As we continue our study of Romans 14, let’s take a look at one of the questions that has come up:
“Is the ‘stumbling block/hindrance’ in verse 13 a reference to ‘hurting someone’s feelings’, or is this a more serious spiritual offense?”
According to Rom. 14:13, Paul says that a decision should be made by those who are “stronger in faith”. This group of Christians was/is encouraged to make a conscious decision and commitment to “never” put obstacles in the way of their weaker brethren. But what exactly is this group deciding to do, or NOT to do? Are they deciding that they will never do anything that will hurt the feelings or upset the spiritual “comfort” of their weaker brethren? Are they committing themselves to never say/do anything that – in our modern way of thinking – would “offend“ their weaker brethren? If this were the case, wouldn’t we be perpetually “handcuffed” by the preferences and comfort zones of weaker Christians? Would the Church not simply become a “field of eggshells”, where we must constantly cater to the desires and comforts of those who really need to grow up in their faith? Would we not become encouragers and enablers of the weak, instead of challenging them to grow in the understanding of their faith?
ANSWER #1 – THE CONCEPT OF THE “STUMBLING BLOCK” GOES BEYOND “HURT FEELINGS” - Let’s take a look at another passage in the book of Romans where this same terminology is used. If we go to Romans 9:33, we see that Jesus Himself became a “stone of stumbling” and a “rock of offense”. These two terms are the exact same terms used in Rom. 14:13, and in this context, we get a clearer picture of what this means. The Jews didn’t simply have their “feelings hurt” by Jesus; they were spiritually destroyed. Their misunderstanding and rejection of Him led them to spiritual ruin.
With this in mind, Paul seems to be saying that those who are strong in the faith should commit themselves not to exercise their Christian liberty in a way that could/would cause their weaker brethren to sin, thereby putting them on a path towards spiritual ruin/destruction. When stronger Christians find themselves in situations like the ones being referred to in Rom. 14, it is important for us to ask ourselves the right questions instead of the wrong ones. Although we could ask questions like, “Why should I be responsible for someone else’s sin?” we should instead ask ourselves, “Who am I really trying to please with this behavior?” or “Will this decision lead to unity and mutual edification among my Christian family, or will it cause trouble, strife and division?” The primary teaching of this passage (and others) seems to be that Christians ought to be motivated by love, unity, and understanding, and not by a selfish, self-serving use of their own freedom that disregards their weaker brethren.
Perhaps Paul summed it up best in I Cor. 8:9-13 when he tell us, “…take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone sees you who have knowledge eating in an idol’s temple, will he not be encouraged, if his conscience is weak, to eat food offered to idols? And so by your knowledge this weak person is destroyed, the brother for whom Christ died. Thus, sinning against your brothers and wounding their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. Therefore if food makes my brother stumble, I will never eat meat, lest I make my brother stumble.” [Emphasis mine]
ANSWER #2 – CAREFULLY DEFINE THE TERMS – We must realize that the “preferences and comfort zones” of the modern-day Christian are not (usually) in the same category as the issues that are being discussed in this passage. These were issues of conscience, stemming from a background/upbringing in the Law of Moses, not simply preferences or traditions. These were Jewish Christians who were struggling to “work through” the transition from the Old Covenant (where certain meats WERE unclean) to the New Covenant (where they were NOT considered unclean). This wasn’t as much an issue of “ignorance” as it was an issue of “conscience” and “patience”. Imagine the difficulties associated with this kind of transition!
For example (and this example is largely from one given by Wayne Jackson in his excellent article, “A Study of Romans 14”), if a new convert to Christ has been brought up to believe that it is wrong to work on Saturdays, would their conscience need some “training” before they started doing yard work on Saturdays, even though it would be perfectly acceptable to God? If their next-door neighbor happened to be one of their brothers/sisters in Christ, how should their stronger, Christian neighbors approach their own yard work on Saturdays? This situation is different from the typical arguments that often arise in the Church regarding preferences, traditions, and comfort zones, isn’t it?
ANSWER #3 – ROMANS 14 IS ONLY PART OF THE SOLUTION - In addition to the instruction found in Romans 14, we are also instructed to “help the weak” (I Thess. 5:14). This might involve explaining “the way of God more accurately” (Acts 18:26), or “teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you” (Mt. 28:20). It is important for us to realize that Romans 14 is not the ONLY teaching regarding our “weak brethren”. It is not a “free pass” for them to remain in their current spiritual condition (Eph. 4:15; I Pet. 2:2), but an effort to create an environment for them that is sensitive, loving, and conducive to their spiritual growth.