It would be hard to find words that have been used more than stumbling block and offense to try to put unnecessary guilt on Christians. Part of the problem is that the words offense and offend mean different things in the Bible than they do in most common usage today. Another issue is that the idea of a stumbling block has been used to try to make some people responsible for other people’s choices. But just what do these words mean in the Biblical context?
First of all, in the Bible the metaphor of a stumbling block harkens back to the Old Testament law where it was prohibited to place something in the path of a blind person on purpose, in order to make them fall. One could wonder that such a law was needed, but then we all know people… And it is a good example of how the “law” really can be replaced by loving God and loving your neighbor as yourself.
Then, in the New Testament, stumbling block is used as a metaphor to remind believers to treat each other with love. In other words, don’t do something that you know will lead to the harm of a fellow believer. It’s not that complicated. And, just as importantly, it is not legalistic.
The examples of food and wine are used in two main Biblical passages that expound on this idea, Romans 14:15-21 and 1 Corinthians 19:19-33, which lead many to focus on those areas. Still, the idea is sometimes taken as far as to say that if anyone has trouble with anything, none of us should enjoy it. That would exclude a lot of things in life, giving a lot of credence to the accusations that Christianity is a big list of do’s and don’ts. However, the idea seems to be to not cause to harm someone who doesn’t know any better, who might be accidentally led to engage in things not good for them at the moment or that they think are wrong, so they shouldn’t do it. And it is fairly limited to when in immediate contact or under direct observation.
Most believers don’t stay in this category of needing such tending for very long, because they mature. After that, it looks more like legalism and we could be “causing them to stumble” by going along with that! The passages also imply that there has as of yet been no appropriate time to discuss or explain in a way that brings the weaker believer to more freedom. That isn’t to say they are to be cajoled or harassed “into freedom,” but some time and relationship often make things more clear.
When people talk about “being offended” in common conversation today, they usually mean “being bothered” or “irritated” by something that they think is inappropriate. They may try to put it in terms of what they think is “moral,” but this frequently includes personal preferences or prejudices in things like clothing or music. That has nothing to do with the Biblical words translated to offense sometimes, and stumbling block other places.
There are two main Greek words in the New Testament that are translated into offense and stumbling block. They are skandalon and proskomma. There are a couple of Greek variations similar to these words, but they are all based on the same meanings. Skandalon very specifically refers to baiting a trap that will spring on someone. It is a very intentional thing, so if you are not purposefully trying to cause trouble in someone’s life, there should be nothing to worry about.
Proskomma means to cause someone to stumble by leaving a rock where the foot will likely be caught unexpectedly. Because they don’t know it is there. It could then be surmised that if someone is perfectly aware of a certain weakness of his own, that no one else is responsible for steering him clear of it.
There are places in the Bible where stumbling blocks are really good things being responded to badly by stubborn people who want them to go away. Like the Jewish leaders wanted Jesus to go away. Also, God sometimes uses stumbling blocks to bring a swifter ending to the destructive path that has been chosen by some people, always with the hope that such and ending will finally bring people to their senses and lead to good things. His patience is amazing.
It doesn’t seem we all need to go around constantly worried about accidentally harming or bothering each other. We can be careful of what is obvious in any given context or situation. I expect God can take care of the rest.
Resources and other interesting articles on the subject: