When my daughter Katelynn was eleven, she wanted to start wearing make-up. I had a rule: No make-up at all until she is twelve. My wife did not agree with me. She thought I was being legalistic. I could not help it. That is just the way I thought. I could justify it in ten different ways with my hands tied behind my back. The problem is that none of my justification is really black or white or that compelling. This is one of the many things that the Scripture does not speak on. My wife’s arguments made plenty of sense. However, I had 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. Scruples are the issue. We all have scruples. “Scruples”: it 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 we are so quick to sacrifice our liberty for “weaker brethren.” Yes, this “weaker brethren” card is often pulled and legalists love it. In fact, it is used most often by those who are legalists wearing the disguise of those who are free. It is not that this card is illegitimate—it is not as if there are not true weaker brethren we need to be concerned with—but it is abused and the result is 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 theological 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 keywords that legalists will use to manipulate the situation. “Sensitive,” “understanding,” “hang-ups,” “sake,” and most importantly, “my.”
From the other side, liberty is so often sacrificed.
“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 be spiritual 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.”
Okay, to the passage: Romans 14.
“As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions” (Rom 14:1 ESV).
“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 ESV).
You see, here Paul is talking about one who is “weak in faith” and who has scruples over the food that someone else was eating. Some were vegetarians and did not eat meat at all (probably because of its connection to idol temples). They thought that it was morally wrong to eat meat. Paul makes it clear that it is not wrong in and of itself: “I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself” (14:1a). However, because someone thinks it is wrong, for them it may be: “But it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean” (14:1). Therefore when one of these “veggie only” guys is around, be careful or you might cause him to stumble (i.e. he will see you eating meat, and do what he believes to be wrong).
However, we can take this too far. I don’t think we are obligated to bow our liberty to everyone who has a problem with our actions. A “weaker brother” is one who is truly weaker, not just one who has a misguided interpretation of things. He is weaker because he has not been educated on these issues. You must understand, that he is not supposed to or expected to stay “weaker.” Eventually, he is supposed to become stronger. Unfortunately, far too often these weaker brethren realize their power and become “professional weaker brethren.”
Don’t misread Paul. He certainly had no desire to compromise his liberty. We must temper the Romans passage with 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).
These “false brethren” 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?”
In fact, they may have played these exact cards. However, 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.
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. All actions would be off-limits. Think of all the things people have scruples with:
1. Going to movies
3. Working on certain days of the week
4. Leaving church windows open (yes, that is a thing)
6. Mixed bathing
7. Watching Yellowstone
8. Reading C.S. Lewis (because he denied inerrancy)
9. Sending my kids to public schools
10. Wearing flip-flops to church
11. Drinking alcohol
12. Reading any Bible other than the KJV
13. Listening to Rock music
14. Going to church on Saturday rather than Sunday
15. Making a purchase that others think is a sinful waste of money
16. Playing video games that have blood
17. Taking anti-depressants
18. Women wearing pants
19. Saying “oh my God”
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. If I were to follow this “no-offense” policy, I would be completely immobile in my life and 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 NAS).
We need to be sensitive to weaker brethren and take Paul seriously. But not to the point where we are simply fueling 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. Beware of “professional weaker brethren” (and those who yield to them).
How do you tell the difference between true weaker brethren who need to be informed and manipulative legalists?