How not to cause others to stumble

My regular readers will know that I am a great advocate of personal freedom; that “it was for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Gal 5:1)

On the back of my recent post linking to Jeremy Myers’ great (and controversially titled!) article, ‘Since Grace is free, Yes, you can go and sin all you want‘, I would like to write a little on what happens when other people see your freedom. Specifically, if your freedom ’causes your brother to stumble’ (Romans 14:13) then it could become a problem. I’ve written a little bit about this already, in the middle of this article.

Equally, we still need to be free from the Rules that dictate what is ‘religiously acceptable’ and what is not. The need to protect the weaker brother exists – Romans 14:15 says “If your brother or sister is distressed because of what you eat, you are no longer acting in love” – but at the same time you don’t want to be constantly worrying about what is ‘sin’ and what is not. 1 Cor 10:23 says, ” ‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say – but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’ – but not everything is constructive.  No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.”

So, what to do? Do I let my brother’s weaker faith restrict my freedom? Or do I plough on regardless of my brother’s feelings?

Well, here’s what I think. There is a huge difference between someone who has problems of conscience, and would thus be hurt if he saw you exercising certain freedoms, and another who would try to impose his rules and laws on you because he wants you to come back ‘under Law’.

For instance, there is a rather risqué printed comic on the British market that is absolutely hilarious and at the same time is a superb analyst of the human condition. But in places it is, shall we say, somewhat smutty. Now, I love reading parts of that comic because I find it funny and entertaining, and I avoid the bits I don’t like; quite simply I don’t find smutty humour funny. But that’s just me. But my brother might not have the freedom to read it because he would feel maybe ‘dirty’ for having read from the same comic as contains all that ‘smut’. Now that’s what Paul is talking about in Romans 14:15. I would therefore not advertise to that brother that I read that comic. It’s between me, God and others who also find it funny. Sure, the brother may know that I read that comic, but as long as I don’t read it when he’s there, that’s fine. What I do with my personal freedom when he’s not there is not his concern.

Now, if someone – that brother or someone else – were to come across and say that they thought that my reading that comic is maybe ‘sinful’ for some reason, and that I should stop doing it, then that’s where it becomes a point of going back under Law. Because my conscience is clear, and at the end of the day that’s what concerns me and my relationship with Father God, I do not need to be answerable to that person in that instance. It’s outside his remit, and, furthermore, he needs to respect my freedom in places which don’t concern him. It works both ways, you know!

This is not to say that I do not place myself ‘under’ my spiritual brothers in the Church; men (and some women) whom I trust and who know me. I want to voluntarily place myself under their covering, under their correction if necessary, so that they can safeguard me from gross error. But even then, the final choice is mine, and I know they would respect that. This is what freedom means. In the group I am part of, we have many differing opinions on most matters – often polar opposites! – but we respect each other’s opinions. We call ourselves the ‘Men of Honour’ partially for that reason.

The other thing is this. I may not realise that a particular activity is ‘causing my brother to stumble’. If something is perfectly permissible for me, but not for him, how am I to know? Should I deliberately try to ‘avoid all semblance of evil’ (1 Thess 5:22) in order to avoid inadvertently offending my brother? (Actually it means to ‘avoid every kind of evil’….but that’s another matter)

Anyway, No. I should not. While I would be in the wrong were I to deliberately flaunt my freedom with that comic in front of my brother, if I didn’t know he found it offensive, then I would be innocent. I did not hurt him deliberately. So in that instance the burden is on my brother to let me know he has a problem with it – not, you understand, to make me stop it, but just so I don’t read the comic when he’s there. This simple courtesy of communication is, as always, the way forward. You can’t assume I’ll ‘just know’ that something is offending you. For me, it isn’t an issue until you’ve told me. How else am I supposed to know?!

The main reason why I should not constantly be on the lookout for ‘sin’ and ‘causing offence’ is that Christ died to set me free from sin, and the effects of sin – including having constantly to be looking over my shoulder to see if I’m doing something wrong. That’s not freedom – that’s Law. Sin was nailed to the Cross, and I’m going to leave it there, where it belongs!

It is my hope that you can do that too.

[Edit] – Since this post was published, I have had an additional thought. If you are part of a ministry to people with addictive tendencies (for example our Church works with the homeless, drug addicts etc.) then you actually do need to be vigilant that you don’t let your freedom injure these people. This is because something that’s perfectly ok for you – say going out for a beer – may be injurious to someone who struggles with alcohol addiction if they see you doing it. ‘Well’, thinks the guy who has only just gone dry, ‘He’s ok with it; it won’t do me any harm’, and before they know it, they’re back into addiction again. In this case you may need to keep your ministry to these people completely separate from your home life. Ask God for the wisdom on what to do in these circumstances – “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you” – James 1:5 (NIV)


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