“So then, each of us will give an account of ourselves to God. Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister.” (Romans 14:12-13 NIV)
A friend of mine told me about one of her friends who was a new mom and was breastfeeding her baby during a church service. She used a cover and tried to be discreet, but apparently one of the men in the church complained to the pastor that the woman breastfeeding during church was causing him to think impure thoughts. “What a great opportunity to open dialogue!” I said. “Oh, no,” my friend replied. “The pastor sided with the man and asked her not to breastfeed in church anymore.”
That story made me a little upset, but also gave me pause. I, too, have breastfed my baby in church and never gave it a second thought. Has it offended someone? If so, I apologize, and I also offer you some things to consider. We as the church have the chance, with the power of God, to display attitudes that show grace and take responsibility – attitudes that are as counter-cultural as the Jesus we serve.
The first thought I offer you is that breastfeeding, specifically, is very natural. Our culture at large is not entirely comfortable with public breastfeeding, although that has not always been the case (links are to classic art of Mary nursing baby Jesus). I would not be hurt or surprised if a breastfeeding mom makes you a little uncomfortable, but since breastfeeding is the most natural way to feed a baby (even if not all women can do so), I hope that we as a church try to normalize instead of sexualize it.
Also, in this case, it’s good to remember that thoughts are not necessarily sinful, but what you do with them can be. Temptation is “common to mankind” (1 Corinthians 10:13 NIV). Since even Jesus was tempted and yet didn’t sin (Hebrews 4:15), you needn’t fear an unexpected thought.
However, perhaps the man in question did allow his thoughts to become sinful. That brings me to the second counter-cultural attitude: to put it bluntly, your sin is not my fault. “You reap what you sow” has become a secular proverb, but it comes from the Bible (Galatians 6:7). In fact, Paul uses our shared assumption that we’re accountable for our own actions to contrast it with God’s grace: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23 NIV).
Much has been written lately about how America has become a society that normalizes or trivializes violence against women and blames victims for their own abuse (definition from Lynn Philips here, but the link is not for young readers). Obviously someone complaining about breastfeeding is not equivalent to someone joking about sexual violence, but it struck a nerve in me because the man was trying to blame the woman for his sin (or at least his temptation). Worse, the pastor allowed him to do so. It was a golden opportunity, and I can’t bear the thought that no one might learn from the moment – so I’m using it here. The pastor probably didn’t mean any harm, but rather simply hadn’t thought deeply about the implications of what he was saying.
Third, while your thoughts are not my responsibility, I do have the opportunity to help you avoid sin and escape temptation. In our culture, we sometimes swing from blaming the victim to actually provoking the abuser. Provocation never justifies or excuses the sin, but it is, as C.S. Lewis says, uncharitable. Paul urges us to be careful “that the exercise of [our] rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak” (1 Corinthians 8:9 NIV). He adds, “‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say-but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’-but not everything is constructive” (1 Corinthians 10:23 NIV). For example, though I’d be fine nursing in public without a cover, I know that doing so would make others uncomfortable, so I happily use one. I do so out of consideration, not because I’m obligated to protect you from yourself.
I don’t know what happened to the woman – whether she retreated to the nursery or the cry room to feed her baby or whether she challenged the pastor’s first reaction. And I certainly don’t want other moms to read this and feel bad if they’d prefer to nurse in private. My point is that we as a church have the unique charge to be God’s radical peacemakers. We have the chance to model what it means to take responsibility and also show grace, and we can start right in our own church.
Abigail likes to believe that she always looks as glamorous as the woman in the picture while she’s nursing.