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What Is a Stumbling Block?

I am really excited to answer this week’s question on Marked by Grace; it’s a really important, truly relevant question for all of us. And the question is, what is a stumbling block? I love the way the question has been phrased. To me, it’s what is a stumbling block, really? What is it really? This person is suspicious of what they’ve been told about a stumbling block in the past. And they are asking me to really level with them and tell them what a stumbling block is. And so I’m going to really level with you this week and truly, really, honestly tell you what a stumbling block is. One of the reasons it’s a great question because a lot of people talk about being a stumbling block, and when I hear them talk about it, I don’t think they fully understand what it is. The way I hear Christians talk about this, a lot doesn’t indicate a full understanding. Maybe that’s this week’s question. Or maybe that’s their problem. They want to know what it is really because they’re not persuaded by the way they hear Christians talk about this, either. The way it comes out when you hear most Christians when I hear any way most Christians talk about it, is they’re talking about controversial things like cards, movies, liquor, dancing, things that are just fraught with difficulty in the Christian life and in Christian thinking. They say I don’t do any of those things. Because I don’t want to be a stumbling block to anybody; when they talk about that stumbling block, they mean I don’t want anybody to get upset. I wouldn’t want somebody to see me and be upset about what I did or upset with me because of what they saw me doing. So I don’t do those things to avoid being a stumbling block. Well, I think there are some issues with that that I’ll make clear.

A Biblical Concept

So the issue of a stumbling block is a biblical concept. It’s not something somebody made up in the 1950s. It’s a biblical issue. And we read about it in the Bible in the book of Romans 14. And in Romans 14, the first place that comes up is in verse 13, which comes up a couple of times, but Paul gives a lot of attention to it. In Romans 14:13 it says, “Therefore, let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.” So a stumbling block is something that gets in the way of a Christian’s growth or progress. But we need to say more about that. In fact, I think we can say, in the context of Romans 14, that it takes three realities to create a stumbling block or the kind of hindrance that Paul is concerned about in Romans 14.

Here’s the first reality that has to happen for us to create a stumbling block in the bad kind of hindrance that Paul is talking about. First, someone has to see you doing a behavior that is not wrong but which they believe to be wrong. So in the larger context of Romans 14, Paul is talking about weaker brothers and stronger brothers. And here he’s giving instructions to stronger brothers about how to treat weaker brothers. The problem with weaker brothers in Romans 14 is that they have sensitive consciences that believe things are wrong, which are not wrong. So the first reality for a stumbling block to be created is that someone has to see you doing one of these behaviors that is not wrong but which they believe to be wrong. So we’ll go with cards. There’s nothing in the Bible that says it’s a sin to play Go Fish or to play bridge or something like that, to play hearts or spades. You’re not committing a sin when you engage in those kinds of games. But we can imagine somebody, and in fact, I know people who do think that’s wrong, and I’ve lost them at this point. Oh, my goodness, I do think it’s sinful to play cards, but we believe what we believe because of what the Bible says and not because of people’s preferences. The Bible never says that it’s a sin to play a game of hearts or to play a game of bridge or something like that. And so, if you’re playing hearts, and someone who believes it’s a sin to play cards, sees you playing hearts, then the first reality for a stumbling block has taken effect.

A Second Reality

Here’s the second thing. That person has to be grieved or troubled at the sight of the behavior. So we read about this in Romans 14:15. He’s talking about food and sacrifice to idols. But that’s the example, which we can apply to other things. “If your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love by what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died.” So what your brother sees you doing that he believes is wrong. This isn’t something that he blows off. He doesn’t say, oh well, he is grieved. He is cut to the quick. And this is a reality that, as I was talking about at the top of the podcast, when people talk about a stumbling block, and I think they don’t quite understand it, they say, well, I’m grieved, or I’m upset about that. Well, I said that’s not enough. But here, we learn in the Bible that it’s part of it. So they see you doing something first point that they believe is wrong but which is not wrong. The second point, they are aggrieved by it, they are troubled, they are hurt, they are wounded, and they wonder why you would do such a thing.

But that’s not enough. You have to have one more reality of having a stumbling block biblically defined to have the kind of hindrance that Paul talks about in Romans 14. To get a stumbling block, the person who sees you doing the thing that they believe is wrong but which is not wrong, who is grieved that you are doing it, now crosses their conscience and engages the behavior because they saw you do it. So in Romans 14, a person who has tripped over your stumbling block didn’t just see it. They’re not just upset, but they decide to do it. In Romans 14:23, “whoever has doubts, is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith, for whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” A stumbling block happens when they see you doing this thing that they believe is wrong but which really isn’t. They’re grieved, and then their conscience gets all twisted up. And instead of being convinced that, well, I guess the behavior isn’t wrong, after all, they decide because you were doing it, they’re gonna do it anyway, even though they think it’s wrong. So your behavior has not persuaded them of the rightness of behavior of the behavior. Your behavior has persuaded them that since you’re doing it, they should do it, even though they think it’s wrong.

Closing Thoughts

To stick with our card illustration, you’re playing a game of hearts. And somebody who believes it’s wrong to play cards, sees you doing it, is grieved by it, and then decides, well, I think they’re sinning, and I think what they’re doing is not a good idea. But because they’re doing it, I guess I’ll do it too. They haven’t been morally persuaded, but you have roped them into the behavior just because they saw you do it. The person (Romans 14:23) should not be doing what they think is wrong. But you also should not be creating a stumbling block for them. So if you’re listening carefully, you might be frustrated at this point and wondering, well, my goodness, how are you ever going to enjoy a lot of things because there are a lot of things that anybody out there could think is wrong, and you’re not going to do them? In other words, how do you enjoy good things that others believe are wrong but which aren’t? Well, the way you do it is by keeping your brother in view. Before you do anything, before you enjoy anything out there, you should keep your brother in view. And Romans 14:16 says, “Don’t let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. The kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men so that then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.” I don’t need to do the things I like. I need to do the things that help you, and so if you’re in a community of believers where there are people who think it’s wrong to play cards? Well, play cards in your living room with your wife and your kids. Don’t play cards in the front lobby of your church where people could see you and be offended. What Paul is doing, as he’s saying, is to be careful and love people more than you love what you do. The idea is don’t flaunt your freedom but place love above liberty. Whenever you flaunt your freedom and whenever you place liberty over love, you’ve created a stumbling block, and you’re sinning.