On Stumbling Blocks and Being Strong (Sometimes)

On Sunday, was reading Paul’s Letter to the Romans, and these verses jumped out at me:

Let us therefore no longer pass judgment on one another, but resolve instead never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of another. I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself; but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean. If your brother or sister is being injured by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. Do not let what you eat cause the ruin of one for whom Christ died….

Let us then pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding. Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for you to make others fall by what you eat; it is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that makes your brother or sister stumble….

We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak, and not to please ourselves. Each of us must please our neighbor for the good purpose of building up the neighbor. (Romans 14:13-15, 19-21; 15:1-2 [NRSV])

What struck me most was the power which, arguably, Paul was putting in the hands of others. Of course, he wrote this passage–assuming we accept what is generally taken to be its historical provenance–with a specific problem and power dynamic in mind. Gentiles (particularly in Rome) were accepting baptism and becoming Christians, and they, of course, felt no obligation to Mosaic dietary laws. Yet all of the earliest Christians had been Jews, and had accepted those laws, especially regarding which foods were considered clean and which were labeled unclean. Paul rejects that distinction “in itself,” but he warns the gentile Christians reading his letter that the point is, above all, the “building up” of a loving community. Hence, one should, for the sake of not putting a stumbling block in another’s path, for the sake of not injuring a sister or brother in Christ, recognize particular foods as unclean “for anyone who thinks it unclean” [emphasis mine]…and not eat it. Which, however specific this circumstance, appears to be laying down a principle: “We who are strong ought to put up with the failings of the weak.”

I’ll wager that pretty much everyone reading this blog post right now is, in at least a couple and probably numerous ways, one of the strong. Probably have some college education, presumably have access to the internet, almost certainly live in a wealthy and legally and technologically advanced democratic society, and–whatever the quality of your commitment to gospel of Jesus Christ–presumably have thought enough about it, and have enough formed enough opinions about it, to want to hang out on a blog which discusses such things. So, in short, you and I are one of the strong. If we take Paul seriously, then we should be asking ourselves: what should we be doing, or not doing, for the sake of the weak?

We could start with some silly ones: don’t watch R-rated movies, or drink caffeinated beverages, or watch television on Sunday, or wear non-white dress shirts (or sleeveless dresses) to church, or get a nose ring, or support the Democratic party, because some Mormons think those are bad things, and seeing others do them could serve as a spiritual stumbling block to them. I call those examples silly because, frankly, if any of those things are in actually major components of any individual’s faith life–no matter what general authority statements they may call upon to support their thinking–then they probably need far more spiritual assistance than any difference my avoidance of stumbling-block-hood could make.

But there are harder ones too, aren’t there? How about vocally criticizing–or even just publicly expressing doubt in–the doctrinal statements of sustained leaders of the church? Or the historicity of scriptural texts? Or the validity of priesthood ordinances? Or, hell, the reality of the physical resurrection? How does that go down if we–particularly privileged, socially integrated, white male lifetime members like myself–casually express such views, perhaps around people who are struggling over whether or not to accept the call of Christ as they may have felt it in our community?

And then, of course, there are the most serious ones. The weak person who cannot possibly understand this point, refuse this temptation, accomplish this job, respond to this calling, hold to this vow: do we–we strong ones, we relatively financially and psychologically and professionally and spiritually secure ones–just let them hang and suffer the consequences? Of course not; we are called to lift up the weak, and “not to please ourselves.” So we sacrifice the time and take on the responsibility and interrupt our own goals and circumscribe our own pleasures and put up with the abuse; such is necessary, I think–even if “we,” the ones in the know, all understand that it is ultimately pointless and silly–if those others, “the weak,” are to be considered in community with us.

Is there a limit to such handing over of ourselves, and our strong and capable and knowing practices, to others? I don’t know. In Romans 15:3, Paul tells us that “Christ did not please himself”; we are to take comfort in Jesus’s promise that “the insults of those who insult you have fallen on me.” I have, in fact, attempted to live with that promise in mind. It is not, in my experience, actually always all that comforting. Sometimes, you get to the point where it provides no comfort at all. Is that the limit, then? Is that when 1 Corinthians 10:13 comes into play, and you know that you don’t have to put up with, don’t have to demonstrate anything in support of, don’t have to take up the slack for, someone else’s weakness any longer?

In the name of the holy community God has called us to, how much of a non-stumbling-block must we always commit ourselves to be?

Comments

  1. For me the answer is in the scripture: “pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.”
    “Pursue” as in an objective, not an accomplishment. And mutuality, as in community, not hard lines.
    So a particular but maybe trivial example. Yesterday I debated whether to wear my (normal) open collar blue shirt or (instead) a buttoned-up white shirt and tie, to church. The truth is that it was decided for me by the one clean shirt that fit. But it occurred to me that in a community building sense there was no perfect answer. I would very slightly offend somebody no matter what I did. And I would very slightly signal inclusion to somebody no matter which I chose. I decided to credit myself for having the thought. Thus satisfying at least the pursuit part of the lesson.

  2. Thank you, Christian. This is a great comment. Your example is not trivial. Each decision can give us a chance to signal inclusion and kindness to a real person. We are not called to defend dietary practices or dress standards; we are called to be together. That can mean a blue shirt today and a white shirt tomorrow, or cod today and shrimp tomorrow.

    Thank you, Russell, for this useful, thought-provoking post.

  3. Doctrinally speaking, I can’t tell you how much I hate the idea of continuing to give everyone milk, because someone might choke on the meat.

    But wait. Are you suggesting that if my friend would be hurt/angry/embarrassed by my refusing to have a glass of wine with them, then I must partake? I wouldn’t want to cause of stumbling block for them because of an issue with food, right? And who is qualified to call wine “unclean” anyway?

    I’m not sure I disagree with your reading or assessment of those verses, I’m just not sure how applicable or useful they are.

  4. jaxjensen: A friend tells me that he has a cup of coffee when he visits a long inactive older man on his home teaching route. A family member uses wine in a calculated way to include and exclude. Another friend keeps an ash tray handy for her defiantly ex-Mormon visitor. I’m left uncertain, without bright lines, and thinking hard about community.

  5. Jax and Christian,

    You’re both getting to the nub of it, I think. To his credit, Paul did not imagine that the beloved community was this airy thing that depends upon us wishing it into existence; he recognized, at least from his perspective, that some people are just going to have to give it up and go along with others for the sake of holding the overall goal together. But what if what we’re being told to give up and go along with runs right up against what we think is part of the whole point of the community? Paul had some pretty pronounced views about such things; was he really saying that the rule simply needs to be the question if whether what you’re doing causes offense? Because, if so, this touches on some of the livest rails in all contemporary Mormonism: same-sex marriage (are they married in God’s eyes? does that matter? how can I know? so my daughter and her wife should be able to share a bedroom when they visit?), immigration (but they’re here illegally! but they’re God’s children! but they broke the law! but the law is stupid!), civic discourse (so maybe I should make trouble in Relief Society when the teacher says something racist…but should I make trouble in Relief Society when the teacher calls Trump-voters racist?), and more. I’m where you are, Christian: “left uncertain, without bright lines, and thinking hard about community.”

  6. Mean mama jones says:

    Well then somebody is confusing things because another scripture says touch not the unclean thing

  7. From the original post: “I’ll wager that pretty much everyone reading this blog post right now is, in at least a couple and probably numerous ways, one of the strong. Probably have some college education, presumably have access to the internet, almost certainly live in a wealthy and legally and technologically advanced democratic society, and–whatever the quality of your commitment to gospel of Jesus Christ–presumably have thought enough about it, and have enough formed enough opinions about it, to want to hang out on a blog which discusses such things. So, in short, you and I are one of the strong.“

    What makes us “strong” in the gospel? A college education? None of the original twelve apostles had a college education. Few of the original leaders of the latter-day restoration had the advantage of a college education. Certainly Joseph Smith did not. Access to the internet? There were plenty of Christians and Latter-day Saints prior to the last few decades who had strong faith without the internet or access to this or any blog. Living in a wealthy and technologically advanced democracy? That again casts a shadow on the strength New Testament saints and everyone up to and including the early 19th century saints. (“No phone, no [electric] lights, no motor car…It’s as primitive as can be.”) Yet somehow they were strong, incredibly strong in the faith. All those things (college, internet, living in a first world country) potentially make us more affluent, longer-lived, and more influential. They don’t necessarily make us stronger morally or stronger in faith. “The quality of your commitment to the gospel of Jesus Christ,” now that should have an important role in defining strength in this context, but it is weakened by the “whatever” clause and associated with having thoughts and opinions and discussions sufficient to hang out on a religiously-themed blog. The churches in the 2nd and 3rd chapter of the Book of Revelation all had members with thoughts and opinions and discussions. But were they strong or weak? And what made them so?

    We agree that no one should cause another to stumble in the gospel, but we need to consider carefully from whence cometh strength and what it entails.

    Paul wanted his hearers to be both unified and holy. Since it was no longer expedient to keep the Law of Moses, Paul had to spend a lot of time explaining what holiness meant for Christians. Christians (e.g. Catholics, Protestants, students of the New Perspective on Paul, etc.) interpret Paul differently. Fortunately, Latter-day Saints have access to living apostles for doctrinal clarification and personal example.

  8. Setting up rigid categories distracts us from Paul’s message here. We can get sidetracked trying to decide a priori what constitutes strength or weakness, who is committed and who is not, which beliefs are milk or meat, which practices are conservative or progressive. In reality, each of us is strong at times and weak at other times, strong in some things and weak in others.

    I would generalize Paul’s message as something like this: “Are you strong in this thing? Are you strong enough today to help your fellow saints? Then take the time to understand how your rigidity might become a stumbling block to others. Don’t be a stumbling block.” Expressed in these terms, the lesson applies equally to conservatives and progressives. Paul asks us whether we are willing to humble ourselves enough to prioritize our fellow saints’ needs over our own.

    This leaves us, as Christian says, without bright lines, without a template that we can impose to apply Paul’s lesson. The best guide is your sense, from case to case, of what your sister or your brother or your community needs most from you right now. This is not a rule that you should never make waves or cause upset. Sometimes, no doubt, the best thing is for someone to make a fuss or to provoke a discussion about the proper bounds for the community. There is no decision rule for this principle; there is rather the need for humility all around.

  9. I want a Pauline community, including both unified (Romans 14:9 et seq.) and holy (2 Corinthians 6:16-17, quoting or referencing Leviticus–the usual source for not touching unclean things–and Isaiah). That’s why I engage with the OP.

    However, it does not escape notice that modern Mormon practice is not an easy fit, including for example the Heber J. Grant version of the Word of Wisdom (noted because it has been discussed above) and including for example the rest of the strict requirements of a temple recommend. This is one leg of the argument that Mormonism is not Christian, i.e., not Pauline or even New Testament “Christian.”

    I want to take the letter to the Romans to heart *as a Mormon*, but I do think it’s a reasonable question whether the restoration or modern revelation (or the philosophies of men??) have taken the Church to a different place?

  10. It is good to see BCC echoing Sister Oscarson’s talk in the October 2017 General Conference, “The Needs Before Us.”
    https://www.lds.org/general-conference/2017/10/the-needs-before-us?lang=eng
    Excerpt:
    Pray for help in recognizing those in your ward families who need love and encouragement. Instead of attending church with the question of “What am I going to get out of this meeting?” ask, “Who needs me today? What do I have to contribute?”
    Only Sister Oscarson (like Paul) didn’t use the old Outback Steakhouse slogan: “No rules, just right” or the line about the pirates code: “…the code is more what you’d call ‘guidelines’ than actual rules.” See also D&C 59:4, where commandments and revelations are considered heavenly blessings.
    I do think it is reasonable to question whether BCC would take the Church to a different place regarding both unity and holiness than that described in the teachings of the prophets and apostles, ancient and modern.

  11. For me it is pride, whether it concerns itself with intellectual superiority or material wealth, that form my stumbling blocks to full fellowship in the faith. I have lived much of my adult life in wealthy, well educated wards, where the members’ self congratulatory statements were so off putting I no longer wished to join with them in worship. Their consideration of themselves as the strong when they showed no actual spiritual strengths amazes me to this day. But occasionally I witnessed actual spiritual power, people to whom spiritual experiences seemed effortless, because their hearts were right. They made me feel I wished to know and be more. Maybe we need to examine the assumption that we are the strong.

  12. your food allergy is fake says:

    I would take issue with the idea that there are such practices that can be so easily dismissed as “silly,” as Christian’s example of the shirt choice illustrates. In part because one of those items, namely avoiding TV on Sunday, is to me a rather major thing, and I have been rather bothered by some members scoffing at this in front of my kids. Perhaps the point is we all fall somewhere on a broad range of strength/weakness, importance/triviality, on any given spiritual practice.

  13. Guys, the point of the OP is not at all that we should congratulate ourselves for being “strong.” “Strong” in Paul doesn’t necessarily mean “has a strong testimony,” or “has a lot of spiritual power,” or “is really obedient to the commandments,” or anything like that. Paul’s talking specifically about members who understood that the church was no longer bound to keep the commandments of the law because Christ had fulfilled the law and freed them from it–they were strong in their understanding of Christian freedom. And he’s calling them to account for exercising that freedom in a way that creates an obstacle to fellowship with members who don’t share that understanding yet. The point, as I understand it, is that if we understand that we’re not bound by certain cultural norms or traditions that aren’t actually gospel commandments, that understanding also comes with an extra obligation to not exercise that freedom in a way that weakens the faith of our brothers and sisters and our fellowship with them. (And I can’t help but notice that Paul’s arguably a bit of a hypocrite on this given his sharp contention with Peter.)

    But the question is whether that principle has limits, and if so, where are they? The Saints in Paul’s time didn’t keep the law forever just because some people thought it was still important; at some point it was important to affirm Christian freedom. When the 1978 revelation finally authoritatively denounced all the racist speculative doctrines invented to explain the priesthood and temple ban, we didn’t keep teaching those doctrines just because some members still believed them and would have been offended to have to give them up; it was important to affirm the principle of the revelation.

    I don’t think there’s supposed to be a clear cut answer; we’re just supposed to try to find a way to balance between the holy principles that pull us in different directions. From my own experience, I’ll say that usually the principles I need to give more weight to are the ones that pull me against my natural inclination, and that I need to be extremely careful about judging to be wrong somebody who strikes the balance in a different place than I do.

  14. it's a series of tubes says:

    I would generalize Paul’s message as something like this: “Are you strong in this thing? Are you strong enough today to help your fellow saints? Then take the time to understand how your rigidity might become a stumbling block to others. Don’t be a stumbling block.” Expressed in these terms, the lesson applies equally to conservatives and progressives. Paul asks us whether we are willing to humble ourselves enough to prioritize our fellow saints’ needs over our own.

    I don’t think there’s supposed to be a clear cut answer; we’re just supposed to try to find a way to balance between the holy principles that pull us in different directions. From my own experience, I’ll say that usually the principles I need to give more weight to are the ones that pull me against my natural inclination, and that I need to be extremely careful about judging to be wrong somebody who strikes the balance in a different place than I do.

    Great comments. Thanks, Loursat and JKC. I’ve learned a lot from this discussion.

  15. I was intrigued when I saw the title of this post and even more so as I read it. I live in Germany and one of the most well-known memorial projects here is the “Stolpersteine” — stumbling blocks — project. It’s already dark here, otherwise I’d post a picture of the ones outside my building (here’s the project’s general page: http://www.stolpersteine.eu/en/). At any rate, this project embeds the names, birthdates, deportation/and or death dates and locations of German Jews (and other victims of National Socialism) in front of the buildings where they once lived; the stumbling blocks are meant to trip us up in our daily lives and call us to remembrance of those who have suffered and died. I don’t want to draw too simplistic a link between the Pauline epistles and the idea behind this project (not least because of the obvious Talmudic vs New Testament contexts), and my further thoughts are from a decidedly agnostic point of view. Still, this is a context in which a stumbling block is productive, and I thought it might be interesting for you to know/think about.

  16. I have always felt that this passage in Romans 14-15, along with its sister passage in 1 Corinthians 8, were among the most underrated passages in all of scripture. I especially love Paul’s emphatic endorsement of this principle to the Corinthian saints:

    Therefore, if food is a cause of their falling, I will never eat meat, so that I may not cause one of them to fall. (1 Cor 8:13, NRSV)

    Regardless of how “strong” is defined, I think it is important that we all see ourselves as the strong – as the ones who need to meet more than half-way for the purpose of building up one another in Christ (heavy emphasis on the last two words).

    In the name of the holy community God has called us to, how much of a non-stumbling-block must we always commit ourselves to be?

    This is a great question. I see it less as balancing non-stumbling-blockness with our own convenience/sanity as I do in balancing it with correct principles/understanding. For example, how much do you indulge someone’s (supposedly) incorrect idea on “x”? Are you also teaching the incorrect idea on “x” to others by indulging the “weak” saint? Could this incorrect idea end up becoming “doctrine,” or at least cultural practice, by continuing to indulge it? How much of this has already happened in the church’s short history? Is this how the temple/priesthood restriction started? On the flip-side, are some of the issues that the church has taken a softer stance on (those in which they now say it is between the individual/couple and the Lord) really just a way to avoid driving the “weak” away?

  17. Antonio Parr says:

    What a wise and so very important question.

  18. I am also a little uncomfortable with the dichotomy. I worry about pride influencing me to think of myself as strong (informed, enlightened, privileged) and others as weak (parochial, superficial, bound by tradition). It may be natural for humans to think this way (the “natural man”).

    But I like that Paul’s words might help us counteract this bias toward own point of view. Sure we think we’re right, but rather than stand boldly and loudly correct everyone else, maybe we try to moderate our pride so we can be with each other. Take a personal, case-by-case approach, trying to understand what other people believe (and respecting what they believe), and sensitively sharing our different understandings when the opportunity is right, without alienating them. Maybe don’t try to break someone else in their incorrect worldview, but see if you can constructively build upon their values. “When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.” (Thanks, Wonder.)

    The world seems to be suffering from polarization, valuing standing for what’s right against those who are wrong, leaving both sides vilified. If diverging views are threatening, maybe that reveals your own insecurity. It is strength to be with others that we disagree with.

  19. Jack Hughes says:

    BoatPony, thank you for bringing up the Stolpersteine in Germany. I remember seeing them everywhere in my neighborhood when I lived there a few years ago. It brings back fond memories, but also sobering thoughts about history.

    Talking about stumbling blocks and Germany also reminds me of a loosely translated quote from Goethe, which I think is relevant here: “The stones found in your path can be used to build something beautiful”.