You really shouldn’t watch that movie. You really shouldn’t listen to that music. You really shouldn’t read that book. You really shouldn’t drive a car that expensive. You really shouldn’t wear a purse like that. You really shouldn’t allow your kids to read Harry Potter. You really shouldn’t go to that bar to eat wings.
Oh, I didn’t realize. How come?
Because other people think it’s wrong. You might be a stumbling block to them.
This kind of exchange happens pretty often between Christians. We tell other Christians not to do certain things because they might become a stumbling block to someone else. Or we refrain from doing certain things because we are afraid we might become a stumbling block. The only problem is most of us aren’t exactly sure what it means to be a stumbling block.
So what exactly does scripture mean when it talks about causing someone else to stumble?
Let me start by saying what it does not mean. Doing something which other people think is wrong does not necessarily make you a stumbling block. I’m talking about areas not clearly spelled out in scripture. Lying, cheating, slandering, stealing, and sexual immorality are all clearly sin. I’m talking about gray areas here.
Paul clearly addresses the whole idea of being a stumbling block in 1 Corinthians 8. The issue at hand is food offered to idols. The Corinthians, with their “superior” knowledge, knew that idols were not the true God. This knowledge led them to insist that it was perfectly fine for them to eat food offered to idols.
Paul, however, was concerned for those who had been saved out of idol worship. For these people, eating food offered to idols was akin to idol worship itself. And so Paul says to the Corinthians:
But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. (1 Corinthians 8:9-11)
Paul’s concern IS NOT that someone may see the Corinthians eating meat offered to idols and then assume the Corinthians are in sin. Paul’s concern is that a fellow believer may join the Corinthians in eating food offered to idols, even though it goes against his conscience. Paul is ultimately concerned that the Corinthians will encourage fellow believers to act against their consciences.
Let me put a modern day spin on it. Generally speaking, I do not think it is wrong to smoke cigars (within reason, attending to all the appropriate health concerns, making sure you don’t get addicted, etc.) You however, are convinced that smoking cigars is wrong. Do I have to stop all cigar smoking because I know you think I am doing something wrong? No. Scripture doesn’t forbid smoking cigars. My liberty in Christ is not restricted simply by what other people might think of me.
But (and this is really important), if I smoke a cigar around you and that in turn leads you to smoke a cigar, even though you think it is sin, then I have become a stumbling block. My liberty in Christ has actually encouraged you to sin against your conscience. When our “rights” lead others to act against their consciences, we have become stumbling blocks.
This is why Paul says:
Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble. (1 Corinthians 8:13)
Love for my brothers in Christ guides and restrains my liberty in Christ. If smoking a cigar or watching a movie or listening to an album or reading a book will lead you to violate your conscience, then I will cheerfully give up that right when I am with you. Love always triumphs over liberty. Unity always triumphs over personal rights.
We are free to enjoy whatever scripture does not forbid. If a person thinks we’re wrong, so what? However, our freedom must always be wrapped in concern and care for others. If our freedom actually leads someone else to violate their conscience then we have become a stumbling block.
So let’s eat and drink and not eat and drink for the glory of God.