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Stumbling over the “Stumbling Block” Metaphor

Tuesday Re-mix –

Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.  1 Corinthians 8:9

I do not drink alcohol.  I do have plenty of friends who believe I should…and there was a time in my life when I did.  But when I got out of college and got married and began my “grown-up” life, I made the decision to not drink alcohol.  I did not make that decision out of any moralistic reasoning, or because of any misguided belief that God frowns on alcohol…I do not believe that at all.  I made that decision because, in my particular “flavor” of Christianity (the Southern Baptist church), there are still plenty of people for whom alcohol is a major “stumbling block” issue…people with whom I would lose my testimony if I did drink alcohol…so it seemed like a small price to pay to retain that ability to be a Godly influence in their lives.  Thirty years later, it still feels like a very small price to pay.

That issue (alcohol in the Baptist church) is about as close as I can come to a contemporary example of the “meat sacrificed to idols” issue Paul dealt with in the Corinthian church.  In that community, there was meat for sale in the market place at a discounted price, because it was surplus meat from pagan temples, i.e., meat intended to be sacrificed to pagan gods, but which was surplus and therefore sold into the market place for resale.  Given the Jewish history with pagan gods and all, there were plenty of “traditionalists” in the New Testament church who refused to purchase or consume that meat and who were fairly judgmental towards those who did.  These are the “weak-minded” people whom Paul is protecting when he counsels the church to be careful about being a stumbling block to them.

This passage drives me crazy.  It really does.  I do understand the principle of taking responsibility for how other Christians perceive me, even if those other Christians are “weak-minded” or not so terribly bright.  I understand the concept of guarding my testimony so that I can be an influence in their lives, even if it means sacrificing some of my “freedoms” in order to do it.  I even understand the notion of respecting the social norms of my church and not stirring things up just for the same of being difficult.  All of that makes sense to me.

But what about the notion of “teaching” those weak-minded brothers?  Is there not a time and place to gently and lovingly help them to see the truth about the issue?  There was a day in the Southern Baptist church when people of color were not allowed in the building.  We had to be pushed, pulled, pressed and taught the truth.  It was difficult, it was painful.  Some would have even said it was a stumbling block for many.  But aren’t we glad we did it?

So it seems to me that there is a delicate line between pressing against a strong preference and actually creating a spiritual stumbling block.  For example, I do not wear a tie on Sunday morning at my church.  I know that surely bothers some people (including my mother :)).  They might prefer that I wear a tie.  But it does not rise to the level of a “spiritual stumbling block” for them (at least I hope it doesn’t).  Alcohol, however,  is a different issue in my church, at least for now.  It is not just a matter of preference, it is a matter of great conviction…even spiritual conviction for some.  So there is a degree of discernment necessary on my part to know the difference.  I cannot assume and I cannot presume anything.  I must engage my brother and my sister in conversation and listen well to his/her concerns.  I must spend time with him, knowing his fears and knowing his spiritual place.  I must actually have involved myself in his spiritual transformation process if I am to rightly discern what is conviction and what is merely preference.

In short, I actually have to love my brother well enough to know the difference.  Love my brother well.  Now there’s a novel concept!  If only we could start a revolution based upon that kind of love!  Oh, wait…

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