by Kristen Rosser cross posted from her blog Wordgazer’s Words
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)
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)
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 youfeel, 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.
Kristen is a wife, mother and works as a paralegal in the beautiful Pacific Northwest. She’s also written many of the FAQ pages here at NLQ. Kristen blogs from the perspective of a Christian who still believes even after leaving a spiritually abusive environment behind.