Here we are, part five in our posts about modesty, and the second to specifically take a look at the scriptures we use when talking about it. Here are the previous posts:
Topless and Totally Modest (a look at culture’s effect on modesty)
“Make sure that your outfit won’t cause any of the men to stumble.”
The idea of “causing others to stumble” is often trotted out in Evangelical conversations about modesty. It typically communicates that if women make the choice to dress “immodestly” that men will have no choice but to sin by lusting. So let’s take a look at that, shall we?
Unlike the word “modesty” the concept of “causing to stumble” pops up in scripture a decent amount (almost 30 times!). The word is σκανδαλίζω (skandalizō) and yup, that’s where we get English words like scandal, scandalous, and scandalize. Hooray for Greek!
It gets a little complicated because the semantic range of this word (it’s not a phrase) is pretty broad. It can mean something like “cause to stumble” or “lay a trap” or “offend” or “fall away (from the faith)” or “take offense.”
Complicating things further… Jesus “skandalizōs” people with some regularity in the gospels. Nine out of the 29 occurrences are from Jesus offending/causing to stumble/causing to fall away, et cetera. Sometimes it’s to the Pharisees and sometimes to his disciples, but Jesus is definitely doing this to people, one way or another.
The basic argument in I Corinthians 8 is this: eating meat that has been sacrificed to idols is fine, because idols are nothing and you’re not worshipping them. But some of the younger believers come out of a background where they regularly worshipped by sacrificing to idols. To them it’s not “fine” it’s a creepy act that feels like betraying God. So even though there’s nothing wrong with eating that food, if you eat it and the young believers see you and think, “Hey, that guy is much more mature spiritually maybe he knows more than me I guess I will eat some idol food, too” then they may take an action that goes against their own conscience. It’s not sin to YOU but it would be to THEM. So hey. Don’t do that.
Things to note:
- Paul is speaking to people with spiritual maturity, encouraging them to think of the younger, less-experienced, or, as Paul says “weaker” believers.
- Note that the exact same actions (eating food sacrificed to idols) can be a sin or not a sin depending on the person doing it.
- Paul is saying, please don’t encourage someone to embrace the same freedoms as you when it will violate their conscience. Don’t, in other words, teach them to sin.
Jesus says something similar in Matthew 18.
He has a child from the household (Mark tells us this was in Peter’s home… might have been his kid, even!) come stand with him and tells everyone if they want to enter God’s kingdom they need to be like children. Then he says if anyone skandalizōs a little child, it would be better for that person to be dead. Violently, horrifically dead. He goes on to say that if you have body parts that are skandalizōing you, you should probably hack those off and throw them away because it’s better to maim yourself and “enter life” than to go to Hell intact.
Things to note:
- Jesus, too, is talking about those with maturity (the adults who are listening to him) interacting with those who have less maturity (children).
- Jesus is talking about those who would purposely entice or teach children to sin… to try to make them fall away. He’s not talking about “accidental” sin here.
- Jesus shifts immediately from talking about the adults causing others to sin to the things in their own person that may cause them to sin.
All that to say: the idea of “causing someone to stumble” is in scripture. Frankly, in the Greek, the “cause” piece isn’t really there but it’s hard to translate otherwise. Skandalizō is a verb, but “Whoever stumbling blocks his brother” sounds weird. But that’s the idea: whoever sticks out his leg and purposely trips his brother. Whoever lays a trap for a child.
Put all these things together, and I think you can see why I’m not a fan of using “causing your brother to stumble” in the context of a woman’s wardrobe. To fit well into the framework Paul and Jesus were using, it seems to me that a woman would have to be trying to convince other women to wear her style of clothing despite that clothing violating the other women’s conscience.
Or, she would need to be wearing that clothing with the intention of tempting or ensnaring someone.
I will add this, as I think it’s important:
Matthew 5:27 is often brought up in this same conversation. In this passage, Jesus is speaking and it is often translated something like, “If a man looks at a woman lustfully he has committed adultery.”
So women are told, “If you dress a certain way, men will lust after you because they will scarcely have a choice and you have caused them to commit adultery.”
But friends, if that’s what you think it’s saying, the translation isn’t clear enough. It’s VERY CLEAR in the Greek that what is being said is, “If a man looks at a woman to lust, he has committed adultery.” In other words, if he has made a conscious decision to purposely look at the woman with the intention of engaging in lustful fantasy, then he is engaging in adultery.
NOT, “Oh hey, that lady is really beautiful oh dang it I just committed mind adultery.”
I can’t find anywhere in scripture that attraction (sexual or otherwise) is equated with sin. Once again, intention matters.
I’m not arguing here that we shouldn’t be considerate of others or appropriate in how we dress. I am saying this:
- Women, if you are dressed in a way that you believe is appropriate and a man chooses to lust when he sees you, you’re not responsible for that. You did not “cause him to stumble” in the sense it’s talked about by Paul or Jesus.
- If there are certain types of clothing that violate your own conscience personally, hey, don’t wear those things.
- Men, allowing women to think they are responsible for our thought life is incredibly passive and self-centered. If you are blaming women for your sexual fantasies, wandering eyes or porn problems, it’s time for you to take a look in the mirror and stop making excuses.
What has been your experience with the phrase “cause to stumble”? Have people used that term when talking about modesty? How about other issues? What other thoughts, insights or questions do you have?
Still to come:
What scripture says about nudity