On March 16th, 2021, a man named Robert Aaron Long killed eight people at three different spas in Atlanta. When questioned about his motive, this statement was given by the police:
“He apparently has an issue. What he considers a sex addiction. And sees these locations as something that allows him to go to these places, and it’s a temptation for him that he wanted to eliminate.”
Out of context, this quote about the Atlanta shooter sounds almost noble, almost righteous. If you didn’t know that eliminating sexual temptation in this case ended in the murder of eight innocent people, then it would sound like this person was taking their sin seriously.
Tragically, horrendously, what this man meant was that eliminating temptation meant eliminating the women that were tempting him—as if it was their fault that he was sinning. Instead of eliminating the sin in his heart, he took it out on the innocent women that were only doing their jobs, only existing.
As Christians, we know the tragedy of murder. We know that no one would preach murder as a solution to impurity from the pulpit. No one is giving that advice out at Youth Group. And yet, when you look at our current attitudes around purity culture and the messages we are sending to young boys and girls—is this logic too far off? Is there something we can learn about our current purity culture from this twisted motivation for a horrific crime?
I believe there is, and it is this: women are not responsible for men’s purity and we need to stop acting like they are.
What Young Girls Are Told about Modesty
I’d wager that if you ask just about any woman that has grown up in the church, she will have at least one story to tell about how she has been shamed for her body in the name of modesty.
Through inspirational-sounding, well-meaning retreats, conferences, sermons, or devotionals, young girls are essentially told that their body is a weapon. Men are weak in their purity, if they sin because of something we’re wearing it’s our fault, and it’s our job to save them.
Of course we should want to protect our brothers. Of course we should want to make life easier for them. But out of love for them, not out of responsibility, fear, or shame.
I was probably only around 9 years old when I was first told that wearing spaghetti straps in church would be distracting to other boys—or even grown men. When I accidentally showed up to a church internship meeting with a semi-see-through top, I received a literal gasp of horror and was immediately sent home to change. I felt like I had just committed an unforgivable sin rather than making a simple human mistake.
When we emphasize the women’s role to be modest, but not men’s responsibility for their own purity, it puts the impetus on women in an extremely unfair way. And the underlying message is “you’re the problem. Your very own body, just by existing, is the problem.”
Young girls are told to cover their bodies, not out of reverence for Christ, not out of submission to his goodwill for us, but so that we are not a “stumbling block” for boys or men. But are we even using that phrase biblically?
What Does It Mean to Be a Stumbling Block?
Does being a stumbling block just mean anything or anyone that causes someone else to sin? Yes and no.
In Romans 14, a stumbling block is more a matter of conscience. Paul is discussing the issue of eating meat that had been sacrificed to idols and whether or not it was sin to do so. For the more mature believers, who knew that the idols were not real gods, they ate this meat with a clear conscience. Less mature believers, who may have been converted away from idol worship, could possibly see this being done and be enticed to do so too, but against their conscience.
It was a gray area, so Paul told the disciples with the stronger conscience not to tempt the disciples with a weaker conscience by eating meat sacrificed to idols in front of them. So in this case, to make modesty analogous, a sister wearing spaghetti straps could be a stumbling block to a brother in the case that he also wanted to wear spaghetti straps but it went against his conscience to do so (which is clearly not how we usually use it).
On the other hand, it is true that when Jesus tells his disciples “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. 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!” (Matt 18:6-7)
Jesus is taking sin here very seriously. It is the case that we must all take temptation seriously and certainly not cause temptation on purpose. But what about unintentionally?
Personal Responsibility for Sin
Additionally, in the very next verse, Jesus warns his disciples that “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” (Matt 18:8, emphasis mine). He says the same about gouging out your own eye if it is causing you to sin.
That sounds like personal responsibility for sin to me. It is not other people’s fault when you sin.
This is the very same phrase Jesus uses just 13 chapters earlier when he says “But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away” (Matt 18:28-29). It’s important to note that there is no indication about what this woman was wearing or doing in this scenario. Even if she had been wearing the most scandalous outfit, it is still the man’s culpability to avoid the sin of lust.
I do think it is important and biblical for women to be considerate of men and lovingly look out for them in the way they dress. Women should take it seriously that the way they dress can cause temptation, but this is a very different attitude than holding women responsible for men’s purity.
There are many things to be said of the tragedy in Atlanta, and many things that could have prevented this from happening. I do not mean to imply that purity culture alone led to this. But if the logic of the Church’s current purity culture gets drawn all the way out, this is its conclusion. And it needs to change.
The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Christian Headlines.
Photo courtesy: ©Priscilla du Preez/Unsplash
Kelly-Jayne McGlynn is a former editor at Crosswalk.com. She sees the act of expression, whether through writing or art, as a way to co-create with God and experience him deeper. Check out her handmade earrings on Instagram and her website for more of her thoughts on connecting with God through creative endeavors.