Hang out with a group of Christians long enough and a discussion of some controversial issue, like alcohol use, tattoos, or cigar smoking, will inevitably come up. It will be heated on both sides, and, eventually, the debate will come to the topic of being a “stumbling block, ” as it should.
But this concept is often used in a way that does not line up with Scripture’s teaching on the matter. Often, Christians use “stumbling block” as a phrase meaning to give offense to another person. Going back to the alcohol issue, people are encouraged to refrain from drinking alcohol because they might be a stumbling block to others, and this is meant in the sense of offending another brother or sister.
The apostle’s teaching on Christian liberty, though, deals with causing others to sin, not offending them. This is why he uses the language of “destroying” a brother or sister’s faith (Rom. 10:15; 1 Cor. 8:11). While there is some debate concerning the exact nature of Paul’s words to the Corinthians, it is generally agreed that there were some in the church who ate meat from animals that were sacrificed to pagan gods. Since the church in Corinth was made of mostly Gentiles, many of the Christians had formerly taken part in these idolatrous sacrifices. Therefore, some of the younger (spiritually speaking) viewed this as participating in idolatry or false worship. Paul tells the older Christians, who knew there was nothing special about this meat, to not pressure the younger ones to eat the meat because they could not do it without defiling their conscience, which is sin (1 Cor. 8:7)
As we approach the issues of Christian liberty and stumbling blocks, here are four principles that should guide our discussion:
1. Base your decision on love. In 1 Corinthians 8:1–6 Paul acknowledges that some do realize that eating meat from pagan temples was not equivalent to false worship, but he goes on to make clear that knowledge is not the ultimate factor, love is. Love for God and others should be our guiding principle in determining matters of Christian liberty. Our lifestyle must be centered upon building up the kingdom of Christ. Paul writes, “Let no one seek his own good, but the good of his neighbor” (1 Cor. 10:24).
Therefore, we ought to be willing to sacrificially give up our right to enjoy various activities out of love for others. If we press ahead in our Christian liberty, we must ask ourselves, “Why am I doing this?” If the answer is not love for brother and sister, we should reconsider.
2. Don’t lead the weak to sin. If your actions are leading brothers and sisters to go against their conscience, then you are sinning against them and sinning against Christ (1 Cor. 8:12). There is no way around this. Paul takes this so seriously that he writes, “If food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble” (1 Cor. 8:13). The apostle shows that he is willing to go above and beyond to refrain from driving others into sin. Too often, Christians are more worried about holding on to their various freedoms than the spiritual effect their decisions have on others. This is completely unbiblical. By the grace of God, we imitate Christ, who forsook all to rescue us from our sin.
3. Don’t judge those who disagree with you. Paul writes in Romans 14:3, “Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him.” We can easily look down upon those with whom we disagree on these matters. One will say that their brother is immature and legalistic, while the other will say that the brother is prideful and unwise. Both will be judging one whom the Lord has welcomed into His family as a son or daughter.
This is not to say that there’s no room for discussion. We can debate the issues, zealously even, all the while acknowledging that it’s okay for someone to disagree with us. Paul, inspired by the Holy Spirit, accepted that there would be differing opinions, and, yes, he accepted that.
This is not the attitude that’s typically taken when these issues come up. To read the comments section of a blog post addressing Christian liberty is the equivalent of seeing a horrendous car crash, leaving behind only destruction and despair.
Let’s exercise some Christian charity and believe that our brothers and sisters are acting out of good motive. Paul reminds us that both positions can do so out of love for the Lord, “The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he give thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God” (Rom. 14:6).
4. With unbelievers, giving offense does matter. 1 Corinthians 10:27–33 addresses Christian liberty and our interaction with unbelievers. Paul tells us that we should consider whether or not our choices will offend unbelievers because their salvation is at stake. When dealing with unbelievers, Christians are to live faithfully to the gospel, giving no unnecessary offense to those outside of Christ.
The apostle tells the Corinthians that if a non-Christian offers them food and mentions that it was sacrificed to pagan gods, the believers should abstain. Paul is not being legalistic here. Rather, he knows that an unbeliever will see this as contrary to the Christian faith; they will see it as pagan worship. Thus, if we are faced with activities or substances that an unbeliever views as out of step with Christianity, even if they’re not morally wrong, Paul would have us to abstain. We desire the salvation of the nations, so we live lives that are most conducive to accomplishing that.
As we approach issues that Scripture neither commends nor condemns, remember our ultimate goal in life: “Whether you eat or drink, or whatever you do, do all to the glory of God” (1 Cor. 10:31).