What exactly is a stumbling block?

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.”

© neirfy - Fotolia.com

© neirfy – Fotolia.com

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.


About Kristen Stieffel

Kristen Stieffel is a writer and freelance editor specializing in speculative fiction. She's a member of the Editorial Freelancers Association, Christian Editor Connection, and American Christian Fiction Writers.

13 comments on “What exactly is a stumbling block?

  1. 1 Peter 1:13 Therefore, preparing your minds for action, and being sober-minded, set your hope fully on the grace that will be brought to you at the revelation of Jesus Christ.

    Proverbs 23:31-32 Do not look at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup and goes down smoothly. In the end it bites like a serpent and stings like an adder.

    Proverbs 21:17 Whoever loves pleasure will be a poor man; he who loves wine and oil will not be rich.

    1 Corinthians 6:19 Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own,

    1 Peter 4:7 The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers.

    Why take a drink in the first place? What do you expect to get from it? Where do you buy it? Who sees you buy it? 1 Thessalonians 5:22 Abstain from all appearance of evil.

    • Karen, in your question “why take a drink in the first place?” you could substitute drugs, porn, romance novels, gambling, shopping, video games, caffeine, sugar, or anything else people can get addicted to. My primary point — which you seem to have totally missed — is that it is not about the substance. Anything can become a problem if we give it too much control in our lives.

      My secondary point is that it’s well and good to say “just don’t drink.” As it happens, I don’t. My problem is that the thing I struggle with is food. All food, not just sweets. So it does me no good to say “Why take a bite in the first place?” Abstaining from food is not an option. So how can you, as my Christian sister, refrain from being a stumbling block in my struggle with food?

      You can’t.

      Because it’s not about the food, or the wine, or any of those other substances. It’s about faith.

      • This is one of the best posts I’ve seen about this subject, Kristen. Well done!

      • I’d like to put in a very brief word re I Thess. 5:22. This has nothing to do with drinking or behavior or practice. In its context, it refers to not paying heed to false prophecies. I’ve seen this verse ripped from its context all the time to justify the non-practice of thousands of things — even reading fiction, because fiction has evil in it. We shouldn’t read fiction, because fiction depicts evil occurrences. Therefore all fiction is evil. (The same could be said about the Bible, too, you know). In its context “Abstain from every appearance of evil” means we should shun false prophecies whenever they occur, judge what is spoken or taught, cling hard to what is of God and refuse to be taken in by false prophets. The cults of today immediately come to mind, but let’s not rip this from its context.

        Excellent post! “Because it’s not about the food, or the wine, or any of those other substances. It’s about faith.” Thank you for speaking God’s Truth!

  2. I prefer to take position A-B with a side of Romans 14. We shouldn’t twist that into making others responsible for our choices, and the chief concern is building up one another in the faith, you’re correct about that. We shouldn’t knowingly do something that will tempt a brother to sin, but the worrying sort of ‘what if?’ isn’t in tune with faith.

    Proverbs 23:31-32 May be Biblical evidence for the disputed historical practice of watering down wine. I bet its not so red or so sparkly when it’s been diluted. The presence of the proverb would confirm not everyone diluted it and that the ancients’ “full bodied” wine got you as intoxicated as easily as today.

  3. Great post. Two points — Using alcohol to make the first point but it could be anything……. If I want a glass of wine with dinner and no one else has one, I can make the choice not to as well. It is an alert button that goes off telling me that either they don’t drink and if I did it may be offensive to them so why push it? It is not my place to judge them or to stand in judgement by them as well. So, I will respect that and not “indulge”.

    Which brings me to point number two — As you made exquisitely clear in your post, how can we judge anyone on anything. We need to use common sense and worry about our own stand before God – not someone else’s.

  4. […] I not confessed it a hundred times? Maybe a thousand. At least once, right here. In my Bible study class. Among my Health and Wellness accountability group. I reached Step One: I am […]

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