John MacArthur on How to Serve Christians Who Are Needlessly Restrictive

At the 2007 Shepherds’ Conference, John MacArthur answered this question in a Q&A session:

How would you approach a congregation trapped in years of legalistic tradition?

The Shepherds’ Fellowship granted me permission to upload an MP3 of MacArthur’s 5-minute-and-20-second answer.

Here’s a summary. (It’s not a transcript, but it’s close. The headings are mine.)

1. Love them by not needlessly offending them.

  • Advice. “I would not attack legalism. I would not preach on Christian liberty. I would not assault their consciences either by flaunting liberty on a personal level.”
  • Scriptural principle. “I think there is a very important principle that comes at the end of 1 Corinthians 10 . . . . Do you offend the non-believer, or do you offend your weaker brother? The answer in that text is you offend the non-believer, and the message that the non-believer gets is that you love one another. . . . You defer always to the weaker brother.”
  • Definition of legalism. “In many cases when you’re talking about legalism, you’re not talking really about works-salvation. You’re talking, I assume, about an approach to the Christian life that is needlessly restrictive and narrow and artificially constructed around certain behaviors that aren’t even biblical issues.”
  • Application. “What you need to do is to understand that’s where they are, and you want to demonstrate love to them because that’s how people know that Christ has changed your life, because you are demonstrably sacrificial and loving to those people who maybe think differently than you do.”

2. Understand that convictions—whether right or wrong—inform the conscience.

  • “You also have to understand that the conscience is a mechanism given by God to everyone. It is a device. It is a mechanism by which we are excused or accused, right (Romans 2)? It is informed by our convictions. Conscience is informed by conviction.”
  • Illustration. “I suppose no one has a more highly informed and aggressive conscience than a Muslim terrorist, right? They do what they do with passion to the point of their own suicide, believing that they’re gonna end up with seventy-two virgins on pillows in the next life. Their conscience frees them to do what they do because it is informed by a set of convictions that have been drummed into them.”

3. Slowly re-educate their conscience by exalting Jesus.

  • Challenge. “When it comes into the Christian realm, you have a dilemma between re-informing them [and] at the same time that you don’t train them to ignore their conscience or after they’re re-informed, they’re gonna be used to doing what their conscience tells them. That’s why Paul is so clear on that at the end of Romans. . . . You can’t train people to ignore conscience. You have to take the long-term approach to re-inform the conscience.”
  • First step. “I would suggest that the first way to do that is to move people off the rules they live by on to the person of Jesus Christ, and just preach the glories of Christ. Get in a Gospel and stay there until those people have been liberated from rules to love for Christ, until they have been literally swept away in awe and wonder over their affections for Jesus Christ. Rather than try to instruct them on the biblical disciplines, which again is just another set of rules, let them be lost in wonder, love, and praise over the person of Christ, and you watch those things begin to disappear.”

Related: “Free Shepherds’ Conference Downloads


  1. Larry Sittig says

    John has walked in tightly traditionalist circles for many years and his maintaining relationships there is to be respected. But “needlessly restrictive” churches are often led not by weaker brothers but by hardened Pharisees. Jesus never hesitated to offend Pharisees. His approach, and that of Paul when Peter fell into “needlessly restrictive” practices, was pure shock and awe. Our concern for truly weaker brothers who are intimidated and harassed by legalistic leaders should drive decisive action.

  2. says

    I believe John MacArthur is right on target as to the way one must begin to approach people steeped in legalism, or, as it might better be called, Pharisaeism. The Pharisees were famous for adding human traditions to God’s Word, and that is the essence of this error.

    However, at some point, you will have to show them, specifically, how to determine from the Bible, what is right and wrong, and what is neither, and thus falls into the category of Christian Liberty. It is also important to teach the “Christian Liberty Crowd” Biblical guidelines for the use of such liberties, including the higher motive of honoring Christ, and the secondary one of not needlessly causing a brother to stumble.

    You will never have a congregation where everyone agrees completely about rules for Christian conduct, but if they can be taught how to treat others when they differ on matters indifferent, the church can advance together in love and harmony without lockstep unity in all practices. A detailed exposition of Romans Chapter fourteen will solve most problems for people who truly love the Word of God.


  1. […] I so appreciate John MacArthur’s helpful answer to the question “How would you approach a congregation trapped in years of legalistic tradition?” See the nearly complete transcript and audio here. […]

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