Contend Earnestly: What Does it Mean to Make a Brother Stumble?

Friday, April 22, 2011

What Does it Mean to Make a Brother Stumble?

One of the things that always comes up when you speak of tattoos, smoking, drinking, et al is the issue of making a brother stumble to show why one should abstain from doing those things at all. When one proof texts and reads current culture into the passages, they seem to have a great point and one that kept me under a heavy yoke for some time. What actually ended up happening is that this so called "weaker brother" kept me under his yoke of conscience instead of me being able to seek out Christ and his easy yoke and burden that is light. I kept trying to refrain from certain things because I was always worried that I would make a brother stumble and was so consumed by this, my life was more about the weaker brother and his issues than the glorifying of God in my actions and actually loving the weaker brother.

We have extremes here that need to be pointed out. One extreme is like the one mentioned above, where we worry about everything, whether it is sin or not and abstain from it all. The other extreme is we say, "screw the weaker brother" and we do whatever we want without care. Like most orthopraxy, extremes suck and fly in the face of Christ and his cross and, so, we need to find the correct balance and test it to Scripture. I want to do some defining to search out how we should live within the context of the weaker brother and what it means to make him stumble.

First, what is a "weaker brother"?

We find the main passages concerning the weaker brother in 1 Corinthians 8 and 10 and also in Romans 14. The weaker brother is the one who wishes to abstain from certain things. They are not the mature in the body, but they are the weak needing care. These people would be those who abstain from things that are not sinful, such as smoking, drinking alcohol, getting tattoos and of course eating meat sacrificed to idols. But, if you know the context of 1 Corinthians 8, 10 and Romans 14 we are not speaking of people who have merely been told that these things were sinful, but have a deep bond that ties the conscience to them. The weaker brother would be someone who has been addicted to smoking or alcohol, or who has a family history of addiction to these things. The weaker brother would be someone who came from a tribe who used to tattoo themselves for the sake of their pagan gods. The weaker brother is one who was in an idolatrous nation that sacrificed meat to gods for worship. These things are deeply entrenched in who they are and what they are about. These things identify them with the "old self."

The weaker brother is NOT someone who has issue with these things because of their culture and how they were brought up. One is not a mere weaker brother because they have always been taught that smoking is a sin or that drinking alcohol is a sin. Paul goes much deeper than this and is found when he uses the term to "destroy" the weaker brother (which we will handle later).

Paul and Jerusalem Council are dealing with a much deeper issue than someone not liking meat sacrificed to idols, they were dealing with an issue that was deeply ingrained in the people that practiced idolatry in a way that was demonic and part of every day life that associated one with the devil. Again, it would be the same as getting a tattoo for the dead in Leviticus 19:28 to worship some pagan deity. This was binding on the conscience, not because it was "odd" to them, or they were uncomfortable with it, but they were dealing with demonic opposition and something that identified them with their old self when their father was the devil.

So, the weaker brother is not merely some nutcase that wants you to abstain from something they don't like, the weaker brother is someone who is coming from an old life in sin, that is dealing with those things associated directly with their sin. Again, think of pagan worship in sacrifices when thinking of 1 Corinthians 8,10 and Romans 14.

Making the Weaker Brother Stumble

Now that we see what is means to be a weaker brother, we need to look at making that brother stumble. This term stumble is used almost synonymously with Paul using the term "destroy". Paul isn't speaking of making someone look at you in a light that is odd. It isn't making someone uncomfortable, but it is literally making them stumble into sin. It would be like you handing someone a beer that you know is an alcoholic and telling them to drink. You, in your freedom, have made the weaker brother stumble or have destroyed them. The thought is putting something (a rock) in the road that they are walking on so that they will trip and severely hurt themselves.

People use this for all sorts of things, as though we must have a swivel on our heads to make sure people don't look at us and think we are sinning. This isn't what Paul is speaking on. If this is the case, then Jesus was a sinner. He did things all the time that made people think he was a sinner, but he didn't make them sin. Think of the Pharisees of those that wear suits to church, don't drink, don't smoke, don't play cards, don't watch certain movies, listen to certain music. They do this so that they "will not make someone stumble", but in reality are showing that your sanctification and righteousness comes in what you don't do instead of whom you trust in. Jesus was not for this. What is interesting is that the term "stumble" can be both positive and negative. You can make someone stumble into sin, or make them stumble into righteousness.

"See, I lay a stone in Zion,
a chosen and precious cornerstone,
and the one who trusts in him
will never be put to shame."Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe,
"The stone the builders rejected
has become the capstone,"and,
"A stone that causes men to stumble
and a rock that makes them fall."They stumble because they disobey the message—which is also what they were destined for.

1 Peter 2:6-8

This is the point that no one actually brings up. If someone is trying to be self righteous in their abstention, the best thing you can do is be a stumbling block to them so that they can see that Christ is the corner stone of their faith, not their abstention for self righteousness. This brother, that abstains for the sake of self righteousness (which none of them will admit) is not the weaker brother, but the prideful brother that needs to be shown their sinful acts. This is why Jesus didn't care if he drank in public, ate with the sinners and loved the hookers. He did it partly to show the self righteous Pharisees their stupidity. We find further evidence of this when Peter has his vision and then eats with the Gentiles. Notice what the self righteous Jews do:

So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him and said, "You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them."
Acts 11:2

Did Peter then decide to abstain from eating with them? No, he corrected their self righteous thoughts by telling them the vision of God and using this an opportunity to show the gospel to them. Here is the key. Someone who loves Jesus and not their self righteous deeds will react to this by not condemning the brother living in his freedom but will praise God.

When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, "So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life."
Acts 11:18

Could this have been a stone of stumbling for these Jews? Yes. Did Peter refrain, or teach? He taught. Their reaction is an insight to their heart towards the love of God. They reject their self righteousness and cling to their new found Saviour.

So, Now What?

How are we to handle this then? You will notice that Paul has a huge point that he makes when speaking of refraining, and it does not mean that he will refrain always, only when he is knowingly among those whom bears a conscience against meat sacrificed to idols. People like to use Paul's hyperbolic term to bear witness against this when Paul says, "Therefore, if food causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause my brother to stumble." Paul is using this in speaking to someone he is directly in relationship with at all times, not for the sake of believers out there somewhere who have issues with this. Meaning, if Timothy had issues with this, Paul would never eat meat in fellowship with Timothy. He doesn't mean, he will literally never touch meat again. We see this clearly in the following:

If some unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. But if anyone says to you, "This has been offered in sacrifice," then do not eat it, both for the sake of the man who told you and for conscience' sake — the other man's conscience, I mean, not yours. For why should my freedom be judged by another's conscience? If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for? So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.
1 Corinthians 10:27-31

Paul states to enjoy your freedom, but to refrain when among someone who has a conscience against something. So, if I am going to a nation of tribes who once used tattoos to worship their god, I will cover up my tattoos. I will do this because this is something that is personal to them and hard for them to take. I will also cover up my tattoos if I go into a home where I know tattoos used to be a way for the person to sin against God in rebellion and they are trying to refrain from such things. I do this with those I KNOWLINGLY have deep issues with certain things that is related and identified to their old life of sin. So is the case with having a vegan over to my house, an alcoholic or someone who was addicted to smoking.

But, it doesn't stop here. You don't just refrain when you see these people, but you take the opportunity to teach them. You must teach the weaker, and not allow them to "turn you" into their weaker conscience. This was huge for the ministry of Christ. He was the one teaching the weaker, the weaker were not teaching him to turn to their ways. So, we should deal with the gospel with these people and love and aid them to the grace and freedom found at the cross.

Refrain out of love and teach out of love so that they may be won to the victory of the cross. There is a balance here. But, to throw out the "you might make a brother stumble" has become another way to control the actions of others to make them think they are more righteous. This is sin and contrary to the gospel. Also, those who freely do whatever they want without taking consideration of the TRUE weaker brother and don't take the opportunity to teach them in word and action what the Gospel is truly about, also sin.

We must live and teach the gospel to others without allowing them to bound up our actions so that we find the gospel as a restrictive gospel instead of a freeing one.

"Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and YOU WILL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light."
Matthew 11:29-30


Zachary Bartels said...

GREAT stuff, Seth. As a pastor, I've found the best way to deal with people who constantly play the "refrain lest thou offend me" card is to sit down with them and say something like: "Okay,we're not going to use those candles in the service this Sunday. But I'm very concerned that you've been a believer for 25 years and you're still the WEAKER brother. Your faith should be strong by now. So, as a condition of not using the candles, I want to start meeting with you each week to try and get you up near the point where you should be spiritually." Such people are usually incredibly put out that their "weaker brother" routine is actually making people view them as immature weaker Christians, that they stop being so vocal and manipulative about nonessential matters.

Unknown said...

wow. right on.

there is nothing to add here. so well said and defined. and done so lovingly.

thank you for this!

Anonymous said...

Good post... Your comments about the extremes showed good understanding. You were way over on one side of the pendulum previously under a yoke and now you are unyoked and free and have swung the other way... understandable.

On the discussion of the weaker brother: You state: “The weaker brother is one who was in an idolatrous nation that sacrificed meat to gods for worship. These things are deeply entrenched in who they are and what they are about. These things identify them with the "old self." “

Well, we live in an idolatrous nation today. Our culture honors and serves the god of self and being "assertive" putting self first. Our idolatrous culture is deeply entrenched into looking out for number one...the other extreme as you have said: “a culture that says "screw the weaker brother" and do whatever you want without care because you have liberty. (our old self.)” Our weaker brother is the one very entrenched in walking proundly in their old ways and doing “good” as their old man and serving our cultural god, self. Our weaker brother would be someone who has been addicted to worshiping or serving self , or who has a family history of addiction to selfish things.

We must be able to recognize a pagan culture before we can help it. 2 Tim 3:1-5 has a lot to say to use to help us understand and even recognize our culture today: We need to be in it and not of it.

2 Tim 3:1-5 But know this, that in the last days perilous times will come: For men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power. And from such people turn away!

I believe this is the culture God has sent us into, to serve... We need to understand this culture, recognize it temples and sanctuaries… and then remember whom we serve. The god of self is a tricky god! The god of self is hard for us to recognize because we have grown up in the culture.

Humbly in His service

Seth McBee said...

Tam and Zach...thanks.


I do agree with your thoughts on our culture being pagan and idolatrous and we could name a sweeping few exemples of how this is the case. But, that won't and shouldn't then discern how we are to then live and take our gospel to the culture perfectly.

When dealing with the "weaker brother" we must seek to know which was part of their old self that added to their idolatry and which was and continues to be in many, things that just bug them or make them uncomfortable.

For some, it could be their fat belly of idolatry, other it could be lust or love of money.

We need to seek these out and be careful.

Example. I know a couple that were always wanting to know what I paid for certain items and was always comparing themselves with my "wealth". I could see this was a big issue with them, so I was careful in how I approached them with anything new I bought. It was a stumbling block to them.

Does this mean I become a monk? No. It is knowing those you are around and seeking to understand each other and then loving them.

For people though who just have an issue with me owning a new Tahoe because they are petty...I don't care, they are being petty and need to know it.

Hope this makes sense.

Knowing the people you are around, like usual, is key to admonition and edification.

Most sweeping "don'ts and do's" just don't reflect reality or the gospel. They reflect a Pharisaical look into the gospel that is supposed to be of grace an not that of works.

Thanks for the comments.

Seth McBee said...

I am still waiting for you to answer the simple question:

How does me getting a tattoo make anyone stumble (be destroyed) that wasn't previously impacted by a community of people who tattooed themsevles for the glory of a pagan god?

Anonymous said...

Since you ask: It is not the tattoo for me that is the issue, It is the fact that you have made tattoos such an issue. God looks at the inside of the cup. Your tattoos, the color or style of your hair, the color shirt you wear... are not how God sees you! He sees your heart. Having a tattoo is a personal matter and I really have no problem with it. I know many fine Christians with tattoos.

You don't just have a tattoo, you have made having a tattoo a Christian cultural issue on the internet in more than one place. You said you brought this issue up on face book too. You have brought it up in Christian circles knowing many would have issues with it. You have taken your weaker brothers on. Is that not true? Honestly?

From your posts, I get an attitude of taking the legalistic Christian culture on. You have defined them as wrong, and even hateful Does this reflect your heart? Is this really the purpose behind your posts!

I must admit this is a concern that has grown over several of your posts in the last few months, (I guess you could say you have gotten me to check back regularly) along similar lines.

Your post on cursing for Jesus was the first post I saw and it really stopped me cold. Now a post on tattoos, I read corse langauge in your posts about things that suck... These are all outward refections of an inward attitude of anger and disrespect of which I have concern for you and I don't even know you.

You are using the "liberty defence" and I also believe you think you are doing it for the Glory of God but can you see your anger? I see a great disrespect for much of the Christian culture in your posts. These things may not be offensive to you but I would hope you would understand that they are offensive to many. and your response? Why should I care? It is their issue...

I am not saying the inside of your cup is not clean as I can not see it, I am saying I believe there to be room for concern.

You have much head knowledge but from these posts my concern is for your heart knowledge. Could lack of heart knowledge cause someone to stumble even if not purposefully?

My wish for you is only the best.

Seth McBee said...


First, thanks for the comment. But, I am not sure why you are so fired up that I am the one that is bringing tattoos into the Christian culture or that I am the one causing trouble...if I could do that much with blog posts I would have much more power than I really have.

As far as the "weaker brother" you need re-read the post, because I am not going after, nor have I said anything that would concern the actual weaker brother. What I have done is taken on the petty legalists that seek to destroy grace.

This is exactly what Christ did. Do these things make me angry? Yes. But, if you notice the only thing that got Jesus really pissed off was self righteous fools who not only relied on their self righteousness, but took others down with them.

My family has been closed to spiritually destroyed by moralism and legalism that makes Jesus' yoke heavier than hell, instead of light because of His work.

As far as my posts on such subjects, my purpose for this blog has always been consistant and the thesis has always been the same since I started it. Here is the description on technorati and Networked blogs that has never changed:

A blog dedicated to understanding how to live out theology, by continually pointing to Jesus Christ alone and His finished work. Always questioning tradition according to Scripture and never leaving Scripture out of the discussion.

You will also notice over on the tag cloud that "Christian Living" is the subject that is tagged the most. This is what interests me and this is what I write about. Does this mean I will hit controversial subjects? Yes. Does this mean I will attack a Christian culture that has for years brought forth nothing but legalism and crap? Yes. Does this mean that I am also going through these things? Yes.

I test every post to Scripture and if you want to defend your thoughts based on Sola Scriptura by Sola Gratia then go for it.

If some of these posts seem is because they are and if we were face to face, I would be yelling because legalistic crap that has no founding in the gospel pisses me off to no end.

I also believe it is a heart issue and one that Christ has been tearing at for years with me and one that he is finally tearing through this religion stuff to get to it and it is freeing and gracious just like he promised.

If these posts make people who you call the "weaker brother" angry...I HOPE THEY DO...because they aren't the weaker brother they are the Pharisees. You are defining the weaker brother like modern Christianity does but would be foreign to Paul and the Apostles.

I will do what I usually do when I get someone challenging my heart or salvation. I will take it to Christ and pray and ask him to reveal what truths I need to humble myself to and which ones are from the devil.

Thanks for commenting and I hope you have a great week.

tallmanwriting said...

Seth McBee you are a tip of the hat to fat lefthanders with giant tattoos everywhere!

As Seth would be the first to tell you, he's a sinner saved by grace nothing more. He's also a competitive SOB who knows the Bible and loves to argue.

But he's also a good daddy, a devoted husband, a respectful son and a great friend.

I learn a lot from reading this blog (though I must admit that a lot of the conversation sails over my head faster than a Stealth bomber flyover).

Seth's also one other thing: an average writer. Not a great writer. Not a world-class writer. An average writer. That he is able to communicate so clearly through his blog posts and his comments is proof to me of the involvement of the Holy Spirit. Seth simply couldn't make this stuff up and make it sound so pretty.

Okay, enough Seth McBee love for the day.

Rock on, brother. Rock on.

A different Seth

Anonymous said...

Thank you for thoughtful and very honest reply. This will be my last response which I am sure you are and will be glad of.

You know, when I was a young Christian I was a very good and dedicated student of the word, I studied, went to school and I knew my doctrine! The more I studied, the more I found some of God’s people had things wrong! I would try and try to straighten them out especially when they were teaching weaker brothers. It really pissed me off bothered me when self righteous teachers thought they knew everything and I KNEW they were wrong. They had a few key verses that they always went back to over and over again proving their positions without taking the whole of the bible into account. They acted so smug as if they knew everything taking others down with them! I had to do something! I had to make them understand! I had to save the church! I felt it was my job! I had to do it for God! But God did not reward me for it! It was then that my love for the body and my love for bible study went away. I was frustrated and angery. Why could they not understand? Did they not have the same Holy Spirit? Maybe they were not really saved. I came to all those conclusions and many more. Then I gave up, I quit trying to change them! And God stepped back in.

What I learned was I was tying to do the work of the Holy Spirit for them. I was trying to do God’s job! God’s plan is very big and it is different for everyone. For me, God’s training included learning to let the Holy Spirit teach. I could present the truth but the Holy Spirit had to teach. I had to learn that God’s church is not perfect, in fact it is not even close to perfect! In fact, it is made up of sinners that get things wrong. I learned that even I can get things wrong and you can get things wrong and that is part of God’s plan, it’s called growth for me and for you, training in humility. Once I understood this lesson, God returned my love for His people and His word. I have great joy today, even in the face of great error. I do my job. I speak the truth in love and leave God to His job of teaching His people.

We will never fully understand all this, this side of heaven! We don’t have too… (I call this faith in God and His righteous plan) The church’s clear understanding of truth is God’s job. He knows churches have doctrinal errors. He knows men get legalistic and teach crap as you say. He knows loving, God fearing, men get things wrong and He still loves Us. Do you love us.

One more thing: Through this looooong lesson, I learned that most of those self righteous, over confident, proud, religiously legalistic men really loved the Lord. They were teaching what they believed God wanted them to!

I understand you have a deep love for the Lord but I also see a great “pissed off” anger in you for a Christian culture that has for years brought forth nothing but legalism and crap. I think you are striking out in anger! Once you cool off, consider: What would God have you do with this church? Wouldn’t He want you to love the sinners in it? Where can you be of most service? In a perfect church? Or a church of men? (Men have errors and sins and problems!) Why has He trained you as He has? Why has He allowed you to go through this?

Good luck in living out your understanding how to live out theology, by continually pointing to Jesus Christ alone and His finished work.

Unknown said...

AWESOME article! I have agonized over these truths in Romans 14 for weeks now, as you said, "worrying" almost to the point of paranoia about whether I am causing someone to stumble. Thank YOU for articulating this so well and helping me make sense of all of it so I can be obedient to Jesus, and not men! These truths are so freeing, and Christ exalting and the Holy Spirit used you in my life this morning:).

Jon said...

This article took the words right out of my heart. I couldn't have said it any better myself. In addition, I hope you don't mind, but I did copy and paste this article to my blog because I believe it's a great article and NEEDS to be spread. I stated in my re-post of your blog that I did not write it and I included a link to your page in the re-post. If you want me to delete it, I will. I just think it's such a vital message! Thanks so much!

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