Causing a Brother to “Stumble”
As we saw in The Weaker Brother” – Part 1, Paul’s instructions to us in Romans 14 and 1 Cor. 8 both tell us to be alert to someone who does not have freedom in their spirit to engage in an activity even the we ourselves do have the freedom from God to do.
To “stumble” means that a brother (or sister) decides to do something in violation of his own conscience because he saw someone else (probably another Christian he respects) doing that thing.
That’s all it means.
But that’s not how a lot of people invoke this teaching. In fact, you almost never hear Bible teachers or preachers explain Paul’s words that way… you almost always hear it applied a very different way.
Does “Causing a Sinful Response” equal “Causing a Brother to Stumble”?
The way we usually hear the admonition to “not cause a brother to stumble” is that we are told to avoid doing something because someone else may exhibit a sinful response to seeing us doing it.
Perhaps the most common case has to do with the false standards of “modesty” that are taught in the church today. It goes like this:
- Women are told that they need to “dress ‘modestly’ so you don’t cause a brother to stumble.”
Right away, it is easy to see that this does not fit what what Paul was trying to teach!
- Women are not being told that if they dress immodestly, all those “weak” men will start dressing the same way… in violation of their own consciences!
But that’s the biblical meaning of “causing a brother to stumble”!!
No, what they are trying to say is that if women dress a certain way, and men see them, those men will not be able to control themselves. Instead, they’ll find themselves fighting mental battles against lust in their hearts. They will simply be unable to avoid thinking (and perhaps acting) in impure ways.
But Isn’t That a Valid Biblical Reason to Not Do Something?
One might suggest that since all those men with raging hormones will go bonkers if they see too much female flesh, that asking the ladies to keep covered will help the men control themselves and avoid fits of lust. Wow! How can anyone argue with that?
Well… I can. Here’s why.
- First of all, man-made rules for righteousness are totally useless for restraining sensual indulgence. Paul’s words in Col. 2:20-23 are so powerfully on point that I don’t need to spell it out here. Just read that scripture passage. To even suggest that the modesty rule helps curb lust at all is to fly directly in the face of God’s revealed truth.
- God never established clothing to abate lust in men or women. If He intended that we use clothing for that purpose, He would have said so… and told us exactly which body parts needed to be covered to get the job done (See The Biblical Purpose of Clothing, particularly Part 7).
- It doesn’t work, anyhow… a man can lust after a fully dressed woman, too.
- God never puts the blame for a man’s lust on a woman’s shoulders! Why do we?
- Lust, on the man’s part, is ALWAYS his own sinful choice!
- Male Medical doctors are expected (!!) to treat their female patients with the utmost respect, dignity, and professional decorum. Not a one is ever permitted the excuse of “I saw her naked, so I couldn’t help myself.”
- Nothing outside of us going into us can ever cause a sinful responses. Ever!! (See Mark 7:14-22). So when anyone has a sinful response to someone else… it’s always a revelation of the impurity that’s already in their heart. It is never something that the other person caused.
- Did any of the hateful mistreatment to which Jesus was subjected cause Him to have a sinful response? Why not? Simply because there was no impurity in Him!
- “Self-control” is a fruit of the Spirit inside us (Gal. 5:22-24), not the fruit of others’ “modesty.”
So, are “hormones” or “sex drive” adequate “excuses” for a man to look lustfully upon a woman? No.
Does the amount of “skin” showing provide an acceptable “excuse” for a man to look lustfully at a woman? No.
Is the woman ever responsible at all for a sinful response in a man? Think for a moment here… Jesus is our measure of righteousness; Could Jesus could look upon her without lust (regardless of what she’s wearing or her motives)? That must the measure of expectation and responsibility that we hold every man to. So… again, the answer is No.
(This is not to excuse a woman for dressing provocatively. That too is wrong, but she can still only reveal the impurity in a man, never cause it.)
Jesus Did Not Live That Rule.
We have so thoroughly (though incorrectly) applied the “stumble” principle to how women dress, that we’ve redefined what “stumble” even means. Satisfied with that application, we have not bothered to look into Jesus’ life to see if He applied the “stumble” principle the same way in His own life.
We have plenty of occasions where Jesus’ actions “caused” sinful responses in those who observed Him.
The Pharisees didn’t like Jesus (most didn’t, anyway). The more they heard Him, the more they hated Him. The more they watched Him, the more angry they became. The more he openly defied them, their authority, and their teaching, the more they wanted to murder Him. Finally, they did.
Didn’t Jesus have it in his power to act differently? Couldn’t he have chosen His words so as not to anger the Pharisees? What if He had avoiding locations where the Pharisees exerted their own authority and influence? He could have completely avoided causing all those Pharisees to “stumble” into hatred and murder.
But He didn’t.
Was Jesus responsible for the Pharisees’ sinful responses to Him? No, not at all.
All of that pride, envy, and lust for position and power was already in their hearts; Jesus’ words and actions only exposed it. He could have acted in such a way that they wouldn’t have had that response, but the truth is, God wanted it to be exposed!! Jesus was obeying God; Jesus did not base His actions on whether or not someone would respond sinfully to Him.
What This Means for Us
- If someone’s words, actions, or attire incite a sinful response from or in me, I alone are responsible for that sin.
- If my words, actions, or attire incite a sinful response from or in someone else, they alone are responsible for that sin. (Even if what I did was sin, they are responsible for their own sin… I did not cause it).
Here’s the summary:
If I am doing something in righteousness, I have absolutely no obligation to stop doing it simply because someone else observes me and responds sinfully!
It is an abuse of Scripture to use the “stumbling brother” argument to tell anyone that they must stop what they’re doing simply because someone else responds sinfully.
— Matthew Neal
In this Series:
You Can’t Do That! - Introduction
You Can’t Do That! - The “Appearance of Evil”
You Can’t Do That! – the “Weaker Brother” (Part 1)
You Can’t Do That! – the “Weaker Brother” (Part 2)
You Can’t Do That! – “For Conscience’ Sake”