In the Christian life, it’s not uncommon to hear someone referenced as a stumbling block. However, what exactly is a stumbling block and what is the difference between a genuine stumbling block and a violation of a person’s standards on a particular issue? In order to see the difference between the two, we must examine how the Bible uses both of these situations and compare them to one another.
There is much in the New Testament about how a person should maintain healthy relationships within the church. For instance, in Ephesians 4:3, we find Paul urging people to be “eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.” We should strive to walk together in peace within the church and to value our relationships in Christ Jesus. This is so important, notice what Paul wrote at the end of Ephesians 4:
Therefore, having put away falsehood, let each one of you speak the truth with his neighbor, for we are members one of another. Be angry and do not sin; do not let the sun go down on your anger, and give no opportunity to the devil. Let the thief no longer steal, but rather let him labor, doing honest work with his own hands, so that he may have something to share with anyone in need. Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, by whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you (Ephesians 4:25–32).
Some of these verses in this paragraph in Ephesians 4 are often used regarding how we treat one another in our home, especially between husband and a wife in Ephesians 4:26 regarding not allowing the sun to set on your anger. However, this entire paragraph is contextually referring to the relationships within the church (although we can make application to how we treat one another in our home). The idea is that we should maintain love and healthy relationships and seek to walk in peace together for the glory of God—not giving the devil an opportunity to divide us and cause us to sin.
In the Bible, we see a few different types of stumbling blocks mentioned. First, we find the stumbling block used in the Old Testament in Leviticus 19:14. That language is picked up and used in the New Testament to describe a person who causes someone to stumble in obedience to God. We see this as Peter questioned the crucifixion of Jesus and was subsequently rebuked for his words. While he was certainly not going to prevent Jesus from going to the cross, he could become a stumbling block, or a hurdle by getting in the way of God’s eternal plan.
Matthew 16:23 — But he turned and said to Peter, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me. For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”
In another sense, the stumbling block can refer to a genuine opportunity to cause someone to stumble into sin. This is a serious place to find oneself. Consider Jesus’ sobering warning regarding those who caused the little ones to sin:
Matthew 18:5–6 — Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me,  but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea.
Consider yet another scenario where someone once struggled with a particular sin and by observing the actions or choices others—it opened a door for that person to flirt with their past sin enough to fall back into it again. We can see this in connection with the Jews who ate the meat sacrificed to idols while others were offended by it. Paul writes to the church at Corinth and says, “But take care that this right of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak” (1 Cor. 8:9). While the meat itself didn’t contain demons nor was it contaminated as a result of being sacrificed to idols—it was the weaker brother who felt it was a violation of their conscience and could serve as an open door to sin and this is why Paul urged his fellow believers to abstain. Paul was consistently looking for the high road (2 Cor. 6:3) and provided a good example.
The Path of Wisdom
As it pertains to a genuine stumbling block, you may find that you have liberty and freedom to make certain choices, but if it could cause one of your brothers or sisters in Christ to sin—it would be best to not flaunt your freedom. The path of wisdom is a path of love that cares for others and looks out for the immature (weak) who could be harmed unintentionally. The path of wisdom is the high road that seeks to avoid controversy and looks for opportunities to build the church up in the faith as opposed to being a rogue believer who thrives on controversy.
It’s also important to consider the path of wisdom when your personal standards may differ from another brother or sister in Christ. Rather than approaching a situation as if you’re the weaker brother—it would be wise to simply agree to disagree on certain personal standards in order to prevent damaging relationships. Remember, the heart of legalism is the desire to bind someone’s conscience based on your personal standards rather than chapter and verse in the Word of God. Wisdom and love will allow us to pursue the high road.
According to Revelation 20:11-15, God is interested in our works. Apparently God keeps ongoing records of all of our works, including our speech (Matthew 12:36). However, as we read the Bible, we see that our salvation is not dependent upon our works. Our salvation is dependent upon Jesus’ work for us on the cross (Ephesians 2:8-9). So, where is the balance?
One major league problem to avoid as we live the Christian life is legalism. Have you heard of a specific church in your community being labeled “legalistic” in their ministry philosophy? One of the major problems with the subject of legalism is determining exactly what legalism means since there is no definition provided in the Scriptures. The closest thing we have in the biblical text is Paul’s address to the church in Galatia.
Galatians 1:6-9 – I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ.  But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.  As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.
Later we learn from Paul’s words that the issue involved the circumcision requirement laid down by the law:
Galatians 5:4-6 – You are severed from Christ, you who would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace.  For through the Spirit, by faith, we ourselves eagerly wait for the hope of righteousness.  For in Christ Jesus neither circumcision nor uncircumcision counts for anything, but only faith working through love.
Paul makes his point clear. The church in Galatia had strayed from the true gospel to another gospel. They had become guilty of mixing law and grace. The charge by Paul was serious. He charge the church at Galatia to let those who would preach and teach such heresy be accursed (damned to hell). Therefore, Paul was not playing games with the issue of legalism. On the basis of Paul’s dealings with the issues in Galatia, we can safely define legalism as an attempt to please God on behalf of law keeping. Donald Whitney, in his article, “Discipline Yourself…Without Legalism” has said, “Legalism is the improper emphasis on works in our relationship to God.” If a person tries to keep the law in order to please God, he will find himself disappointed and frustrated in his attempt (Romans 3:28). This is a massive ditch that must be avoided in the Christian life.
On the other hand, we are called to be holy as God Himself is holy. Holiness is a biblical word from which we can provide a good working definition. For instance, when we read that God is holy, what God is communicating to us is that He is distinct and set apart from His creation. When the Psalmist writes in Psalm 99:5, “Exalt the Lord our God; worship at his footstool! Holy is he!” what exactly does he mean that God is holy? He means that God is distinctly different than any other god and He is likewise separate (the otherness of God) from His creation.
The word holy is likewise used in conjunction with the Sabbath in Exodus 20:8-11. The holiness of the Sabbath was in the fact that God “made it holy” by setting it apart as distinct from all other days. As we consider the meaning and use of the word holy, we then turn to the charge of Peter to the children of God whereby he said, “since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy'” (1 Peter 1:16). If Christians are called to be holy (set apart as distinct from the world), what distinctions must be evident in the holiness of God’s children? That is where we often see the rub. Some law keepers want to elevate those distinctions to essentials. Others attempt to tear down all laws and standards while giving all allegiance to Christ in grace.
What we must realize is that an honest attempt to love God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength is not legalism. A group of elders leading a church to be distinct and set apart from the rest of the world is not legalism. In fact, we can find many warnings in the Bible regarding worldliness (2 Corinthians 6:14-18; 1 John 2:15). Additionally, the attempt to please God by law keeping should not be viewed as holiness. The only means whereby a sinner is made right before God is by the work of Jesus Christ on the cross (Romans 5). Nothing that we can offer God will impress Him. Paul and James are in harmony with one another. Justification is by faith alone in Christ alone – according to Paul. Faith without works is dead – according to James. Therefore, if a person has been justified by faith, he not only has peace with God but an inner desire to strive for holiness and to serve God.
Kevin DeYoung, in his book, The Hole in Our Holiness: Filling the Gap Between Gospel Passion and the Pursuit of Godliness puts it this way:
“Not only is holiness the goal of your redemption, it is necessary for your redemption. Now before you sound the legalist alarm, tie me up by my own moral bootstraps, and feed my carcass to the Galatians, we should see what Scripture has to say. . . . It’s the consistent and frequent teaching of the Bible that those whose lives are marked by habitual ungodliness will not go to heaven. To find acquittal from God on the last day there must be evidence flowing out of us that grace has flowed into us.”
The lines may become blurry at times, but we must stand firm upon the Word of God. Building fences where God has not placed a boundary becomes dangerously close to legalism. A life of licentious behavior under the banner of the gospel is not a demonstration of freedom, but more precisely a demonstration of foolishness. Wisdom and discernment are both key in making decisions regarding the Christian life. We must avoid the ditch of overt licentious Christian freedom and the deep ditch of religious legalism that confuses people regarding the gospel of Jesus Christ. We are free in Christ, but we are likewise the slaves of Christ. A passionate holy life provides the greatest freedom in the world. Holiness is not legalism and legalism is not holiness.
Jesus paid it all,
All to Him I owe;
Sin had left a crimson stain,
He washed it white as snow.