What Does “Stumbling Block” Mean?

What does the Bible mean by the terms “stumbling block,” “offence,” and “scandal” (Matthew 18; Acts 15; Romans 14; 1 Corinthians 8; 1 John 2:10; Revelation 2:14; etc.)?

The following excerpt is from James Durham’s A Treatise Concerning Scandal (pp. 4-17). James Durham’s rich and exhaustive treatise was last published by Naphtali Press in 1990, and is now out of print. However, an abridged version of the book was recently published by Reformation Heritage Books, The Scandal of Stumbling Blocks: Avoiding Spiritual Harm. The first two sections below, regarding what offenses or stumbling blocks are (and are not), was originally after the section containing 19 distinctions between kinds of offenses. Here is Durham:

What Offense is Not.

1. It is not always any hurtful and actually displeasing thing to the party that is offended. And so is not to be construed such, or not, from their pleasure or displeasure.

2. It is not always to be judged by the matter. For an offense may be in a lawful matter that simply is not to be condemned, as in eating, drinking, taking wages for preaching, etc.

3. It is not always to be determined by the effect. Sometimes one may be offended when no offense was given. Sometimes again, offense may be given, and the person be guilty thereof (as has been said), when no actual stumbling has followed, but the thing of itself was inductive thereto.

4. Nor is it to be judged by the person’s intention. One may be without all design of hurting, who yet may really wound, and offend another, and be guilty by rashness, omission, too much love and condescension in sparing, unfaithfulness (it being much to be faithful to one that we love, and which is a pity, we are readiest to offend them, as in Jonadab’s case to Amnon; yea, in Job‘s friends to him, etc.), inconsiderate zeal, imprudency, or failing in something, that is as a dead fly, which may make much that is profitable become unsavory.

What Offense is.

Scandal then must be something accompanying some external deed or word (for internal gives no offense), which being considered at such a time, in such a place, or in such a person, etc., may be inductive to sin, or impeditive of the spiritual life or comfort of others. When this flows from a sinful act, it is not so difficultly discernable. Readily all actions that are materially evil are clear. But the difficulty is when the matter is lawful or indifferent in itself, or when it is in the manner and other circumstances of a lawful or necessary duty. And to then discern when they become scandalous in such respects and accordingly to be swayed to do or abstain in the matter, and to do in this or some other manner, as may eschew the same.

This properly and strictly is that which is called offense, and is that wherein most wisdom is to be exercised in ordering and regulating us in the use of Christian liberty. And concerning this are the great debates in Scripture, that men may know that not only the command is to be looked unto in the matter of the act, so that nothing is done against it in that respect, nor only that our own clearness [i.e. conviction of conscience] be considered, that we do nothing doubtingly, but that others be considered also, that they by our deed are not in their spiritual estate wronged or hurt. That is, to do or abstain for conscience sake, not our own, but of him that sits with us (1 Cor. 10:24, 28). For if charity and love are the end of the law, and men ought not only to seek their own things, but the things one of another, and love their neighbor as themselves, then ought they to seek their neighbor’s edification as their own, and to eschew the prejudging of them.

Hence, scandal is opposed to charity and love, and also to that respect which we ought to carry to our brother (Rom. 14:10, 15). Yea, it is a scandal and offense as it is opposite to, and inconsistent with, love to his spiritual well being. And so in a word, that which may impede and hinder his spiritual growth and advancement therein, is an offense and scandal (Rom. 14:21). And thus a scandal differs from an injury. For this [i.e. injury] hurts his person, name, or estate, or some outward thing. That again [i.e. scandal], hurts his spiritual condition, either by wronging his liveliness, or activity, or comfort, etc. Though the same thing often, which is an injury, is an offense also, but not contrarily.

Several Distinctions of Scandal.

We shall premit some distinctions; and we would advert, that by offense here, is not understood that which does always actually displease and grieve another. For there is a great difference between displeasing and offending, as also between pleasing and edifying. For one may be displeased, and yet edified; well satisfied, and yet offended.

1. Displeasing vs. Offending.

First then, we are to distinguish between displeasing and offending; for here offense is taken in opposition, not to a man’s being pleased, but to his edification. So offense or stumbling, in short, is something that does or may mar the spiritual edification of another, whether he is pleased or displeased, as by comparing Rom. 14:13 with 14:20, 21, is clear. For what he first calls a stumbling-block or an offense, he expounds afterward to be anything that may be the occasion of a fall to another, and make him stumble, or weak, or to halt in the course of holiness, as some block would hinder or put a man in hazard to fall in the running of a race; and from this is the similitude drawn in this phrase.

2. Offense given, taken, or both.

Scandal is either given only, or taken only, or both. Given only, is when one lays something before another which is apt of itself to cause him to fall or sin, although the other does not fall by occasion of it. Yet, if it is inductive to sin of its own nature, it is an offense or stumbling block, as Christ said to Peter, “Thou art an offense to me” (Matt. 16:23), though there was nothing that could stick to him, yet that was in its nature such, which Peter had given him in advice.

It is taken only, when no occasion is given, but when a man does what is not only lawful, but necessary, and yet others from their own corruption carp thereat and stumble thereupon. Thus did the Pharisees offend at Christ (Matt. 15:12), who never gave offense to any, and this is common to wicked men, that stumble where no stumbling block is, and, as it is said, they know not whereat they stumble (Prov. 4:19). This also is called passive offense, as the other is called active.

It is both given and taken, when there is something active on the one side that is apt to draw another to sin, and something that is yielded unto on the other side, and the bait is accepted. This was it in that stumbling-block which Balaam laid before Israel, and thus ordinarily it is among men, who having corruption, are soon inflamed in less or more with every incitement. Thus (Gal. 2) Peter gave Barnabas offense, and he took it, when he was also carried away to dissemble. It is this active scandal that properly is to be inquired into, and is meant here, which is in short, any deed or word that in itself is apt to make another to sin, or to weaken them in their spiritual course, either in respect of life, or comfort, and that whether the person is actually stumbled or not, or whether the person actually intends offense or not. In all this we are to understand that one act may be offensive in many considerations, as one deed may be against many commands, and be many ways sinful.

3. Doctrinal vs. Practical Stumbling Blocks.

There are doctrinal offenses, and there are some that are practical. Doctrinal offenses are such as flow from matters of judgment, wherein men vent some untruth and so lay a stumbling block before others. This is to break a Commandment, and to teach others so to do (Matt. 5:19). And this is sometimes also in matters of practice, when a corrupt practice is defended, as these Nicolaitans strove to do theirs. Scandal in practice without any doctrinal defense, is when doctrine being kept pure, a person falls in some practice, that of itself, without any verbal expression, is inductive to sin. Thus David’s adultery was a scandal, and this was the fault of the Priests that made the people stumble at the Law. And thus every public or known irregular action is offensive, because it is of ill example to others, or otherwise may have influence on them to provoke them to some sin.

4. Inherent vs. Circumstantial Offense.

We may distinguish offenses according to the matter thereof.

1. Some are in matters that are simply sinful in themselves, and have this also following on them. Thus all errors and public sinful practices are offensive.

2. Some matters are not simply and in themselves sinful, yet have the appearance of evil (1 Thess. 5:7). And thus dangerous and doubtful expressions in doctrine, that have been, or used to be abused, and practices also that are not becoming that honesty and good report which a Christian ought to study (as it is, Phil. 4:8, 9), are offensive. In the first respect, David would not take the name of idols in his mouth (Psal. 16), because others made much reverence to them. Of the last sort was Peter‘s dissimulation and withdrawing (Gal. 2), because that appeared to strengthen the opinion of the continuing of the difference between Jew and Gentile. For that cause Paul would not circumcise Titus (Gal 2:3), and did condemn eating in the idol-temples.

3. Some offenses are in matters otherwise lawful and indifferent, though not necessary, as eating of, or abstaining from meats, or what was offered to idols in the primitive times, which was indifferent to be done in the house of a heathen, and so was sometimes lawful, but was not indifferent to be done in the idol-temple, because that had the appearance of evil, as if he had some respect to the idol. Nor was it to be done if any weak brother had been at table in the house, because it grieved him (1 Cor. 8:10). It is these last two (and more especially the third) that are concerned in the doctrine of offenses properly, and rather arise from circumstances in the thing, as time, place, person, manner, etc., than from the deed considered in itself.

5. Intent of the person vs. intent of the act itself.

We may distinguish them in respect of the intent of the work, or of the worker. Some things may be offensive in themselves as so circumstantiated, and yet not to be so to the person that may give offense by them. I mean, not to be esteemed so. And thus was Peter‘s offense which he laid before Christ (Matt. 16). And sometimes the person may intend the other’s advantage, and yet may offend and stumble him, as Eli intended his sons good, but really by his too gentle reproof stumbled them by confirming them in their offense. And thus some, by unseasonable reproofs or censures, and commendations also, may really make another worse, although they intend the contrary.

6. Actions vs. manner of doing them.

Whence arises another distinction of offenses, viz. from the matter of a practice, or from the manner of the performing of it, or the circumstances in the doing of it. For as it is not an act materially good that will edify, except it is done in the right manner, so will an act materially good not keep off offense, if it is not done tenderly, wisely, etc. And often we find circumstances have much influence on offense, as times, persons, places, manner, etc. For it is not offensive for one to pray or preach, but at some times, as before an idol, or on a Holy-day, it may be offensive.

7. Omission vs. Commission.

As sins are distinguished in sins of omission and commission, so offenses may be distinguished also. For some give offense when they swear, pray irreverently, etc.; others, when there is no seeming respect to prayer at all, in the very form, for this fosters profanity as the other does. And for this Daniel will open his window, lest he should be thought to have forborne prayer. And this offense of omission, or omissive offense, is not guarded against only by doing what is duty, except there is also a doing of it so as conveniently, and as becomes it, it may be known to be done, as in the former instance. And this (Rev. 6:9) is called the holding of the Testimony, and it is this mainly that is edifying to others, when the light of holiness does shine. And when that is veiled, others in so far have darkness to walk in, and so it is as to them an occasion to stumble, because they hold not forth the light unto them. But still, this is to be done without affectation or ostentation, lest a new offense should follow thereupon.

8. Sad effect vs. pleasant effect.

Some offenses contradict the graces of God’s people, and these make them sad. Some foster corruptions, and these are too pleasant. Thus soft reproofs, corrupt advice, flatteries, etc., minister matter to many to fall upon.

9. Indirect vs. direct offense.

Some offenses may be called personal, when a person commits them in his private carriage, that is when his way of eating, drinking, living, etc., offends others, although he has no meddling with them, but lives retiredly. Some again are more direct offenses (as the first are indirect and consequential), that is, which flow from men in their public actings, or in their mutual converse with others, which have more direct influence to offend.

10. Encouragement of sin vs. discouragement of good.

Offenses may be distinguished as they hurt folks either by pleasing them in their corruptions and strengthening them in what is sinful, or when they hurt by irritating and stirring up corruptions to vent. In the first respect, too much gentleness in admonitions, rashness or imprudence in commendations of what is good in one, or extenuation of what is evil, corrupt advice, and such like, do offend. Thus Jonadab offended Amnon (2 Sam. 13), and Eli his sons. In the last, slighting of men, wronging of them, or not condescending to remove a wrong, or to vindicate ourselves, if there is a supposed wrong, grieves and offends; so do evilly grounded reproofs, or inadvertent admonitions that are not seasoned with love; hard reports, etc.

11. The party offended.

We may consider offenses with respect to the party offended.

1. We offend friends in many respects, whom it maybe, we would not desire to grieve, yet inadvertently we stumble them, and hurt their spiritual condition by unfaithfulness to them, carnalness in conversing with them, siding with their infirmities, and many such like ways.

2. Or they are enemies, or such to whom we bear no such respect; these also are scandalized when they are provoked through the carnalness of our way to judge hardly of us, or of religion for our sake, or to follow some carnal course to oppose what we carnally do, when we irritate them and provoke their passion, etc. And thus men in all debates are often guilty, whether their contest is in things civil, ecclesiastical or scholastical, when beside what may further their cause (suppose it to be just), they do not carry respectively to the adversary, and tenderly and convincingly, so as it may appear they seek the good of their soul, and their edification, even when they differ from them.

3. We may look on offense as it offends wicked or profane men, possibly heathens, Jews or Gentiles. They are offended when hardened in their impiety by the grossness and uncharitableness of those who are professedly tender. Thus it is a fault (1 Cor. 10:32) to give offense either to Jews or Gentiles, as to the church of God.

4. Amongst those that are tender, some are more weak, some more strong. The first are often offended where there is no ground in the matter (as Rom. 14 and 1 Cor. 8), and it vents readily by rash judging and censuring of others that are stronger than themselves, for going beyond their light, or because of their seeming to be despised by them, etc. Which shows wherein the offense of the strong also lies, therefore these two are put together (Rom. 14:3), Let not him that eateth, (that is, him that is strong), despise him that eateth not: And let not him that eateth not, (that is, the weak), judge him that eateth.

12. Direct temptation vs. disheartening the pursuit of holiness.

Offenses may be considered as they directly incline or tempt to sin, either in doctrine, or practice, or as they more indirectly scare and divert from, or make more faint and weak in the pursuing of holiness, either in truth or practice. Thus a blot in some professor makes Religion to be some way abhorred. This especially falls out when ministers and professors that are eminent, become offensive. For that is as a dead fly in the box of the Apothecary’s ointment, that makes all to stink. Thus (Mal. 1) the Priests made the people stumble at the Law, as also did the sons of Eli (1 Sam. 2), and this is charged on David, that by his fall he made the heathen blaspheme. And thus contention and division amongst ministers and disciples is insinuated to stand in the way of the world’s believing in, or acknowledging of, Christ (John 17:21).

13. Worship vs. ordinary life.

Sometimes scandal is in immediate duties of religious worship, as praying, preaching, conferring, speaking, judging of such things, etc. That is, either by miscarrying in the matter of what is spoken, or by an irreverent, light, passionate manner. Or it is given by our ordinary and common carriage in our eating, drinking, appareling, manner of living, buying and selling, etc. That is, when something of our way in these things gives evidence of pride, vanity, inconstancy, covetousness, addictedness to pleasure, carnalness, or some such thing whereby our neighbor is wronged. Thus the husband may offend the wife, and the wife the husband, by their irreligious conversing together, whereby one of them does strengthen the other to think exactness in religion not so necessary. And so a servant who has a profession may stumble a master, if the servant is not faithful and diligent in his service.

14. Offenses given immediately vs. given after being taken.

Again, some offenses are offensive, and are given from the first doing of the action. Thus where there is any appearance of evil, the offense is given in this manner. Again, offense may be at first only taken and not given, and yet afterward become given, and make the person guilty, although in the first act he had not been guilty.

This is 1., when suppose a man eating without respect to difference of meats as he might do indifferently, if he were told by one that such meat were offered to an idol, and therefore in his judgment it was not lawful to eat it, although before that, it was not offense given, but taken (he not knowing that any were present that would be offended), yet if he should continue after that to do the same thing, it should be offense given upon his side. 2. If a man should know one to have taken offense at him, or his carriage, in a thing indifferent (although he had given no just occasion thereof), and if after his knowledge thereof, he should not endeavor to remove the same according to his place, in that case the offense becomes given also, because he removes not that stumbling block out of his brother’s way.

15. Given in Weakness vs. given maliciously.

Some offenses are offensive in themselves. That is, when the thing itself has some appearance of evil, or a tendency to offend in itself; again some but by accident in respect of some concurring circumstance of time, place, etc. Some offenses also may be said to be given of infirmity. That is, when they proceed from a particular slip of the party offending, when they are not continued in, stuck to or defended, or when they fall into them, not knowing that they would be offensive, and when that is known, endeavoring to remove them. Again, other offenses are more rooted and confirmed, as when a person has a tract in them, is not much careful to prevent them, or remove them, is not much weighted for them, but slights them, or defends them, etc. This distinction of offenses answers to that distinction of sins, in sins of infirmity and sins of malice, which maliciousness is not to be referred to the intent of the person, but to the nature of the act; so it is to be understood here in respect of offenses.

16. Private vs. Public Stumbling Blocks.

In the last place, we may consider that distinction of scandals in private and public, both which may in two ways be understood. Either 1. in respect of the witnesses, or 2. in respect of the nature of them.

1. It is a private scandal in the first respect, which offends few, because of its not being known to many, and so a public offense in this respect is known to many. Thus the same offense may be a private offense to one at one time, and in one place, and a public offense to another, or the same person, in respect of these circumstances.

2. In the last respect, a private offense is that possibly which stumbles many, yet is not of that nature, as publicly, legally, or judicially it might be made out to be scandalous, for the convincing of a person offending, or of others, although it may have a great impression upon the hearts of those who know it. Thus the general tract of one’s way and carriage (who yet may be civil, legal, and fair in all particulars) may be exceedingly offensive, as holding forth to the consciences of those that are most charitable to him, much vanity, pride, earthly-mindedness, untenderness, want of love and respect, and the like; which says within the heart of the beholders, that there are many things wrong, when yet no particulars can be instanced wherein the person cannot have fair legal answers.

Of this sort are unseasonable starting of questions or doubtful disputations (Rom. 14), where possibly the person may assert truth, yet by moving such things at such times and in such expressions, he confounds and shakes the weak. Those offenses especially arise from a supposed unstraightness in the end, excess in the manner of a thing, disproportionableness between a man’s way and his station, and such like, whereof a man may have much conviction in himself, from observing of such an one’s way, yet it is not a public offense in the sense spoken of here, because there is no demonstrating of those.

Thus Absalom’s insinuating selfseeking way gave evidence of pride, and such as Paul speaks of (Phil. 1, 2), that some preached out of envy, and others sought their own things, are of this nature, which by his discerning he was convinced of, yet did not found any sentence on them.

Again, oppositely to these, offenses may be called public, when there is a possible way of bearing them out before others, or instructing them in particulars to be contrary to the rule, as drunkenness, swearing, etc. These may be called ecclesiastical or judicial offenses, as being the object of church-censure. All the others may be called conscience, or charity-wounding offenses, because they are the object of a person’s conscience and charity, and do wound them, and are judged by them, and may be the ground of a Christian private admonition, but not of public reproof; or rather may be called unconscientious and uncharitable offenses, as being opposite to conscience and charity.

17. Mediate vs. Immediate.

Many other distinctions of scandal may be given: some are immediate, that is when we hear or see what is offensive from the person himself. Some again are mediate, and so the very reporting of something that is true may be offensive to those to whom it is reported. As 1. when it may alienate them from, or irritate them against another person. 2. When it may occasion some sinful distemper, or incite to some corrupt course, or any way provoke to carnalness, those to whom it is reported. And thus offense differs from slander, for slander affects and wrongs the party spoken of, who it may be, is absent. Offense, again, stumbles those who are present, although the same act in a person may be both a calumny and an offense upon different considerations. Thus Ziba calumniates Mephibosheth, but really stumbles and offends David (2 Sam. 16), although David was not so displeased with him as Mephibosheth was. So also, Doeg calumniates David and the Priests in a thing which was true, but really offended Saul, as the effect cleared (1 Sam. 21, 22).

18. Proper vs. Virtual Scandal.

Also, some things offend others properly, as when a minister fails in giving an admonition prudently or seasonably. Again, some things offend virtually, when, it may be, a minister gives an advice in season, but in something he has not condescended formerly, whereby he has not such access with his admonition to edify. Thus Paul prevented offense, when by becoming all things to all, he made way for his being acceptable in his station.

19. Causes of stumbling vs. hindrances to grace.

Again, some offenses may simply be offenses, as having hurt with them. Some again may be comparatively; so it is when a thing actually hurts, not by an emergent loss, but when it keeps from that growth and edification, that otherwise might have been; it’s a comparative loss, and so offensive.

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