When it comes to understanding the issues of Christian liberty and brotherly love, it tends to get very sticky rather quickly. There is a fine line between these two truths and if we err on either side we end up with legalism (prerequisites to spirituality) or licentiousness (freedom to sin). It’s no wonder Paul puts the responsibility on each and every believer to work it out on their own and offers the warning that they will give an account to God for what they are fully convinced of.
Unfortunately this term ‘Stumbling block’ has been mishandled by both sides of this argument, and neither has fully grasped what a stumbling block is. The legalist side warns the brothers, “You can’t do that because you will be offending me and causing me to stumble.” In affect, they are suggesting that they are the weaker brothers, but in reality, they think of themselves as being more mature. The other side suggests, “What I do is my choice and if you don’t like it, that’s your problem.” This too misses the point that they are to be cautious for their brothers well being.
Before we can address these two errors we will first have to define what Paul means by a “stumbling block.’ In the Old Testament it was a law that you weren’t supposed to put an obstacle in front of a blind person to purposely make them fall (Leviticus 19:14). As Paul wrote to a collective group of Jewish and Gentile believers he uses this pictorial example to point out a problem that the early Church was struggling with–namely, that they were using their liberties at the expense of their brothers. The issues they are fighting over are not sin issues, but they are not worth the time of either side. Paul suggests that they pursue the things that unite them in peace and put away the things that cause discord. Notice, Paul does not say that the meat was bad; on the contrary, he defends liberty to eat meat, but he suggests that they aren’t issues worth focusing on.
Here is where we mishandle Paul’s teaching: each side of the issue continues to argue validity on who is right and demands that their opponent yield to their preference.
The strict conservative suggests that everyone should hold to their standard. They quickly make a list of all the things they don’t like and set that up as the standard to see if their more liberal brothers will show love to them or not. What they are doing is raising the bar to meet with their preferences instead of seeking to understand and extend Christian love to their brothers. This is exactly what the Pharisees did. They themselves were not tempted to fall because they were the ones pointing out all the stumbling blocks for everyone else. How can you fall when you’re always on the lookout? However, Jesus confronted them multiple times and He became their stumbling block so that they might fall from their high pedestal and understand grace. It was Jesus who healed on the Sabbath and defended His disciples who ate grain on the Sabbath, proclaiming, “God desires mercy rather than sacrifice.” (Matthew 12:7) Again, He said about the Pharisees in Matthew 23, “For they bind heavy burdens, hard to bear, and lay them on men’s shoulders; but they themselves will not move them with one of their fingers.” It’s clear that the Pharisees were quick to add more requirements to faith as are many strict Christians today, but they don’t do anything to build up and strengthen their brothers. Therefore, they are in actuality putting a stumbling block in their brother’s way.
The liberal rebel suggests that they should be loved despite their differences and acts consciously against what he knows his more conservative brothers will approve of. The liberal demands to be loved despite his actions and appeals to his freedom as a means of stepping on his more sensitive brothers. They have tasted the meat of the world and found that there is no inherent evil there and they have determined that their more conservative brothers are ignorant for not having tried it before they condemn it. This causes discord as neither side is willing to give in to the other’s point. Brothers are divided over something circumstantial while neglecting their duty to exercise their purpose as the Body or Christ. The liberals constantly stand as a stumbling block, hoping to prove their conservative brothers wrong. Both sides inevitably fail to see Paul’s point and desire.
The truth is, neither side holds exclusivity to what is right and wrong on these matters, and neither side was ever given the commission to prove the other wrong. They were commanded to proclaim the gospel, and reminded that the world will recognize that we are Christians by the love we show toward our brother.
Just to clear the air, it is not a stumbling block if someone does something you don’t like or something you don’t approve of. In our day and age, we’ve made everything into a stumbling block – Did you wear a tie on Sunday with a suit coat? Did you take a sip of champagne at that wedding? Did you go to all three services on Sunday? Do you listen to secular music? Etc. These are not definitive absolutes in the Word of God and they shouldn’t be the things that divide us in accomplishing our mission. If someone wears jeans to church and that upsets you, then you need to examine your heart and conviction based on the Bible. If you purposely wear jeans to church to rebel then you need to check your heart as well and ask yourself if jeans are really worth the division you are causing.
I find it interesting that Paul wouldn’t eat meat and yet fought for the right for others to eat meat. While he didn’t do the thing that would cause his brothers to be offended, he made a conscious effort to teach that it was alright for those other brothers to eat meat. This is really the pastoral responsibility here: take the high road but fight for the underdog.
A stumbling block is not always a bad thing. We are supposed to be a stumbling block for those who think they are religious enough to get to heaven on their merit. Remember, as well, what Martin Luther said: we are to offend for the sake of the gospel. Paul was probably the most offensive of them all when he called the Jewsish believers ‘dogs’ (Philippians 3:2) because they wanted the gentiles to be circumcised in order to be brought into the church. It was Paul, a circumcised Jew, who stood up to Peter and said that he had no right to demand the circumcision of the gentiles.
As a final thought, let’s attempt to use this term accurately. Don’t suggest that someone is being a stumbling block to you if they are doing something that offends you. Chances are, if you see it, you’re not going to trip over it. Let’s reserve stumbling blocks for the things we do without notice that cause our brothers to fall into sin, like making absurd rules and standards to spirituality and by flaunting our freedoms in front of people who have a hard time grasping our perspective. Let us further resolve to teach and encourage our brothers in the faith to be discerning and love the body.