The stumbling block of 1 Corinthians 8 (and Romans 14) is an action, taken by a biblically informed believer, that does not in itself violate any scriptural precept or principle, but which a less knowledgeable or less mature believer might imitate, in a way that violates his conscience.
In context, the mature believer feels free to eat meat offered to idols, because meat is meat and it’s a provision of God, and idols are nothing. But the immature believer has come from a background of idol worship, so when he sees his brother eating meat, it eggs him on to do it. However, he associates the meat with the idols, and therefore is violating his conscience by eating it.
A stumbling block, then, is not just anything that causes someone to be offended.
It is not a stumbling block to commit adultery, because adultery is inherently sinful. It’s always a bad example to do wrong, obviously, but this isn’t what the passage is dealing with.
It is not a stumbling block for a man to have long hair and a pony tail, if the people who are offended by this are not thereby tempted to have a pony tail themselves, and in doing so violate their conscience.
It cannot be a stumbling block when a woman is offended at a man’s beard, unless she is tempted to grow a beard and in doing so would violate her conscience. It is not a stumbling block when a man is offended at a woman nursing a baby in church, since he is presumably not going to be tempted to start nursing a baby.
The church people who are most offended by wine drinking would typically never be tempted to drink wine in the first place. Drinking alcohol may be a stumbling block, but not to those offended by it, but rather to those who may imitate this action without sufficiently strong conscience and self-control. They might not be able to handle it, so it would do them damage, become addictive and lead them into sin.
The biblical stumbling block involves a more mature believer exercising Christian liberty in a way that hurts a younger less mature believer. It does so by prompting him to say “I guess I can go ahead and drink alcohol, watch R-rated movies, etc.” when by doing so he will end up sinning because of being unable to handle this action that another believer might be able to handle.
In many churches, it is older Christians, who think of themselves as more mature, who are offended at the behavior of younger Christians. Almost never are they tempted to do what the younger Christians are doing that offends them (such as listening to rock music), and therefore their offense has nothing to do with the stumbling block of 1 Corinthians 8 or Romans 14.
Instead of saying “you shouldn’t do that because it’s a stumbling block to me,” these “professional weaker brothers” should engage in healthy biblical dialogue concerning the subject and learn to accept those things that are no more than differences in taste. They should not pull out “stumbling block” as a trump card that means “you can’t exercise Christian liberty in any area I’m uncomfortable with.” In fact, those who are biblically informed enough to even be familiar with the term stumbling block should be mature enough not to trip over one.
Also, notice that in 1 Corinthians 8 the “stumbling block” action is taken in a spirit of pride, arrogance, and selfish independence. It is a deliberate flaunting of Christian liberty, at the expense of others. The stumbling block issue is as much a matter of the offender’s attitude as his action.
Applying the Principles of 1 Corinthians 8-10 to Today’s Issues
Begin by making a list of “gray” activities—things which do not seem to be absolutely right or absolutely wrong.
Then, try to fit each activity into one of the categories below:
1. Like eating meat in the market—Go ahead and do it.
2. Like eating meat in the idols’ temple—Never do it.
3. Like eating meat served in a friend’s home
a. Under certain circumstances, go ahead.
b. Under other circumstances, don’t.
What a believer is commanded to do, he should do without regard to the response of others. What he is permitted to do, he may choose to do, but never is he compelled to do it. If he realizes his example could be imitated by younger believers not mature enough to do this without facing temptation they’re unprepared to handle, out of love he should be willing to forgo this action unless and until they are able to handle it. (Or until they are trained to understand that Christian liberty means some have the freedom to do what others cannot.)
CHALLENGING QUESTIONS TO CONSIDER:
1. Why shouldn’t an immature believer act according to his biblical instruction rather than his conscience, if the two are at odds?
2. How can “Christian liberty” be considered true freedom if it must be seriously restricted in light of the confusion, immaturity or misguided feelings of others?
3. How will a weak brother’s conscience ever be enlightened in a given area, if no one dares to exercise Christian liberty in that area, for fear of misleading him?
4. Can’t we learn to educate younger and older believers in the body of Christ so that they can learn what true Christian liberty is? This way they won’t become legalists or professional weaker brothers, on the one hand, or on the other hand won’t feel that just because someone else exercises a freedom, they are automatically ready to do so.
Photo by Pedro Dias on Unsplash
Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries.