Is there any article you can point me to about “don’t be a stumbling block” and how that’s weaponized?

That’s a note I received through my Facebook Untwisting Scriptures page, from Amanda Sanchez, until recently a third-generation member of the United Pentecostal Church International (UPCI).

When I asked for more context, Amanda provided me with so much information that I knew I needed to write an article.

Usually in my neck of the woods people use it to explain the requirement for ultra-modesty in women.

Ah, of course. That’s where I came from too, though it was the Independent Baptist route. Here’s the Scripture it’s based on, Romans 14:13.

Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.

On this basis certain rules have been established about the way women dress, in order to try to keep their “brothers” from lusting after them.

The context of Romans 14:13

Before I address that particular way of interpreting and applying that passage, I want to look at the context of this Bible verse, because context in Scripture is very important, right? Here it is.

As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand.

One person esteems one day as better than another, while another esteems all days alike. Each one should be fully convinced in his own mind. The one who observes the day, observes it in honor of the Lord. The one who eats, eats in honor of the Lord, since he gives thanks to God, while the one who abstains, abstains in honor of the Lord and gives thanks to God.

For none of us lives to himself, and none of us dies to himself. For if we live, we live to the Lord, and if we die, we die to the Lord. So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.

Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.” So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.

Therefore let us not pass judgment on one another any longer, but rather decide never to put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother.

If you understand the context of the entire New Testament, you’ll see that Paul here is describing a conflict between the Jewish Christian and the Gentile Christian. (Conflicts like these are addressed in several other Pauline epistles.)

The Jewish Christian believed he needed to limit his diet in a Jewish sort of way. The Gentile Christian understood that he didn’t need to.

The Jewish Christian believed he needed to honor one day or various days more than others. The Gentile Christian saw that all days are equally to be honored before God.

The one who is still following the law is not to judge the one who doesn’t. The one who understands he is free from these Jewish laws is not to despise the one who doesn’t understand that.

The gospel and the Christian life is so much more important than these arguments.

Surely today we can make a direct application of this Scripture to the difference between Messianic Jews and others who have believed in our Lord Jesus Christ, that we can be charitable and loving toward each other, not judging and not despising.

But the application can go further than that.

Individual responsibility and the conscience

The focus in this passage is on individual responsibility before the Lord. Each person will stand or fall on his own, his own faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, his own understanding of what, if anything, he should add to that faith in living his Christian life.

He, as one who has put faith in the Lord Jesus, is not to judge or despise others who have also put faith in the Lord Jesus. Judge, on the one hand, that they’re not doing what he believes they should be doing. Despise, on the other hand, because they don’t understand the freedom from the law that we have as believers.

So much of this is about the conscience of the believer, which the Scripture talks a good bit about, especially in 1 Corinthians chapters 8-10, which I’ve studied at length and which I’ve addressed in some articles. In one of those articles, I gave this definition of “weak conscience,” after an intensive Bible study of the subject:

A weak conscience is one that lacks the full strength of understanding of what Christ has accomplished for them and who they are in Christ, and as a result believes that certain morally neutral activities would affect that standing.

Then I added:

Besides “negative activities” (actually morally neutral ones) that the weak-conscienced individual believes will spiritually taint him, I believe we could also add “positive activities” (actually morally neutral ones) that the weak-conscienced individual believes will spiritually cleanse him.

Those who have been abused, especially in a Christian context, may often be the ones of “weak conscience” who don’t fully understand in Whom they have their righteous standing before God. Sometimes they need to see that what their spiritually abusive environment taught as wrong wasn’t really wrong at all.

Let none of us put a stumbling block in the way of another. We don’t want other Christian brothers and sisters to stumble. Therefore, according to the context of Romans 14, we would not ask a fellow believer (“brother”) to do something his weak conscience tells him is wrong, and we would not ask him to refrain from doing something his weak conscience tells him is right.

The Lord will lead each of us step by step in our understanding.

Just to be crystal clear, Paul did go on in this very same chapter to verify exactly what I’m saying here, that there are no “spiritually unclean” foods:

I know and am persuaded in the Lord Jesus that nothing is unclean in itself, but it is unclean for anyone who thinks it unclean [i.e., it is a conscience issue]. For if your brother is grieved by what you eat, you are no longer walking in love. By what you eat, do not destroy the one for whom Christ died. So do not let what you regard as good be spoken of as evil. For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking but of righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit. Whoever thus serves Christ is acceptable to God and approved by men. So then let us pursue what makes for peace and for mutual upbuilding.

Do not, for the sake of food, destroy the work of God. Everything is indeed clean, but it is wrong for anyone to make another stumble by what he eats. It is good not to eat meat or drink wine or do anything that causes your brother to stumble.

So there it is. Morally neutral activities—that is, activities that are not expressly extolled or condemned in the New Covenant Scriptures—have no effect on your relationship with the Lord in Christ, but if your conscience bothers you about them, then follow your conscience by refraining. (I would add to be open to allowing the Lord to retrain your conscience according to His Word, but that’s a slightly different topic.)

That’s the context of Romans 14:13, “never put a stumbling block or hindrance in the way of a brother [fellow believer].” Paul said something very similar in 1 Corinthians 8:8-9.

Now food will not bring us close to God; we are neither the worse if we do not eat, nor the better if we do eat. But take care that this freedom [or right] of yours does not somehow become a stumbling block to the weak.

Especially in cultures as divided as many Western countries are now, what is “morally neutral” according to the Scriptures and what is condemned by the Scriptures can be a matter of discussion. But we would do well to keep our discussions charitable and base our analysis of whether or not someone else is a true Christian on what they do with Jesus Christ rather than what they do with these secondary issues.

So, what is a stumbling block, exactly?

According to this context, it is something that causes a person to be “tripped up” or turned aside from the way of our Lord Jesus Christ.

We see this happening to Christ Himself when Peter rebuked Him, telling Him He wouldn’t die. Jesus said (Matthew 16:23): “Get behind Me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to Me.”

You want to keep me from going to the death I know I have to face. You want to trip Me up and turn Me aside. Of course it didn’t happen, but that was Satan’s goal.

We see this concept in another use of the term in 1 Corinthians 1:22-24.

For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.

The Jews wanted miraculous signs that made the truth crystal clear. The Greeks/Gentiles lauded wisdom. A Savior, a Messiah figure, who was killed on a Roman cross, didn’t fit the bill for either of them. To the Gentiles the crucifixion was the opposite of wisdom: it seemed like folly. To the Jews the crucifixion was the opposite of a miraculous sign: for them, instead of making the truth crystal clear, it was confusing and, until their thinking was transformed, it seemed to shroud the gospel.

But perhaps the most important Scripture to the situation at hand, the situation Amanda wrote to me about, are these words from Jesus, in Matthew 18:6-7:

“Whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in Me to sin [or stumble], it is better for him that a heavy millstone be hung around his neck, and that he be drowned in the depths of the sea. Woe to the world because of its stumbling blocks! For it is inevitable that stumbling blocks come; but woe to the person through whom the stumbling block comes!

That is a very strong woe, to someone who causes a little one, or even perhaps a weak one, to go astray. I have seen so many of these!

According to Matthew 16:23, Satan can be a stumbling block. According to 1 Corinthians 1:22-24, truth can sometimes be a stumbling block.

And according to Romans 14:13 and 1 Corinthians 8:8-9, people can put stumbling blocks in the way of another. Sometimes they may do it with evil intent, as Satan did in Matthew 16:33. Sometimes they may do it because they think themselves better than the other person (the judging and despising of Romans 14).

Scripturally, putting a stumbling block in someone else’s way is something that a person who considers himself “strong” would do to someone who is “weak.”

Application in fundamentalist groups

Now we turn to the way many fundamentalist groups, including Amanda’s UPCI, interpret and apply Romans 14:13. From what Amanda has told me, and from what I knew growing as an independent Baptist (and sadly, having put my children through some of it as well), “cultural reactionary legalism” (a term my husband used in this post) has often taken the place of actually relying on the Scriptures to find what we should and shouldn’t do as we live the Christian life.

In the UPCI, this Scripture, Romans 14:13, is applied almost exclusively to women’s and girls’ attire, so they won’t cause men and boys to lust. Even more, they are told that when a man lusts, it is more than just “putting” a stumbling block in his way. It is actually “being” a stumbling block. “Stumbling block” becomes a word of identity, like what Jesus applied to Satan in Matthew 16:33.

But the way this term is being applied in these cultures is unrelated to the way the Scriptures use the term. Rather, in these cultures, this Scripture has been wrenched out of context in order to manipulate and control as well as shame and blame (because if a man lusts and abuses, it must be because the woman or girl was not attired properly).

In the conservative Holiness movements the women are required to wear skirts and dresses of a certain length, no makeup and no jewelry to avoid being a stumbling block to men. Basically every woman is responsible for every man who looks at her, and no matter how she’s dressed, if he lusts after her then it wasn’t enough.

As I observed above, putting a stumbling block in another person’s way is what the strong are admonished not to do to the weak. It is not what the weak do to the strong. And it is certainly not about one gender carrying the heavy burden of keeping the other gender from losing sight of the gospel.

The stumbling block message is mainly used as weapon to make us [women] responsible for someone else’s salvation. That’s a major problem and a burden that is not ours.

In the name of “not being a stumbling block” various extremely conservative groups have formed rules of their own making to present “holiness” to the outside world. But

My experience is that my hyper conservative wardrobe hindered the gospel. All of my friends at school said I was in a cult and would not come to church with me when I invited them. I don’t blame them, and many of them became Christians anyway in churches where women wear makeup and pants. If the modest dress code is attracting people to the gospel, then why are super conservative churches so often small and the congregations are the same families from generations back with no/few new converts?

Then the rules are presented by the authorities as being equal with the Word of God, and following these rules is considered part of salvation.

I am also considered to be “lost” because uncut hair and the dress code is often considered a sign of salvation through obedience to the man of God (pastor).

I’ve written a good bit about authorities (especially in Untwisting Scriptures #2), so I won’t go into that here, but when these things happen, we are in an environment of spiritual abuse. When there are “signs of salvation” other than the signs that the Bible gives (such as the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5), this is spiritual abuse. In groups like these, “holiness” is about what you do rather than who you are in Jesus Christ.

I don’t want my sons and daughter growing up with the horrible mindset that women are innately deceptive temptresses that must work hard to keep that in check and not tempt the men.

According to Amanda’s former pastor, even the heart adultery Jesus described in Matthew 5:27-28 is the woman’s fault at least in part, because it says “with her.” You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.

But as Amanda observed,

Jesus lays the responsibility to prevent lust on that person lusting.

And as many of us have seen over and over in these situations, this spiritual abuse will create an environment in which sexual abuse will thrive.

A friend of mine left her UPCI church because her daughter was molested by the Sunday school teacher’s sons.  My pastor said that she’d better get into a UPCI church asap because her salvation is in danger unless she is submitted to a UPCI pastor. He asked no questions about what happened to her daughter or if a report was made.

I thought about burkas in the Muslim culture. Women are covered from head to toe so they won’t be a temptation to men. But burka-covered women still get raped, and it is always their fault. Does this kind of “Christianity” sound much different from the view of women in the Muslim culture?

Here is the other saddest part to me. The shunning.

When I was asking questions about headship my best friend told me that if we left our church she would no longer associate with me. Once we left, I cut my hair (which is always preached as the first sign of a woman backsliding) and began wearing pants and jewelry and makeup. This makes me a threat to any of my old friends because of the “jezebel spirit,” and only one or two have associated with me since we left.

This is not in any way about being a “stumbling block.” It is simply about not conforming to a group identity. “You have a Jezebel spirit” appears to me to be a way to say, “You are not like us, which is bad.” It is not about following the Scriptures.

Ultimately, I came to a crisis of faith during that sermon series [about the ways women should not be stumbling blocks to men], that if God created men to devour women and created women as less than, I could not follow a God like that. I left that church to find Jesus, the one I had heard about from other Christians who were “unsaved” [according to the UPCI church] and who knew a God who loved, cared, and created us all as individuals fully in His image with the same innate worth no matter our gender, age, status, or race.

Let’s look again at that Scripture in Romans 14:

So then, whether we live or whether we die, we are the Lord’s. For to this end Christ died and lived again, that he might be Lord both of the dead and of the living.

Why do you pass judgment on your brother? Or you, why do you despise your brother? For we will all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written, “As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.” So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.

For anyone who claims the Name of Jesus Christ in the United Pentecostal Church International, or any other church that emphasizes outward standards as a representation of “holiness,” think on this:

Let us judge one another (the righteous judgment exhorted in John 7:24) on the basis of our faith in the true Lord Jesus Christ as the only way to the Most High God, and on the basis of the fruit of the Spirit that comes out of that faith.

Let us focus on the transformation of the inner being accomplished by the Holy Spirit of God as we look to the Lord in faith, a transformation that springs out in the fruit of love and joy and peace and the desire to actively extend help and truth and compassion to others, because we are the children of God and we know Him. For men as well as women.

It will not always be a perfectly direct road. In my own life, the route has been circuitous. But we will see His faithfulness, and we will rejoice.


I’m sure there’s much more that could be said on this topic. If you have more thoughts to offer in the comments, I welcome them.


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