Stumbling Block

Let us not therefore judge one another any more: but judge this rather, that no man put a stumblingblock or an occasion to fall in his brother’s way.
~ Romans 14:13

Now I beseech you, brethren, mark them which cause divisions and offences contrary to the doctrine which ye have learned; and avoid them.
~ Romans 16:17

Thou shalt not curse the deaf, nor put a stumblingblock before the blind, but shalt fear thy God: I am the LORD.
~ Leviticus 19:14

Son of man, these men have set up their idols in their heart, and put the stumblingblock of their iniquity before their face: should I be enquired of at all by them?
~ Ezekiel 14:3

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

Woe unto the world because of offences! for it must needs be that offences come; but woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!
~ Matthew 18:7


Causing stumbling is condemned by Christ. There is no sin that has more woes pronounced against it. The Lord Himself denounces it and doubles a woe against it in Matthew 18:7. The apostle confirms this in Romans 14:20, where he describes it as literally evil to do something that will make a brother stumble. The Lord takes special notice of how people walk in reference to causing stumbling in others and is highly provoked where He sees anyone guilty of it (Rev 2:6). He shows this by comparing it with what Balaam did (Rev 2:14).

Causing stumbling is condemned by the New Testament. Whole chapters in the New Testament are devoted to the subject of scandal1 (Mat 18; Act 15; Rom 14; 1Co 8). No duty is more extensively commanded than the duty of giving no offense, nor is any sin more fully condemned than insensitivity and carelessness about giving offense. Indeed, in Acts 15 the apostles and elders thought that regulating indifferent things so as to prevent scandal was worthy to be enacted in the very first synod and church council.

Causing stumbling is intrinsically hateful. The hatefulness of offense is apparent in its origins: (1) it is an evident sign of disrespect to God and a lack of the impression of His dread; (2) it is a sign of inward pride and self-conceitedness; and (3) it is a sign of uncharitableness, showing disregard for others and belittling them, as we can see from Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8. Can there be anything more to be shunned than

1 scandal – In the modern sense, scandal means “a disgraceful event” or “malicious talk, especially gossip about the private lives of others.” However, in the Bible, a scandal is a stumbling block. “In the NT, two Greek words are used: proskomma (tou lithou), ‘stone of stumbling’ (Rom 9:32-33; 14:13; 1Co 8:9; 1Pe 2:8) is used of any form of barrier; skandalon (Rom 11:9; 1Co 1:23; Rev 2:14), originally the trigger stick of a trap, is used in LXX to translate Hebrew miḵšôl, but also môqēš, ‘a snare’, ‘a trap’ (cf. Psa 69:22; 140:5). Cf. also Mat 16:23, ‘you are a hindrance (skandalon; AV ‘offence’) to me.’” (J. B. Taylor, “StumblingBlock,” in New Bible Dictionary, ed. D. R. W. Wood et al. [Leicester, England; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1996], 1136.) Note: Throughout the articles of this issue, then, the words scandal and scandalize mean “stumbling block” and “stumble another into sin.” Offense means “causing or making opportunity for another to sin.”

these? And you will find that people are tenderhearted and conscientious in the matter of offense and the use of their Christian liberty in the same proportion that they are tender or untender in all the material duties of religion toward God and others.

Causing stumbling brings dreadful consequences. There can be no worse effects than those that follow from causing others to stumble. It brings a woe to the world, and Christ reckons it a most grievous plague when it abounds, for it brings destruction with it to many souls (Rom 14:20). It brings reproach on the profession of Christianity, it cools love among brethren, it begets and fosters contention and strife, it mars the progress of the gospel, and in a word, it makes iniquity to abound. Often, in particular, it ushers error into the church, as we can see from the passages of Scripture already cited and from Matthew 24:10-12, where, because many are offended and stumble, many false prophets arise. When we analyze it, we will find that lack of sensitivity in the matter of stumbling has been every bit as damaging to the church of Christ with respect to her outward beauty and peace, and the inward thriving of her members, as either error or profanity, which have been only the product of causing stumbling.

Causing stumbling hardens us in sin. Lack of sensitivity and carelessness in giving offense opens the door to all kinds of carelessness in the person who gives offense. This is because that person’s conscience becomes less sensitive to challenges, so they have greater boldness to do things that are materially evil. By this they also become habitually unconcerned and dismissive of others. And although respect to others is not a good principle when it is our single predominant principle, yet it often has a powerful, positive influence in restraining people from looseness, and in its own place it ought to have weight. Experience itself teaches us that once you take liberty in giving offense, things that are materially sinful often follow.

Causing stumbling harms the reputation of the gospel. Sensitivity about giving offense adorns the gospel exceedingly. It convinces those around us of the reality of the gospel. It encourages charity and warms love. By contrast, carelessness about giving offense opens people’s mouths to criticize the gospel and makes both Christianity and Christians a reproach.

Causing stumbling saps Christian fellowship. Lack of sensitivity about offenses strikes at the root of Christian communion. There can be no freedom in admonitions, little freedom in discussions, and, it may be, no great fervor in prayers with and for others, where offenses abound. And is it possible that religion can be in a healthy condition where we find these problems? From these problems alone it should be obvious why Christ said, “Woe to that man by whom the offence cometh!” (Mat 18:7).


What becoming a stumbling block is not. To clarify this, let us consider what is not meant by offense. Offense is not always something actually displeasing to the person who is offended. Thus, we cannot establish if someone has been offended simply on the basis of whether they are pleased or displeased.

Offense is not always to be judged by simply considering what has been said or done. Offense may arise in a matter that is lawful, which cannot be straightforwardly condemned, such as eating and drinking or taking wages for preaching (2Co 11:8).

Offense is not always to be determined by the effect. Sometimes someone may be offended when no offense was given. Or offense may be given, and someone is guilty of giving offense, when no actual stumbling has followed, but what they did was of itself conducive to making someone stumble.

Offense is not always to be judged by the person’s intention. [Some people] may be without all intention of hurting, yet they may nevertheless really wound and offend someone else. They might cause someone to stumble by rashness, omission, too much love in sparing their faults, inconsiderate zeal, imprudence, or failing in something. Or they might cause stumbling by unfaithfulness, for it is very difficult to rebuke faithfully someone whom we love. Any of these defects is like a dead fly in ointment (Ecc 10:1), which makes many things that are profitable to become off-putting.

What becoming a stumbling block is. Here is a definition of offense or scandal that we will go on to explain in more detail: A scandal, or offense, is literally a stumbling block. It is caused when something is said or done in a way that leads someone to sin or hinders their spiritual life. The deed or word is not sinful in and of itself, but it makes someone to stumble in their spiritual life because of its circumstances; namely, it was done at such a time, in such a place, or by such a person. It is a scandal irrespective of whether anyone is actually caused to stumble or whether the person actually intended to offend.

When inducing someone to sin or impeding someone’s holiness flows from a sinful act, it is not so difficult to discern. All actions that are evil in and of themselves are clearly offensive. But when the action is lawful or indifferent in itself, or when it shares the manner and other circumstances of a lawful or necessary duty, the difficulty then is to discern when the matter becomes scandalous, and accordingly to decide whether to do or to abstain in the matter and whether to do it in this or some other manner, so as to avoid giving offense. This properly and strictly is what is called offense, and this is where the utmost wisdom is to be exercised in ordering and regulating ourselves in the use of Christian liberty.

To be clear, here are some further definitions of technical terms. Something lawful is something required by the law of God, such as praying. Something indifferent is something neither good nor bad in itself, such as eating and drinking. A necessary duty is a duty we cannot omit without sinning, such as any of the duties required in the Ten Commandments.

This kind of offense—offense that arises from the surrounding circumstances when the matter is lawful or indifferent in itself—is what the great debates are about in Scripture. People need to understand that it is not only a question of looking at the Ten Commandments to know whether an act itself is lawful. Nor is it only that we have to consider how clear our own sense of duty is, so that we do nothing doubtingly. But it is also that we have to consider others too, so that others are not wronged or hurt in their spiritual state by what we do. We must do, or abstain from doing, for the sake of conscience—not our own, but the conscience of him that sits with us (1Co 10:24, 28). For if charity and love are the end of the law, such that we ought not to seek only our own things but the things of one another, and to love our neighbor as ourselves, then we ought to seek our neighbor’s edification as much as our own, and to actively avoid doing things that are harmful to their spiritual well-being.

Scandal is therefore the opposite of the charity and love we ought to have to our brother, and also to the respect we ought to have to him (Rom 14:10, 15). Indeed, something is a scandal and offense to the extent that it is opposite to and inconsistent with love to our brother’s spiritual well-being. And so, in a word, whatever may impede and hinder our brother’s spiritual growth and advancement is an offense and scandal (Rom 14:21).

In this way, incidentally, a scandal differs from an injury, for an injury hurts someone’s person, name, estate, or some outward thing, while a scandal hurts the spiritual condition by harming someone’s spiritual liveliness, activity, comfort, and so on. Although an injury is often also an offense, not all offenses are injuries.

Scandal, being a murdering of souls, is a violation of the general law of charity [love] and of the Sixth Commandment in particular…I shall not need to stand upon the etymology of the word scandal…As for the sense of the word, it is past doubt that the ordinary use of it in Scripture is for a stumbling block for a man to fall upon or a trap to ensnare a man. In the Old Testament, it is often used for a stumbling stone on which a man may fall into any corporal calamity or a snare to hurt or ruin a man in the world. But in the New Testament, which speaketh more of spiritual hurts, it is taken for a stumbling block or temptation, by which a man is in danger of falling into sin, spiritual loss, ruin, dislike of godliness, or any way to be turned from God or hindered in a religious holy way. And if sometimes it be taken for grieving or troubling, it is as it hereby thus hindereth or ensnareth, so that to scandalize is sometimes taken for the doing of a blameless action from which another unjustly taketh occasion to fall, sin, or be perverted. But when it signifieth a sin, then to scandalize is by something unlawful of itself or at least unnecessary, which may occasion the spiritual hurt or ruin of another.
—Richard Baxter

What are scandals and offenses? “Scandals” literally signifieth temptations or inducements to sin, any stumbling block or hindrance laid in a man’s way by which the passenger is detained or diverted, or at which, if he be not careful, he is apt to stumble or fall. Spiritually it signifieth anything that may discourage or divert us from our duty to God or may occasion us to fall to the great loss or ruin of our souls.
—Thomas Manton