What Does it Mean to Make a Brother Stumble?

One of the things that always comes up when you speak of tattoos, smoking, drinking, et al. is the issue of making a brother stumble to show why one should abstain from doing those things at all. When one proof texts and reads current culture into the passages, they seem to have a great point and one that kept me under a heavy yoke for some time. What actually ended up happening is that this so called “weaker brother” kept me under his yoke of conscience instead of me being able to seek out Christ and his easy yoke and burden that is light. I kept trying to refrain from certain things because I was always worried that I would make a brother stumble and was so consumed by this, my life was more about the weaker brother and his issues than the glorifying of God in my actions and actually loving the weaker brother.

We have extremes here that need to be pointed out. One extreme is like the one mentioned above, where we worry about everything, whether it is sin or not and abstain from it all. The other extreme is we say, “screw the weaker brother” and we do whatever we want without care. Like most orthopraxy, extremes suck and fly in the face of Christ and his cross and, so, we need to find the correct balance and test it to Scripture. I want to do some defining to search out how we should live within the context of the weaker brother and what it means to make him stumble.

First, What is a “Weaker Brother”?

We find the main passages concerning the weaker brother in 1 Corinthians 8 and 10 and also in Romans 14. The weaker brother is the one who wishes to abstain from certain things. They are not the mature in the body, but they are the weak needing care. These people would be those who abstain from things that are not sinful, such as smoking, drinking alcohol, getting tattoos and of course eating meat sacrificed to idols. But, if you know the context of 1 Corinthians 8, 10 and Romans 14 we are not speaking of people who have merely been told that these things were sinful, but have a deep bond that ties the conscience to them. The weaker brother would be someone who has been addicted to smoking or alcohol, or who has a family history of addiction to these things. The weaker brother would be someone who came from a tribe who used to tattoo themselves for the sake of their pagan gods. The weaker brother is one who was in an idolatrous nation that sacrificed meat to gods for worship. These things are deeply entrenched in who they are and what they are about. These things identify them with the “old self.”

The weaker brother is NOT someone who has issue with these things because of their culture and how they were brought up. One is not a mere weaker brother because they have always been taught that smoking is a sin or that drinking alcohol is a sin. Paul goes much deeper than this and is found when he uses the term to “destroy” the weaker brother (which we will handle later).

Paul and Jerusalem Council are dealing with a much deeper issue than someone not liking meat sacrificed to idols, they were dealing with an issue that was deeply ingrained in the people that practiced idolatry in a way that was demonic and part of every day life that associated one with the devil. Again, it would be the same as getting a tattoo for the dead in Leviticus 19:28 to worship some pagan deity. This was binding on the conscience, not because it was “odd” to them, or they were uncomfortable with it, but they were dealing with demonic opposition and something that identified them with their old self when their father was the devil.

So, the weaker brother is not merely some nutcase that wants you to abstain from something they don’t like, the weaker brother is someone who is coming from an old life in sin, that is dealing with those things associated directly with their sin. Again, think of pagan worship in sacrifices when thinking of 1 Corinthians 8,10 and Romans 14.

Making the Weaker Brother Stumble

Now that we see what is means to be a weaker brother, we need to look at making that brother stumble. This term stumble is used almost synonymously with Paul using the term “destroy”. Paul isn’t speaking of making someone look at you in a light that is odd. It isn’t making someone uncomfortable, but it is literally making them stumble into sin. It would be like you handing someone a beer that you know is an alcoholic and telling them to drink. You, in your freedom, have made the weaker brother stumble or have destroyed them. The thought is putting something (a rock) in the road that they are walking on so that they will trip and severely hurt themselves.

People use this for all sorts of things, as though we must have a swivel on our heads to make sure people don’t look at us and think we are sinning. This isn’t what Paul is speaking on. If this is the case, then Jesus was a sinner. He did things all the time that made people think he was a sinner, but he didn’t make them sin. Think of the Pharisees of those that wear suits to church, don’t drink, don’t smoke, don’t play cards, don’t watch certain movies, listen to certain music. They do this so that they “will not make someone stumble”, but in reality are showing that your sanctification and righteousness comes in what you don’t do instead of whom you trust in. Jesus was not for this. What is interesting is that the term “stumble” can be both positive and negative. You can make someone stumble into sin, or make them stumble into righteousness.

“See, I lay a stone in Zion,
a chosen and precious cornerstone,
and the one who trusts in him
will never be put to shame.”Now to you who believe, this stone is precious. But to those who do not believe,
“The stone the builders rejected
has become the capstone,”and,
“A stone that causes men to stumble
and a rock that makes them fall.”They stumble because they disobey the message—which is also what they were destined for.

1 Peter 2:6-8

This is the point that no one actually brings up. If someone is trying to be self righteous in their abstention, the best thing you can do is be a stumbling block to them so that they can see that Christ is the corner stone of their faith, not their abstention for self righteousness. This brother, that abstains for the sake of self righteousness (which none of them will admit) is not the weaker brother, but the prideful brother that needs to be shown their sinful acts. This is why Jesus didn’t care if he drank in public, ate with the sinners and loved the hookers. He did it partly to show the self righteous Pharisees their stupidity. We find further evidence of this when Peter has his vision and then eats with the Gentiles. Notice what the self righteous Jews do.

So when Peter went up to Jerusalem, the circumcised believers criticized him and said, “You went into the house of uncircumcised men and ate with them.”

Acts 11:2

Did Peter then decide to abstain from eating with them? No, he corrected their self righteous thoughts by telling them the vision of God and using this an opportunity to show the gospel to them. Here is the key: someone who loves Jesus and not their self righteous deeds will react to this by not condemning the brother living in his freedom but will praise God.

When they heard this, they had no further objections and praised God, saying, “So then, God has granted even the Gentiles repentance unto life.”

Acts 11:18

Could this have been a stone of stumbling for these Jews? Yes. Did Peter refrain, or teach? He taught. Their reaction is an insight to their heart towards the love of God. They reject their self righteousness and cling to their new found Saviour.

So, Now What?

How are we to handle this then? You will notice that Paul has a huge point that he makes when speaking of refraining, and it does not mean that he will refrain always, only when he is knowingly among those whom bears a conscience against meat sacrificed to idols. People like to use Paul’s hyperbolic term to bear witness against this when Paul says, “Therefore, if food causes my brother to stumble, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause my brother to stumble.” Paul is using this in speaking to someone he is directly in relationship with at all times, not for the sake of believers out there somewhere who have issues with this. Meaning, if Timothy had issues with this, Paul would never eat meat in fellowship with Timothy. He doesn’t mean, he will literally never touch meat again. We see this clearly in the following:


If some unbeliever invites you to a meal and you want to go, eat whatever is put before you without raising questions of conscience. But if anyone says to you, “This has been offered in sacrifice,” then do not eat it, both for the sake of the man who told you and for conscience’ sake — the other man’s conscience, I mean, not yours. For why should my freedom be judged by another’s conscience? If I take part in the meal with thankfulness, why am I denounced because of something I thank God for? So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God.
1 Corinthians 10:27-31

Paul states to enjoy your freedom, but to refrain when among someone who has a conscience against something. So, if I am going to a nation of tribes who once used tattoos to worship their god, I will cover up my tattoos. I will do this because this is something that is personal to them and hard for them to take. I will also cover up my tattoos if I go into a home where I know tattoos used to be a way for the person to sin against God in rebellion and they are trying to refrain from such things. I do this with those I KNOWINGLY have deep issues with certain things that is related and identified to their old life of sin. So is the case with having a vegan over to my house, an alcoholic or someone who was addicted to smoking.

But, it doesn’t stop here. You don’t just refrain when you see these people, but you take the opportunity to teach them. You must teach the weaker, and not allow them to “turn you” into their weaker conscience. This was huge for the ministry of Christ. He was the one teaching the weaker, the weaker were not teaching him to turn to their ways. So, we should deal with the gospel with these people and love and aid them to the grace and freedom found at the cross.

Refrain out of love and teach out of love so that they may be won to the victory of the cross. There is a balance here. But, to throw out the “you might make a brother stumble” has become another way to control the actions of others to make them think they are more righteous. This is sin and contrary to the gospel. Also, those who freely do whatever they want without taking consideration of the TRUE weaker brother and don’t take the opportunity to teach them in word and action what the Gospel is truly about, also sin.

We must live and teach the gospel to others without allowing them to bound up our actions so that we find the gospel as a restrictive gospel instead of a freeing one.

“Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and YOU WILL FIND REST FOR YOUR SOULS. For My yoke is easy and My burden is light.”

Matthew 11:29-30

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Cross-posted from Seth’s former personal blog.