13 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.” -Romans 14:13, ESV
I have a tattoo.
I said it. Now it’s out there.
The story behind it is one I’m quite fond of, and if I had it to do over again, I probably would. It’s a tattoo with a Scripture reference, one that my wife got as a tattoo at the same time. We got our “ink” as a 5-year anniversary gift to one another, and the passage is from Ephesians 5. It describes God’s will for husbands and wives in marriage, and as we have sought to structure our marriage that way, God has blessed our relationship again and again.
But it wasn’t an easy sell. We went back and forth about it. I was in leadership at a church with pretty conservative values. I didn’t know how people would take it.
And as we discussed it, we both pointed to the same passage (the one listed above).
My wife said, “We have freedom in Christ.”
“But we shouldn’t put a stumbling block in the way of other Christians!” was my response.
We went around and around, and eventually, came to an understanding of this passage that I think is different than how “stumbling block” language is usually thrown around, and it runs the risk of subverting the Gospel itself, if not applied carefully.
Here’s how the conversation usually goes:
“Should Christians be allowed to drink alcohol responsibly?”
“Stumbling block! What if an alcoholic sees them, and assumes their addiction is okay?”
“What about limits on appropriate beach ware?”
“Stumbling block! Girls cause boys to sin.”
Is it okay for Christians to have tattoos?
“Stumbling Block! Someone may see the tattoos and wonder why a Christian has them and be forced—FORCED, I say—to judge them, and wonder about their salvation, and it causes a struggle for the other Christian.”
This argument always comes from people who want to see the Church be pure and holy, and so for those brothers and sisters of mine, I want to be gentle here. I don’t believe this is the appropriate interpretation of what Paul is doing here, in context.
In Romans 14:1-15:7 and 1 Corinthians 10:23-11:1, Paul addresses the issue of (specifically) buying meat in a Pagan meat market. Now, in our culture, this is no big deal, because I’ve yet to see a meat market that offers their ribeyes to the gods before selling them. But back then, some believers viewed such meat as tainted because they thought it was tantamount to participating in Pagan worship. Paul gives this concern a nod in 1 Corinthians 10:20, “what the pagans sacrifice they offer to demons and not to God. I do not want you to be participants with demons.” He then goes on to say that as long as questions of “meat given in sacrifice” was not brought into question, go and “Eat whatever is sold in the meat market without raising any question on the ground of conscience” (1 Corinthians 10:25).
Similarly, Romans 14 deals with similar limits of faith, based on old Jewish laws. Verses 1-6 deal with what individuals eat as well as which day they view as holy, or which festival celebrations they observe. His conclusion is similar, that “The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.”
The context of these passages, then, is to encourage each person to follow his or her conscience. “Nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. . . “But whoever has doubts is condemned if he eats, because the eating is not from faith” (Rom. 14:14, 23). Contextually, at the heart of Paul’s “Stumbling Block” passages, is a desire to not pressure other Christians to partake in something they are not comfortable with.
But Wait, That’s Not All!
There are a couple of other principles that can be gleaned here (and I will hit these quickly).
- Those who practice liberty are “strong” in faith, and those who think the action is “sin” are “weak.” See Romans 14:1-4; 15:1-2. We can’t glaze over this. Those who understand the Gospel at a deep level will feel more free to make decisions for Christ, rather than make them against sin. The stronger Christian is the one who understands the liberty Christ gives, not the behaviors the law prohibits.
- Note that BOTH the stronger and the weaker are to be gracious with the other.
- “Those who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak.” Those practicing liberty should, for the sake of peace, bear with those who are “weaker” in their faith. What this means: When in the presence (and I must note that close relationship with others is implied here) of believers who feel uncomfortable celebrating Halloween, a) don’t pressure them to celebrate because “everyone does it” and “it’s just a bit of fun, and b) if you desire to keep peace between you and avoid emotional/relational strife, abstain from it yourself. What this doesn’t mean: You behaving a certain way causes others to sin. This is like saying that a husband is justified in his affair if his wife wasn’t putting out. Ridiculous.
- We are not to judge “another master’s servants” (Rom 14:3-4). The Christian choosing to act in liberty answers to God. He alone knows the heart, and he alone can convict of sin. To see someone doing something with which we ourselves are uncomfortable, and so judge their faith, is the kind of judgment the Bible repeatedly condemns (I’ve written about proper views of judgment here).
- Living within your conscience is a good thing, and we ought to promote others to do this, even when we personally think the limitations those people put on themselves are unnecessary. We should do what we can to encourage people to live with a clear conscience before God.
The Danger of the Digital Age
The problem now is that we apply this based on Twitter and Facebook and Pinterest and a bevy of other social networks. Now drinking a beer because you enjoy it—around people who are neither offended nor morally apprehensive—becomes a question of “putting a stumbling block” in front of any person who might stumble upon that picture of you online. Having a glass of wine at dinner ceases to be enjoyable when you are constantly looking over your shoulder at who could be around you from your church.
These passages are talking about a situation where you are breaking bread together. They are about eating and fellowshipping together. They are not talking about situations where any Christian could possibly stumble upon your meeting and—because they are “weak in faith,” to use Paul’s language—come to the wrong conclusions about your intent or your heart.
These passages do not just mean “don’t ever let anyone see you doing something, that anyone, in their ‘weakened’ faith could consider a sin.” Granted, that might cause conflict inside that person and force them to grapple with what exactly the foundation of faith truly is. But dissonance and disquiet in the soul is not the same sin, and that is the kind of struggle we are supposed to be engaging. If that were the proper application of this verse, then Paul himself would be deliberately putting a stumbling block in the way of the Corinthian Christians immediately prior to telling them not to put stumbling blocks in people’s way.
“19 For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. 20 To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. 21 To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some. 23 I do it all for the sake of the gospel, that I may share with them in its blessings.” -1 Corinthians 9:19-23
Taking the usual interpretation of “stumbling blocks,” Paul definitely seems to be boasting in his liberty and rubbing it in the face of other believers!
To apply 1 Corinthians 10 and Romans 14 to bikinis, I believe you would need a situation where one girl feels wrong wearing a bikini and another Christian pressures her to wear one anyway, for whatever the reason may be.
You could apply it to holidays, where the “Christian” value may have been lost (*cough, cough* *Christmas* *cough, cough,* *Easter!*) and yet we celebrate like the rest of the non-believing world.
More specifically, this applies to those who take American, white, middle-class, evangelical, mega-church Christianity to other parts of the globe without being discerning about what parts of their culture are actually okay, even if our American values wouldn’t allow them.
Just to be as clear as possible…
The “stumbling block” passages seem to point to places where Christians are persuading other Christians to do what is beyond their conscience’s comfort zone, OR situations where expressing freedom in community with others makes them struggle relationally with the “stronger” Christian’s sanctification.
Simply put, if my brother or sister thinks I’m sinning by having a beer, by wearing a bikini (although I’m a dude, so . . . that’s awkward), by celebrating Christmas and Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny, by worshiping with instruments, or without an organ, and any other number of situations, Paul says the best thing is to maintain a good relationship, and that indulging in your freedom at your brother’s expense isn’t worth it.
That’s my two cents. Take it, or leave it, I suppose. But please try not to stumble over it. I wouldn’t want to be a stumbling block for you.