Tuesday, July 31, 2012

You Can’t Do That! – the “Weaker Brother” (Part 2)

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”


jochanaan said...

Again, beautifully done!

One "addendum": With the Mark 7 passage, I'd also like to see James 1:13-15 referenced, since it speaks to the same issue, that everyone is responsible for his *own* sinful responses.

Anonymous said...

Christians who use the "stumbling block" as an excuse to restrict the activities of the community as a whole are actually arguing like Pharisees. I'll give you a quick example - we know that it is a sin to place a stumbling block in front of a blind person (Lev 19:14) and we know that this is applied to those with spiritual blindness as well (Isa 57:14, Ezek 14:3). From this, the Orthodox argue against gun ownership. Do a Google search on:
Guns Yeshiva Rabbi "stumbling block"
and you will find several articles on why you are a stumbling block to others if it is known that you own a gun.

People like to go to extremes to restrict the freedoms of others. If indeed a woman wearing a spaghetti strap dress is a stumbling block, then how much more so if she has her lovely face uncovered? Is not her face far more alluring to a man than her exposed armpits? The weaker brothers could demand that all women wear burkas. We could even use 1 Cor 11 as evidence since the Greek word "katakalupto" actually refers to being veiled, not just covering her hair with scarf. (Not that anyone thinks this passage is profitable for doctrine these days.) Likewise in Song of Solomon 4 the word translated in KJV as "locks" (Strong's 06777) actually means a veil. Solomon lists a woman's eyes, hair, teeth, lips, and neck as being the most alluring features before moving on to the less alluring feature of her breasts. Since weaker brother Christians believe that a woman's breasts to be covered (not even feeding her infant in public), how much more must those alluring eyes mouth and neck be covered?

In actuality, a woman's breasts are given to feed her young - not for men to lust after. The "Image of God" aspect of her breasts are to remind us of El Shaddai (literally meaning "God my breast"). Just as a woman's breasts supply the infant with everything that the child needs to survive, be nourished and grow to maturity, so it is with God who supplies those who trust in Him! Just as the infant doesn't have any concern as to whether they are in Texas, California or London - so long as mama's breast is right there; so too it is with those who trust in God not being concerned about the circumstances they are in or where God has called them to be. (Even those called to live in a nudist resort full time).

Unknown said...

First, great series of articles. I really enjoyed reading these. I think it may actually be the second time I read them. Something stood out to me this time and it may be I am not fully following this time. The "What this means for us" section of part 2, the second bullet point . . . I am struggling with as it seems in some degree of conflict with "What Paul really means" of part 1:

"If you have freedom to do something but your brother does not, if you can discern that he just might go ahead and participate in the activity if he sees you doing it, defer to your brother and don’t do the activity in his presence so that he won’t be tempted to violate his conscience."

While I agree, we are each responsible for our own sin, it seems to me the responsibility would be in fact shared if I recognize my brother's belief and encourage his participation contrary to his conscience.

It may be I am still applying the correct understanding to your treatment of the incorrect understanding.

Nevertheless, great series.

Matthew Neal said...


Thanks for your kind remarks.

In answer to your question, I have some points that I'll try to clarify.

There is a difference between leading someone to participate in a neutral activity (which is still sin for them because their conscience is not clear with it) and doing something which incites (reveals) an objectively sinful response in another person's heart.

It is a sin (for me) against that person if I do the former, but it is no sin at all on my part if the latter occurs. The question of whether or not I have sinned against my brother does no hinge on whether he sinned or not, the question is whether he JOINED me or just reacted TO me.

In neither case does it absolve the other person of responsibility for their sin. Keep in mind here that Paul is addressing the "strong" brother here, not the "weaker" one.

Bear in mind here that Paul is not at all talking to—or about—people with evil motives in their hearts which result in overt and willfully sinful actions or attitudes. We are never responsible for that sin, nor is it a sin if we are the trigger point for its expression.

I hope that makes sense. Thanks for writing.

— Matthew Neal

Puddlejumper said...

Hello Matthew,

Whilst I agree with your conclusions regarding the Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 parallel passages, I am wondering what your take is on the last verse of 1 Cor. 8? "...13. Therefore if what I eat causes my brother to fall into sin, I will never eat meat again, so that I will not cause him to fall." Is this hyperbole by Paul to make his point?

Looking forward to the next blog entry and the website when it is ready.