Jesus said to his disciples: ‘Things that cause people to stumble are bound to come, but woe to anyone through whom they come. It would be better for them to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied round their neck than to cause one of these little ones to stumble. So watch yourselves.’ (Luke 17:1-3, NIV)
Jesus’ profound care for his people, like a shepherd with a flock he loves, shines through the gospels. He calls them his little flock (Luke 12:32), or, in the passage above, his little ones, emphasising their preciousness and vulnerability.
This is why he speaks so fiercely about anyone who leads them astray. According to my Greek lexicon, the verb translated cause… to stumble (from which we get “scandalise”) means ‘cause to be caught or to fall, i.e. cause to sin.’ The Lord is speaking about people who, by their teaching or actions, lead others into sin. This is such a disastrous thing to do that a pre-emptive drowning of the perpetrators would be better!
How might such causing to stumble happen? He must surely have an eye on the Pharisees and teachers of the law, whose teaching appears to have no room for forgiveness, no concern for the salvation of lost people and which promotes a system of salvation by merit. These people are sadly prominent in Luke’s gospel. Teaching such as theirs tragically leads people away from the gospel into works-righteousness.
But Jesus is also thinking broadly of anyone who by any means leads another to sin. It might be by their bad personal example; it might come through their teaching. A little one might be led into sin in exactly this way.
This is why the debate on sexuality that grinds on through the Synod of the Church of England (and in other older denominations) is so potentially dangerous. If we say that what the Bible calls sin is in fact not sin, we lead them astray. Jesus wakes us up to the shocking seriousness of this: it would be better to have a millstone hung round our necks and to be thrown into the sea than to lead His little ones to stumble!
It is because it is so serious to lead others into sin that a solution to the present disagreements that says “it’s a matter we can agree to differ on” is so wrong. How can we agree to differ if we might be leading Christ’s people astray? It is scarcely a matter of indifference to Him!
A short book which is a tremendously helpful guide to the present debate has just come out, written by Vaughan Roberts, Rector of St Ebbe’s Oxford, and Peter Jensen, former Archbishop of Sydney. It explains why what Synod and the bishops are discussing is so important, what lies behind it – and why we absolutely must be clear. It is a concise, thoughtful and very readable briefing. We will be tempted not to want to engage with this issue, but this book shows brilliantly why we must.