How many times have you heard calls for women to dress modestly in terms of “you don’t want to be a stumbling block”?
Phew. This has been a tiring week on the blog–and I knew it would be. I’ve been talking about how the idea that all men will lust is wrong, and how we need to reframe the way we talk about lust and sex.
Today I want to end this topic and move on (I’m so looking forward to our July Sizzling Summer Sex series!).
But there is one more thing I really need to deal with, and it’s the idea that women can “cause a man to sin” by what they wear.
Today, let’s look at what Scripture actually says, and find a healthier way to talk about modesty that accomplishes our goals of getting both genders to act respectfully towards each other.
I’m passionate about this, because I blog primarily about sex and marriage from a Christian point of view. When I wrote The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex, it was because I feared that women were believing such shameful messages about sex, and it was all so unnecessary–because there’s a better way to talk about it. I hope I can help us get to that better way today!
What is The Good Girl's Guide to Great Sex About?
First, I would hope we would all agree that Jesus lays the blame for lust at the man’s feet.
As I showed at length on Tuesday talking about “every man’s battle“, Jesus says that if a man lusts after a woman, he has already committed adultery in his heart. And it is better to cut out his eye than to lust.
He never once says that it is the woman’s fault.
But here’s where we throw in a caveat:
Yes, Jesus may have said that lust is the guy’s sin. But the Bible also says that causing him to sin is the woman’s sin!
We say that we believe that there’s no excuse for lust. But then we’re quick to point out that women really are to blame because of how they dress.
People use several main Scriptures for this idea, but I’m going to focus on two today, since all the Scriptures basically echo one of these two approaches. 1 Corinthians 8 focuses on not causing your weaker brother to stumble, and then Matthew 18:6-9 focuses on how it’s better to have a millstone around your neck than to cause a little one to stumble. Let’s look at how both of these arguments relate to whether it is the woman’s fault if a man lusts after her.
The Weaker Brother Argument: We should change our behaviour to look after the weaker brother so that he doesn’t stumble
In Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8, Paul is making the “weaker brother” argument. Paul says that once we’re in Christ, we have great freedom. We can eat meat sacrificed to idols, for instance, because we no longer have any idols. God is over all.
But if you have a brother or sister who thinks that it’s wrong to eat meat sacrificed to idols, and you glibly do eat meat like that, and they follow you–then you’ve now encouraged them to violate their own consciences. You’ve caused them to stumble.
In other words, the “stumbling” that Paul is talking about is not committing an actual sin, like lusting or stealing or lying, but violating your conscience and your vow to God. So the concern in this passage is that we cause someone to stumble when we undermine their faith.
Paul is not addressing the scenario where a woman may cause a man to lust
Please hear me on this one, because this distinction is important (and major hat tip to Keith Schooley in Monday’s comments for reminding me of this): While Paul is talking about how we can sin against someone by being a stumbling block, he is NOT saying that we bear the responsibility for someone committing a sin. He IS saying that we bear the responsibility for weakening someone’s faith.
So can a woman weaken a guy’s faith by what she wears?
Yes, I think she can. If a woman deliberately decides to exercise her freedom in Christ in front of her male brothers who are really struggling, and does so knowing that they are struggling (which is the scenario that Paul lays out here), she can make him think, “I really can’t get over this sin.” And she can cause his faith to weaken.
So, “Yes, this passage applies!”
But it’s not that simple.
Who is the “Weaker Brother” in this Story?
We think of the “weaker brother” as being one who is more susceptible to sin. That is NOT who Paul considers the weaker brother. In this case, Paul calls the “weaker brother” the one who does not have as much knowledge and the one who is not as mature in the faith.
In many cases, teenage girls are being asked to change what they wear for the sake of adult men who are pastors, elders, even family members! When I was on Up for Debate radio on Moody recently talking about modesty, this scenario was presented:
What do we do when a woman who is seeking walks into church wearing something really inappropriate, like a skimpy sundress? How do we tell her that she’s a stumbling block?
My response: You don’t! Because in this situation, SHE is the weaker brother. The men are more mature in the faith. It’s her faith that God is most concerned with. He leaves the 99 to find the 1.
What if setting a modesty dress code actually becomes a stumbling block for women because it weakens their faith?
If women can be the weaker brother, then let’s see if this Scripture actually can be turned on its head with the modesty issue.
Here’s a comment that was left on my post on Monday about men being visual:
When I was a teacher at a Christian school in my 20s I ended up on the “dress code committee” in charge of revisions to the existing dress code. Because the building was not air conditioned, they had decided to allow shorts in warm weather months (early fall and late spring). We had to determine an appropriate length. In the course of the discussions, I was forced to stand up and be the example of why longer shorts were better. The administrator in the group explained to the room that I was a good example of the problem with shorts as my legs were “just too long” and no matter what I wore, unless it was a long baggy skirt, I would be a “stumbling block for men” and my body was “really just a problem”.
I can’t tell you how damaging it is to be told BY YOUR BOSS that God made you wrong and your existence is essentially a “problem” for every male person you ever meet.
Whose faith was being weakened in this scenario? The men’s, who were worried about this woman’s legs? Or the woman’s, who was being told that God made a mistake when He made her?
Or here’s a comment that was left on Facebook about the same post:
I was weeks away from my 21st birthday. I had recently moved to a new area. I was attending a wedding. The first I had been to after my engagement fell apart. I shopped for weeks looking for a dress I felt beautiful in. I was sitting at a table with the only people at the shindig I knew. There was an older lady (mid to late 70s) whom I was greatly looking forward to getting to meet because I had heard about her kindness and grace. She sat next to me and informed me I needed to find somewhere else to sit because my dress was too low and it was making her husband uncomfortable. I was shocked. I immediately left and cried in the parking lot before driving myself home. About 10 years later I pulled that dress out of storage. Resting my pointer finger on my collar bone my ring finger touched the neckline of the dress. It was then I realized my clothing was not the issue.
In this scenario, whose faith is being weakened? The 70-something man who had been a Christian his whole life, or the 21-year-old grieving woman with a heart to be accepted into Christian community?
Or how about this one, also left on the Facebook post:
When I was 16 I was told to put a sweater on at Christian school because my figure was causing a male teacher to stumble. I was dressed within our dress code and nothing inappropriate was showing. I matured early and there was no hiding it, nor should I have had to. My parents tried to find a solution with that staff member and his solution was for me to get to school early so that we could “pray for my soul” together before classes started. Luckily my parents had discernment and pulled me out of that school, but I was ashamed of my body and have struggled since with body image, allowing true intimacy in my marriage, etc. as a result of that experience.
If we want to use the “don’t cause a weaker brother to stumble” passages to address modesty dress codes, then, we must be intellectually honest and say that while we don’t want men’s faith weakened, we must also never, ever cause women’s faith to weaken by saying there is something inherently evil about their bodies.
The “Causing a Little One to Stumble” Argument
In Matthew 18:6-9, Jesus says this:
“If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. 7 Woe to the world because of the things that cause people to stumble! Such things must come, but woe to the person through whom they come! 8 If your hand or your foot causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell.
Unlike the Romans 14 and 1 Corinthians 8 passages, here we are talking about causing someone to commit an actual sin, not just weakening the faith. This passage, at face value, does look like it can be applied to the scenario where a woman can cause a man to lust. So what can we learn about modesty dress codes from this passage?
Jesus is referring to a deliberate action that lures someone away from Him.
In this scenario, I don’t believe that Jesus is talking about causing someone to sin by accident. Indeed, in the Old Testament there were “cities of refuge” for those who had caused bloodshed by accident, and those people were treated very differently from those who had deliberately shed blood.
In everything, the state of our hearts matter. So if we are deliberately dressing in such a way that we are aiming to entice men to lust, then we are sinning. Period. Absolutely. We should not wear attire with the intention of causing men’s thoughts to wander or with trying to seduce anyone. In that scenario, it certainly is better to have a millstone placed around our necks and be thrown into the sea.
But what if that’s not our intention when we get dressed?
When I was on Up for Debate radio, a woman called in with this comment (and I’m typing this from memory):
I was once in church and I saw an absolutely gorgeous woman. For a minute I felt really jealous, because I’m a larger woman. And I asked God, “Why can’t I look like her?” And God told me, “Be grateful, because you don’t cause men to sin the way that she does.”
She may have believed that that was God’s voice, but I firmly believe that it wasn’t. This woman was saying that another female, through no fault of her own, caused men to sin simply because of how her body looked. And God saw her body as a source of evil.
Follow that argument logically, and what you have is this:
Some people, even if they love God with their heart, soul, mind, and strength, will cause people to sin simply because of who they are and how they were made.
Even if they do nothing, they are a stumbling block that may cause someone to sin.
Yet what does God say about stumbling blocks in this passage?
That it would be better for them to have a millstone tied around their neck and be thrown into the sea.
Is that what we really believe? That a woman, through no fault of her own other than simply existing, would be better off if she were thrown into the sea because of the effect she has on the men around her?
I would hope not! Yet, logically, that is where this argument goes. Women’s bodies are inherently sinful; therefore women are inherently bad because they cause others to stumble. And so it would be better for them to be thrown into the sea.
Now there might actually be some who agree with this logic. But aside from being completely oppressive, it also doesn’t hold up if you read the verses following. That’s because:
Even in this scenario, Jesus puts the responsibility on the one sinning
Yes, the person who causes the sin would be better off thrown into the sea. But then what does Jesus say is the solution?
He points back to the person who is sinning. In the very next verses, He says, “if your eye causes you to stumble, gauge it out.”
Jesus never lays the responsibility for sin at someone else’s feet
Even in the passages that we often use to claim that women’s clothing choices can cause men to sin, God still does not lay the blame at women’s feet! If anything, we should be using those passages to show that women’s faith matters, too, and that we should never put undue burdens on women for other people’s sin.
So What Can We Conclude About these Two Stumbling Block Passages?
These passages appear to be saying that it is wrong for women to deliberately dress in order to entice men to lust, both because that can weaken their faith and can cause him to sin. However, the passages also say that it is wrong to shame women about their bodies. In addition, Scripture clearly says that women are not to blame if a man actually does lust, and that if a man lusts just because of the way a woman looks, when she is not deliberately trying to get him to do anything, then that is entirely on him.
Saying definitively, then, that women bear the responsibility for men’s consciences because of the “do not cause a brother to stumble” just doesn’t hold up biblically.
Okay, then. So do we do nothing about modesty? Just like yesterday I presented a better way to talk about men’s sexual needs than the “obligation sex” message, so today I would like to present a better way to talk about modesty than the “don’t be a stumbling block” message.
A Better Way to Talk About Modesty
Here’s what 1 Timothy 2:8-9 says:
I also want the women to dress modestly, with decency and propriety, adorning themselves, not with elaborate hairstyles or gold or pearls or expensive clothes, 10 but with good deeds, appropriate for women who profess to worship God.
Now, in that context, modesty wasn’t primarily about not being sexually alluring as much as it was about not flaunting one’s wealth. You can see that this is Paul’s primary concern because he goes on to talk about things which obviously cost a lot of money (jewelry, certain clothing, hairstylists) rather than about hiding a woman’s figure. This wasn’t about body shaming women; this was about ensuring that Christians were approachable, appropriate, and open to all, so that they were good witnesses for Christ. We have interpreted this passage to be about lust when really it wasn’t. It was about dressing so that we honour Christ.
So here’s a recipe for modern day modesty:
I simply ask myself these three questions (and these are what I talked to my daughters about, too):
- Who am I dressing for? Am I dressing to impress a guy? Am I dressing to impress my girlfriends on Instagram? Or am I dressing to show respect for myself and my Saviour?
- What is the first impression people have when they look at me? How will people characterize me based on what I’m wearing?
- Am I approachable, friendly, and open? Do I look like I welcome conversation and healthy relationship? Am I on par with others whom I will be with? Or does my clothing set me apart from others?
Like this? Pin it to spread the non-shaming message!
Look, despite all I’ve written about how we shouldn’t blame men’s sin on women’s clothing choices, I’m totally appalled by what some teenage girls and some women wear. I share the angst that many people have about “how do we help people understand that some clothing choices are just plain bad?” I really do.
But I think that there is a healthy way of addressing this, and an unhealthy one. I believe that if we ask my three questions, we get to the heart of the matter: how do I best reflect my Saviour? In all things, am I doing this to please God or to for other reasons? Am I a good ambassador for Him?
When we instead try to focus on rules which address girls’ bodies, though, we can easily cause shame. Besides, that approach ONLY deals with the sexual issue, and not even the main question that Paul was directing towards Timothy in his letters–whether women were dressing to appear stand-offish and better than other people by flaunting wealth.
So let’s stop framing things in terms of sexual shame, and start pointing people, as always, towards Jesus and reflecting Him. Then we’ll cure the clothing problem, help create a healthier, more welcoming atmosphere, all while not shaming women into thinking that they are inherently evil, just because of how they were made.
And that’s it! The series on body shaming women is now over! It’s been a long week. But I’ve so appreciated your comments, and let me know what you think!
Other posts in this series:
Monday: Men are Visual, but does that mean all men lust?
Tuesday: Why the “Every Man’s Battle” Idea Backfires
Wednesday: 12 Ways to Help Christian Men Stop Lusting
Thursday: How Can We Talk About Men’s Sexual Needs without Shaming Women (this was really the heart of what I was saying all week!)