Saturday, August 3, 2013

Christian Cliches: "Don't Cause Your Brother to Stumble"

This is the beginning of a series on various catchwords and cliches that Christians (particularly evangelical ones) are fond of using.  Like most oversimplifications, however, they usually give an inaccurate or one-sided view of the particular issue they purport to be about-- and often, they are based on misunderstandings of the Bible text(s) they are taken from.

"Don't cause your brother to stumble," is the first one I'm going to focus on.  This comes from Romans 14:21, "All food is clean, but it is wrong for a man to eat anything that causes someone else to stumble," and 1 Corinthians 10:31-33, "So whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it for the glory of God.  Do not cause anyone to stumble, whether Jews, Greeks or the church of God, even as I try to please everybody in every way.  For I am not seeking my own good, but the good of many, that they might be saved."*  The greater context of both these verses is whether Christians should eat meat that has been offered to idols-- which is not so much a problem nowadays, so the real issue is how this teaching should be applied today.

Twenty years ago, the way I usually heard this cliche used was in terms of drinking alcohol. Christians shouldn't drink, the idea went, because some people are problem drinkers or alcoholics, so in order to keep them from stumbling, we just shouldn't imbibe at all (even, for some reason, if there was no one in our group who actually had a drinking problem).   Of course, this was in reality a very American-evangelical notion (rooted in the Temperance Movement of the late 19th/early 20th century), because people in Europe, Christian or not, have always had a much more casual and non-uptight relationship with alcohol.  And American evangelicals have gradually loosened their attitudes in this area in recent years, too, so that you hardly ever hear "Don't cause your brother to stumble" used in this context.

Today, the way the cliche is most often used is not to discuss anything we imbibe or partake of, but to advise women to dress modestly, so as not to tempt Christian men to lust after them.

The Her-Meneutics article How "Modest is Hottest" is Hurting Christian Women puts the idea in a nutshell:

The Christian rhetoric of modesty, rather than offering believers an alternative to the sexual objectification of women, often continues the objectification, just in a different form. . .Too much skin is seen as a distraction that garners inappropriate attention, causes our brothers to stumble, and overshadows our character. Consequently, the female body is perceived as both a temptation and a distraction to the Christian community. . . (Emphasis added)

Another Her-Meneutics article, A Dad's Perspective: Why I Tell My Daughters to Dress Modestly, shows the reasoning behind applying these verses to women's dress:

Paul reminds us that, as all of Scripture does, that in all that we do, we have an obligation not only to ourselves but to others as well. This message has obvious intersection with modesty. Our bodies are not sinful or problematic—they are created by God and are beautiful things. Still, for many people, the bodies of others are tempting and cause them to think about that person in an objectified, sexualized light. This is surely more the fault of the one doing the lusting than anyone else. . . [but] we're presented with a quandary—bodies are beautiful, and yet they often cause us to think and act in sinful ways, so what do we do? . . We do whatever we can to prevent other beloved brothers or sisters from being stumbled. (Emphasis added)

To be fair, this article attempts to balance the message to women by enjoining men also to dress modestly.  But the fact remains that the primary message of the article is to women, and even though it is declared to be "more the fault of the one doing the lusting than anyone else," responsibility is also placed on the ones being lusted after to "prevent" someone from "being stumbled" (whatever that means)-- because if someone is thinking about someone in an "objectified, sexualized light," it's because they have been "caused" to do so. 

But is that idea of "cause" in the original texts?  And is it really appropriate to apply these texts about foods and eating, to women's bodies and what they wear? 

In 1 Corinthians 10:32, the word translated "do not cause anyone to stumble," is actually a single descriptive word, transliterated as "aproskopos."  The King James Version (KJV) renders this, "Give none offence."  It means "having nothing that anyone could strike [their foot] against."  The word in Romans 14:21 has the same root: it is the verb "proskopto," meaning "to strike against; to stumble." It is coupled in the original text with the verb "skandalizo," meaning "to put a stumbling block or impediment in the way."  The KJV renders it, "whereby thy brother stumbleth or is offended."

The noun forms of these words are found in Romans 14:13: ". . . make up your mind not to put any stumbling block ("proskomma") or obstacle ("skandalon") in your brother's way."  Interestingly, a "skandalon" was literally the word for a trap or a snare.  These two words, with the added word "stone," are used of Jesus as a "stumbling stone" for non-believers in Romans 9:32-33.

What is missing from these texts is any actual word for "cause."  Clearly a person who puts an obstacle in someone's way that they might stumble over is responsible for putting it there-- but said person has not actually "caused" the other person to fall.  To blame Jesus because people stumble over Him is contrary to the most foundational beliefs of Christianity.

Words mean things.  The word "cause," particularly in our modern, linear way of thinking, is part of a chain of cause-and-effect that once started, cannot be stopped without another cause intervening that makes the process stop.  The KJV does not use the word "cause" in any of these texts, nor do most of the older translations.  The newer ones, like the NIV, the ESV, and NLT, all add the word.  The result is, I think, that in a way not considered by the original audience nor by readers of these texts in earlier English translations, modern readers find themselves holding other people responsible for their own stumbling.  "You made me do it!" is an attitude that women in particular find themselves confronted with, whenever they wear something that a man finds attractive or arousing.

What does it feel like when a young woman first truly experiences the male gaze?  When she understands that no matter what her intentions, many men are going to view her body as a tempting object?  That if they're Christian men and they feel attraction or arousal, they'll believe that means they have stumbled-- and if they have stumbled, it's because she caused them to?

Blogger Samantha at Defeating the Dragons illustrates this poignantly in her story:
It was Easter morning, and it was the first time I had owned a new dress– a pretty dress– in years. I felt elegant, delicate, a crocus pushing up through the snow. The chiffon skirt fluttered below my knees, and the light, cool fabric felt wonderful against my skin in hot, humid Florida. I walked into church that morning feeling like I was finally taking my first steps out of girlhood, and I felt pretty.
 After church was over, the pastor’s son confronted me in the dirt parking lot.
“Sam… Sam, I need to talk to you.”
I turned to face him, the pit of my stomach clenching. Somehow… I could feel what was coming. It was stamped all over his face, in the way he hung his head, in how he fiddled with the comb he always carried in his pocket.
“Sam… I, I really just don’t understand. The skirt you’re wearing– it,” he couldn’t look me in the eye as his voice broke.
“It caused me to stumble.”
I didn’t really hear anything after that– it was like he was far, far away, his voice coming to me from a distance and his face was frozen and warped. I caught snatches of “why would you do this to me? to yourself?” and the glow that had been inside of me all morning… it broke.
The second we arrived home from church, I dashed into my bedroom. In a frenzy driven by shame, by humiliation, by fear, I tore off that dress– the dress I had put on that morning, the dress that had made me feel that for once I could be pretty– and threw it into the dark corner of my closet and slammed the door shut. I crumpled to my bedroom floor, staring at those shut doors, and cried. (Emphasis in original)
That's how it feels.  Thank you, Samantha; a story is worth a thousand pictures.

But the passages in Romans and 1 Corinthians are actually talking about something you do that tempts someone else (who can't do it in good conscience) to do it too.   Being a woman, by contrast, is something you are.  And it's a fact that (especially if you're young or have female parts which are more rounded) no matter how you dress, someone somewhere is going to find it a stumbling block.

So how were these texts most likely to have been understood by the original readers?  Why was it that eating meat sacrificed to idols was considered to be putting a stumbling block in another's way?

First, it's important to remember that whereas modern Western culture is largely based on an underlying foundation of Christianity (going to church, at least at Christmas and Easter, is thought normative, as are these holidays themselves), Christians in ancient Rome and Corinth lived in a much different world, where the feast days and the center of worship were around entirely different gods. As  PBS's Frontline website puts it:

We have to remember that religion in the ancient world is very much a part of public life. They had no idea of a separation of religion and state. Indeed quite the opposite. Religion was one of the most important features of the maintenance of the state. One offered sacrifices on certain days as a part of the celebration of the founding of the state. One offered sacrifices on the birthday of the emperor. Cities very often mounted these enormous celebrations to celebrate the emperors and all the populace would have been expected to come and join in and for most people you wanted to join in. After all, this would have been a public celebration. A great festival....

To a newly-converted Christian in that culture, thinking of the Emperor and the Greco-Roman pantheon as real dieties for worship, was natural-- and learning not to think of them that way was hard.    That's why Paul says a few chapters earlier in 1 Corinthians, "We know that an idol is nothing at all in the world and there is no God but one. . . But not everyone knows this.  Some people are still so accustomed to idols that when they eat such food they think of it as having been sacrificed to an idol, and since their conscience is weak, it is defiled." (1 Cor. 8:4-7)

Older Christians, then, as brothers and sisters of the newly converted ones, would be bound by the expectations of kinship to aid their younger siblings.  The Kruse Kronicle's in-depth study of the "Household of God" as a major theme of the Bible, describes the ancient concept of brotherhood as understood in Paul's day:

The only familial relationship that seems to have been relatively free of contractual and utilitarian concerns was between siblings and in particular brothers (and indeed this was true of cultures throughout the Ancient Near East.) Brothers were assumed to be of one mind and in complete accord. (Emphasis added)

Another article in the same series shows how the concept of family (and particularly brotherhood) was applied to Christians, in order that they would see one another as fellow-members of a spiritual family:

The fictive family is Paul’s primary metaphor for instilling unity among believers and uniting them in common mission. . . Paul’s use of the metaphor seems to be used most frequently in his letters to the Corinthians, then Romans. .  . . 

Paul goes on in 1 Corinthians 8:9-11 to talk about how more mature Christians (whose consciences permit them to eat meat sacrificed to idols) are to act towards younger believers as older brothers: 

Be careful, however, that the exercise of your freedom does not become a stumbling block to the weak. For if anyone with a weak conscience sees you who have this knowledge eating in an idol's temple, won't he be emboldened to eat what has been sacrificed to idols? So this weak brother, for whom Christ died, is destroyed by your knowledge. (Emphasis added)

Since brothers were to be in complete accord, seeing an older brother eating in an idol's temple would be a signal to a younger brother that he should do the same-- and, since he has not fully left behind him the emotions connected to his former worship of other gods, he would thus be ensnared into violating his own conscience.  

The mores of ancient Near-Eastern hospitality would also play a part in this ensnarement.  It was common in the culture for families to eat together of foods which were first offered to gods during religious observances.  A newly-converted Christian invited into a home where this was what was for dinner, would be conflicted in how to respond. This Santa Clara University article explains:

Just as the host is gracious, the guest is also obliged to be gracious. Whether an invitation to break bread is accepted or rejected is fraught with social implications. . . [W]hen it comes to basic humanity, no food is unworthy and all offers to share are equal. Rejecting an invitation to eat may imply an unwillingness to acknowledge the host as basically equal or valued as a human being.

In many cases the situation of being offered meat sacrificed to idols would have occurred in just such a host-guest situation.  The younger Christian guest would be trapped between the desire to not offend his host and refuse to eat, and his own belief that eating would in some sense mean a return to his former idol worship. Older Christians were being cautioned not to put their younger brothers and sisters in this type of a bind.  This was different from claiming that they were causing their younger brothers to sin-- the passages don't do that.  But Christians were enjoined not to put traps, snares or stumbling blocks in one another's way.

Conversely, when the New Testament actually talks about lust, it doesn't use the language of stumbling blocks at all (and it talks about lust far less often than it talks about food offered to idols). The principal place is Jesus' words in Matthew 5:27-28:  "You have heard that it was said, 'Do not commit adultery.'  But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart." 

Again the NIV obscures the sense of Jesus words by turning "looks at a woman to lust" into "looks at a woman lustfully."  "Lustfully" is an adverb describing the way a person looks at something.  The original Greek uses a verb meaning "to lust" plus a preposition that according to BibleHub's Greek lexicon has to do with "moving toward a goal or destination."  Intent is a clear connotation of this particular form of "to," as is also used in Matthew 6:1: "Be careful not to do your acts of righteousness before men, to ("pros") be seen by them."  A better rendering into our English to contain this sense would be "in order to."

Lust is not simple attraction or even arousal, which are natural and often involuntary responses of our bodies, which God created to be sexual.  Lust isn't something you feel, it's something you do.  Lust is when you look at someone you're attracted to in terms of gratifying yourself sexually with them.  It's not about physical attraction, it's about self-gratification.  It's about looking at a person not as a person, but as an object of self-satisfaction.

Because of this, the solution to lust cannot be any external thing another person does or doesn't do. The solution is to change our attitude about the other person.  And in general, it's about men changing their attitudes about women.  She isn't causing you to stumble into lust.  Lust is something you're choosing to do with your feelings of attraction.  And if you're feeling attracted but not choosing to look at her in terms of your own gratification, you're not lusting at all.

Romans 14:21 and 1 Corinthians 10:32 are very problematic to try to apply to women's clothing choices.  She's not putting you in a bind by doing something that you feel compelled by ties of brotherhood or hospitality to do too, and that if you did it, would violate your conscience.  She's simply wearing clothes on her body-- which God created and called good.

The Her-meneutics article "How Modest is Hottest Hurts Christian Women" (linked to above) affirms:

[T]he church needs to overhaul its theology of the female body. . . Women's bodies are not inherently distracting or tempting. On the contrary, women's bodies glorify God. . . He created the female body, and it is good.

So -- if one of the words for "stumbling block" actually refers to a trap or snare, what does that mean for women who find that no matter what they do, no matter how they dress, they can be blamed for "causing their brothers to stumble"?  Doesn't this put a woman in a bind?  Doesn't it tempt her to look at herself in terms of being an object for sexual gratification, thus denigrating the image of God in her?

Christian brothers-- please stop putting this stumbling block in your sisters' way.

*All Bible quotes are from the New International Version, 1984, as this is on the whole the version most familiar to evangelicals. 


Anonymous said...

This is wonderful! I appreciate all the research you did on the subject. I think Mr. Chin's phrase, "being stumbled," sums things up pretty well. Being the grammatical howler it is, it illustrates how people need to bend over backwards if they want to make the sinner out to be a passive victim of women's apparel. These are challenging words, and I hope Christians in America listen to them.

Anonymous said...


Isn't lust in this context just about lusting after someone else's spouse or girlfriend, not just any woman?

One of the Ten Commandments is about not coveting someone else's things. I think that the lust part falls right on in with that.

Now, don't get me wrong: If you are lusting after every babe you see, you do need to ask for God's help. However, if you have a healthy like for attractive single women, and want to date them, but don't make that the main focus of your life (i.e. focus on your responsibiilities like work), I see no harm in that.

Kristen said...

Infinitecrescendo - thanks! I appreciate your insight about the grammatical construction "being stumbled." *grin*

JBsptfn, I'm confused. I agree that Jesus was speaking in terms of lusting after someone else's wife - that's why he put it in terms of "adultery." But I thought I had clearly shown how lust as Jesus meant it, is different from having "a healthy like for attractive single women and wanting to date them." I don't think that's what Jesus was talking about at all-- though of course, in the times in which He spoke it would have been more along the lines of "have a healthy like for an attractive single woman and wanting to ask her father for her hand in marriage." Jesus' words need to be understood in the original cultural context in which women were the property of first their fathers and then their husbands. But as He equated lust with "committing adultery in your heart," using a verb form that communicated intent-- and since He placed no blame whatsoever on the woman being lusted after, He could not have meant "have a healthy attraction for." He meant "choose to look on as something you want to take for your own."

And since "have a healthy attraction for" is simply not in view in this passage, even in relationship to a married woman, it seems to me to be a moot point. See what I mean?

Anonymous said...

Yes. Good point.

Mike aka MonolithTMA said...

It's often struck me as odd how some Christians will, in one breath, criticize Islam for making women cover their bodies completely, yet in the next, call for Christian women to essentially do the same.

As a male, I worked very hard, in my youth, to develop a respectful view of women, regardless of what my hormones may have been telling me.

Looking forward to more in this series.

pacbox said...

Hope you don't mind but I put a link to this wonderful post in a post on my blog. I love that you are talking these cliches and proving them wrong with your incredible research. Thank you.

Kristen said...

No need to ask, Pacbox, but send me a link to your blog! So glad you liked this!

Mike, thanks for reading-- again! Good to see you stop by!

wickedqueenofmean said...

Dear Wordgazer,

I really love your words!

pacbox said...

I was always taught to give credit where credit is due and to ask (though I had already linked by the time I asked.)

This stuff has been coming up in Catholic circles for a while now but it's non-Catholics that are fighting back and providing some of the best ammunition I've seen. Being Catholic myself, it's nice to have actual arguments that are well researched and thought out to fight this garbage.

My blog is I tried putting a link but my tablet wasn't very helpful.

Lana said...

When people nag me not to stumble, they cause me to stumble because I become a more snappy person from it. :)

Anna Fairgrieve said...

James 1: 12 Blessed is the man that endureth temptation; for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life which the Lord hath promised to those who love Him.

13 Let no man say when he is tempted, “I am tempted by God”; for God cannot be tempted with evil, neither tempteth He any man.

14 But every man is tempted when he is drawn away by his own lust and enticed

This is the only argument I will give to men who claim that when they are lusting after a woman in church, or anywhere else, they are being drawn away by 'omebody else. James says you can't blame God, obviously, but you can't blame somebody else either. Adam blamed Eve, Eve blamed the serpent, they were all to blame, and nobody was left out of the punishment of the sin. But each one was accountable for what they did. As also with Ananias and Sapphira, the apostles interviewed each one separately and gave each a chance to give an account of their behaviour on their own without the other one to blame or back up what they were saying.

And apart from anything else, I think the whole burkha wearing thing is the ultimate argument. Women in these are oppressed just as much by men as those in western cultures for what they do or do not wear. Let's stop causing the sisters to stumble by telling them they are inadvertently causing other people to sin by what they put on their bodies. It is repellent and another and much more subtle form of misogyny.

And don't anybody begin with 'yes but there are women who dress to get men's attention'. That is not what we are talking about here, and the problem there is not men's lust, it's women's. Different issue.

Anonymous said...

Always happy to read your blog, Kristen.

A woman isn't responsible for protecting a man from his own thoughts. Automatically associating any body part with sex (unless we're talking about the genitals) is a learned behavior. It can be unlearned. And, if men have been conditioned to view part of a woman's body as a sexual, it is the men who have a responsibility to overcome that conditioning. When women cover up for their sake it is a courtesy. We have no duty to do so, not even if the conditioning was done to the man when he was too young to realize what was happening. Now that he's an adult, he is responsible for rejecting bad lessons.
So how can a man recognize that he's been taught to sexualize a woman's body (or parts of her body) in his mind? Common sense, for one. In some cultures the midriff is considered a sexual turn on. In some it's the breast. Shoulders. Knees. And in other cultures those body parts are not associated with sex. The fact that it varies from culture to culture proves that it's cultural.

Attitudes towards the female breast vary from state to state, but in some parts of the U.S. the breast is considered a pseudo-genital. The absurdity of this attitude causes men and women alike to examine it; if that is the case, then why do a woman's breasts produce milk and not sperm or eggs? If it's true, doesn't that mean that women who breast feed their babies are performing a sexual act with them? That attitude is disgusting. And treating nursing women like X-rated exhibits is demeaning. So decent men treat nursing women with respect and try very hard un-condition the "breast is a sexual object" response that society trained into them.

Kuudere-Kun said...

I've linked to this on my Sola Scriptura Christian Liberty blog