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Giving scandal
October 30, 2014, 2:10 pm
Filed under: Opinion

When moral theologians talk about “giving scandal” they have something quite precise in mind. A “scandal” is simply a “stumbling block”, something that causes someone to fall or trip up. This may mean leading someone to sin, or it may mean creating an obstacle to someone’s recognising the truth of Christian teaching.

Clearly, directly inducing someone to commit sin is wrong; but it is possible to lead another to sin indirectly, and even without deliberately intending to. If we ourselves behave badly, others may react negatively: being drawn into anger, perhaps, or even violence. Those who suffer injustice, or witness it, may be led to react in ways that are themselves wrong. Alternatively, others may be led astray if they imitate bad behaviour. If they see bad behaviour in someone who is, in some sense, a “role-model”, they may think that such behaviour is acceptable.

These are cases where scandal is caused by actual bad behaviour, behaviour that is wrong in itself. But St Paul, in his letter to the Corinthians, discusses cases where even technically legitimate behaviour is a cause of scandal. In ancient days, animals were slaughtered frequently in the context of religious ceremonies. The Jewish temple-sacrifices are an obvious example of this. Pagan sacrifices, too, involved the ritual killing and preparation of animals for eating. The ritual meal took place in the temple, but meat left over was sold in the market place for domestic use.

Paul was clear that Christians must not participate in pagan worship, so no Christian should take part in the temple meals; but what about eating meat that had been consecrated in the temple, but was later on sale in the ordinary market-place? Paul knew that pagan gods were either demons or nothing. In general, it was acceptable to buy meat in the market-place and not bother about its provenance. But there were Christians who argued that since pagan divinities had no reality, it did not matter if one ate their sacrifices even in the temple; and there were officious people who would make a point of telling Christians that the meat they bought on the open market had been dedicated to a pagan god. These practices- of over-liberal Christians, or of over-strict interpretations of pagan worship, left many ordinary Christians confused and upset.

While trying to clarify the issues, Paul laid down a further principle. If behaviour that was, in principle and in isolation, permissible was in fact causing confusion, and even inducing some people to imitate this behaviour without making the necessary distinctions and qualifications: in those circumstances it was better to abstain from the behaviour in question. If making use of one’s freedom from scruples would be misunderstood by less sophisticated people, one should not do so. “If food is a cause of my brother’s falling, I will never eat meat, lest I cause my brother to fall.” (1Cor 8.13)

This principle applies not only in matters of diet- Christians no longer have to worry about temple sacrifices! But there are other issues in which behaviour technically allowable creates a false impression of laxity, either leading to real laxity among those who imitate it (“If so-and-so does it, so can I”), or giving an impression of hypocrisy to outsiders (“They have one rule for others, another for themselves”).

Clergy in particular must be careful not to give a false impression. They are role-models to others. Not only must they not actually offend against Christian teaching, but if, in exceptional circumstances, they are in danger of appearing to do so, they should make crystal-clear why in fact they are not. I would apply this in cases of apparent (let alone real) conflict with the Christian doctrine of marriage. Otherwise, it would be better not to make use of their freedom. “If this is a cause of my brother’s falling, I will not do it, lest I cause my brother to fall.”


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