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.