When Paul made his arguments in Romans 14, he spoke of never putting "a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother" (Romans 14:13). This is one of the most significant ways that we can "pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding" (Romans 14:19). This can, also, be a very difficult passage to follow because we aren't generally very prone to giving up rights in order to appease another.
We live in a world that is so conditioned by the idea of "our rights" that teachings like this can, themselves, and ironically, become offensive. "Give up my rights because someone else is offended? That just seems outrageous! Why, if we start following that course then people will start using anything as offenses and pretty soon we won't have any rights for ourselves." Rights can become our gods when our minds are set on earthly things (cf. Philippians 3:17-19). Many sins — including my own — are easily traced to this mindset. That flesh vs. the spirit problem is alive and well, and when rights are more important than souls, we have given in to the flesh.
Is it possible for people to become unreasonable? Of course. But that doesn't negate the teaching that we need to be committed not to put stumbling blocks and hindrances in the way of another. People could have been just as unreasonable in the first century about food and days. Nevertheless, the teaching stands, and rather than trying to find reasons why we shouldn't always have to practice this, we ought to start with the assumption that we will practice this, always, to the best of our abilities. If it becomes obvious that another is just spying out liberties and trying to be obtuse, that is one thing, and usually, it becomes obvious (cf. Galatians 2:3-4). We still need to give the benefit of the doubt up front, as love demands, and do whatever we can to make a clear path to the gospel and to the building up of one another.
Let's unpack the idea of stumbling blocks further, as there are several matters to consider:
First, there are the stumbling blocks that, by our practicing something, encourages another to participate and thereby violate his conscience.
I believe this is a primary point in Romans 14. Paul said, "it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble" (Romans 14:20-21). The point is not that one is eating something that the other just doesn't like. I can't use this passage and say to another, "Eww, you're eating liver and that offends me." That's not the idea. The idea is that a brother might have a conscience against eating something, presumably for religious reasons (a Jew eating ham, an ex-pagan who converted to Christ who has trouble with meat that may have been used in a pagan way). When the "strong" brother eats the meat, he may encourage the weaker brother to participate, and when he does, he has violated his faith in the matter and thereby sinned (Romans 14:23). The offense, then, is causing another to participate in an activity against which that brother has scruples.
Second, there are stumbling blocks of the mind.
This is a little more difficult because it may not involve an obvious, particular practice. Still, these can be just as real. What are we talking about here?
The idea of stumbling blocks of the mind is seen in I Corinthians 1. Paul wrote, "we preach Christ crucified, to Jews a stumbling block and to Gentiles foolishness, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God" (I Corinthians 1:23-24). Here, the cross itself is a stumbling block of the mind. The very idea of it was offensive in such a way that there were those who refused to listen. A stumbling block of the mind, then, is seen when there is a concept or practice that is itself offensive enough in the minds of people that they refuse to listen.
Now we might immediately think that this stumbling block is unavoidable. That's right. There are some issues that will be stumbling blocks and that cannot be avoided. The message of the cross will always be the same message. This will always be necessary, and there will always be those who find the message to be a stumbling block.
The same is true of the resurrection message. The Sadducees opposed the preaching of the apostles because they were teaching the resurrection (Acts 4:1-3). When Paul taught the resurrection in Athens, some were willing to listen again, but others "sneered" or mocked (Acts 17:32). The idea was enough to create a mental block for some.
Some biblical teachings are just considered offensive (e.g., the problem of evil, wars in the Old Testament, etc.), and we should seek to teach about them properly (which is part of the purpose of apologetics).
When we say, then, that we should never put a stumbling block in front of another, this cannot be referring to the message of the gospel itself or what the Bible actually teaches. The gospel is the message we must preach, and it is one we cannot change to suit the whims or offenses of another. We cannot alter the teachings of Scripture to avoid offenses. If the biblical truth offends another, we must still teach it in love.
Third, since there are both essential and non-essential stumbling blocks, we ought to learn to distinguish these.
The context of Romans 14 isn't about the essential message of the gospel; it is about non-essential practices. The gospel message is essential, and it is a stumbling block to many. We can't help that one other than to teach with a proper, loving spirit. However, there are many non-essential stumbling blocks. This means that there are many things we might say or do that inadvertently (hopefully never purposefully) creates a mental wall between our credibility and the message we are trying to send. We might not even realize it at first. It may take getting to know a situation or culture better. Even so, we need to do our best, and this requires wisdom and prayer (Colossians 4:2-6).
For example, if I know that someone has a religious problem with drinking soda, and I want to teach that person, the last thing I should want to do is pull out soda while I'm talking with him. That would be an unnecessary stumbling block, and one who does that cannot be said to be putting the other person first (cf. Philippians 2:3-5). If I'm displaying bumper stickers that I know are offensive to people, and it's unnecessary to do so and may well become a hindrance to my teaching the gospel, then why would I persist in doing it? If I know that a certain phrase in a particular culture or place is offensive (even if it's not taken that way elsewhere), then shouldn't I have the courtesy and kindness to refrain from using that phrase when in the presence of those who might find it offensive? Should I purposefully use terminology that I know is offensive just to make a point? If I know that wearing certain clothing (or not wearing enough clothing) is a problem for others, should I stubbornly persist because "it's my right"? Is this worth pushing away souls to prove our rights? What unnecessary stumbling block should be set over against the value of a soul?
I realize that once we get going here, a host of matters could arise. We might not be able to avoid every perceived stumbling block, but when we can, and when we find out what they are, what should we do? If we love our neighbors as ourselves, and love does no harm to a neighbor (Romans 13:10), then shouldn't we at least try to do all within our power to alleviate any tensions that might be caused by something that is not necessary? We may even think it silly, but why should that matter if it's not silly to the one we are trying to save or teach? To the one who has a problem, it's still a problem. "If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men" (Romans 12:19). Surely, souls are far more important than things or even our perceived rights. If, in stubbornly trying to make a point of something because I find the other's ideas silly, I end up pushing people away from the gospel, then what does that say about me? Am I then being a true disciple of the Christ who died for all? Am I showing love or contempt for the other person?
Here was Paul's attitude: "For though I am free from all men, I have made myself a slave to all, so that I may win more" (I Corinthians 9:19). Keep reading in the context to see what he meant by this. How far was Paul willing to go? This should help us understand that attitudes themselves can become either aids or stumbling blocks to others. I can try to do all I can to become all things to others within what is right and allowable, or I can stiffen my neck, show my pride, and say that's the other person's problem and I will refuse to budge. What do we think Jesus' attitude would be about all of this? Just remember, He went to the cross. What will we do for the sake of others?
These unnecessary stumbling blocks can apply to both fellow believers and to non-Christians. Romans 14 is dealing with fellow believers. Here's what Paul wrote about attitudes concerning those who are outside:
"Devote yourselves to prayer, keeping alert in it with an attitude of thanksgiving; praying at the same time for us as well, that God will open up to us a door for the word, so that we may speak forth the mystery of Christ, for which I have also been imprisoned; that I may make it clear in the way I ought to speak. Conduct yourselves with wisdom toward outsiders, making the most of the opportunity. Let your speech always be with grace, as though seasoned with salt, so that you will know how you should respond to each person" (Colossians 4:2-6)
Attitudes, then, are critical when it comes to either building bridges or building walls out of potential stumbling blocks. We should always avoid making ourselves what comes between someone and the gospel. If they reject Jesus, it's on them. If they reject Jesus because we were being ugly and unkind in the way we went about it, guilt will be on our hands as well.
Now, one might object here, "But shouldn't we be working on not being so offended? Don't we live in a culture that is always so offended at every little thing?" I wouldn't dispute that, and yes we, as a culture, do need to work on not being so easily offended at everything. That is frustrating sometimes. Further, we ought always to stand up for what is good and morally right; we cannot give up what is morally right because others disagree. Again, we must distinguish the necessary from the unnecessary. Yet does any of this change the teaching of Scripture on the matter addressed? I cannot choose what others will find to be stumbling blocks, but I can try, as much as within my power, to keep them from being what hinders the gospel, especially if they are unnecessary. Is this capitulating too much to "political correctness"? No, it's submitting to the teaching and principles of Scripture. This isn't about politics; it's about the saving of souls.
When we are dealing with unbelievers, we should expect that they will have worldviews and issues that could be problematic. We can't just chide them for being offended too easily, then expect that this will open up the door for the gospel. Later, they might learn better, but the first order of business is the gospel. Try to deal with the stumbling block issues kindly, biblically, and without equivocation; some ideas will indeed need to be torn down. However, complaining that people are too easily offended won't change that they are, and the complaint itself may make matters worse if we aren't careful. After all, telling me not to be offended about something will not suddenly make me feel not offended, and will likely add more stones to the stumbling block for telling me how I should feel. Rather, help me change, fundamentally, how I should view the world through the gospel. Christians should always keep in mind that they have a primary obligation to love others and do all they can to clear a path for the gospel message to be heard. Keep first things first (cf. I Corinthians 15:1-4), and let's strive to live in a way that shows we are serious disciples who care about others (I Peter 2:11-12).
We live in a world of stumbling blocks. Some of those stumbling blocks are practices that could cause others to act in a way that violates their faith and conscience. We should all we can to avoid putting such in front of another. Some stumbling blocks are more conceptual, and we have to deal with those appropriately, as well. In either case, whether dealing with a believer or unbeliever, we are to do all we can to empty ourselves and put others first. This is the example left by our Lord. Shall we seek another standard?
Abusers of Offenses to Manipulate
Paul was determined "not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother's way" (Romans 14:13). Insofar as any of us are concerned, as followers of Jesus, we need to do all we can to keep stumbling blocks out of the way of our relationships, especially when they are unnecessary. Our love for others ought to be the guiding principle, and "love does no wrong to a neighbor" (Romans 13:8-10). If we know that something is a problem for another, and if that something is not a necessary matter (compare to the gospel itself, I Corinthians 1:18ff), then we ought to be willing to let that go and not allow it to be a barrier to our relationships or to the presentation of the gospel. If we aren't willing to do that, we are making ourselves and our rights more important than the will of the Lord.
We also noted different types of offenses. There are offenses that come when a strong brother acts in a way to encourage a weak brother to violate his conscience in a matter (and "weak" here indicates one cannot act on faith in something particular). There are also offenses of the mind that would become barriers between people because the idea itself is a problem (as in I Corinthians 1:18ff). Here, we are considering the broader principle of how one who is "offended," in whatever way, ought to act.
The world is certainly full of offenses, and we live in an age where people seem to find offense over many ideas. This attitude can then come in among God's people and affect relationships. If not careful, Christians can become unreasonable in demanding that others take note of the fact that they are offended over one thing or another. One can start using these passages as a manipulative tool against others, always demanding that his own conscience be the standard for all. Just claim an offense over something, and others will essentially be forced to kowtow to his demands. It can be a way of taking others as spiritual hostages so that they will always do what the one person desires. "Let my conscience be your guide," is the way some have put it. This is no more a loving and brotherly spirit than the one parading his rights in front of others whose consciences won't allow them to engage in those practices. Both sides can be unloving, and both can be erroneous in their approach. Love makes the difference for both sides.
A curmudgeon can create many problems if he so desires. He can claim offense after offense, knowing that others are supposed to go out of their way to please him if they are going to follow the teachings of Romans 14 and other similar passages. However, and this is critical, this brother, like the "strong" brother he is taking advantage of over an issue, is "not to judge the one who eats, for God has accepted him" (Romans 14:3). In other words, though he certainly has a right to his conscience, he is not to despise and mistreat the brother whose conscience isn't the same as his. Demanding that the other submit to his conscience is one way of despising another. It is one thing for the strong brother to willingly forego a right; it is another matter for the weak to demand that the strong give up rights.
There is, then, a fundamental principle at work here. If I am the brother who is "strong" on an issue, it is not my job to try to change the "weak" brother by constantly trying to hammer home my rights to him to get him to see it my way. Nothing in the passage indicates that the weak brother on an issue must change; he is able to keep his conscience, and my job is to avoid putting stumbling blocks in his path. As much as it is possible and depends on me, I am to maintain peace (cf. Romans 12:18). On the other hand, if it is my conscience on the line over an issue (i.e., I'm the "weak" one on that matter), it is not my job to continually remind the stronger brother that he had better do what my conscience demands. If the stronger brother knows I struggle, and he is of the character of our Lord, then he will not intentionally cause a problem for me. I need to be content with that and not start making demands on the way that he acts. That would devolve into manipulation, and there is no excuse for such an attitude on my part. This is not the way to foster loving relationships.
We might compare this to the husband and wife relationship. Is it the husband's job to continually tell his wife to "submit" to him? No, his job is to love her as Christ loved the church. Is the wife's job to continually remind her husband to love her like Christ? Assuming that both are familiar with the biblical teaching, they can lovingly encourage each other to be servants of the Lord without becoming obnoxious in telling each other what their obligations are. If they focus on their own personal responsibilities, the relationship will work as God intended.
The point of this is to say that we need to avoid using Scripture as a manipulative tool in trying to control what others do. Teach the text and make the applications. Encourage each other to do what is right and follow the Lord in all matters. Yet remember that it is just as much a misuse of the text to use it for selfish purposes and to try to get our own way on something as it is to blatantly teach a falsehood. Neither side is to mistreat, despise, or coerce the other.
As in all things, and for all of God's people, "as those who have been chosen of God, holy and beloved, put on a heart of compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another, and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you, so also should you. Beyond all these things put on love, which is the perfect bond of unity" (Colossians 3:12-14).