"It is not good to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble."
So reads the 21st verse of Romans chapter 14 - a verse that has been a plague upon the church for the last hundred years or so.
Let me begin by saying that Romans 14:21 is certainly a verse of the Bible that we need to obey. It was breathed out by God through the apostle Paul, and the idea contained in this verse (that people are more important than the things we eat or drink) is appropriate and good and true. With that being said, though, I want to point out the dangers of letting verse 21 be the only sentence in Romans 14 that you read.
My father-in-law said something very wise to me many years ago. It is a statement that has lived with me throughout all of my theological education and into my pastorate: "Mature Christians don't stumble. They just complain." That was basically the gist of what he said, and the idea is that only new/immature Christians stumble in the way spoken of in Romans 14. Maturing Christians aren't in danger of stumbling; they are just mad that you don't agree with them.
That certainly seems to be the case in my experience. If a pastor goes around saying something like, "Beer is a gift from God meant to be enjoyed", alcoholics don't relapse back into drunken stupor. Instead, what happens is that people in the church who want to try to be holier than Jesus (he drank and made wine, remember?) start complaining that the pastor is encouraging people to sin.
The issue at stake here is the difference between the strong and weak brother. According to Paul in Romans 14, the weak brother is one who "abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God." (14:6) Now that is a perfectly noble position, but so is the position of the strong brother who "eats [and drinks] in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God." (14:6)
The potential conflict that arises in this situation is that the strong brother is likely to look down upon the weak brother and think he is stupid for not partaking when it is good to partake. Likewise the weak brother is likely to pass judgment on the strong brother for partaking of something that he feels is not good. Therefore, Paul says, "Let not the one who eats despise (look down on, think of as stupid) the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him." (14:3)
So we have a problem, because both of these attitudes are present in the modern church. But it should be readily agreed that the offense has been greater on the side of the weaker brother in the last hundred years since prohibition. Judgment has indeed been passed against the strong brothers in a very loud voice during this time, especially in certain denominations. The weak brother has reigned as king in many churches for a century, oppressing all who want to enjoy liberty in Christ. Drinking has been outlawed (not just drunkenness, which would be biblical, but ALL drinking of alcohol), so has dancing, gambling, smoking, and chewing tobacco. Some churches have also effectively outlawed going to see movies or playing video games. The abuse must stop.
Paul also says very clearly in Romans 14:16, "Do not let what you regard as good to be spoken of as evil." It is time for the strong to make our voices heard. We will not cause the weak to stumble simply by arguing that such things as beer and poker cards are good. Otherwise, Paul would not have argued that eating meat and drinking wine were acceptable in this chapter. What we do see is that Paul abstained from the practice of such things in the presence of those whom it might cause to stumble. In other words, arguing that drinking in moderation is not a sin does not cause the alcoholic to stumble. When we argue in this way, we are merely teaching the Bible. But if you suck down a couple of beers in front of a weak Christian recovering alcoholic and keep asking him if he wants one, you could definitely cause him to stumble.
Listen well, weak brothers and sisters: you may not pass judgment on the strong! Such a thing is a sin, and you have no business making such judgments. The Bible says "Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God...So then, each of us will give an account of himself to God." (Rom. 14:10,12) It's up to God to judge these cases of freedom. If the Bible does not condemn an action, you better not do so either! Strong brothers, it's time that we began holding our weak brothers accountable for this sinful attitude.