Stumbling over the Issue of Stumbling Blocks

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(© Jeffrey S. Bowman, all rights reserved, use by permission only)


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Christians commonly teach that the Lord does not want us to do anything that might cause another Christian to stumble and fall in their Christian lives.  After all, the Bible does say:

But beware lest somehow this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to those who are weak.  (1 Cor. 8:9)

Here are some critical questions that need to be addressed:

  • What is stumbling? 

  • How is it different than disagreement (even strong disagreement)?

So what is a Christian to do?  Many just live their life avoiding anything that might cause their fellow believer to stumble.  Then there are some who know that God does not call their actions “sin” and so they secretly do them and never let anyone else know.

A typical example would be drinking alcoholic beverages (wine, beer, etc.).  We know the Bible teaches that getting drunk is wrong (Eph. 5:18).  Yet the Bible does not present that drinking a glass of wine is wrong.  Now we come to the issue.  Should a Christian drink a glass of wine?  Some will say, “Why not?”  Others will say that for the sake of others they will not have a drink even though they know that they could.  Then there are some who think, because of their religious upbringing, that any drink is a sin.  So what is a Christian to do?  Many choose to simply avoid the problem by not drinking at all!  This is fine but is it really what God wants?  Does He care if you have a drink or not?

Another illustration would be smoking.  Joe is a leader in his Church and loves to smoke a cigar every now and then but he knows that the people in his church frown on smoking.  What should he do?  According to some he should avoid smoking because he shouldn’t cause others to stumble.  Yet he really likes to have a cigar from time to time so he does it at home, where no one can see him.  But in his heart he feels convicted because if anyone found out he’d lose his leadership position.  What does God think about Joe’s situation?  Does God care if a person smokes or not? 

Years ago Christians were told: you should not dance (because it looks bad and is “sensual”); you should not listen to rock music (even Christian “rock”) because it has a beat; you should not play cards; you should not go to movies (you are supporting the “world”); and whatever you do, do not do anything that is questionable because you might cause someone to stumble.

Here is my summary on the  "stumbling block" texts of Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8:

A person can be caused to stumble by another person doing the freedom in front of them or encouraging them to do something that they believe is wrong.  To stumble then, is for a person to sin against their conscience in participating in a freedom they feel is wrong.  Listen to Paul’s words:

However, there is not in everyone that knowledge; for some, with consciousness of the idol, until now eat it as a thing offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.  But food does not commend us to God; for neither if we eat are we the better, nor if we do not eat are we the worse.  But beware lest somehow this liberty of yours become a stumbling block to those who are weak.  For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol's temple, will not the conscience of him who is weak be emboldened to eat those things offered to idols?  (1 Cor. 8:7-10)

But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because he does not eat from faith; for whatever is not from faith is sin.  (Rom. 14:23)

We must remember that stumbling is not to simply disagree with the actions of the person.  Also, if someone “stumbles” over truth are they really “stumbling?”  Not as I understand it.  Should we be silent on the truth because it might offend?  I don’t think so.  A disagreement of opinion is a totally different issue with a totally different approach.

In both texts Paul discusses the topics of eating meat offered to idols.  He in essence says it doesn't matter to God if you eat or not. In 1 Corinthians he even goes so far as to say there are no such things as 'gods.' They are made up in the minds of the people, so eating meat offered to them is no big deal. However, not everyone has such knowledge. In both places Paul defends the right to eat (or not).  This is an often an unacknowledged point of the texts.

We must note that Paul was discussing the topic with both eaters and non-eaters. He tells both of them (that it doesn't really matter) but adds not to actually eat the meat in front of another brother who feels it is wrong.  Please note: in the telling of the truth about the idols, Paul was potentially offending the non-eaters.

In my Christian experience I would avoid discussing controversial topics because I didn't want to offend (on the basis of these passages).  Yet Paul never avoided talking about truth. He exhorts us not to do the offending act of freedom in front of someone who differs. But Paul never says don't discuss it -- he was doing that very thing. Paul never says that if you eat meat, "don't tell anyone that you do." He simply says don't eat it in front of those who might stumble because of it.

Christians have avoided talking about many controversial and sometimes critical topics because we don't want to offend. I think we've missed Paul's point. We need to discuss all aspects of life that impact our culture even if our fellow Christians don't want to or think it improper.  We who are leaders in Christ’s Body have a responsibility to evangelize and edify.  We are responsible to understand and discern our culture and apply God’s unchanging Word of Truth.  We need to say: “There is nothing wrong in God’s eyes with eating idol meat, drinking a glass of wine, having a beer, smoking a cigar, or seeing Good Nudity.  These are NOT SIN to God. Yet the person who has a “weak” or uninformed conscience might view them as sin, and they might actually be “sin” to them, but not to God.  In this case the knowledge and application of truth can help the person IF they are willing to receive it.  However, you should never make someone stumble by doing it in front of them.

My observation is that over the years the church has been subject to unfounded fears that have caused it to fail in evangelism and edification.  These “phantom fears” are truly imposed upon ourselves by non-Biblical views.  This causes Christians to have a secret life (notice I didn’t say private).  We create Believers who talk one way on Sunday but a different way the rest of the week.  By being honest with each other regarding our lives we prevent this hypocrisy.

An example: If you were to come to my home and we invite you to relax and fellowship with us in our hot tub.  And if I said:  “We normally do not wear swim suits, so do you mind if we don’t with you?  By the way, you are welcome to be au’ natural too!”  Am I causing someone to stumble?  No.  If they say: “We’d rather you wear suits.”  We’d say: “Sure no problem!”  I would be sinning if they requested us to wear suits and we didn’t.  This would then be a stumbling block.  This also applies to many freedoms: drinking beer, wine, smoking, dancing, card playing, watching a movie, etc., etc..  Naturally we all use great discretion with our freedoms before we ask someone if they’d like to participate.  We evaluate the situation before we offer.  This would be love.

In summary, Paul would have been violating his own command if it meant not discussing meat eating with "non-eaters." He potentially offended the non-eaters by discussing it and then telling them that the meat eating doesn't matter, but truth is more important than cultural misunderstanding. However, he would not have eaten the meat in front of them.  This is the point of not causing your brother to stumble.

The typical Christian view of stumbling today is one that ignores the personal responsibility of the “others” in our lives.  We aid them in not taking responsibility for their actions by not discussing & sharing our personal freedoms.  Paul addressed both the eaters and non-eaters with truth.

In conclusion, whatever we take from this discussion on stumbling and freedom, we must keep the balance of God’s Word.  In Colossians, one of the pinnacle letters of the revelation of grace, Paul has some strong statements regarding people’s freedom in Christ.  These must be factored into the discussion of stumbling:

16 So let no one judge you in food or in drink, or regarding a festival or a new moon or sabbaths, 17 which are a shadow of things to come, but the substance is of Christ. 18 Let no one cheat you of your reward, taking delight in false humility and worship of angels, intruding into those things which he has not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind, 19 and not holding fast to the Head, from whom all the body, nourished and knit together by joints and ligaments, grows with the increase that is from God. 20 Therefore, if you died with Christ from the basic principles of the world, why, as though living in the world, do you subject yourselves to regulations -- 21 "Do not touch, do not taste, do not handle," 22 which all concern things which perish with the using -- according to the commandments and doctrines of men? 23 These things indeed have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh. (Colossians 2:16-23)

Another interesting thing to do is to take whatever taboo topic is in question and carefully substitute it for the meat offered to idols topic in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8.  The texts jump to life with application.  

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