"Be careful . . . that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak."
When we examine this passage of Scripture, we must address not only what it says, but also what it does not say.
The concept of offending someone is very much abused in our times. If I don't like what you say or do, for whatever reason, then I supposedly have the right to say that I'm offended. People have to be very careful not to offend anyone. Watch what you say. Watch what you think.
For the record: To "give offense," as Scripture speaks of it, means to lead someone into sin or unbelief. In other words, it is not to hurt someone's feelings. It is to hurt someone's soul, by leading them down a destructive path.
When Saint Paul writes that the exercise of freedom should not become a stumbling block, he does not mean that someone will see you do something, and they have hurt feelings because they don't like what you're doing. He means that you would be leading them into sin, by causing them to act against their conscience. That you should never do.
Here is an example of how I might lead someone into sin, by abusing freedom. Say there is someone who is a recent convert to Christianity. Before he was a Christian, he had always thought that dancing was sinful. I, on the other hand, as a mature, well-informed Christian, know that dancing is a matter of freedom - there is no command against dancing in itself. So I exercise my freedom by dancing.
But the weak brother, who still thinks dancing is sinful, sees me dancing, and thinks, "Hey, if he can sin by dancing, then I guess it's okay for me to sin by dancing also." So he dances, and by doing it, he thinks it's all right for him to sin (even though it's not really a sin to dance). Soon, he may try other things that actually are sins.
Now, if I know that I led him into this sin against his conscience, then I am guilty of causing offense to a brother. I led him into a trap.
However, if I had no knowledge of him, then I am not guilty of his sin. There is no offense where there is no knowledge of offense. As Saint Paul wrote later in First Corinthians, in chapter 10, "Eat whatever is set before you, asking no question. ... But if anyone says ... 'This was offered to idols,' do not eat it for the sake of the one who told you, and for conscience' sake." So you can use your freedom unless you know that someone is led to sin.
This is very important. If we must avoid doing things to avoid offending some hypothetical guy that may or may not be out there watching us, then we cannot eat at all. We cannot drink. We cannot dance. There is nothing that we could do, for fear of causing offense. But even not doing something may cause offense. So we may as well stay under the covers in bed, hiding from the world that might be offended.
This is the ridiculous end if we follow the world's foolish notions of offense.
People following their sinful flesh naturally create all kinds of rules about what you can and cannot do. They will tell you that if you do such-and-such, then you're a bad sinner. But they are "teaching as doctrines the commandments of men," as Jesus said to the Pharisees.
When these kinds of legalistic people try to force us to obey their own rules, we are not only not bound to obey them. We are actually compelled by our Christian freedom to disobey their false commandments. If someone tells me that if I dance, that makes me a sinner, then I must go out and dance. It is for freedom that Christ has set us free, not to be enslaved under a whole new set of laws, and human laws, at that. Do not let them judge you in food, or in drink, and so forth, as it says in Colossians.
This is particularly true of someone who claims to be wise and knowledgeable in the faith, yet still demands obedience to what is not commanded in Scripture. There is no possible offense with them, because Saint Paul writes in our lesson about those who are weak, in the faith, and lack knowledge.
Nor is Saint Paul talking about unbelievers. Only brothers in the faith can be led into offense.
So watch your step around recent converts. Avoid doing anything that might trip them up. Their conscience is tender and weak. Give them time to understand the doctrine of Scripture, and to see what is and is not a command of God. Let them understand the wonderful freedom that Christ has delivered to us.
But for those who refuse to be instructed in the Word, and for those who deliberately take offense, we have no responsibility to protect them. They are following the path of the Pharisees. Leave them to that path, and ignore their attempts to lure you into their legalism. Do not give them an inch, lest you encourage them in their human commandments. Or worse, you get sucked into their delusion.
Jesus was willing to offend the legalists. He sat down to eat and drink with prostitutes, and tax collectors, and other unclean sinners. He did this, knowing that the Pharisees were offended.
Let us be proud to be accused in the same way that Jesus was.
Jesus Himself was a stumbling block. He was a constant source of offense for those around Him. He refused to listen to the traditions of men. Instead, He upheld the Law of God, and smashed to bits every attempt to create righteousness by human work. He refused to compromise with spiritual blindness that demanded its own way. Instead, He pointed lost sinners to Himself.
Our whole religion is a religion of offense. The Cross is a stumbling block. Yet we preach it. The doctrine of Scripture is foolishness to those who are perishing. Yet we cling to it for dear life.
We do not go around in paranoid fear, trembling lest we hurt someone's feelings. Instead, we boldly proclaim Christ crucified, and His precious Word.
Many churches are seeking to avoid offense. They have actually taken down their crosses. They will not call people sinners at all. They avoid all the good traditions of the ancient Church, like chanting, vestments, and so forth. The liturgy of the Divine Service is abandoned, even though it upholds Christ and His Word.
If we, also, are afraid of hurting feelings, then we will dilute and dumb-down this Gospel of Jesus, until eventually there will be nothing left.
Instead, we should realize that offense will happen. Only let us neither sin, nor lead others to sin. Let us never teach what is contrary to Scripture, nor what is man-made. Let us preach only the Gospel that causes offense, that divides and separates, but that also give peace and unity.
If someone is determined to find offense, they will find it. We cannot stop them. We cannot guard against every conceivable stumbling block. Thank God, He does not command us to do that. It is not at all what Saint Paul is talking about. Through Saint Paul, God simply tells us to be gentle with the weak, as a mother is gentle with a new-born. Do not confuse them with freedom before they understand freedom.
Furthermore, there is an implied command to grow in knowledge. Those who have knowledge, and thereby exercise their freedom are right, according to Saint Paul. On the other hand, if we deliberately choose ignorance, then we have no excuse. We can claim no offense, if we made ourselves weak by refusing the teaching of God's Word.
Yet if you, being mature, find out that your actions led someone into sin, by all means, go and make the Truth clear to them. Set them back on the right track. Or at least, try, and if they refuse to listen, then your conscience is clear. We can only speak the Truth, flinging out the Seed of the Word. Those who listen, will listen. Those who shut their ears, will not.
But always, always, let us look to Jesus Christ. He who created all, and who possessed all knowledge in heaven and earth, gave up all His freedom. He gave up family and home. When it was necessary, He gave up food and drink for our sakes. He gave up freedom, as He was arrested, beaten, and sentenced. At the last moment, He even gave up His very life. At any time He could have seized His mighty power and stepped down from the Cross. But He did not. He counted His freedom nothing, so that He could make us free.
Indeed, we Christians are the only free men on the earth: free from sin and death, free from satan and hell, and free from God's Law, and wrath. We are free, also, from the ceremonial laws regarding foods. We can eat our bacon and sausage, thank heavens. We are free to enjoy many blessings of food and drink without regard to Kosher laws.
More than that - we have access to the greatest food and drink of all - that which brings us near to God. Ordinary food and drink does not do this - indeed, bread and wine by themselves cannot bring us closer to God. But this bread is also the Body of Christ. This wine is the Blood of the New Testament, shed for many.
We Christians are free to eat and drink at this Table, where we are one with the Sacrifice, and one with the God whose Altar it is.
Let us eagerly use our freedom at this meal. Let us eat and drink what is ours to take. And in so doing, let us draw near unto the Mighty God, whose gentle hand has led us into all holiness.
In the Name of this One and only God. Amen.
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