Two weeks ago, we looked at how love for our brothers and sisters in Christ governs our Christian liberty. Last week, we dove into what constitutes a “disputable matter.” This week, we finalize our look at Romans 14 by examining the “stumbling block.”
Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in your brother’s way. – Romans 14:13, NIV-1978
Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak. – 1 Corinthians 8:9, NIV-1978
The stumbling block in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 is the same stumbling block. It is a σκανδαλον – skandalon. The skandalon comes into play when I engage in an action or activity that I know does not violate any biblical principle or precept, but which another brother or sister without such knowledge might imitate and thereby violate their conscience. We have seen in previous weeks, that the weaker brother or sister who imitates my action incurs condemnation because they cannot engage the activity in faith, and “whatever is not from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23).
Let’s return to the previously used example of wine. I have partaken of a glass of wine in the presence of my pastor and his wife, despite the fact that neither of them chooses to partake. I can do this with a clear conscience, because I know that my partaking with thanksgiving does not place a skandalon in front of them. Neither of them is going to engage in something that violates their conscience thereby causing them to sin. Indeed, I do not even know that it is a matter of conscience for them. It may simply be a matter of choice, and I respect that.
Conversely, I have enjoyed a glass of wine with two of the three elders from my church family, one of whom partakes on a frequent basis, and one who does not, but who understands the concept of partaking “without asking questions of conscience” (1 Corinthians 10:27). The more common scenario, however, is for me to order iced-tea or water with my meal, because the brother or sister with whom I am meeting and sharing a meal is much younger in their faith, and has not reached the same conviction on matters of conscience. In that case, it is I who would be sinning by dropping that skandalon onto their path.
What the Skandalon Is Not
The current generation has mastered the art of being perpetually outraged, working diligently at it, honing our skills at identifying potential infractions and micro-aggressions at which we should be offended. Some have mastered the skill of taking offense with record-breaking speed, while others can successfully juggle seven or eight outrages while organizing boycotts of their respective perpetrators.
This posture of taking offense at everything not aligned with our personal preferences is not the stumbling block about which Paul writes. The fact that I don’t care for the musical selections on a given Sunday morning, or that I’m offended by them, is not a skandalon for me. I’ll not be sinning because the worship leader picked songs that don’t fit my musical taste, or because I don’t care for the room decor, the seating arrangement, or the translation used by the speaker.
But let’s move from the obvious to the less obvious by returning to the wine illustration. Let’s say you are deeply offended by the fact that I, a professing believer of almost 40 years, am consuming wine, and I am doing so with your knowledge, and perhaps even in your presence. And let’s further hypothesize that I do so knowing fully that it offends you. Is that a skandalon?
No, it is not, because the depth of your conviction regarding the wine would never allow you to violate your own conscience by partaking in what you find so offensive. It might be unwise of me to do so, because it could result in friction between us, but I have not put a stumbling block in your path because you would never imitate my action.
The skandalon about which Paul writes comes into play when a mature believer exercises Christian liberty in a way that damages a younger (less mature) believer. This young believer ends up sinning because he or she engages in activity that cannot be done with a clear conscience.
Casual Disregard For the Skandalon
In the parallel passage, 1 Corinthians 8, there is indication that the supposedly more mature believers were deliberately flaunting their liberty before others with a casual disregard for their conscience. If I behave in this way, I am not acting according to love, and Paul even goes so far as to say that I am sinning, not only against this brother or sister, but against Christ! (1 Corinthians 8:12)
Jesus does not mince words when speaking of that brother or sister who acts with such calloused disregard for the conscience of his followers.
It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin. – 1 Corinthians 8:9, NIV-1978
Note that Jesus does not say it is “like,” or “analogous to” having a millstone hung about the neck. No, Jesus said it would be preferable to have that be the case. Jesus is saying it is such a breach of faith to cause another to sin, that we will find ourselves in circumstances so dire that we will say, “Oh, if only I could have a millstone tied to my neck and be thrown into the sea. That would be so much better than this!”
Let Love Guide You
In the end, each of us needs to let love be our guide. In love, we can let our brother or sister eat their meat and observe their special day without judging them. In love, we can let our brother or sister abstain from eating meat or observing a day as special without judging them. In love, we can exercise our Christian liberty without putting a stumbling block in the path of another.
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.
– Randy Alcorn
Our first responsibility is to the Lord. If Christians would go to the Lord in prayer instead of going to their brother with criticism, there would be stronger fellowship in our churches.
– Warren Wiersbe
Paul gives Jesus as the perfect example. No one was more free to please himself than Jesus, and yet he always put himself out for the needs of others. This is the way that leads to unity and so gives glory to God.
– Andrew Knowles
And I’ll leave you with this:
We who are strong have an obligation to bear with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Let each of us please his neighbor for his good, to build him up. For Christ did not please himself, but as it is written, “The reproaches of those who reproached you fell on me.” – Romans 15:1-3, ESV