The pandemic has had a huge impact upon the church, but there has been no less impact from stumbling blocks within the church. Pastors, leaders, and fellow believers have surrendered to the lures of money, sex, and power. Christian groups working on social welfare issues have caused tensions, conflicts, and splits. All this has led to believers feeling distressed and disheartened, cooling and turning away, and even moving to other churches or leaving the church altogether.
In all fairness, the church called and saved by God is a collection of sinners, so stumbling blocks or scandals in the church are inevitable.
The Cross as a Stumbling Block
In the New Testament, the associated Greek word skandalon can refer to a hunting trap, but also words, deeds, or any matters that give offence or cause others to stumble, that is, to sin (e.g., Matt 16:23; Rom 11:9; 14:13; 16:17; 1 John 2:10; Rev 2:14). The Lord Jesus cautioned against causing others to stumble. Yet, he clarified that not all instances of stumbling are caused intentionally. It is those who intentionally lead others to sin who are truly sinning (Matt 18:6–9).
So, even Jesus can be a stumbling block. Because of his ministry, the sick were healed and the poor were comforted. Why then did the Lord say, “Blessed is anyone who does not stumble on account of me” (Matt 11:4–5)? It is because his words and deeds would be good news to those who believe he is the Saviour, but woe to those who accuse him of being a liar or false prophet. The apostle Paul similarly described the truth of the Cross as “a stumbling block to Jews” (1 Cor 1:23), because God saves those who simply believe in Christ Jesus (1 Cor 1:21; Gal 5:11).
The Church as a Stumbling Block
However, causing others to stumble remains negative when it is through sinful words and deeds. Paul confronted various scandals in local churches. This was epitomized by the infamous Corinthian church filled with discord, jealousy, anger, selfish ambition, slander, gossip, arrogance, and disorder, in addition to impurity, sexual sin, debauchery, and a refusal to repent of sin.
We can imagine the tremendous spiritual and emotional suffering that Paul bore as a result of these scandals in churches. How did he handle these stumbling blocks?
How to Handle a Stumbling Block
In Institutes of the Christian Religion book 4 chapter 1, John Calvin discussed whether scandals could be a reason for abandoning the church. He took the Corinthian and Galatian churches as examples. Though there were Christians who veered into apostasy or were sinful and impure, Paul never expelled or cursed them. Why? Because he acknowledged them to be the church of Christ whom God called to be a society of saints (1 Cor 1:2), as they had not ceased to minister the sacrament or proclaim the Word of God.
Paul later told the trouble-filled Colossian church that he rejoiced in his suffering as it was for the church (Col 1:24–25). In book 3 chapter 5 of the Institutes, Calvin quoted Augustine to explain how this passage shows that suffering for the sake of the church is a spiritual discipline that has meaning and value—when Christians suffer for the church, we testify about Christ, for just “as he laid down his life, so ought we to lay down our lives for the brethren, to build up peace and maintain faith.” Paul and other servants of the church throughout history have shown us how to handle a stumbling block: Because we love our Lord, we stand in solidarity with his church no matter what.
Dear alumni and kingdom co-workers, we cannot avoid stumbling blocks in our sojourn. The careless may falter because of them, the careful may be able to step over them, and the strong in character may even find them to be stepping stones toward improvement. When facing failures within the church, the most important question is this: Are you willing to love the church in the way you love the Lord of the church?
May you be encouraged and pray with us for our fellow Christians who suffer for the church.