My daughter, Katelynn, who is eleven, wants to start wearing make-up. I have a rule: No make-up at all until she is twelve. My wife does not agree with me. She thinks I am being legalistic. I can’t help it. That is just the way I think. I can justify it in ten different ways with my hands tied behind my back. The problem is that none of my justification is really that good. Most of the “good points” that I make are only decisive to me because of my emotionally charged tradition. When it is proper to wear make-up is one of those things that the Scripture does not speak on. My wife’s counter-argument makes sense too. However, I have scruples about the issue. These scruples bend my understanding and create their own passions.

Make-up is not the issue. I don’t want to go there. We all have scruples. That is not really a technical theological term, though it is in the dictionary. This is how it is defined: “An uneasy feeling arising from conscience or principle that tends to hinder action.” However, when it comes to our faith, scruples are hard to deal with. You have these militating  terms: grace and liberty.

When grace and liberty clash with “scruples,” more often than not, unfortunately, the scruples win. Why? Because unfortunately we are so told that we always need to sacrifice our liberty for the sake of the “weaker brethren”. This “weaker brethren” card is often pulled and legalists love it. In fact, it is used most often by those who are legalist wearing the disguise of those who are free. It is not that this card is always illegitimate. There are true weaker brethren. But in my experience, more often than not, the idea of “weaker brethren” is misused and abused. Result? Slavery.

I remember Chuck Swindoll talking about this saying: “Be careful, there are some people out there who are ‘professional weaker brethren.’”

“Kristie, I have scruples with this make-up thing. Maybe I cannot find a verse or a solid principle upon which to rest my head, but you need to be sensitive  and understanding to my hang-ups for the sake of my spirituality. One more year and my scruples will be gone.”

I highlighted some key words that legalists will use to manipulate the situation. “Sensitive,” “understanding,” “hang-ups,” “sake,” and most importantly, “my.”

We are guilted into sacrificing our liberty through some pretty sneaky manipulation.

“I don’t go to the movies because I don’t want to cause anyone to stumble.”

Often implied translation: “You should give up your liberty too if you want to do what is right like me.”

“I don’t ever drink alcohol because a weaker brethren might see me and fall into sin.”

Often implied translation:I have scruples with this issue and you should too.”

“If someone saw me befriending this person, they may think I am condoning their actions. Therefore, I sacrifice my liberty for the sake of their frailty.”

Often implied translation: “I can’t be friends with people who are that sinful.”

Of course we have our passage that we go to which justifies our self-imposed bondage: Romans 14.

“As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions” (Rom 14:1).

“So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats” (Rom 14:1).

Paul is talking about one who is “weak in faith”. In the example Paul gives, the person has scruples over the food that someone else was eating. Some were vegetarians and never ate meat. This was probably due to the meat’s connection to the idols. In this culture, the best and cheapest meat was that which was sold out the back door of temples. Because of the meat’s association with idolatry, many Christians thought that it was morally wrong to eat meat. But Paul makes it clear that it is not wrong: “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself” (14:1a). However, though there was nothing inherently wrong with eating meat (even if it had been sacrificed to an idol), if the person thought it was wrong, then it was wrong for them: “But it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean” (14:1). Therefore, when one of these “veggie only” guys was around, Paul encouraged believers to be sensitive to them due to their scruples. Otherwise, Paul says, we might cause them to “stumble” (i.e. they might see you doing what they think is wrong and do the same even though they think it is wrong). Paul considers the one who thought it was wrong to eat meat to be “weak in faith”.

However, we need to be careful here. While we certainly need to be sensitive to “weaker brothers and sisters”, we can take this too far. We are not obligated to bow our liberty to everyone who has a problem with our actions. It is very important to realize that a “weaker brother” is one who is truly weaker. He is weaker because he has not been educated in these issues. You must understand, he is not supposed to or expected to stay “weaker”. Eventually, he is needs to become stronger. Unfortunately, far too often these weaker brethren realize their power and become “professional weaker brethren.”

Don’t misread Paul by reading this one passage in isolation. Paul had no desire to compromise his liberty. We must temper the Romans passage with his message to the Galatians:

“But it was because of the false brethren secretly brought in, who had sneaked in to spy out our liberty which we have in Christ Jesus, in order to bring us into bondage. But we did not yield in subjection to them for even an hour, so that the truth of the gospel would remain with you” (2:4-5).

Here we have a situation where legalists are trying to impose their scruples turned law on Christians. They had a long list of unbiblical laws that they thought every Christian should abide by. But Paul would have none of it. I suppose that they should have played the “weaker brethren” card.

“Hey, Paul, you cannot do that or I will stumble.”

“Paul, what if there is someone who has scruples with what you are doing? Do you want them to stumble? Its better to just sacrifice your liberty.”

In fact, they may have played these cards. As I said, Paul did not put up with it. Not for a second. Why? Because when you do, the Gospel is lost. Notice Paul said he did not subject to them even for an hour “so that the truth of the gospel would remain with you.” Without liberty, there is no good news. Bondage only begets bondage. The Gospel is about being free.

But some people expect us to give up our liberty at every turn for the sake of “weaker brethren”. But think about this: If we were to give in to every so-called weaker brethren what would the result be? We would always be bowing to the least common denominator. Just about everything would be off-limits. Think of all the things people have scruples with:

1. Going to movies
2. Dancing
3. “Mixed” bathing
4. Caffeine
5. Tobacco
6. Reading Harry Potter
7. Reading C.S. Lewis
8. Saying “oh my God”
9. Wearing flip flops to church
10. Drinking alcohol
11. Reading any Bible translation other than the KJV
12. Listening to Rock music
13. Going to church on Saturday rather than Sunday
14. Making a purchase that others think is a sinful waste of money
15. Playing video games
16. Taking anti-depressants
17. Women wearing pants
18. Sending your kids to public schools
19. Homeschooling
20. Going to a “seeker” church

For all of these things, I really do have representatives in my life right now. Every one of them would be offended if I crossed their line. I actually have someone who thinks homeschooling is morally wrong. As well, I have someone who thinks that public schooling is morally wrong. Seeing as how we started homeschooling our kids this semester, how can I keep both of these from stumbling? Is it even my job to do so? If I were to follow this “no-offense” policy in my life, I would be completely immobile in this and a thousand other actions. So would you.

“It was for freedom that Christ set us free; therefore keep standing firm and do not be subject again to a yoke of slavery” (Gal 5:1).

We need to be sensitive, I know. But I am afraid that often our sensitivity only serves to fuel others’ faulty understanding and legalism. People will control you to the degree that you let them. If you allow this to go on without discernment, not only will you be immobile, but you will have lost your liberty. Lose liberty, lose the Gospel.

Believe it or not, there are people out there who hate our liberty and will do anything to make us lose it. They see the advantage of using the “weaker brethren” card, and use it to manipulate, control, and imprison others. Beware of “professional weaker brethren”.

C Michael Patton
C Michael Patton

C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger. Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I'm a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. Find him everywhere: Find him everywhere

    13 replies to "Beware of “Professional Weaker Brethern”"

    • bethyada

      A couple of useful quotes on this

      A weak conscience is an over-scrupulous conscience. And although, even when mistaken, it is not to be violated, it does need to be educated—John Stott


      If I’m called to preach the gospel among a lot of people who are cultural teetotallers, I’ll give up alcohol for the sake of the gospel. But if they start saying, “You cannot be a Christian and drink alcohol,” I’ll reply, “Pass the port” or “I’ll think I’ll have a glass of Beaujolais with my meal.”—Don Carson

    • Craig Bennett

      Hi Michael…can I suggest another to add to your list… The Tithe!

    • Eric S. Mueller

      Nice reminder. I remembered this the first time you posted it. I referred quite a few people to it.

      I heard a philosopher on the Veritas Forum podcast talk about rights. He mentioned our moral language has become so handicapped, we can only speak of things in terms of rights. I spent time thinking about that. I have noticed almost everything these days is considered a right, and most of them conflict with other rights. If you claim a right to homeschool, and another claims a right to expect your children to join theirs in public school, those rights conflict. They can’t be rights.

      Scruples are like that as well. When they conflict, they can’t be right.

      I completely agree with you, that the weaker brethren should be expected to grow and become stronger. I’m not sure why the church coddles people and lets them remain on milk for so long.

    • Martin Schmaltz

      Just a thought here: do we take this verse by Paul totally out of context? He was writing specifically regarding food offered to idols and those coming out of pagan cultures.

      Traditionally, i know it is taught we can apply “principles” of text to other situations, but is that valid here? It also comes from a modern North American paradigm. I would suggest we keep it simply in context. In many parts of the world, there is still food offerings made to idols, so this verse/principle would be appropriate in their context.

      Just a thought.

    • Truth Unites... and Divides

      I’m a complementarian weaker brother.

      Therefore, egalitarians must abandon their egalitarian practices.


      I’m a creationist weaker brother.

      Therefore, theistic evolutionists must abandon their theistic evolutionist teachings.

      I’m an inerrantist weaker brother.

      Therefore, errantists must abandon their teaching that Scripture is not inerrant.

    • Frederick Harrison

      By the “weaker brethren” doctrine no family should have solid food at the table or even in the house because the baby can’t or is not yet ready to eat it. But as the baby gets older solid food is both appropriate and necessary. Paul used this very analogy in his first epistle to the church at Corinth.

      The problem is that there are many Christians who want to remain spiritual infants because it (supposedly) absolves them of taking responsibility over certain behaviors or habits in their lives. Likewise there are many Christians who want to keep those less mature in the faith in a state of extended infancy or childhood in order to control them or exalt their “maturity” over them. (And these two dynamics take place in a dominant culture that desires to remain perpetual teenagers and persue the things of adolescence even into their retirement years.)

      It is one thing to reach for the port when confronted with a legalistic view on alcohol and quite another to acknowledge the staggering cost of alcohol addiction and abuse on human lives, but still affirm the goodness and benefits of alcohol when consumed under the spiritual fruit of self-control (a gift of the Spirit and not of ourselves, note!) and realize that all that separates you from the drunkard may be one drink consumed inappropriately.

    • Frederick Harrison

      “Can you drink the cup I am going to drink?” Matt.20:22 was a verse that just came to me after reading the article a second time. James and John wanted (perceived) prestige and power, but failed to grasp that it comes at a cost of greater responsibility, stronger demands upon them, and personal sacrifice, even unto death.

      So, too, your daughter’s request to wear make-up. Or the 11 year old boy who wants to get a .22 rifle. These are, in many ways, life or death issues.

      They want what they want and are immune to any explanation of what changes will be required in their lives and attitudes should they get what they desire.

      How do you explain the changes – and threats inherent – in how they will be perceived, and new behavior that must be demonstrated when they are thrust into situations that call for a greater maturity and self-control than they believe they now possess? Do they understand that any catastrophe/culpability that arises from claiming to be mature enough to be allowed to get/do what they want cannot be reversed by claiming they weren’t really mature enough after the worst happens? Responsibility has consequences.

      Jesus indicated that the decision to grant who would sit where was not his to make, but that of his Father alone. Is parental authority likewise a derived authority that seeks first the will of the Father over parental or societal desires, yet is still concerned with the overall effect on the local community?

    • What about Modesty?

      What do you in cases of modesty/immodesty? For instance, if your family isn’t comfortable with 2 piece swimsuits and you find yourselves unavoidably attending a swim event with another family who is obviously okay with the bikini wear, do you ask them to be a bit more modest for the sake of your teenage sons/husband in the family? Or would this be imposing your scruples onto a “stronger” family who is enjoying their freedom and “liberty” in Christ.

    • Don Sartain

      I love this! Thank you for so clearly addressing the issues of BOTH liberty and GLAD submission for the sake of the gospel.

    • Wolf Paul

      So Michael, when does your daughter get to wear make-up?

    • mike shannon

      Thanks Michael…as always…good stuff!

    • Fletch

      Michael…just stumbled across this posting. Had a similar discussion last week with a friend. My analogy was from the gym. We don’t stop our workout, because we are afraid of the weaker member? We don’t tell them to avoid heavy weights. We take the time to train them and help them build their muscles. We don’t want them to remain weak, but to build strength. Right? They watch us exercising and it encourages them to bulk up for themselves.
      P.S. I don’t go to the gym. I’m a Christian. 🙂

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