Spiritual Harm

But take heed lest by any means this liberty of yours become a stumblingblock to them that are weak.
~ 1 Corinthians 8:9

Because they ministered unto them before their idols, and caused the house of Israel to fall into iniquity; therefore have I lifted up mine hand against them, saith the Lord GOD, and they shall bear their iniquity.
~ Ezekiel 44:12

But when ye sin so against the brethren, and wound their weak conscience, ye sin against Christ.
~ 1 Corinthians 8:12

Kinds of Stumbling Blocks, by James Durham (1622-1658). The following contains an excerpt from his work, “The Scandal of Stumbling Blocks: Avoiding Spiritual Harm”.

In order to explain what we mean by scandal, we must draw some very careful distinctions: what scandal is and is not, and what this kind of scandal looks like as distinct from that kind of scandal. By patiently working through these distinctions, we will end up with greater clarity and precision in how exactly we should understand scandal.

1. Offending is not the same as displeasing. We need to be clear that scandal, or offense, does not always actually displease or grieve someone. There is a great difference between displeasing someone and offending him, just as there is also a great difference between pleasing someone and edifying him. Someone may be displeased and yet edified and, on the other hand, well satisfied and yet spiritually offended.

Offense is in contrast not to being pleased but to being edified. So scandal, offense, or stumbling is something that may or does impair someone’s spiritual edification, regardless of whether they are pleased or displeased. This is clear from comparing Romans 14:13 with Romans 14:20-21. Paul explains that a “stumbling block” or an “offense” is anything that may be the occasion of a fall to someone—anything that may make him stumble or weaken or halt in the course of holiness—just as a block would hinder a runner or put him at risk of falling as he runs a race (which is what the similitude is drawn from in this phrase).

2. You can give offense, take offense, or both. To give scandal or offense is when you lay something in front of someone else that is apt to cause that person to fall or sin, even supposing they do not actually fall when they encounter it. If it induces to sin of its own nature, it is an offense or stumbling block. Christ said to Peter, “Thou art an offence unto me” (Mat 16:23). Though nothing could cause Christ to fall into sin, yet the advice Peter had given Him was in its own nature something that gave offense. This is known as active offense.

To take scandal or offense, when no offense is given, is when somebody does what is not only lawful but necessary, and yet others, simply from their own corruption, carp at it and stumble over it. In this way, the Pharisees took offense at Christ (Mat 15:12), even though Christ never gave anyone cause to be spiritually harmed. It is a feature of the wicked that they stumble where there is no stumbling block, and as it is said, “They know not at what they stumble” (Pro 4:19). This is called passive offense.

Offense is both given and taken when there is something active on the one side that is apt to draw someone else to sin, and that something is yielded to on the other side (the bait is accepted). This was in the stumbling block that Balaam laid before Israel (Num 22:5-24:25; 31:8, 16; Rev 2:14). This is how it is ordinarily when sinners, having corruption, are soon inflamed to some extent or another with every incitement. For example, Peter gave Barnabas something to stumble over when he dissembled by refusing to eat with the Gentiles, and Barnabas went and stumbled when he was also carried away to dissemble (Gal 2:11-16).

It is active offense or active scandal that we are really looking at here. It is, in short, any deed or word that in itself is apt to make someone else sin, or to weaken him in his spiritual course, either in respect of life or comfort, irrespective of whether the person actually stumbles or whether the speaker or doer actually intends offense. In all this, we are to understand that one act may be offensive in many considerations, just as one deed may be sinful in many ways.

3. Some offenses are in doctrine; others are in practice. There are doctrinal offenses, and there are practical offenses. Doctrinal offenses are such as flow from matters of opinion in which people vent16 some untruth and so lay a stumbling block before others. This is to break a commandment (the commandment against falsehood) and to teach others to do so (Mat 5:19). Sometimes this also overlaps with matters of practice—that is, when a corrupt practice is defended by false doctrine, as the Nicolaitans attempted to do.

Scandal in practice, without any doctrinal defense, is when doctrine is kept pure, yet a person falls into some practice that, of itself, without any verbal expression, induces others to sin. David’s adultery was a scandal in this way (see 2Sa 11; 12:14), and so also was the fault of the priests who made the people to stumble at the law (Mal 2:7-8). In this way, every public or known irregular action is offensive because it gives a bad example to others or otherwise influences them in a way that provokes them to some sin.

4. Some things are inherently offensive; others are offensive because of their circumstances. We may distinguish offenses according to their matter.

Some offenses are in matters that are simply sinful in themselves and also have sins following on them. All errors and public sinful practices are offensive in this way.

Some matters are sinful not simply in themselves, yet they have the appearance of evil. Dangerous and doubtful expressions in doctrine that have been or often are abused, and also practices not in keeping with the honesty and good report that a Christian ought to study (Phi 4:8-9), are offensive in this way. David would not take the name of idols in his mouth (Psa 16:4) because others paid them reverence. In this way, he avoided giving offense through the appearance of evil in the theological language he used. However, Peter’s dissimulation and withdrawing from the Gentiles (Gal 2) was an example of practices that are out of harmony with holiness; his actions appeared to strengthen the opinion of those who insisted on keeping up the difference between Jew and Gentile. For the same reason, Paul would not circumcise Titus (Gal 2:3), and he condemned eating in temples devoted to idols.

Some offenses are in matters that are otherwise lawful and indifferent, though not necessary. For example, in the early church, eating or abstaining from specific foods or from what was offered to idols was indifferent when it was done in the house of a heathen, and so was sometimes lawful. But it was not indifferent when it was done in the temple of an idol because that gave the appearance of condoning evil, as if the person who ate the food had some respect for the idol. Nor was it indifferent if any weak brother was at the table in the house because it would grieve him (1Co 8:10). It is these last two, and more especially the third, that are directly to do with the doctrine of offenses, as the offense arises from circumstances to do with the thing (such as time, place, person, and manner) rather than from the deed considered in itself.

5. Some offenses are unintentional; some are caused despite intending to do good. We may distinguish offenses in respect of the intention of the person who acts. Some things that may be offensive given the circumstances may yet not be perceived to be offensive by the person who gives offense by them. This was the case with the offense that Peter laid before Christ (Mat 16:21-23).

Alternatively, sometimes the person may intend to do good to someone else yet may offend and cause him to stumble. For example, Eli intended his sons good; but really, by his too gentle reproof, he caused them to stumble by confirming them in their wickedness (1Sa 2:22-25, 29; 3:13). Similarly, some, by untimely reproofs or censures, and indeed also by misplaced commendations, may in fact make other people worse, even though they intend the opposite.

6. Offense is caused not so much by acts themselves as by the manner in which they are done. This leads us to another distinction—namely, between the practice itself and the manner of performing it or the circumstances of doing it. If you think about it, even acts that are good in themselves will not be edifying unless they are done in the right manner. Thus, a good act will not keep off offense if it is not done tenderly, wisely, and so on. We often find that circumstances of times, persons, places, manner, and so on have a huge influence on offense. It is not offensive to pray or to preach, for example, but at some times (such as before an idol or on a “holy day”) praying or preaching may well be offensive.

7. There are offenses of omission and offenses of commission. Just as we can distinguish sins of omission and sins of commission, so we can also distinguish offenses in the same way. For example, some people give offense when they take an oath but do it lightly or pray but do it irreverently. Others give offense when they do not pray at all, for neglecting prayer fosters profanity just as irreverence in prayer does. Presumably for this reason, Daniel wanted to open his window in case he would be thought to have stopped praying (Dan 6:1-10).

Note that you do not guard against an offense of omission only by doing what is your duty, unless you are also doing it appropriately, in a way that is fitting. This is called the holding of the testimony (Rev 6:9). It is mainly this that is edifying to others when the light of holiness shines. When the light of holiness is veiled to any extent, to that extent our neighbors have darkness to walk in; and in that way, it is to them an occasion to stumble because we are not holding out the light to them. But still, this holding of the testimony has to be done without affectation or ostentation, lest a new offense follows on it.

8. Some offenses are upsetting; others are flattering. Some offenses contradict and oppose the graces of God’s people, and these make them sad. Some offenses foster corruptions, and these are too pleasing. In this way, soft reproofs, corrupt advice, and flatteries provide many people with things to stumble and fall on.

9. Some offenses are indirect; others are direct. Some offenses may be called indirect—for example, when a person commits them in their own private life (such as in their way of eating, drinking, and living). Because this person lives quietly and out of the public eye and is not involved with anyone who stumbles due to his behavior, the offense they cause is indirect. However, some offenses are more direct. That is, they flow from how people act in their public behavior or in the way they interact with others, where the inducement to offend is more direct.

10. Offenses differ in the manner of causing hurt. Offenses may be distinguished as they hurt people either by pleasing them in their corruptions and strengthening them in what is sinful or, on the other hand, when they hurt them by irritating and stirring up their corruptions.

Too much gentleness in admonitions, or rashness or imprudence in commending what is good, or extenuating what is evil, or corrupt advice, and such like, offend by strengthening people in what is sinful. In this way, Jonadab caused Amnon to stumble (2Sa 13), and Eli caused his sons to stumble (1Sa 2-3).

On the other hand, putting people down, wronging them and not taking the trouble to remove a wrong or to explain ourselves if people think we have done wrong, grieves and offends by stirring up people’s corruptions. So do unfair criticisms, thoughtless admonitions that are not seasoned with love, hard reports, and so on.

11. Offenses differ according to who is offended. We may consider offenses with respect to who is offended.

We offend friends—those whom we do not desire to grieve. Inadvertently, we cause them to stumble and hurt their spiritual condition by dealing with them unfaithfully: by worldliness in conversing with them, by siding with their infirmities, and in many similar ways.

We offend enemies, or at any rate those who we do not regard as friends. We cause these people to stumble when they are provoked through the carnality of our ways to judge us harshly (or to judge religion harshly because of us), or to use some worldly-wise scheme to oppose something we have done in a worldly-wise way when we irritate them, provoke their anger, and so on. People in debates are often guilty of giving offense in this way, whether their controversy is in civil, ecclesiastical, or academic things. Even when they are in the right, they do not act tenderly and persuasively toward their opponents in the debate, so as to make it apparent that they seek the good of their soul and their edification, even when they differ from them.

We offend those who are wicked or profane, possibly heathens, whether Jews or Gentiles. They are offended when they are hardened in their impiety by the insensitivity and uncharitableness of those who are professedly tender. In this way, it is a fault to give offense either to Jews or Gentiles, just as it is a fault to give offense to the church of God (1Co 10:32).

We offend weaker brethren and stronger brethren. Weaker brethren often stumble where there is no real reason to stumble (as in Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8), and their stumbling vents itself readily by rashly judging and censuring others who are stronger than themselves, for going beyond their light, or because they seem to despise them. This also shows how the stronger brethren give offense—by despising the weaker and inviting the weaker brethren to come to hasty, censorious conclusions about them. This is why these two are put together, “Let not him that eateth [that is, him that is strong] despise him that eateth not; and let not him which eateth not [that is, the weak] judge him that eateth” (Rom 14:3).

12. Some offenses tempt people to sin; others weaken their holiness. We can distinguish between offenses that directly incline or tempt people to sin, either in doctrine or practice, and offenses that more indirectly scare people away from holiness and either divert them from it or make them fainter and weaker in pursuing it, either in truth or practice. For example, a blemish in the character or reputation of someone who professes to be a Christian can make Christianity to be abhorred in one way or another. This happens especially when ministers and professing believers who are eminent become offensive. That is like a dead fly in the box of the apothecary’s ointment, which makes it all stink (Ecc 10:1). In this way, the priests made the people stumble at the law (Mal 1:7-14), as also did the sons of Eli (1Sa 2:12-17). This is what David was accused of, that by his fall he made the heathen blaspheme (2Sa 12:14). Similarly, contention and division among ministers and disciples is said to stand in the way of the world believing in Christ (Joh 17:21).

13. Offenses can be caused either in worship or in everyday life. Sometimes scandal is given in immediate duties of religious worship, such as praying, preaching, conferring, speaking, and judging (for example, in church courts), either by saying something that is wrong or by an irreverent, light, or impassioned manner.

Other times, scandal is given by our ordinary and everyday way of behaving, such as our eating and drinking, the way we dress, our manner of living, and our buying and selling. We give scandal when something about our manner in these things gives evidence of pride, vanity, inconstancy, covetousness, being addicted to pleasure, having a worldly attitude, or some other thing by which our neighbor is wronged. A husband may offend his wife, and a wife her husband, by conversing together in an irreligious manner so that one strengthens the other to think that exactness in religion is not so necessary after all. In the same way, an employee who professes to be a Christian may cause an employer to stumble if they are not faithful and diligent in their work.

14. Sometimes offense is not given until it is taken. Sometimes offense is given from the doing of the action in the first place (for example, where there is any appearance of evil). Alternatively, offense may at first only be taken without being given, and yet afterward become given, and make the person guilty of giving offense, even though they had not been guilty of giving offense to start with.

For example, imagine a man eating without respect to “difference of meats,” as he is allowed to do, seeing this matter is in itself indifferent. Now imagine that someone tells him that this food had been offered to an idol, and therefore in his judgment it is not lawful to eat it. Then, although to start with, offense was not given but only taken (because the man who ate the food did not know that there was anyone present who would be offended by his eating), yet if he continued after that to do the same thing, it would then be an offense given on his side.

Alternatively, imagine you know that someone has taken offense at you or your behavior in a thing indifferent (even though you have given no real reason to take offense). If you then do not endeavor to remove the offense as far as you are able, in that case the offense becomes given also, not only taken, because you are not removing the stumbling block out of your brother’s way.

15. Some offenses happen by accident; others come from bad habits. Some offenses may be said to be given from infirmity—that is, when they proceed from a particular slip up by the person who offends, when the person does not continue in that behavior (or stick to it or defend it), or when they fall into this behavior, not knowing that it would be offensive. Yet once they know it is offensive, they endeavor to remove the offense. On the other hand, other offenses are more rooted and confirmed, such as when a person does them as their habitual behavior, does not take much care to prevent them or remove them, is not much weighed down by a burden for them but rather minimizes them or defends them.

This way of distinguishing offenses corresponds to the distinction that is sometimes made between “sins of infirmity” and “sins of malice.” As long as we remember that malice does not refer to the person’s intent but to the nature of the act, we can use the same distinction here for offenses.

16. Some scandals are private; some are public. We can distinguish between scandals in private and scandals in public. Both of these may further be understood in two ways: either in respect of the witnesses or in respect of their own nature (and must therefore be dealt with publicly or privately).

In Respect of Witnesses: A scandal that is private in respect of witnesses is one that offends few because it is not known to many people. On the other hand, a scandal that is public in respect of witnesses is known to many. This means that the same offense may be a private offense to one person at one time and in one place, and a public offense to the same person at a different time and place.

In Respect of Its Own Nature: A scandal that is private in respect of its own nature is one that possibly causes many people to stumble yet is not of such a nature as publicly, legally, or judicially it might be shown to be scandalous in a way that would convince either the person offending or others, although it may make a great impression on the hearts of those who know it. Someone could be exceedingly offensive in the general course of their way and behavior, even though they are civil, legal, and fair in all particulars, because their way of life displays to the consciences, even of those who are most charitable to them, a great deal of vanity, pride, earthly-mindedness, a lack of tenderness, lack of love and respect, and the like. These things say in the heart of the beholders that there are many things wrong with that person, when yet no specific instances can be given where the person would not have valid legal answers.

Offenses of this sort include starting to ask questions at an inappropriate time or “doubtful disputations” (Rom 14:1). Possibly the person may assert something that is true, yet by raising such issues at such times and in such expressions, all they do is confuse and shake the weak. These offenses especially arise from the impression you have that the person is not aiming at an honorable goal, or that they are being extreme in the way they are going about it, or trying to punch above their weight, and such like. You can be quite convinced, from observing the person’s way of acting, that something like this is their problem, yet this is not a “public” offense in the sense spoken of here, because you could never demonstrate these faults in a court of law or prove it to an unconvinced observer.

An example of this would be Absalom’s insinuating, self-seeking way, which gave evidence of pride. Another example would be those of whom Paul speaks. Some preached out of envy, and others sought their own things (Phi 1:15; 2:21). Paul was convinced of this by what he could discern himself, yet these characteristics did not form the basis of any sentence that could be passed on them.

On the other hand, offenses that are public in respect of their own nature are those that can be substantiated with evidence before others or which can be shown to be against God’s law. Examples would include drunkenness or swearing. These may be called ecclesiastical offenses because they bring you under church discipline. Those that are private in respect of their own nature may be called conscience-wounds or charity-wounding offenses because you have to deal with them with conscience and charity, and they wound conscience and charity, and are judged by conscience and charity. These offenses may call for a private Christian admonition, but they cannot call for public reproof in a church court.

17. Some scandals are firsthand; others are secondhand. Some scandals are immediate—that is, when we hear or see what is offensive firsthand from the person himself. Other scandals are mediate or secondhand. The very reporting of something that is true may be offensive to those to whom it is reported. For example, it may alienate them from or stir them up against another person. Or it may prompt some sinful bad temper or incite them to some corrupt course of action, or any way provoke them to carnality.

In this way offense differs from slander, for slander affects and wrongs the person who is spoken of, who may be absent when the slander is spoken, while offense causes those who are present to stumble. Nevertheless, the same act in a person may be both a slander and an offense on different considerations. Ziba slandered Mephibosheth; but at the same time, he offended David and caused him to stumble (2Sa 16), although David was not so displeased with him as Mephibosheth was. So also, Doeg slandered David and the priests in a thing that was actually true, but at the same time offended Saul (1Sa 21-22).

18. Some offenses are explicit; some are implicit. Some things offend others explicitly, as when a minister fails in giving an admonition prudently or seasonably. Again, some things offend implicitly; for example, a minister gives his judgment seasonably but in an area he has not entered into formerly, so he does not have such capacity to edify his hearers with his admonition. In this way, Paul prevented offense when, by becoming all things to all, he laid the groundwork for people to find his teaching acceptable.

19. Some offenses are harmful; some hold people back. Some offenses may be outright harmful and hurtful to people’s spiritual welfare. Others may still be damaging, but only comparatively, in the sense that they keep people from the growth and edification they would otherwise have enjoyed. It is a stumbling block by being a comparative loss to their spiritual well-being.

Many persons stumble at Christ…Indeed, my dear friends, when sinners are resolved to object to Christ, it is the easiest thing in the world to find something to object to. I have met with some who stumble at Christ’s people. They will say, “Well, I would believe in Christ, but look at professors: see how inconsistent they are! See many church members, in what an unholy way they walk—even some ministers!” Oh, wilt thou send thy soul to hell because another man is not all he should be?…To quote the defects of others as a reason why thou shouldst continue in the error of thy ways is a fool’s method of reasoning! Take heed, lest thou find out thy folly in the flames of hell. The real objection of the natural man is not, however, to God’s people nor to the plan of salvation in itself considered, so much as to Christ. The rock of offense is Christ—the person of Christ. You will not have this man to reign over you. You are not willing that He should wear the crown and have all the honor of your salvation. You had rather perish in your sin than that Jesus Christ should be magnified in your salvation. This is a severe charge, you will tell me. If it be not true, I pray thee prove it false by believing in Jesus…Since Christ can save thee with an eternal salvation, thou wilt certainly grasp Him unless there be some objection in the way…I tell thee there is some hindrance in thy sinful heart, an offense at Christ, which will be thy ruin unless God deliver thee from it.
—Charles H. Spurgeon