The old alcohol debate was raised this week on Facebook by Ben Erlichman, who by his own admission was looking to stir up controversy. Participants in the conversation broadly aligned with one of two camps, which I sum up this way:
Position A: The Bible doesn’t forbid drinking, only getting drunk
Position B: If you drink, you might causing your nondrinking brother to stumble, so you shouldn’t do it.
This stumbling block issue has long bothered me, so I had another look at Paul to sort out what the bleep he was getting at. This is my condensed version of 1 Corinthians 8:
Paul writes, in the context of “food sacrificed to idols,” that although some understand that there is only one God and that idols represent false gods, not everyone does. Some, being accustomed to idols, may “still think of the food they eat as food offered to an idol; and their conscience, being weak, is defiled.…take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.” The idea is that if you, being a respectable Christian, are seen “eating in the temple of an idol,” the faith of a less mature believer might be weakened. “Therefore,” he concludes, “if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat.”
How did we as a church extrapolate from this teaching—which is not about food but about idolatry—the principle that our use of alcohol must be predicated on whether it might be “a cause of their falling”? And what kind of “fall” is he talking about?
Paul also discusses this stumbling block concept in Romans 14:13:
Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another.
Just prior to which, he says “each of us will be accountable to God.”
Wait, wait, Paul, you’re confusing me again. If each person is accountable to God, then why would I be accountable for my brother also, who stumbles because of what he’s seen me do? Is he accountable or not? Does he get to foist his misbehavior off on me? “I wouldn’t have gotten drunk, but I saw on Facebook where she posted a picture of herself drinking a glass of champagne, and it was all downhill from there.”
No. It’s not the substances that need controlling—it’s behavior. We can drink but not get drunk. We’re allowed to eat all kinds of food, but gluttony is a sin. Frankly, I struggle with that way more than with alcohol. But I don’t accuse my sisters of making me stumble because they eat.
Should I? The youth group at church sold donuts as a fundraiser. Can I accuse them of being a stumbling block to me and the cause of my Krispy Kreme overdose?
No. I am accountable to God for my behavior. If I can’t resist a hot glazed donut—and I can’t—that’s my problem.
The truth is, it’s not just donuts. Dieting advisers say not to keep sweets in the house. Totally doesn’t work for me. If all I have in the house is rice and beans, I will overeat on rice and beans. Am I supposed to ask all my friends never to eat in my presence, because food is a “stumbling block” for me? No.
The Interpreter’s One-Volume Commentary on the Bible makes an interesting observation about stumbling block, calling it “a term that appears to have been stereotyped in the sense of what prevents or destroys faith.”
Not sobriety. Not abstemiousness. Faith.
Paul is concerned that we not lose faith. That’s the stumbling block he’s talking about. Food and drink have nothing to do with it, unless, like the ancient Greeks, our food and drink are tied to our religious observances.
For a lot of us, coffee and donuts are inextricably part of fellowship. But no one elevates coffee hour to the level of sacrament.
So I assert that when Paul warns us against being a “stumbling block,” he’s not concerned with whether we’re sinning or leading others to sin. He has already established that everyone sins. He’s warning us against eroding other people’s faith. You can’t prevent my sin any more than I can—only the Holy Spirit can do that. But you can edify my faith.
Whether you do it over donuts and coffee or brie and Chardonnay is totally beside the point.