, defend and teach his position.

Sometimes a doctrine comes up in which it is difficult to determine who is the weaker brother and who is the stronger brother (of course, in my own mind it is always perfectly clear).  Baptism is a good example of such a doctrine.  Although a few churches hold the extreme position that their doctrine of baptism is necessary for salvation, I believe most would agree that the doctrine of baptism is a weaker brother issue.  But, who is the weaker brother–the believer baptist or the infant baptist?  For all practical purposes, it doesn’t matter.  Remember, behavior is more important than belief with this weaker brother doctrine.  Both parties in the dispute are required to respect the other view.  Both are required to not judge the other view.  Both are required to accept a person who holds the other view.  Both parties are to be fully convinced in their own minds.  Both are required to remain united, despite their differences of opinion about the doctrine. God has accepted both positions, who are we to act differently?

The Seventh Principle of the Weaker Brother

Romans 14: 13 says, “Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this–not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way.”  Paul goes on in verses 14-23 to explain the doctrine of the “stumbling block”.  What is a stumbling block?

First of all, the concept of stumbling block does not mean causing a weaker brother to commit an actual biblical sin.  The common evangelical error with the concept of a stumbling block fails to recognize this truth.  According to evangelicals, if I speak to a married woman I will put a stumbling block in front of a weaker brother and he will commit adultery shortly thereafter.  As should be obvious by now, Paul is not talking about doctrines that are related to actual sin.  Paul is talking about weaker brother doctrines where the sin that is committed is the sin of violating the principles of one’s own conscience.  Verses 22 and 23 say, “The faith which you have, have as your own conviction before God.  Happy is he who does not condemn himself in what he approves.  But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and whatever is not from faith is sin.”  There is no way that actual biblical sins could be in mind in what Paul is saying.

This reality raises the interesting probability of a weaker brother believing the wrong thing for the right reason.  If what the weaker brother believes is wrong (it is a sin to drink), but he is fully convinced that it is true and he makes the decision to not drink by faith, he is not drinking for the right reason.  Conversely, in this case the weaker brother would sin if he were to do the right thing (drink alcohol).  Why?  Because his drinking would not be of faith.  All of this conclusively proves that weaker brother doctrines are all about behavior, not belief.

To put a stumbling block in the way of a weaker brother is to behave (not believe) in such a way as to encourage him to violate the principles of his own legalistic conscience and, thereby, create a crisis of faith for him.  To drink wine in the presence of a weaker brother who has declared his weakness to me is to put a stumbling block in front of him.  If he stumbles and drinks wine he has committed no biblical sin.  However he has sinned because he violated the principles of his own conscience and engaged in an action that was not from faith.  It is my responsibility, as a stronger brother, to never put a stumbling block in the way of a weaker brother.  As I mentioned earlier, it is the responsibility of the weaker brother to tell me what his weaknesses are; otherwise I might cause him to stumble inadvertently (in which case it would be the fault of the weaker brother for not disclosing his weakness).  It is the responsibility of the stronger brother to never engage in any behavior that might cause the weaker brother to sin against the principles of his own conscience.  It is the responsibility of the stronger brother to accept the opinions of the weaker brother and not try to coerce him into stronger brother behavior.  The stronger brother has the greater responsibility because he is in the superior position.

One last thing the stronger brother must do is determine if the legalism of the weaker brother is an example of private, personal legalism or the legalism of the Pharisees.

Unity: The Fifth Principle of the Weaker Brother

This is part of a series of posts on the doctrine of Unity. Click here to see the entire series.


I Corinthians 10: 27-29 says, “If one of the unbelievers invites you, and you wish to go, eat anything that is set before you, without asking questions for conscience’ sake. But if anyone should say to you, ‘This is meat sacrificed to idols,’ do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for conscience’ sake; I mean not your own conscience, but the other man’s.”   This passage establishes the principle that it is the responsibility of the weaker brother to attempt to remain ignorant of the stronger brother’s liberty.

This principle is designed to counteract the natural tendency of the weaker brother to become a busy-body and seek out violations of his own personal rules of behavior.  As is true of most believers, the weaker brother strongly desires to feel superior to others.  With his own personal code of legalism he has a powerful tool to accomplish the goal of self-righteousness.  When the weaker brother doctrine is corrupted to the position of asserting that stronger brother must forever and always abandon any behavior that could possibly be considered motivated by liberty, the weaker brother has a strong incentive to seek out as many cases of “offense” as he can.  The more cases he can find the more personal power he develops.  When the weaker brother spots an violation of his personal code of morality he is quick to point it out to the stronger brother and then wait around to see if the stronger brother will do the “right” thing and forever abandon that behavior.  This principle makes it clear that the weaker brother is to use his energy to avoid contact with things that offend him rather than seeking out offensive behaviors.

Notice that Paul tells the stronger brother to eat what is set before him without asking questions.  Why would he say this?  The most reasonable explanation for this exhortation is to allow both the stronger and the weaker brother to remain ignorant of the source of the meat.  This is unimportant for the stronger brother as he would eat the meat regardless of its source.  This is vitally important for the weaker brother as it determines whether he could eat the meat at all.  The general principle for the weaker brother is this, seek to know as little about what is being done as possible so as to avoid a crisis of conscience.  Paul makes this very clear.  He is not worried about the conscience of the stronger brother.  No harm can be done to the conscience of the stronger brother regardless of the origin of the meat.  The weaker brother, on the other hand, can suffer a crisis of conscience if the meat had been sacrificed to idols.  Paul’s advice to the weaker brother is to make every effort possible to remain ignorant of the source of the meat so as to avoid a crisis of conscience.

Sadly, this principle is entirely ignored in evangelical churches today.  As a result, weaker brothers have risen to the places of authority and leadership in our churches.  The entire system of leadership has been turned on its head.  Allowing weaker brothers to control the private behavior of stronger brothers is a great sin.  When combined with the doctrines and practices of pietism, the net result of overturning this principle has been to turn the Keys of the Kingdom over to those who are least qualified to judge.  In most cases the weaker brothers who find themselves in positions of authority are quick to judge believers for violations of their own personal code of conduct.  In other cases, where actual sin is involved, weaker brothers will rarely, if ever, render a biblical judicial decision.  That is why I stated earlier that any man in a leadership position in the church who is unwilling or unable to render a biblical judicial decision should resign his position immediately.  The final consequence of the abandonment of this principle is the status of perpetual infancy among the members of the church.  A church that is led by weaker brothers is never going to grow into spiritual maturity.  It is not surprising that most of our churches are perpetually drinking milk.

Unity: The Fourth Principle of the Weaker Brother

This is part of a series of posts on the doctrine of Unity. Click here to see the entire series.


Romans 14: 3 says, “…and let not him who does not eat judge him who eats, for God has accepted him.”  The weaker brother has the responsibility to refrain from rendering a judgment against the liberty of the stronger brother.  This is a vitally important point in the life of the body.  Unfortunately this principle has been widely ignored in evangelical churches today.  Why?

Once again the influence of psychology has distorted biblical truth.  Largely due to an extreme overemphasis upon the importance of the emotions, the Church has adopted the view of the weaker brother as a victim.  When I am told that I may no longer speak with married women because there is a possibility that there might be a weaker brother around somewhere who would take my liberty to speak with married women and turn it into a need to commit adultery, the weaker brother has been reduced to a impotent victim of his own inabilities and impulses.  We are told that as a weak, pitiful victim, the weaker brother is incapable of acting like an adult and should be relieved of all his personal responsibilities.  That would include his responsibility to not judge the liberty of the stronger brother.

This psychological distortion has created a perverse incentive for weaker brothers to try and control the behavior of stronger brothers.  We see the fruits of this perverse incentive in the daily life of believers when they run around looking for things to be offended by.  Oftentimes the claim is made that they are not personally offended by a behavior, but the possibility is always presented that a weaker brother could be around somewhere, and he would be offended.  Just to be on the safe side, I am told, it is necessary for me to cease the behavior that I am engaging in.  I have had this distorted argument used against me by people who were trying to stop me from smoking, drinking, and talking to married women.

I Corinthians 10: 23-30 elaborates upon this topic when it says:

All things are lawful, but not all things are profitable.  All things are lawful, but not all things edify.  Let no one seek his own good, but that of his neighbor.  Eat anything that is sold in the meat market, without asking questions for conscience’ sake; for the earth is the lord’s and all it contains.  If one of the unbelievers invites you, and you wish to go, eat anything that is set before you, without asking questions for conscience’ sake.  But if anyone should say to you, “This is meat sacrificed to idols,” do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you, and for conscience’ sake;  I mean not you own conscience, but the other man’s; for why is my freedom judged by another’s conscience?  If I partake with thankfulness, why am I slandered concerning that for which I give thanks?

There is a lot going on in this passage and I will come back to parts of it in later points.  For now it is important to consider the statement, “why is my freedom judged by another’s conscience?  If I partake with thankfulness, why am I slandered concerning that for which I give thanks?”  That phrase gets to the heart of the prohibition of the weaker brother to judge the stronger brother for his liberty.  It should be obvious to all that Paul is asking a rhetorical question when he asks, “why is my freedom judged by another’s conscience?” .  The answer that he expects to get is, “your freedom is not judged by another’s conscience!”  When he asks, “why am I slandered concerning that for which I give thanks?” the answer he expects to get back is, “because the weaker brother is wrongly judging you!”

In evangelicalism today it is considered almost impossible for a weaker brother to slander a stronger brother.  In fact, evangelicalism strongly teaches that the freedom of each individual is to be  judged by the conscience of the weaker brother.  The case of drinking alcohol illustrates the point well.  Most Christians are terrified of drinking alcohol in public.  They have been trained for years that a good Christian would never drink in public because it is possible that there might be a weaker brother around somewhere who would see them drinking and immediately use that as an excuse to run out and get drunk!  In other words, the liberty of the stronger brother is to be held in bondage by the possibility that there might be a weaker brother around somewhere.

To make matters much worse, there are hundreds of believers who are ready, willing and able to be on police patrol to protect the weaker brother.  These folks all deny that they would ever be caused to stumble by the behaviors they are seeking to stamp out.  Nevertheless, they insist their motivations are purely altruistic as they scour the earth looking for things that might offend the phantom weaker brother.  What happens when an offending behavior is discovered?

Slander!  Slander is best defined as the rendering of an informal judicial decision without the benefit of a trial and often without the alleged perpetrator even being aware that he is on trial.  When I am seen speaking to a married woman and one of the weaker brother police sees me doing so, what happens?  I think we all know since we have seen it hundreds of times in our churches.  The weaker brother policeman gets on the phone to the other members of the church and announces that I am guilty of causing a weaker brother to stumble by talking to a married woman.  In one outrageous instance I was said to have been guilty of “emotional adultery” (emotional adultery differs from physical adultery, or so I was told, in that no sexual relations take place but intimate emotions are exchanged…kind of makes me wonder if it is possible to purchase protection from the exchange of intimate emotions down at the drug store)  because I spoke to a married woman.  All weak-willed Christians are soon sucked into the amalgam of gossip and slander.  To all of this Paul says, “why am I slandered concerning that for which I give thanks?”

It is crucial to understand that, just as the stronger brother has a natural tendency towards spiritual pride, the weaker brother has a natural tendency to render informal judicial decisions (slander) against the stronger brother for breaking the weaker brother’s legalistic rules.  This exhortation for the weaker brother to not judge the stronger brother is designed to counteract that natural tendency.

Two important corollaries of this principle come out of the passage in I Corinthians 10.  The first corollary is that the weaker brother has the duty and responsibility to inform the stronger brother of his weakness.  Verse 28 says, “But if anyone should say to you, ‘This is meat sacrificed to idols’, do not eat it, for the sake of the one who informed you.”  This is a crucial point in weaker brother/stronger brother relationships that is entirely ignored today.  It is not possible for a stronger brother to be aware of every possible weakness of a weaker brother.  Furthermore, the stronger brother is unable to amend his behavior unless the weaker brother informs him that he is weak.  Removing this little responsibility from the weaker brother is what has led evangelicals today to prohibit all Christian liberty in public on the outside chance that there might be a weaker brother present.  That is foolishness.  It is the responsibility of the weaker brother to reveal his weakness to the stronger brother before any behavior can be amended.

The man in Corinth who was eating in the temple restaurant was free to do so.  As Paul said, “if you wish to go, eat anything that is set before you”.  This man had the liberty to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols without violating his conscience.  He was free to enjoy the food that God had provided.  He was free to enjoy the food without being slandered for eating it.  But eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols was a difficult thing for many believers to do, especially for Jewish believers.  Years of training and the prohibition of all types of idolatry would make it impossible for many weaker brothers to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols.  So how is the stronger brother to know what to do?

It is the responsibility of any weaker brother present in the restaurant to inform the stronger brother of his weakness in order to allow the stronger brother to voluntarily cease eating the meat so as not to put a stumbling block in front of the weaker brother.  Unless a weaker brother comes forward and confesses his weakness, the stronger brother is free to eat and enjoy.  Also notice that no weaker brother police are allowed to come up to the stronger brother and tell him there is a possibility that there might be a weaker brother somewhere who could be offended by what he was doing.  That was recognized then, as it should be now, as a sinful attempt to control the behavior of another person.  Once that weaker brother has informed the stronger brother of his weakness it is the duty of the stronger brother to never again eat meat sacrificed to idols in the presence of that weaker brother.

The second corollary to this principle has to do with the suspension of Christian liberty on the part of the weaker brother.  When, and for how long, is he required to suspend his liberty for the sake of the weaker brother?  The answer given by evangelicals is a simple one.  They assert that any behavior that could possibility offend some weaker brother (although they are not one) must be stopped in all places for all time.  That position is nonsense.  How could that position possibly be true in light of what Paul said in Colossians 2 about refusing to submit to the legalistic decrees of others?  The evangelical position can’t be true, and it isn’t.

The stronger brother should suspend the exercise of his Christian liberty anytime a weaker brother informs him of his weakness and should continue to do so until the weaker brother changes his opinion (he might never change his opinion and that is OK as well).  However, the suspension of liberty on the part of the stronger brother should only be done when he is in the presence of the weaker brother.  Although it is a popular notion in evangelicalism today, the notion that a weaker brother can somehow force a stronger brother to not drink a beer in the privacy of his own home is ridiculous.  When the stronger brother is not in the physical presence of the weaker brother he is free to exercise his Christian liberty as he sees fit.

Unity: The Second and Third Principles of the Weaker Brother

This is part of a series of posts on the doctrine of Unity. Click here to see the entire series.


Romans 14: 1 says, “Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions.”  Believers who are weak in faith are burdened with numerous extra-biblical rules of behavior.  Being around a person who has a long list of rules of morality can be a frustrating experience.  Rather than trying to establish a relationship with a weaker brother, it is often easier to simply ignore him.  If it is not possible to ignore him the next tendency of the frustrated stronger brother is to try to drive him away by continually judging him for all of his personal rules of behavior.  It is in this context that Paul instructs the stronger brother to “accept” the weaker brother and not for the purpose of judging all of his strange behaviors.

Does this principle of acceptance of weakness preclude any possibility of ever challenging a weaker brother about his beliefs?  The answer to that question revolves around the definition of the word ‘accept’.  Unfortunately in our society we have been strongly influenced by popular psychology.  The meaning of the word ‘accept’ has been subtly changed due to this influence.  To accept someone today has come to mean to affirm someone.  If an individual is not given positive reinforcement, if he is not “nurtured”, or if he is not made to feel “warm” (I have never understood what that means), it is said that he has not been accepted.  But this is not the biblical concept of acceptance.

Romans 15: 7 says, “Wherefore, accept one another, just as Christ also accepted us to the glory of God.”  To accept another person has nothing to do with the emotions of the people involved.  Acceptance is primarily a formal or legal standing that one person has in the presence of another.  We have been accepted by Christ so we are expected to accept all other believers.  Christ’s acceptance of us was not related to His emotions in any way.  In the same way, our acceptance of the weaker brother is not related to our emotional response to him in any way.  In fact, that is why Paul adds the exhortation to not let our emotions get the better of us and lead us into passing judgment upon the weaker brother’s strange opinions.

So it is entirely possible to accept the weaker brother while at the same time question him about his beliefs and behaviors.  The mere fact that he is a weaker brother does not give him an automatic pass out of all challenging conversations.  It is also entirely possible to accept someone while at the same time telling him that you believe he is in error.   In our emotionally namby-pamby culture it is considered rude and unkind to tell someone that you believe his opinion is incorrect.  That too, is a by-product of unbiblical psychology.  But is telling a weaker brother that you believe his opinions are incorrect a violation of the prohibition to judge his opinions?

In this case it is important to understand what is meant by the word ‘judge’.  If ‘judge’ simply means “to frame an opinion about” something, then it is impossible to not judge the beliefs of the weaker brother.  Judgment, in the sense of forming an opinion about an idea, is inevitable.  It is something that the brain does automatically in every situation where it is engaged.  It must surely be the case that when Paul prohibits passing judgment upon the beliefs of the weaker brother he could not be saying that it is wrong to recognize that those very beliefs are, in fact, weaker brother beliefs; for that requires the passing of a judgment.  Without that level of judgment taking place it would be impossible to determine who the weaker brother is.  Paul must be thinking of something else.

The forbidden judgment of the weaker brother’s opinions is tied into the mandate to accept him.  Once the weaker brother has been received as a believer in good standing in the church, it is forbidden to judge him by ridiculing or acting contemptuously towards him.  That brings us to the third principle of the weaker brother.

The Third Principle of the Weaker Brother

Romans 14: 3 says, “Let not him who eats regard with contempt him who does not eat…”  This passage gets to the heart of the problem that developed in the second principle.  A stronger brother is guilty of judging the opinions of the weaker brother when he holds the weaker brother in contempt for his personal opinions.

My dictionary defines ‘contempt’ as “the feeling in which anyone regards something as worthless”.  That is a very good description of the feelings of the stronger brother when he examines the practices of the weaker brother.  The stronger brother examines the weaker brother’s rule about never drinking and rightly determines that, for him, it is worthless.  For the stronger brother, a rule against drinking will not aid him in any way in avoiding drunkenness.  Since the stronger brother does not need the extra-biblical rule he wrongly considers it to be worthless.  The real sin of the stronger brother in this case is the sin of not loving the weaker brother by considering him as more important than himself.  If the stronger brother was really considering the thoughts of the weaker brother he would realize that the rule against drinking is vitally important to the weaker brother.  Just because it is not important to the stronger brother does not mean it is not important to somebody.  By issuing a blanket declaration that the prohibition against drinking is worthless, the stronger brother effectively holds the weaker brother in contempt.  That is what Paul forbids the stronger brother to do.

This exhortation is designed to counteract the natural tendency of the stronger brother towards spiritual pride.  The stronger brother is an expert in exercising Christian liberty.  He is free to live according to the law of God and the law of God alone.  He needs no (or few) extra-biblical rules to aid him in his obedience.  It is very easy to take the knowledge that the rules of the weaker brother are of no value against fleshly indulgence and allow that knowledge to puff him up into a nice case of spiritual pride.  By telling the stronger brother to consider the fact that the extra-biblical rules of the weaker brother really are necessary for him, Paul ensures that the stronger brother will be forced to think the thoughts of the weaker brother and thus avoid spiritual pride.  Notice also that there is no time limit put upon this exhortation.  The stronger brother is to bear with the foibles of the weaker brother forever.  This is now getting to the heart of the passage in I Corinthians 12 which says, “On the contrary, it is much truer that the members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary; and those members of the body, which we deem less honorable, on these we bestow more abundant honor…whereas our seemly members have no need of it.”  The presence of the weaker brothers in the body give abundant opportunity for the stronger brothers to exercise the cardinal virtue of agape-love.

The weaker brother, however, is not exempt from personal responsibility just because he is weak.  In the body, nobody is ever given a free ride.  All members of the body have rights and responsibilities.  The fourth principle of the weaker brother gets at the responsibility of the weaker brother in this interaction.

Unity: The First Principle of the Weaker Brother

This is part of a series of posts on the doctrine of Unity. Click here to see the entire series.


Romans 14: 1-2 says, “Now accept the one who is weak in faith, but not for the purpose of passing judgment on his opinions.  One man has faith that he may eat all things, but he who is weak eats vegetables only.”  The first principle of the weaker brother is clearly stated here.  The weaker brother is a true believer who creates extra-biblical rules.  In this particular case the weaker brother has created a new moral rule for himself.  His rule states that it is a sin for him to eat meat.  Paul describes the man who creates the extra-biblical rule that it is a sin to eat meat as being “weak in faith”.  The Bible does not prohibit the eating of meat (I Corinthians 6).  Furthermore, the Bible does not prohibit the eating of particular types of meat (Acts 10).  Nevertheless, there are some people who, for a variety of psychological reasons, find it emotionally difficult, or even impossible, to eat meat.  For these people the consumption of meat would cause their conscience to come to the conclusion that they had sinned.  This dynamic has far reaching implications.

The most significant point that can be drawn from the principle that declares that the weaker brother is the person who creates extra-biblical rules of morality is that the practice of personal, private legalism is not prohibited in Scripture.  In fact, the weaker brother is defined by the fact that he practices personal legalism.  Most evangelicals will not understand that sentence because they do not understand the word ‘legalism’.  I need to take a moment to define ‘legalism’.

Legalism, as modern, evangelical, antinomian heretics improperly define it, is the belief that the law of God contained in the Old Testament is still authoritative for believers.  I will have more to say about this in my essay on the Evangelical Heresies.  Modern evangelicals incorrectly reject the law of God because of their misunderstanding of grace and sanctification.  Any believer who comes along and asserts the orthodox Christian doctrine of the innerrancy, infallibility and applicability of the entire counsel of God, including the law of God in the Old Testament, is immediately accused of being a legalist.

Legalism, properly understood, is the practice of creating extra-biblical rules.  The Pharisees were experts at the practice of legalism.  The Pharisees had a tremendous respect for the law of God.  They realized that the consequences of disobedience to the law of God were severe.  Legalism can often be rooted in a healthy fear of God.  In order to make sure that the law of God was never broken, there was a natural temptation to erect barriers that would prevent a person from even coming close to breaking one of the revealed laws.  The legalist knows that lust is a sin.  The legalist formulates a new rule that says that going to the beach is a sin.  Why?  Because it is more likely that lust will take place at the beach.  The legalist knows that adultery is a sin. The legalist formulates a new rule that says that friendship with married females (other than the spouse) is a sin.  Why?  Because it is more likely that adultery will take place.  The legalist knows that envy is a sin.  The legalist formulates a new rule that says that window shopping is a sin.  Why?  Because it is more likely that envy will take place.  The legalist knows that drunkenness is a sin.  The legalist formulates a new rule that says that drinking is a sin.  Why?  Because drinking can lead to drunkenness.  The list can go on for hundreds of examples of legalism.

What is surprising about this first principle of the weaker brother is the fact that personal, private legalism is not prohibited.  In most examples found in the Bible, legalism is excoriated in the most severe fashion.  The Pharisees were largely condemned for their practice of legalism.  Paul rebuked the Galatians for returning to the legalistic ways of Judaism.  To suddenly come across a passage that not only permits but also encourages legalism should cause us to sit up and take notice.  The distinction between private legalism and public legalism is huge.  Legalism itself is an amoral activity.  It is the context in which the legalism is practiced that determines its morality.  If legalism remains personal and private, it is not a sin.  If legalism is  made public, it is a sin.

Colossians 2: 20-23 describes the sin of public legalism:

If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourselves to decrees, such as, “Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” (which all refer to things destined to perish with the using)–in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men?  These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence.

Is Paul guilty of contradicting himself here?  He tells the Romans that the believer who creates man-made rules of morality is to be accepted but he tells the Colossians that man-made rules are of “no value against fleshly indulgence”.  Can both these statements be true?

Indeed they can, but only if the context is properly understood.  In Romans 14 Paul is speaking directly about the weaker brother principle.  The weaker brother is an inferior Christian (do not be a weaker brother and get offended by my use of the term “inferior”, it is simply a legal classification that recognizes the real “weakness” of the weaker brother).  As an inferior Christian, he believes in his own mind that these extra rules are necessary in his fight against fleshly indulgence.  Paul points out in the Colossians passage that the weaker brother happens to be in error in his belief.  The fact that he is in error, however, does not change the fact that he still believes that he needs his extra rules.  That is why Paul does not forbid extra-biblical rules in the private life.  The problem develops when weaker brother rules are established as a means of sanctification for all believers.  In that context Paul is adamant; weaker brother rules of behavior are of no value against fleshly indulgence and nobody is to be required to submit to them!

It is a sad commentary on the state of the Church in this country today when we realize that those who are most vociferous in their public practice of legalism tend to be promoted to positions of leadership in the Church.  Evangelicals have this terrible tendency to honor men according to the number of extra-biblical rules they follow.  The more rules, the more honor.  The exact opposite should be the case.  Christian liberty is the opposite of legalism.  The truly spiritually mature man lives in Christian liberty.  The truly spiritually mature man has the least number of weaker brother doctrines and practices.  We all are weaker brothers in some areas of our spiritual lives.  Nobody is a 100% stronger brother.  Maturity, however, should be defined as the absence of extra-biblical rules, not their presence.

One problematic issue with this first principle of the weaker brother revolves around the determination of who is actually weak.  I have met Baptists who insist that unless a person is subject to believer baptism, they are going to hell.  I have met Presbyterians who insist that unless a person is subject to infant baptism, they are going to hell.  One evangelical denomination has this statement in it’s doctrinal standards:  “The production and/or consumption of alcoholic beverages is a sin against God”.  This statement is there despite the preponderance of biblical evidence that says otherwise.  I have known of some pastors who believe that it is necessary to believe in the doctrine of the rapture to be saved.  Others have said that belief in the doctrine of the rapture is evidence that a person is not saved.  Without an authoritative Apostle to tell us who is weak and who is strong it is very likely that the weaker brother will insist that his position is really a stronger brother position.  I will expand on this problem and offer some possible solutions to it in what follows.

Unity: Weaker Brother Conflicts

This is part of a series of posts on the doctrine of Unity. Click here to see the entire series.


Another very common source of conflict between believers relates to the doctrine of the weaker/stronger brother.  We have seen how to resolve conflicts that involve biblical sins.  Private rebukes followed by the operational principles of Matthew 18 precisely describe how to resolve conflicts due to sin.  The principles of the weaker brother/stronger brother, in a similar fashion, precisely describe how to resolve conflicts that are not due to sinful behavior or doctrine.  The principle of the weaker/stronger brother is primarily presented in two chapters of the Bible.  Romans 14 and I Corinthians 10 deal specifically with the principle of the weaker/stronger brother.  An understanding of this principle will give us all that we need to know to resolve conflicts between believers that do not involve sin and that will also allow us to live together in true biblical unity.  As we saw with the principles in Matthew 18, there is never any allowance for the idea of the separation of true believers for the sake of unity.  Before examining the passages mentioned above we need to consider for a moment the popular understanding of the principle of the weaker/stronger brother.

Popular Conception of the Weaker/Stronger Brother Principle

In my experience I have seen that Christians tend to use the doctrine of the weaker/stronger brother (for brevity I will use “weaker brother” or “stronger brother” synonymously in this section) in two ways.  The first application of the principle of the weaker brother generally occurs when an individual is irritated by the behavior of another person.  As we all are aware, people are irritated by the behavior of others all the time.  Usually the offensive behavior is not related to sin.  “I do not like the way Joe clips his fingernails in the worship service.”  “I do not like the way Mary slurps her soup at the fellowship dinners.”  “I do not like the fact that your hair is long.”  “I do not like the clothes that you are wearing.” (Here I am assuming that the clothing is not immoral.)  “I do not like the way Smitty lets his kids run around the foyer after church services.”  “I do not like the tone of superiority Jack adopts when speaking to me about spiritual things.”  And on, and on, they go.  An opportunity for the misapplication of the weaker brother doctrine has arisen.

The invocation of the doctrine of the weaker brother will usually develop something like this:  “Yo, Joe, you know, like, we are not supposed to put a stumbling block in somebody’s way.  And, like, you know, like when you clip your nails in church, that could, like, cause me to stumble.”  Insert slurping soup, long hair, unfashionable clothing, boisterous children, and the “tone” that a person uses when speaking to others into the phrase above, and you have numerous examples of the “stumbling block” corollary of the weaker brother doctrine.  If we are honest with ourselves, it is not difficult to determine what is really going on.  The first misuse of the doctrine of the weaker brother is the common practice of using it as a means to try and control the behavior of others that we do not personally approve of.  It is a pseudo-theological way to say, “Stop doing that!”  The sinful motivations involved in leading us to the conclusion that we need to control the non-sinful behaviors of others will be discussed later in this series.

The second popular misuse of the doctrine of the weaker brother is also motivated by a desire to control the behavior of another person.  In this case, however, the doctrine is used in a slightly different fashion.  When I get irritated by the fact that your kids are running around the foyer after church (out of control, from my perspective), rather than tell you that it is causing me to stumble, I assert that it is possible that there is somebody, somewhere, who might stumble because of the behavior of your children.  This is a far more popular way to use the doctrine of the weaker brother because it allows a coward to hide behind the anonymous “somebody” who might be offended without ever having to say who the real person could be!

I have been informed that hundreds of my behaviors are offensive to weaker brothers all over the world while at the same time I have rarely been informed that my behavior offends the person who is bringing all of this to my attention.  I have been told that my drinking a beer at the New Year’s party, although it did not offend the person bringing this to my attention, could have offended a weaker brother somewhere and therefore, I should never drink beer again.  I have been told that my friendship with a married female, although not offensive to the person telling me this, could, nevertheless, be offensive to a weaker brother somewhere.  In fact, I was told, my behavior would cause the weaker brother to run out and commit adultery and the whole sordid affair would be my fault!  Therefore the only proper thing for me to do was renounce the female friend for eternity.  I have been told, by a person who insisted he was not personally offended by my behavior, that the “tone” I use when speaking to others in church is offensive.  As a result, weaker brothers everywhere could take offense and never come to the church again.  In order to make things right and never offend this phantom weaker brother again, I needed to either change my tone of stop speaking in church.

It is not difficult to see that this misuse of the doctrine of the weaker brother is just a more cowardly way to try and control the behavior of another.  What is really being said is more along the line of, “I can’t prove that you are committing a biblical sin but what you are doing really bugs me.  So, I am going to assert that there is a mythical weaker brother somewhere who would, no doubt, be offended by what you are doing.  Your only option in this case is to immediately cease what you are doing, for the sake of the phantom weaker brother, of course!”.  It is easy to see that the application of the doctrine of the weaker brother to a situation like this is little more than a veiled attempt to control the behavior of others.  It is a reprehensible and cowardly act dressed up like an act of a sanctified individual.

The evangelical understanding of the doctrine of the weaker brother is unclear and imprecise.  The doctrine is generally invoked in situations where one person wants to control the activities of another person.  The doctrine is commonly invoked in a vicious attempt to suppress true Christian liberty.  All of the misapplications are wrapped up in “God-words” in an attempt to make them sound biblical and sanctified.  It is worth an examination of the biblical doctrine of the weaker brother.  I have divided the weaker brother doctrine into seven principles.