Someone has defined a legalist as someone who lives in mortal terror that someone, somewhere, is enjoying himself. But that’s not it at all. That has nothing to do with the motivation that governs them and creates legalism in their attitude. There is another reason and, we have to limit ourselves to that, and not think of them as motivated simply because they want to spoil it for everyone else. Their goal is to honor the Lord, but have not discovered the liberty available to them.
Our responsibility is to include these people in our times of fellowship with one another. We should never form little cliques within the church that shut people out from social fellowship with people who have different viewpoints. We should never think of our group as being set free while that group over there is very narrow and we have nothing to do with them. That is completely wrong, and Paul clearly says so. In fact, he implies that if any of the so-called strong believers exclude weaker brothers, look down on them, treat them as though they are second-class Christians, they have simply proved that they are just as weak in the faith as the ones they have denied. You see, being strong in the faith means more than understanding truth. It means living in a loving way with those who are weak: The truly strong in the faith will never put down those who are still struggling. On the other hand, the apostle goes on:
. . . the man who does not eat everything must not condemn the man who does, for God has accepted him. (Romans 14:3b)
Here is the other side of it. Those who struggle must not look down on those who have freedom in these areas. Those who think it is morally wrong for a Christian to drink wine or beer must not look down on those who feel free to do so. They must not judge them. The word condemn means “to sit in judgment” on them and it involves several things:
It involves, first, not criticizing or censoring of them. We are not to go up to them and tell them, “I don’t see how you can be a Christian and do things like that.” That has nothing to do with being a Christian. Their Christianity is established on grounds other than those. It means no categorizing of such people, no classifying them as carnal Christians or reproving or rebuking them. In these areas, we have no rights to reprove or rebuke. The church has no authority in these areas. It means no legislating against them; no imposing standards or codes without the agreement of all those who are affected by them. These are areas governed by our own hearts and we follow them if our hearts allow us to.
Now sometimes there are good reasons for limitations. I will address these later. But the basic rule is that they must be reasons the individual accepts and makes. What I am saying is that others do not impose them on him.
I have seen that often in the church, the ones who are weak in the faith (those who do not fully understand the freedom in Chris), are the ones making all of the artificial standards for Christians. Then they impose them on everybody who comes into the church. Obviously, the implication is that you really cannot be a Christian unless you do these things or do not do these things.
This has caused all of the tremendous distortion of Christianity in the eyes of the world. You know, the “do not do _____________” (whatever it it) idea. We can call it a “don’t” religion. This distorts the freedom that is the message of the gospel. This is where people come up with the idea that Christianity is just a set of rules to be obeyed, and the freedom of the sons of God is denied. The world gets a totally false idea of what the church is all about.
This is the reason many people won’t enter a church, even though they are fantastically interested in the gospel. In their minds, the church is imposing standards and rules of conduct that have nothing to do with the Gospel. They are artificial regulations that only the church has brought about.
If interested, you can download the entire study of The Letter to Christians at Rome