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.