In part 1 of this post, we opened the question of being a stumbling block to others. Here’s the biblical context of Paul’s admonition. Some believers in Corinth were apparently in disagreement with Paul over meat sacrificed to idols, or more specifically, the permissibility of eating it in pagan temples. They argued, correctly, that idols weren’t real; the conclusion they drew, incorrectly, was that it made no difference. Paul agreed that food in itself had no direct bearing on their relationship to God (1 Cor 8:8)–but in focusing on their freedom to do as they pleased, they were ignoring the fact that their behavior could make a difference to someone else’s relationship to God.
Paul pointed to other believers in the church who had “weaker consciences” (1 Cor 8:7-12)–people who weren’t entirely convinced that idols were mere human inventions. They might have been able to say with their mouths that idols didn’t really exist, but their emotions, shaped by years of habit, would belie their words. Hence Paul’s warning:
But take care that this liberty of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak. For if others see you, who possess knowledge, eating in the temple of an idol, might they not, since their conscience is weak, be encouraged to the point of eating food sacrificed to idols? (1 Cor 8:9-10, NRSV)
Reading between the lines, the bolder of the believers were continuing to eat meat in the temples, and were inviting their “weaker” friends along. I can imagine the thoughts of the latter, as they watched their “stronger” friends: Wow–they’re so confident, so sure. I wish I could be like that. They must be right; it can’t really hurt to eat this, can it? And so they ate, not wanting to appear weak or simple-minded. But behind the conviviality, they felt guilty, and may even have been tempted to slip back into other idolatrous practices.
Paul didn’t mince words with those whose arrogance allowed them to flaunt their knowledge in uncaring and damaging ways:
So by your knowledge those weak believers for whom Christ died are destroyed. But when you thus sin against members of your family, and wound their conscience when it is weak, you sin against Christ. (1 Cor 8:11-12, NRSV)
Don’t you get it? Paul bristled. By tripping these people up–your brothers and sisters!–you’re sinning against Christ himself. And with that much at stake, Paul himself insisted that he would gladly give up his own freedom for the sake of others: “Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall” (vs. 13, NRSV). In so doing, Paul brought the argument back full circle to the place where the chapter began: “Knowledge puffs up, but love builds up” (vs. 1b, NRSV).
Think: as Christians, do we ever stand on our right to engage in certain activities in ways that might cause others around us to stumble? What would love demand?