One of the most significant aspects of our Christian journey is the degree to which our actions impact those around us. What exactly does it mean to be a stumbling block, and how can we avoid being one?
“But whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin, it would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck, and he were drowned in the depth of the sea. Woe to the world because of offenses! For offenses must come, but woe to that man by whom the offense comes!” (Matthew 18:6-7).
In a culture where it’s difficult to say two words without offending someone, somewhere, that’s an intimidating warning. Woe? Millstone? Drowning in the depth of the sea? That all feels a little extreme for an offense that might stem from a word or gesture that was unintentional or completely misinterpreted.
What did Jesus Christ mean by “offenses”?
But there’s a little more to the story than that. In the original Greek of the New Testament, the word Jesus used for “offense” is skandalon—a Greek word referring to a trigger, or “bait stick,” that would cause a trap to spring shut.
That suggests something a little more malicious than “offenses” as we know them today. Jesus wasn’t necessarily warning here about affronting someone’s sensibilities. He was warning about setting a trap, enticing and ensnaring an unsuspecting victim, leading a “little one” away from the truth and into darkness.
In fact, other translations render that verse, “Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes!”(Matthew 18:7, English Standard Version).
According to Jesus Christ, anyone who goes out setting skandalon for God’s people would be better off at the bottom of the sea. Paul warned about ministers of Satan, who appear to “transform themselves into ministers of righteousness, whose end will be according to their works” (2 Corinthians 11:15).
Paul also wrote about offenses
Speaking of Paul, he, too, used the word skandalon when he told the Romans, “Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather resolve this, not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall [skandalon] in our brother’s way” (Romans 14:13).
There’s no question that as Christians, we should all share this goal. “So we, being many,” wrote Paul, “are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another” (Romans 12:5). There’s no benefit to making life harder for the other members of our own body, and there’s every advantage in strengthening and supporting them.
The big question, then, is how? How do we keep our actions from becoming stumbling blocks and skandalon to our fellow Christians?
Avoiding offenses requires awareness
Well, the good news is that the first step to not being a stumbling block is the awareness that we even can be stumbling blocks. Not everyone makes that connection. It’s easy to see how the actions of others affect us, but harder to remember that our own actions can affect others. Just by turning our attention to others, we’re already making big strides toward not putting stumbling blocks in front of them.
But that’s only a start. When Paul wrote about not being a stumbling block, there was a broader context. Some Roman brethren had serious reservations about eating meat that had been involved in sacrifices to pagan idols. Leftover meat from those sacrifices, which some members saw as tainted by the idols, was often sold in the market. This led to debates and contention within the Roman congregation.
Paul explained two things. First, he said, there was nothing morally wrong with purchasing and eating these meats (Romans 14:14). And second, there was something more important in this situation than the freedom to eat. He wrote, “If your brother is grieved because of your food, you are no longer walking in love. Do not destroy with your food the one for whom Christ died” (verse 15).
Stumbling blocks aren’t always about “right” and “wrong”
It all comes down to this: as Christians striving to avoid being stumbling blocks, the best thing we can do is focus less on what we have the right to do and more on what we have the privilege to do to strengthen our brothers and sisters in the faith.Some first-century Christians—many of them converts from the religions that sacrificed to these idols—couldn’t help but see that meat as tainted by idol worship. To them, eating it would feel uncomfortably close to participating in that worship. And watching their fellow believers partake of it might either drive them away from the faith or else get them comfortable with the idea of blending pagan practices with Christianity (see 1 Corinthians 8:4-13).
In other words, the act of eating this meat could easily become a stumbling block, or skandalon, for Christians who were new to the faith. Even though Christians had the freedom to eat that meat, they also had the responsibility to consider how it would impact the faith of those around them.
“Therefore, if food makes my brother stumble, I will never again eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble” (1 Corinthians 8:13).
Learn to identify modern stumbling blocks
It all comes down to this: as Christians striving to avoid being stumbling blocks, the best thing we can do is focus less on what we have the right to do and more on what we have the privilege to do to strengthen our brothers and sisters in the faith.
Two thousand years ago, that involved being careful about purchasing meat. Today, it involves paying attention to things like:
- How we portray ourselves online. (Ask: Is it possible what I’m about to post might incite envy, jealousy or resentment from the people who see it?)
- The activities we participate in. (Ask: Will what I’m doing in my spare time negatively impact how others perceive me, my religion or even my God?)
- How we dress. (Ask: Are my clothes tasteful? Am I wearing anything that might make it hard for others to keep their thoughts pure around me?)
- What we say and how we say it. (Ask: Does my choice of words and tone make it easier or harder for those listening to hear the things I’m trying to communicate?)
And here’s the big key: “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves” (Philippians 2:3, ESV). None of us is perfect. We’re all Christians in progress. But if our goal is “not to put a stumbling block or a cause to fall in our brother’s way,” the best place to start is by turning our attention to the impact our actions have on those around us.
If you’d like to suggest a topic for future editions of “Christianity in Progress,” you can do so anonymously at lifehopeandtruth.com/ideas. We look forward to your suggestions!
Note: Thanks to the many ministers with years of counseling experience who gave their input!