What Does It Really Mean To Cause Someone To Stumble?

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.

+photo by katerha

Comments

  1. Leonard says

    Cigars and cigarettes are different, though, in that they cause horrific damage to the health – even more pernicious when someone smokes around their spouse and causes them to suffer with coughing and illness. I know there's some foolish book by a pastor who endorses smoking, with Spurgeon on the cover, of all people, and it's curious to me that Spurgeon's wife suffered with chronic health issues (perhaps related to his smoke?) and Spurgeon himself suffered with depression (cigar = pacifier?)

    Most destructive vices of food and drink don't have the same radius of destruction that cancerous smoke has, and smoking should be condemned from the pulpit. Think through your argument a little more carefully Stephen.

    • DJH says

      While the number of people who die from lung cancer related to smoking is terrible, and while smoking contributes to hypertension, hypercholesterolemia, peripheral arterial disease, and heart attacks, so do "the vices of food and drink." It's called the obesity epidemic, and it's just as bad for your health as the pack a week habit. As a physician, I would be more thrilled to hear 1 sermon where a pastor addressed the sin of gluttony and the vices of food and drink than 20 where he called out smoking and its ill health effects.

      But to take off my stethoscope, the counter argument is also weak because you only attack an example that has little to do with the heart of the post. He only uses cigars as an illustration, and he makes clear that there are boundaries to how they should be enjoyed. And you support your idea by making presumptions about Spurgeon's use of cigars that are entirely without any means of proof.

      My heart for you as well as the church is that instead of assuming that our views are the better views, we would rather think and act in humility, recognizing that there is ample room for differences and much larger and more valuable theological fronts than issues such as tobacco. The author sought to address one of these larger fronts.

  2. Blake says

    This is good. Though I don't want anyone to take the first paragraph and use it as a license to buy expensive cars when millions starve or watch vulgar movies in which Christ is defamed. There are other reasons besides causing your brother to stumble that make those things wrong. And of course dear friend you are not saying that those things are patently okay, I just leave this comment for viewers who may seek to misconstrue it.

  3. says

    Great explanation. At my church I help out with the youth group and as a youth leader I agreed to not drink alcohol around the youth. Not because drinking is wrong, but because we don't want to make it attractive to kids who cannot legally partake.

  4. says

    Great explanation. This is a subject that comes up quite a bit in Christian counseling sessions. Rm 14 also, lends to this discussion. Just found your sight. Enjoy it. God Bless . Identityfulfilled.com

  5. Jay says

    The crucial question is: how do you know BEFOREHAND if you do something that to you is in the area of Christian liberty that it will necessarily entail others to ACT in a way that goes against their consciences? If you smoke a cigar around me, how do you know it will or will not cause me to stumble? Do you ask? (But then does your asking cause me to stumble since I now know what you do?) Or, do you simply smoke stogies with others who similarly share your liberty (Christian or not)?

    AND, I often think we play this "don't make a brother stumble" more often than we should in Christian circles. Is your act of Christian liberty REALLY going to make another person DO and ACT against their conscience? You'd have to be around a pretty weak believer or conscience for that to take place.

    • Concerned Pastor says

      Jay I hear you. I have detailed a situation below that fits what you are referring to. It is very real but, as has been commented, rare. Legalism is still easier than walking by the Spirit so I think believers will use the "stumbling block" card to keep things nice and tidy opposed to challenging people to abandon their cultural fundamentalism and develop a Biblically informed conscience.

  6. says

    If the above definition is correct, then please show me an example of a believer going against their own conscience in participating or doing something because another believer participated or did something.

    For example, if I am an alcoholic and I see other believers drink in my presence, I might disobey my conscience because a believer or believers drank in my presence?

    I am trying to see the practical real life scenario of what a stumbling block IS and not just what it is not.

    Thanks

    • Stephen Altrogge says

      The alcohol example is a good one. Watching a movie with friends could be another simple example. Listening to an album which has bad connotations from a person's past is another example.

  7. JohnM says

    But If I think cigar smoking is a sin why would I do it just because I see you doing it? Wouldn't I just think you are sinning and you should stop, rather than me start? If I decided it was okay to do after all then I'd no longer be thinking it was a sin. I suppose you're right about what 1 Corinthians 8 is teaching, but I'll confess it has always confused me a bit.

    • Stephen Altrogge says

      I think you may be forgetting the context of the passage. The passage is in reference to "weaker" brothers. A weaker brother wouldn't necessarily I should stop smoking. In fact, he may go along with me against his conscience because of the desire to fit in.

  8. verokatales says

    Drinking in front of an alcoholic, and especially offering them a drink or pressuring them to drink, is outright wrong, whether the alcoholic is a Christian or not. A person with that tendency could really get into a bad way if they take even a sip.

  9. Concerned Pastor says

    Can you please respond to this situation. A group of mature believers would occasionally drink after a bible study. Another attender of the bible study who was raised in a strict fundamental home was eventually (months) led to take a sip of someones drink. How can you tell if she was violating her conscience or growing in having a properly (biblically) informed conscience? To make matters worse, this person still lives at home with their parents (who attend a different church) and the parents, who were very very disappointed, told their child what they did was a sin and if it continues they will have to move out – using 1 Thess 5:22 as a proof text. I am the pastor shepherding the situation, but I do not attend the Bible study.

    • Stephen Altrogge says

      In this case I would probably encourage the fundamentalist not to drink alcohol. My reasoning would be that she should give up her "right" to drink alcohol out of deference to her parents. I wouldn't necessarily tell everyone in the group to stop drinking alcohol unless they were leading this girl to act against her conscience. There definitely has to be some dialog. If the girl thinks it's wrong she needs to clearly communicate that fact.

      Hope this helps.

  10. JamesB says

    I am not sure I understand your circular reasoning. I can do things that don't bother others, but shouldn't do things that does bother others. So, how do I know what bothers someone?

    Hello dear-friend-to-be-new-person, please fill out this questionnaire so I know how to conduct myself around you. Also, don't forget to fill out the detailed personal history and personal testimony sections. Please get back to me with the completed form so I know if we can form a friendship or I should just avoid you since I am likely to practice personal freedom which will offend you and may cause you to stumble. Thanks.

    • Stephen Altrogge says

      Obviously there has to be dialog between people. We can't be expected to know everything about a person. In 1 Corinthians 8 Paul clearly envisions the Corinthians having some knowledge about the "weaker" brothers. The scenario you're describing is one in which no one communicates with each other.

  11. says

    I am curious what your thoughts are for when this passage is applied to breastfeeding mothers. The comments are always along the lines of causing one to fall into sexual sin since many see breastfeeding as a sexual act (which couldn't be farther from the truth). I know that my own walk has suffered because of always feeling the need to leave worship to nurse a babe (when I nurse pretty much anywhere else without most people having a clue) in order to not cause someone to stumble. Thankfully my church has a comfortable nursing area with a video feed, but it's in a room designed for families with rowdy children to be away from the service. Another local church sends moms to a closet with a rocking chair in a remote section of the building. While I feel that some discretion should be used, I don't feel that nursing moms should be forced to leave worship services just to feed their babe. Sorry if this is way off topic! I've just been nursing for 5 years and have gone through many rough patches spiritually because I missed so many worship services. :)

    • FatherOf4 says

      Breastfeeding should, IMO, not be done in the separate room or even under a cover. This reinforces the supposed sexuality of the act, reinforces the 'automatic' lust of others, and hides the visual understanding of one of God's names. The name, El Shaddai, (from Shad – breast) presents the idea of breastfeeding as God supplies all of our needs.

  12. River says

    Stephen, I really appreciate your conclusion:
    "Love for my brothers in Christ guides and restrains my liberty in Christ…. I will cheerfully give up that right when I am with you. Love always triumphs over liberty. Unity always triumphs over personal rights."
    But I would appreciate your expansion on these statements with respect to the regulative principle:
    ">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."
    I don't expect that you are expressing a disregard for the regulative principle, but it would seem so from the language you use. Or maybe I'm just reading it all wrong.
    Thank you for an otherwise excellent and lucid article!
    River

  13. Kb says

    Thanks for sharing, Stephen. Just a quick observation, most of the critiques in the comments are aimed at application (“But what if…” Or ” How can I know if…”), not whether or not this is the truth Paul is intending to communicate.

    That means you did good work. People either 1) people embracing this truth and wanting to know how to apply it to their lives, or 2) people resisting truth because it’s inconvenient or they don’t like it. No one is poking holes in your interpretation.

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  2. […] What Does It Really Mean To Cause Someone To Stumble? – Stephen Altrogge does a helpful job in explaining this saying from the New Testament. ”When our “rights” lead others to act against their consciences we have become stumbling blocks.” There is a flipside to this, though, and I’m hoping to blog on that in the future as well. […]

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