Stumbling Blocks (A reflection on Matthew 18.1-12)

Other projects have kept me from writing here the past week or so, but I’ve returned this morning because the Gospel reading today touched on something that’s been a recurring theme for me lately: the idea of stumbling blocks, and specifically being a stumbling block to others.

In the reading, the disciples ask Jesus what greatness looks like in the Kingdom of God, and Jesus answers by showing them a small child, as a symbol of humility and vulnerability. Fair enough, but then he continues:

“If any of you put a stumbling block before one of these little ones who believe in me, it would be better for you if a great millstone were fastened around your neck and you were drowned in the depth of the sea.”

This brought up a lot for me because over the past few weeks I’ve heard over and over again the stories of people who have been deeply hurt by the Church in their growing up. Many, though certainly not all, can’t engage healthily with Christianity — can’t even hear the name Jesus — because these experiences were so negative. In many ways the Church needs to reckon with Paul’s comment in Romans 2: “For, as it is written, “The name of God is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.”

Unsurprisingly, attitudes towards sex and sexuality are brought up a lot in these conversations. And in some ways, I understand why. Sexuality is hard enough to talk about under the best of circumstances. And the Church writ large, in its attempts at grappling with being faithful to its traditions in a rapidly changing world, fumbled the ball a lot.

More surprisingly, what comes up most often in the stories I hear is not tales of sexual abuse, but the “purity culture” that was so prominent in the evangelical world in the 1990s and 2000s. Ostensibly, purity culture was about promoting a healthy, if traditional, Christian understanding of sex, sexuality, and marriage. But what it did in many cases was create a community governed by fear and coercion, where belonging was contingent on following increasingly strict rules against any kind of romantic touching. It left a lot of young people cut off from their bodies and afraid of pleasure. (A good friend of mine who works in reproductive health and who grew up in that subculture has had numerous friends call her up traumatized by their wedding nights.) Worse still, many of the people I come across who grew up in this culture — again, many, not all — report that purity culture was the Christianity they grew up in. They have no associations of Jesus beyond “purity rings” and coercion to “true love waits” pledges.

I bring all this up not to rant and rail, but because there, obviously, has to be a better way. It breaks my heart, even as someone not from the evangelical tradition, to hear so many people use “I grew up Baptist” as a shorthand meaning “I have deep and lasting issues surrounding sex and intimacy.” Even in communities that desire to maintain their traditions surrounding marriage and sex, there has to be an approach that doesn’t do harm and that isn’t a stumbling block. 

I remember when I was first exploring Eastern Orthodoxy coming across an interview with a senior Greek cleric — it may have even been the Ecumenical Patriarch, but I don’t remember — in which he was asked about teenage sex. He affirmed traditional Christian understandings of marriage and sex, but then he went on to say something I’ve never forgotten. He said something to the effect of, “But we know that sex is a powerful temptation. Even monks, who have had decades of practice in celibacy can stumble, so how can we expect young people who are just beginning their journey with their bodies to be perfect? We must be there to offer counsel and grace when it happens.”

What a difference! It’s still a very conservative outlook, but instead of being legalistic, overbearing, and paternalistic, it is gracious, compassionate, and uses experience not as a justification for power but as a deep well of empathy and understanding. Most importantly, it is deeply Christian, not just in its desired outcomes, but in the way it seeks to achieve them. 

I think it’s a beautiful example of how we should approach a lot of different issues in the Church: to ask ourselves not just what our theology or canons say about something, but also how we can respond in the most loving and generous way we can so as not to be a stumbling block to others, especially the vulnerable and impressionable in our midst. Because they are listening. And we are the face of Christ to them. What Christ are they going to meet in us?

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