My purpose with almost everything I write here is to communicate two things: 1) you are not alone and shame is not from Jesus, and 2) it is possible to develop an authentic theology of the body and live as an embodied sexual being and experience both healthy boundaries and real grace.

These two things have never been more true than for this post.

Please be gentle with me and with each other as we discuss this.

To begin, I’d like to tell you a story.

***

I didn’t have much of a sense of shame or self-awareness when I was young. I happily shed my clothes to play in the sprinklers in the front yard, and scandalized the neighbors (I was banned from playing with several neighbor kids because going nekkid in the sprinklers at 5 years old on a hot California afternoon in July was being a “bad influence”). I finger painted in my panties in our backyard at six, proudly drawing a red H on my chest and prancing around with it to show my parents. I skinny dipped in my best friend’s backyard pool with no thought that anyone wouldn’t do such a thing if given the chance.

I chatted up strangers at the grocery store and asked impertinent questions like “when are you going to have a baby? why is your skin brown? how old are you? do you know Jesus? do you like being fat?”

My mom used to say that God had given a child like me to introvert parents “to stretch us out of our comfort zone.”

And one summer evening, when I was 7 or 8, it was one of those evenings where the light fades late in the day and small children are restless in bed because they can still hear friends playing out in the street and the blinds are still glowing with sunset light. And as I was trying so very hard to be obedient and stay in bed and be quiet and fall asleep, I discovered a secret.

A few weeks later, my mom checked in with me and discovered me touching myself and we had a talk about it. “It helps me fall asleep quickly, Mom!” I explained.

“Well, it’s not really a good habit to get into,” she said. “Try to sleep with your hands away from your private parts.”

So I complied. Or tried to.

I was hooked. It felt amazing. But I managed to refrain more often that not, and kept it from becoming a habit.

Until I was 15 and more stressed than I had ever been before, with so much constant chaos at home, little privacy, regular demands on my time to babysit and help the family, lots of pressure to keep up in school (I was falling behind due to the chaos of toddler twin brothers and another infant in the house). And I was increasingly isolated from my peers as more and more of the things they became involved with were Things Our Family Doesn’t Do (movies, NCFCA debate, ballroom dance club, teen “care group” at church, top 40 radio, pop concerts, etc.). On top of all that, I found myself no longer getting along well with my roommate sister, and the constant tension between us over how to decorate our 10′ x 10′ bedroom, when lights-out should be, who could play music when, etc., sucked us both dry emotionally.

And so, to relieve the stress and distract my affection-starved self, I became addicted to sneaking romance novels from the library and reading them behind my school books. But after a while, I became fed up with the clichés and stock characters, and replaced this with a habit of masturbating when I was stressed and overwhelmed.

Dear reader, I didn’t realize that I was doing it to relieve stress, but looking back on how incredibly tense those three years were, I see it all now: that was my primary outlet and it was because I craved  affirmation, connection, unconditional love, and I wasn’t getting it at home and I couldn’t get it elsewhere AND. and. I was 15 and newly horny as hell. I thought instead that I was horribly perverted and a vile, filthy sinner.

I have the pain-laced journal entries from those three years to prove it. Usually confessory, they read something like this (spaced out at about two of these entries per week):

1) Frustration over some conflict with family member (during which description I beat myself up for being bothered by these things at all and ask God to make me more loving, loyal, content, peaceful).

2) Grief and appalled shame that I masturbated AGAIN.

3) Thanking God for being good to me even if I’m such a horrible worm and detestable in his eyes (cue long dramatic description akin to that found in Jonathan Edward’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”).

What happened, between the mild conversation with my mother (who, to her credit, never ever told me that masturbation was a sin or that my sex drive was wrong or shameful) when I was 8 and this perpetual emotional self-flagellation for my wickedness?

A couple of things happened: first, I got caught up in a church culture where shame and self-loathing were used by authority figures to prey on the insecurities of their congregants for the purposes of social control. Second, I became displaced when we moved from California and lost a lot of my self-confidence when I was introduced to Southern social expectations and felt the pressure to conform to [what seemed to me] bizarre standards of dignity and politeness. Suddenly I was immersed in a culture where sinner, sinner, sinner was emphasized spiritually, and girls were expected to be ethereal, saintly, soft-spoken, and elevated above the physical.

Happy little dirt-and-trees-and-creeks-and-loud-laughter-and-louder-ideas me was totally lost, and I was overeager to perform well and please everyone. But I had this secret.

And so I was caught in an overpowering sense of fear, shame, and guilt. I was the messed up one, the girl who wished she could attend the men’s retreat session on lust and pornography. The girl who was afraid to date someone because what might happen if I “woke love” and my desires increased more than they are now?! I was embarrassed because I liked my body, and all my friends hated theirs and dieted and binged and cut and hid theirs under frumpy clothes. I did, too, for fear of boys looking at me, but secretly I dreamed that someone might notice me beyond my frumpy clothes and see that I could pretty and desirable if I got a chance to try being so. And they all chattered on about what the most romantic proposal might be and who’d end up having the first baby, while I wondered what it might be like to be kissed and wondered if I was the only one among us who felt this way.

The rest of the story goes like an American rags-to-riches story, where I steeled myself with the power of shame and I fought hard and worked harder at school and chores and keeping busy, and I read myself to sleep at night and eventually broke the habit. I was free.

And I swore to myself that I would never tell anyone. Not even my husband. Because it was too dark and shameful and no one could ever know that I was that sort of person. 

***

Here’s the thing, though. That wasn’t a victory.

I killed a habit. But I sold my soul to shame in order to do it.

And the problem wasn’t whether masturbating was right or wrong. The problem was that I was using it to cope with stress. I sought out the cathartic high instead of facing the real issues I was living with — loneliness, anxiety, fear, anger. It could have been any number of things — I could have discovered cutting, I could have developed an unhealthy relationship with food, or become obsessed with working out or studying. But instead I developed an imbalanced, unhealthy relationship to my sexuality.

But like any “addict,” I supplanted one addiction for another to overcome the initial habit: I replaced masturbating with emotional self-flagellation.

And I never addressed the most fundamental missing puzzle piece to this whole thing: I never bothered to pair up a grace-centered understanding of myself as BOTH a child of God and a sexual being.

Stopping the “addiction” didn’t fix what was broken.

***

I’ve been thrilled to see so many wonderful faithful saints raising their voices to challenge the shame-centered Church teachings on virginity. This is a start to healing in the church that has long been needed.

Here’s my bone to pick with the Church on this: we can’t possibly create healthy marriages and a healthy theology of the body (and ourselves as sexual beings) if we assume that men are the only ones with sex drives, the only ones tempted to seek out titillation, the only ones prone to thinking with their genitals.

I’m sorry. That’s bullshit. My vagina likes to try to make my decisions for me, too.

Men are no more rapists in their natural state than I am asexual in my natural state.

These caricatures deny us both our humanity and a chance at a decent conversation about our sexuality and bodies and God’s intent for these beautiful, mysterious, pleasurable, soul-touching things we’re capable of creating when joined together in the fullness of human connection.

Limiting the conversation to “guard your heart” and “porn is wrong” and “don’t have sex, you’ll be damaged goods” is cheating ourselves out of mature discussions about why these things work the way they do, why our bodies are important, why emotions are beautiful and powerful and dangerously good, and traps us in a black-and-white world where we can only think with childish terms of understanding and control the deeper, more mature intuitions of our emotions and bodies with the blunt tool of fear and shame.

Shame as a tool for control creates perversions and nullifies grace. It does things like: twisting developing sexual habits so that some of my peers can only get off when they feel shame or pain; preventing virgin newlyweds from having happy and safe honeymoon sex because they’re unlearning years and years of fear-based self-control; letting married women think that sex should/can only be on their husbands’ terms of use/desire (e.g., she should only be turned on by what turns him on because they’re soul mates/made for each other/designed for each other); keeping married couples from communicating about what they like/don’t like in the bedroom, because of unspoken expectations about How Sex Is Done; etc., etc.

I’ve known people who got married and couldn’t have sex without having panic attacks, throwing up/feeling nauseous, tensing up and being unable to follow through with penetration (both him and her), feeling dirty and ashamed for desiring one’s spouse, for asking for any sexual favor from one’s spouse, and the list goes on. This is directly caused by the Church (okay, fine, the evangelical church) abdicating from a nuanced, mature, intellectual discussion of a Christian understanding of sex and the body jointly. These two things should never be discussed in isolation from each other.

I am not just a soul. I am an embodied being and my body is who I am just as much as my soul is. God made me this way and called it good. And part of this existence is that he made me a woman and he gave me a healthy sex drive and my body is good and I like sex.

And sex is spiritual AND physical, intimate and natural, meaningful and a bodily function. All together. At once.

Masturbation is natural and not necessarily sinful on its own. But objectifying human beings for sexual pleasure is wrong just as it’s wrong to be addicted to anything. Both choices are compromising to the soul.

But the worst is shame. An appropriate grief for sin is right and good. But dwelling on your sin and obsessing to the point of self-loathing? Jesus never taught that.

Perfect love casts out fear. Living life with delight in Jesus and in the grace found in relationship with him sets us free from fear, from shame, from being chained to shame or lust or arrogant self-righteousness.

Instead we receive each day with the promise of wholeness through identifying ourselves with Jesus and living without fear.

Dear friends. You are not alone.

Don’t be afraid.


I didn’t expect to write two angry-at-abusive-mindset posts back to back, but here I am. This needs to be said.

Christians take romantic relationships too seriously.

Not even just courtship-only Christians, or virgins-until-wedding-night Christians. Pretty much any sincere Christian who wants to serve God and honor him with how they handle a romantic relationship is going to be prone to this obsession with doing things right.

Let me back up.

Now, first: I have no regrets with how my life so far has turned out. It’s mine, it’s beautiful, it’s messy, it’s hard, but I have been a survivor and I have grown through hardship and become more me, more whole.

But. I feel that I was told some things which are common assumptions for most Christians, and I now think that these are unnecessary and harmful. So I’m going to name them.

1) Christians are given special knowledge about God’s will for their lives because they can have a relationship with God, so they should to get things right in romantic relationships because otherwise they’ll be a bad witness for the gospel. Subtext: the world is screwy and doesn’t get sex or love right because they don’t know Jesus, but we can because we do know Jesus. Sub-subtext: it’s us vs. The World.

2) Christians don’t need to fool around because they believe sex outside of marriage is wrong, and they should be able to get things right in relationships because they have Jesus, so it should be possible to find your mate quickly/early on without dating around a lot. This will show the world how we get it right and make them curious about Jesus because we’re different, and getting married at 22 instead of 28.

3) If assumptions #1 and #2 are true, a Christian couple can actually manage to be virgins on their wedding night, so all Christians really need to try to live up to this standard. There’s no good reason not to achieve this. If you don’t, your faith is probably weak and you’re a bad witness.

4) We have to submit to our authority structures in the family and in the church to be accountable in our relationships. Unbelievers don’t believe in God so they don’t have any respect for authority or accountability or consequences, so they’re more likely to sin sexually in a romantic relationship or just do what feels good instead of being responsible, committed, or mature. Christians know we are sinful and our hearts may want to be just like the unbelievers, so we need to be transparent to authority and have our fathers, mentors, and pastors help and guide us and let us know where we’re in sin, being lazy, or hurting our significant other in how we act in our relationships.

5) You may not end up with the one you’re with, so don’t do anything that would be committing emotional or physical infidelity. If your desires are uncontrollable, you probably need to marry the person you’re with, because it’s [somehow] less of a serious sin if you end up getting married.

6) Dating early (15-17) is okay as long as you are serious and committed to “honoring God” with your relationship and have older, wiser people involved.

7) Christians can have better marriages than unbelievers even if certain things in a relationship are harmful or immature, because knowing and practicing biblical gender roles and committing to your marriage vows will honor God’s plan for your life and he’ll give you extra grace for keeping your promises when it’s hard.

I saw a lot of people acting on these assumptions inside the Christian bubble, courtship-minded and not, complementarians and egalitarians, homeschoolers and mainstream Christians. The folks at my Christian college seemed to all be in a rush to be paired off at the end of senior year and married by the end of the summer after graduation. The folks in my homeschooling community back home similarly pressured themselves to pair off and get married and have babies — it was as if they felt like real adult life couldn’t commence if they weren’t settled down and married. Most of them would never dream of living on their own (away from their family of origin) unless it was to get married. [That’s an extreme that’s less common, but you get the point — real life starts when you’re married.]

Even my husband and I rushed to get married because we were trying to sate the intense pressure we felt from my dad and others to “get it right” — and for whatever reason it wasn’t seen as a good option to break up or take more time to be sure that we were sure, or that we were mature enough, or had done all the single-life things we wanted to do before getting married. My dad certainly pressured us to find those things out, but it was because marriage was seen as the endgame, not because it would make us better individuals.

I have a few thoughts on how to why these assumptions are harmful and how we can improve the way Christians approach dating/romance, but I’m just getting the conversation going, really.

Dating doesn’t have to be huge, serious, or marriage-focused. Maybe it can just be getting to know people and yourself. Maybe it can just be enjoying a person for who they are, and maybe the romance can just naturally flow from that sweet spot where connection and friendship meet. Maybe taking all those crappy purity metaphors too literally restricts us and makes us more naive and vulnerable to abusive situations than we should be. It undermines healthy emotional development and a right sense of boundaries to commit yourself to this complicated, authority-and-shame driven path where it’s easier to “mess up” than it is to enjoy a person and learn from your relationship with them, and then either move on, or continue to grow in trust and intimacy in a wholesome manner.

And dating relationships should never, ever be focused on proving a point about Christianity “getting it right” or some other bizarre evangelism-by-example tool. That goes against the truth of grace and the power of the incarnation. Relationships are human. We’re going to do some things right and we’re going to hurt each other. Jesus became human, not to show us how to do it right, but to meet us where we’re at and free us from shame.

Let’s talk about this. What do you think? How can Christians avoid making the subject of relationships and romance a legalistic fear fest? How can we practice healthy boundaries and emotional growth in romance? And can we please, please talk about how a right theology of the body would improve everything about Christian dating assumptions?


Disclaimer: This is a semi-fictionalized story blended from a couple different real events in my life. All the guys who inspired this are good and well-intended men who grew up a lot afterwards. The point of this is not the guys themselves, but the ideas they assumed to be true because of the Christian culture in which we were raised.

We sat on the scrubby carpet of my dorm room floor, the door halfway open behind him. I held my mug of tea tightly, using the pressure to channel all my anxiety into the warmth and firmness of the mug.

“Mike” had IM’d me just 20 minutes earlier, when I’d just walked in from dinner. “Can I come over? We need to talk.”

I knew he was right. But I didn’t want to talk. I wanted to avoid this conversation. “I only have a few minutes,” I replied. “Come over and I’ll make a cup of tea. But I have to be somewhere with friends in 45 minutes.”

So he came over and there we were, sitting cross-legged on my floor, avoiding eye contact.

***

Dating at a conservative Christian school where everyone has read and seriously prayed about Josh Harris’s dating books is a complicated, dramatic process. Everyone takes everything too seriously, too soon.

After being isolated from male friendships by either coincidence or strategic parents (still not sure which) and my own insecurities around boys (after losing a really delightful friendship with one guy at 14 to a cross-country move and comments like “oh this makes me so happy! I’d hug you if you weren’t a girl!” me: Whaaat?), I got plopped down in the middle of one of those conservative Christian colleges where the primary campus traditions involve engagement hazing and a mad race to get hitched in May after graduation. And I was the naive INFJ who liked listening to people and felt horribly guilty saying no to anyone. By sophomore year I was in over my head.

So that evening, when I met to talk with Mike, a lot had happened already. He had scoped me out for a couple of months (I think we’d talked, one on one, maybe three times?), emailed my dad to ask permission to date/court me, gotten an non-committal “we should correspond and explore this, tell me about yourself” response, assumed he was going to be dad-approved, somehow found a stupid “husband qualities” list I had made early on in high school from an old blog, saw he matched a lot of them, and asked me out. I told him I’d think about it, but observed that I didn’t know him very well. (Reality: he was a good person, but I wasn’t “feeling it,” but I thought that I should give him a shot because…I didn’t know how to say no or feel like I had a right to turn him down).

In the month that followed I spent a little more time with him, but didn’t do anything outside of group events. He never asked me out to dinner, I never invited him over for a movie. Because, you know, conservative ex-homeschooler problems.

And then, he IM’d me and asked to talk alone. I wasn’t looking forward to telling him no — I didn’t want to hurt him. He was a friend. I didn’t know how to tell him “I’m not attracted to you” in a [conservative Christian] socially acceptable way. And the last time I had tried to tell a guy that things weren’t going anywhere, he ended up telling close friends that we were “unofficially a thing, but just working some details out” afterward. I was sure I had told him no! So I really, really didn’t want to make that same mistake again.

The conversation was brief and awkward. I remember we were both trying so hard to be kind and polite. I remember feeling flushed and restless the whole time. I remember that he was skittish about making eye contact.  But I was so proud of myself. I told him I didn’t see anything beyond friendship with him and I was as clear as I felt I could be while still being sensitive.

He was quiet for a long time. He finished his tea. He fidgeted with the mug. He put it aside.

“But God very clearly told me that you’re the one. How can he tell two people two different things?” It was sincere. He was hurting.

The perpetually impish side of my mind detached from the situation for a moment and snarked: “What the heck? Did he just say that? For REAL?”

But he was looking at me for an answer, and he was my friend. “Um,” I stalled. “Um, well, maybe God just hasn’t told me yet? Maybe he will? I’ll pray about it and I’ll get back to you if he tells me something different from what he’s been telling me so far. But I don’t think that’s what he’s saying to me.”

***

I recently read a post by Allison Vesterfelt called “God told me to break up with you” and I laughed.

This idea — making God out to be the agent for starting and ending a relationship (“God told me you were the one”) – -starts in a theologically okay place (God has a plan for your life and it’s really good to pray and feel at peace with a decision before making it), but it really twists his role in relationships and puts too much pressure on sincere Christians to over-spiritualize everything about dating.

I remembered Mike and his sad, serious question, and the drama it caused that year. And I got to thinking about this. It was more than just a symptom of a problematic over-emphasis on the  charismatic type of hearing-from-God/knowing-God’s-will (which is a common concern in both charismatic and reformed circles — a sincere, but misguided anxiety to do everything correctly causes a skewed understanding of how God reveals his will to believers). This was a huge part of it, and it remains a huge problem. But there was something else that bothered me.

In a later conversation (where I had to tell him no again), I felt pressured (not just by him, but by my own understanding of how to “do right by him” and by my dad’s probing questions about why I didn’t like this guy) to have lots of rational reasons for saying no. I had to come up with a list in my head beforehand. I remember I wrote the list down on an index card and pulled it out to go over on my way to “end things.” (“Things,” which never existed.) I felt like I had to prove why we would never work well as a couple, and my game plan was to find something about myself that I knew he would accept as a deal-breaker and let him down with that revelation so he would be sure to never bother me about this again.

Why did I feel like I was obligated to do this? To have two or three conversations with guys to tell them “no” as kindly as possible? To have a list of “rational” reasons why we wouldn’t work? Why was the burden of proof on me? Why wasn’t it okay for me to just say “no, I’m not interested,” and leave it at that?

From my current feminist perspective, now I see a lot of cultural assumptions about women that I was going along with which made me feel this unnecessary pressure to “prove” that my reasons for not dating this guy were valid.

1) Men grow up being told by media and culture that they’re entitled to a pretty girl and if they go through the motions of being a nice guy and woo her, they’ll win the game and get the girl. [see this expounded more here]

2) Courtship movement teachings promote the idea that emotions are deceiving and that being attracted to someone isn’t important in the long run in a godly marriage.

This is pretty messed up — emotions do matter, and attraction is important. Love isn’t all about choice. Love also isn’t sexual desire or infatuation. It’s much richer and more beautifully nuanced than that! But I believed that my lack of attraction to this guy and lack of emotional “click” were not valid reasons. [This is usually only a girls’ problem in these circles, because guys are supposed to initiate, and can therefore choose to initiate a relationship with whoever they are attracted to. Girls are only supposed to respond. Again: messed up. But because of his privilege and his feeling of attraction to me, I had to defend to him my reasons for saying no.]

3) Saying “God told me” is a way of playing the complementarian spiritual hierarchy card. If a man is supposed to be the head of the house, spiritually, and women are not to teach and to submit to male spiritual leadership in the church, then a guy saying he’s heard from God and “hey, babe, you’re the one for me!” puts her in a difficult position. Even though he’s not yet married to her or her spiritual leader, he has a position of greater spiritual legitimacy and authority, and so if she thinks differently, she has to first question his spiritual authenticity and then question the validity of complementarian hierarchy to defend her own spiritual discernment of God’s will. Most girls won’t think this through and will either go with their gut and shut the guy down, or realize they’re up against a system where their spiritual voice is less valid, and go along with dating the guy for a while to “give it a shot” and see if maybe God’s actually in it.

This is utterly inappropriate. A girl should be allowed to say no without playing the God card, and if she has to play the God card, it should be valid independently of “gender roles” in the church and which gender is supposed to lead and initiate.

[Where this line of thinking leads: What if a girl is dating a guy and they’ve talked about engagement and plan to get married, as long as things keep going well, and he says that God told him that should have sex. He says it’s okay because they’re going to get married anyway. He also argues that, since Mary and Joseph were “betrothed” and that was considered the same as being married in the Bible, it’s biblical! So then the girl goes along with it and has sex, even if she’s not ready/doesn’t feel entirely comfortable with it, because he “heard from God” and he’s her “spiritual leader,” since they’re “unofficially engaged.” This is basically manipulation, devaluing her comfort zone and her spiritual authenticity, and pressuring her into sex. And I’m not making this up — it happens.]

4) Girls are constantly given cultural messages that their feelings and opinions are always questionable because they might be “irrational.”

My first problem with this: this is a post-enlightenment concept which privileges reason over intuition. This is fine in the sciences, but the whole universe of human interaction doesn’t work on the basis of logic and we really can’t treat it like it does.

My second problem with this: If a girl who is sensitive and kind seriously desires to honor God, she will feel very pressured to avoid following her emotions or gut instincts on something. Because of this, I felt like my reasons (which were: I wasn’t attracted to him, I didn’t have any romantic interest in him) weren’t valid because they were intangible, intuitive gut feelings. He was perfect for me “on paper” — he matched the silly list I had made up once upon a time, my dad liked him, he had a solid career plan and no college debt, he was disciplined and spiritually mature (relative to my experience at that point),  etc. But I had this gut feeling that I shouldn’t pursue it, and I couldn’t explain it because God hadn’t “spoken to me” and I didn’t have a rational, deal-breaking reason to give him.

This is a false gender stereotype/expectation. People are rational and emotional. Reasons for relational boundaries are valid whether or not they make complete sense, are wholly emotional, or are wholly logical. People deserve respect, whether or not we agree with their reasons. But I couldn’t stand up for myself in this, because I was still buying into the idea that my reasons were invalid because they weren’t logical.

If you want to have biblical support for this idea, look at the teachings of Paul, where he urges believers to care for each other’s weaknesses and not make them stumble. He urges the Corinthians: if your brother is uncomfortable with the origins of the meat you’ve got for dinner, respect that and don’t serve it to him. It’s not wrong according to the gospel, but it makes him struggle in his heart. Be kind.

Likewise, if she doesn’t feel comfortable dating you, leave her alone. Don’t turn into a stalker like every chick flick male lead and “pursue her” until you’ve finally worn down her defenses. Let her be. Let her feel safe. Boundaries are healthy. Love her where she’s at: not okay with dating you!

***

I’m really glad that most people I know have matured and grown past this silly idea  that it’s okay to tell someone “God told me to date you/break up with you/marry you.” I’m not saying that it’s impossible for God to actually act that way, but it’s highly unlikely, given a quick survey of his history of acting in the course of human events. Yes, your love life and decisions are important to him because you’re important to him. But they’re probably not of such earth-shattering, instant significance that he’s going to you “look, she’s the one” without bothering to tell her that you’re the one for her, too.

Even if we don’t like someone’s reasons for saying no and feel they’re irrational, it’s not our place to push them into something they’re uncomfortable with.

 

 

 

 


I’ve been stewing on this one for a long time. It’s controversial. It’s probably something we don’t want to admit that we do. But I think it needs to be named and noticed.

Within the church and western culture, our assumptions about gender roles create some tensions between the personality of an individual and the ideal personality traits for their gender. Sometimes pastors will shame men who don’t fit the ideal gender stereotype, like when Mark Driscoll will call men who are nurturing stay-at-home fathers “man fails” [can’t find the original video to cite this, but he said it during a “Real Marriage” talk], or when another pastor, Stephen Altrogge, tweeted that men who wear messenger bags are effeminate and it’s actually a purse, dudes.

Feminists have long asked this question, but I think it’s time Christians did too: why should “effeminate” or “feminine” function as an insult for men?  If my husband admires stay-at-home dads or cares about matching the width of his suit lapels correctly to the width of his tie, he’s no less of a godly man. He’s just a unique person with normal human interests and traits, and he won’t always line up with your “real Christian men” checklist. These differences don’t make him less of a man or less of a Christian. It’s easy to let popular opinion or cultural assumptions make us forget these things (and sometimes these assumptions can even cause us to misinterpret Scripture to our own detriment).

I read this piece on Thought Catalog a couple days ago, “No One Will Love A Loud Girl.” I read it with some bitterness, because I’ve been that girl. I’ve been the girl who liked shooting guns because it was powerful and I was a good shot, but got told that it wasn’t feminine. I’ve been the girl with lots of loud questions and I’ve been shut down and told to listen. I’ve been the female Sunday school student who resented being talked down to in third grade and perplexed her pastor with a letter about how the teachers were being fakely nice and shouldn’t bribe us with candy to bring our Bibles or find a Bible verse, and should answer the hard questions I wanted to ask about the Bible stories instead of brushing me off. I was the girl who liked action movies and martial arts and people didn’t know what to make of the fact that I enjoyed some crude humor (this was shut down so firmly by the disapproval of authority figures that I stopped having much of a sense of humor until I was halfway through college and realized I liked Arrested Development). I was the 12 year old girl who attended church membership class with my parents and argued with the pastor about predestination, and then later asked about women attending the pastor’s college, only to be told that was for men who had been chosen for church leadership. Amusingly naive, yes. But the sobering truth in that situation was that I was a woman and I wasn’t fitting into the mold of the Keepers at Home groups where biblical femininity was taught.

In the mainstream church, we’re better at accepting an intelligent woman who asks hard questions. But we’re still not great at it (see anything on Rachel Held Evans lately for evidence of this).

But one thing I’ve recently observed, that seems to be an active prejudice within Christian Patriarchy/Quiverfull circles, as well as mainstream “secular” America and the more mainstream evangelical Christian culture, is a real distaste for a woman who has any sort of anger present in her words or actions. Rightly or wrongly angry, acting on her anger or just talking about it, she’s almost universally shamed into passivity, because a passive woman is the cultural idea (subconsciously held or deliberately taught).

Don’t misunderstand, I think the result of anger can easily be sin. Violence is almost universally wrong, and is usually caused by anger or aggression. But what about a woman who has a damn good reason to be angry? What if she was a man and was angry about…oh, I dunno. Rape. A man gets raped, or was abused as a child. He speaks up about it. He’s angry. We’re not surprised and we sympathize and we say he has a right to be angry, but please don’t do anything rash. But a woman? She’s just supposed to be crushed and sad. Tender, broken, weepy. But if she gets angry, she’ll probably be thought of as shrill or bitchy or, worst of all, asking for it. That’s just terrible to assume, but it’s culturally a normal, even easy thing to think, particularly in conservative circles.

Now, on a less dramatic scale: you’re a woman in a church, and you start seeing your daughters and sisters and friends struggling with fear of sex, guilt and loathing for their bodies, eating disorders, shame, and fear, because of legalistic modesty teachings. You start talking about this, how it’s wrong, how it’s damaging. If you play your cards right, you’ll get listened to. But playing your cards right means: tearful testimonials to men in authority, navigating translation battles and hermeneutical landmines to confront the assumptions behind the teachings, and lots of long talks about law vs. grace to address the legalism aspect driving it, without offending anyone or turning them off from your vision of grace-filled teachings about women and their bodies to heal those broken by the weight of shame and the law.

If she goes mama-bear and is angry for the sake of those who are wounded (which would be natural), she will certainly be shut down, dismissed, and ignored. In some way or another, depending on the church. But her anger will instantly disqualify her from speaking about this. Why is that okay?

Likewise, if a girl grows up in an abusive home, and later realizes it, and speaks to that abuse with the normal response of grief and anger, she is told that she is slandering or being bitter, and she should not speak of her home life like that. If she is angry, she is not commended for finally recognizing right boundaries in a healthy relationship and naming the wrongs she used to endure. Instead it becomes uncomfortable to relate to her, because her pain and her anger is not acceptable in our social framework. She does not fit into our little set of boxes, so we either label her with a sin problem, or pass over her emotions in hopes that it was all just a misunderstanding. [Please note that I am not actually speaking of my own personal experience on this point. However, I have seen it done to friends and family members.]

How is that reflecting Jesus and his kind of love? I can’t reconcile this behavior to the teachings and example of Jesus. Angry women are socially uncomfortable, I get it. But that doesn’t mean they’re wrong or sinful or not worthy of love and community. They are not worse at being Christians. They’re just honest.


Shortly after her breakup with her serious boyfriend of two years, a friend confided in me that she worried that no good Christian guys would be interested in her, because of the things she had done with her ex.

“What sorts of things?” I wondered. Her response: nothing more than your average youthful makeout sessions, which was understandable considering she ended things after a long relationship and about two weeks before he planned to propose.

And yet she felt guilty and wondered if the next guy she dated would reject her because of what she had done.

She is not alone–almost every “good Christian girl” has worried about this. Some become paralyzed with guilt if they’ve “gone too far” or lost their virginity. Some feel guilty and can’t handle it, so they numb themselves and stop caring about physical boundaries or balancing trust and intimacy in a relationship, telling themselves they’re used, so why does it matter now?

I worried about this, too. At one point in our engagement, Kevin and I talked very seriously about calling things off for various reasons, and I found myself panicking, wondering, “If we break up, then what? Would any good guy be interested in me, knowing I was engaged to someone else? Would he resent the physical elements of relationship Kevin and I had?”

***

I call this “purity guilt.” And I am now convinced that this guilt is the wrong and natural result of a flagrant misunderstanding of real purity and real grace. But because we grew up in the purity (and courtship) culture of evangelical churches, we don’t know better. This guilt is the natural correlary to my last one on modesty and lust in its abuse of the law and corresponding misuse of grace. For what I can tell, it’s predominantly a female issue, but I’d be really eager to hear from the guys if this runs both ways.

***

When I turned twelve, my dad took me to a jewelry store where we picked out a ring to be my “purity ring.” Most of the girls around my age at our church were getting purity rings with precious stones for their birthdays, and my parents had planned on using this occasion as a sort of coming-of-age ceremony where they could talk to me about saving myself for marriage (e.g. maintaining chastity until after the vows—the technicalities of this were nebulous). After presenting me with the ring, they asked me to sign a document stating what “saving myself” meant to me and what I was promising (this was quite vague–I was twelve). However, this promise became nuanced with a lot of unspoken assumptions as I grew older.

The “godly” girls in our church made their purity promises too, saying things like “I will save my first kiss for the altar,” and “I will not hold hands until after I am engaged,” and “I will not tell a man I love him unless he is my fiancé.” I probably wrote down similar things in my little contract, which my parents and I then signed and stuck in my 7th grade school file. Here’s one like mine, that my friend Carley signed (along with her dad and her pastor–talk about weird).

This sort of thing was (and still is) not entirely unusual. What’s more unusual are the parents who try to enforce these pledges later on. Most don’t, trusting the self-consciousness and guilt of  the memory of these promises to keep their daughters making wise decisions. Some, however, like my friend Carley’s parents, try to hold their daughters to the letter of the law. Carley ended up eloping with her husband, because her white parents wouldn’t approve of him because he is black.

Her situation, obviously, was more rare, but the obsessive concern about girls’ purity/virginity is a troubling constant in the evangelical world.  The idea of Christian girls and virginity as a precious commodity is a value in Christian culture going back to the very beginning of the church, when many young believers chose martyrdom over marrying or sleeping with an unbeliever. These are the women of the Catholic canon of saints, and for good cause–their dedication to their faith is admirable.

But their situation and culture isn’t the same as ours–they were dealing with rape-or-death situations. We are instead dealing with young couples exploring intimacy in (often) healthy and normal ways. But girls like Carley and me are still urged to save our first kiss for the altar or asked by our parents to have short engagements, because “the temptation is too great.” And when we discover that holding hands or kissing is actually nice and doesn’t suddenly hurl us into sexual sin, we become confused and struggle with guilt: were the things we taught wrong? Or am I just being callous to sin? Am I ruining my hope of a good sex life in my married future by doing these things now?

This emphasis on sexual sin is turning good and natural things (the existence of my sex drive, discovering how my body works, kissing my boyfriend goodnight, etc.) into hotspots for guilt and shame. The gospel of Jesus doesn’t teach that sexual sin is somehow worse than anger or gluttony, and Jesus didn’t ration the grace he gave for the sexually experienced. Instead, he ate with prostitutes and protected the woman caught in adultery from stoning.

Sexual sin is real. But why have we made it out to be more than it should be? We have inflated the concept of sex to a spiritual high (which it can be, but this ignores the physicalness and humor and ordinary joy of it), and so the sexually inexperienced good Christian girl is plagued by fear of ruining this future experience by her participation in any number of normal and healthy physical elements of a normal and healthy dating relationship.

Furthermore, we’ve allowed ourselves to make this a gendered double standard: why is it usually no big deal if a young Christian guy is sexually experienced, as long as he’s repented and trying to stay pure? Girls don’t get that sort of treatment. Virginity is “lost,” and suddenly the girl is “damaged goods.” We girls feel guilty because it’s culturally normal to make us feel guilty. The church accepts this as okay without much of a second thought (and only mild lip-service to “second chances”) because this practice, called “slut-shaming” by those outside the church, has for so long been culturally normal.

Before I get into the grace & guilt part of this, I must say: Did you know that, physiologically speaking, it’s impossible to tell if a woman has ever had sex or not? The hymen is sometimes present, sometimes not. Sometimes there’s no bleeding the first time she has sex. Sometimes, it’s impossible to have sex for the first time without significant tearing. Every woman is different, and the idea of “virginity” is an abstract concept, impossible to prove physically. (Feminist author Jessica Valenti theorizes [not a 100% endorsement, but a very interesting read] that the concept of virginity originated as a way a man could prove without a doubt that his son was his and should inherit his property and goods–if the wife was a virgin at marriage and he was vigilant and sure of her faithfulness, then the son was his and the inheritance safe. The Old Testament concept of virginity reflects this feudal mindset in the law.)

Our culture has some messed up assumptions about purity and girls, and we’ve woven them into the Bible’s teachings on sexual fidelity and made purity 1) the woman’s responsibility, and 2) all about technicalities and rules and “how far is too far.”

My brother got a purity ring, too, and I commend my parents’ equal treatment of this issue , regardless of gender. Some Christians don’t just make it a girls’ issue, but this is not very common.  Modesty is the girl’s job, and it’s easy to make purity the girl’s responsibility, too.

The whole idea of “purity rings” and virginity as the highest sexual moral good is based on some fundamental assumptions made by about sexual sin being somehow “worse” than other sins, and this is problematic. Sexual sin is serious and can have more significant emotional effects on a person, but it’s no more damning than any other sin.

Parents who teach these detailed, legalistic approaches to purity often bring these things up (and even urge their daughters to make these purity promises) when they’re only 12 or 13. At this age, girls are often still in that blissful twilight of childhood where self-consciousness is still rare and interactions with other people happen without ulterior motives or fear. They simply don’t understand what they’re promising.

When purity and modesty issues are introduced, these young girls experience a rude awakening to fear of self and fear of interacting with the other sex–boys are no longer just boys, but sex-obsessed animals. This fear of self and sex and men is perpetuated throughout adolescence with modesty talks and sermon illustrations of girls who slip up and get pregnant out of wedlock, and the purity guilt (over flirting, over slips into “immodesty,” over sexual desires) is increased.

The New Testament teachings on sexuality don’t say that virginity is the highest good, that those who have sexual experience and aren’t married are dirty and unworthy of grace, or that setting physical boundaries is either a guy’s responsibility or a that keeping physical boundaries is a girl’s job.

Instead it says: flee sexual immorality. Be content, and if you can’t be content, get married. Don’t take advantage of each other, but treat each other with respect. Be faithful to your spouse. Don’t abandon your commitment to someone in the name of piety. Love one another. Mutually defer to one another in love.

Sexual purity for a couple considering whether or not to pursue marriage is never really spelled out  (at least not along the lines of the purity teachings my peers and I received from the pulpits of our churches). Sex is held in high value and reserved for marriage. But the guilt and the shame that follow the uncomfortably detailed teachings about purity and virginity–these can’t be found.

Jesus loved unconditionally. He didn’t die for us to wallow in fear that our sexual sins or infractions of a man-made purity code would ruin our marriages or future relationships. Sex saved for marriage is ideal, but Jesus’s best for us is a life lived without shame, with forgiveness and grace and unconditional acceptance by the Father.


This is a less documented, more anecdotal post, as a result of my discovery a few days ago that all my books on this subject are in storage. I think I did that deliberately because I was tired of reading things that made me angry. So, this post won’t have a ton of sources, but if you want clarification on anything, I can probably point you to a book or essay explaining it in more depth.

***

I was 15 and that afternoon I was at the local swimming pool with my family. I was wearing a new-to-me swimsuit in an outdated shade of orange, but it was a “modest” one-piece and it fit my angular body well. While Mom was getting the littles slathered up in sunscreen, I stepped out of my shorts and flip flops, and tossed them onto the lounge next to my t-shirt. While I looked around the pool for friends, I untwisted my knot of hair from its ponytail holder and shook it all out in the breeze. Spotting my friends, I started toward them, but then mom called my name. “Hännah! Come here!”

She was beckoning me with a very serious look on her face. I walked toward her, and bent down. “Hm?”

She whispered, “Put your hair back up. You look…” She frowned, looking for the words. “You look too pretty. The young men will notice.”

I was confused. “What?”

“Put your hair back up. It’s long and catching the sun, and that swimsuit is…very striking. It’s too much. Put your hair back up.”

“Okay, okay. I will,” I said, walking away. I took my time with obeying her, dipping my head down and away from the people nearby, letting my hair flop across my face to hide my tears. I didn’t understand, and my stomach felt tight and my face hot. Once my hair was up, I plunged into the diving well, kicking down to sit on the bottom as long as I could before rising to the surface in a burst of cathartic energy.

I spent the rest of the afternoon away from my friends, reading a book by the poolside, wrapped in a damp towel and wearing my hair pulled back tightly. I didn’t want to be noticed.

Modest me shortly after the pool incident.

***

The current church’s concept of modesty is largely reactionary and fear-based.

But I didn’t realize that for a long time after the poolside incident. It was just one of many moments where I was “called out” on some impropriety (sitting cross legged, wearing a blouse with a too-thin back, bra straps peekabooing, twirling without shorts under my skirt at swing club, peekaboo gaps between buttons on a blouse, etc.) or told another girl that she was being immodest and to cover her neckline when she bent down.

In our SGM church, we were taught that modesty was a way we helped men not to lust. In youth group, we had breakout sessions, where the girls sat in one room and listened to talks about not reading romance novels (they make you think impure thoughts and desire a relationship too early!) and about how our responsibility was to not cause the guys to lust. Therefore, we were taught how to be modest.  We were taught that “correcting” each other was the highest form of Christian love, and so if we saw someone being immodest, we should speak to her about our “concern” and help her see how she was hurting the guys by her dress. And if a guy was “struggling”  because of a girl’s outfit, he could talk to her and ask her to cover up. (Meanwhile, the guys were in the next room listening to a talk about the sinfulness of pornography and masturbation.)

We got really good at this. We had the checklist posted up on our bathroom mirrors. We talked in code to each other if we spotted an infraction when we were around boys. We learned to sew well enough to modesty-hack new clothes so they would be “appropriate.” We dressed up in new shopping finds and paraded them for our fathers, asking him to make sure they weren’t inappropriate. If he said something didn’t make the cut, we’d return it and start over. This was “biblical femininity” in action.

Once I was conscious of the male gaze, I was a slave to avoiding it. I became obsessed with obeying the rules as dutifully as I could. I avoided talking with boys—it might be seen as flirting. I avoided looking too stylish or doing my hair and makeup with too much care, because I didn’t want to be dressing for attention. I wore shorts and a t-shirt over my swimsuits or avoided the pool altogether, claiming that I didn’t want to get a bad sunburn. I became a watchdog for my sisters, smugly tattling on them to our dad if I caught them dressing in a way I deemed immodest. I judged my friends for enjoying time hanging out with guys in a group, thinking that this was a perverse desire for male attention.

The effects of this mindset on others (not just in my church, but in the QF/CP movement as a whole) were more personally damaging than my priggishness, but perhaps less obvious. My sister judged classic art for the nudes, “fixing” them with a permanent marker in a textbook. Friends fell into eating disorders, hoping to be less seductive if they were thinner and had less boobs to notice. Some hated themselves for their developing bodies and instead ate too much, silencing their self-consciousness with comfort food. Some took razors to their bodies in secret. Some toed the line, but just barely, attempting to get away with whatever they could without getting “called out” by someone.

This was essentially an assumption that lust is damning, women are both the objects and the cause of lust, and so we were responsible to prevent it. This, I believed, was gospel truth straight from the Bible.

Of course, women were never mentioned as having lust problems. We might have emotional fantasies and imaginary romances, but lust was a male issue. This drove me to loneliness and horrific shame, as I was a teenager with a normal, healthy sex drive. I was horny and I was mortified; this wasn’t supposed to be my problem. The church would announce a men’s meeting to talk about fighting lust and accountability for not using porn, and I would shrivel up, wishing that my secret wasn’t a secret, and that maybe there would be a women’s meeting, too. Or that I could “serve” at the men’s event and eavesdrop, and there learn the secrets for freeing myself from myself.

Later I would learn that I was 1) pretty normal, 2) not “addicted” or damned, 3) loved unconditionally by my husband and by Jesus. The bondage I had been in wasn’t as real as I thought—the mindset I had about lust and modesty fed my obsession and my shame, and once freed from the whole set of lies, I would discover that this was just a minor difficulty, not a paralyzing sin issue.

For the guys growing up in this environment of modesty culture, there was (as I have since learned from my husband, who grew up in a church affiliated with mine) a similar sense of being paralyzed by lust and shame. It was so assumed that he would lust after women that he never questioned it when accountability groups would meet and the guys would almost exclusively talk about their struggles with lust. It was as if they were powerless, animalistic and perpetually obsessed with sex. This is a caricature in Hollywood and the über conservative church—but this is not your average man.

Kevin told me that once he left SGM and he’d been out of the dialect and culture for a while, he found that he wasn’t struggling with lust like he used to–the idea of a woman’s body alone wasn’t a turn-on anymore. He found that his desires naturally were directed at a few specific things and toward whoever he was in a relationship with, and that he could appreciate a woman’s beauty and form without lust. He was no longer being told he was a slave to these things and asked to confess and obsess on them, and when he left that environment he was freed from the mentality it fostered.

As I spent time out of this culture, I found changes as well. I learned that being pretty and enjoying making myself look good weren’t sinful things, and I began to relax a bit. After being married, I have discovered that the idea that modesty is a woman’s responsibility is a very demeaning concept, and really doesn’t share anything in common with the teachings of Jesus, who held individuals responsible for their own sins, and gave grace to the naive and broken and penitent. He never said that women caused lust. Instead, he argued that lust reflects preexisting heart desires. And instead of demeaning women like the culture of his day, he respected them and made them his disciples and close friends, and the first witnesses to his resurrection.

I now realize that most of the assumptions I previously held were false, even anti-Christian:

The assumption that preventing lust is my job is wrong: only the one lusting is responsible for his or her heart. 

The assumption that modesty will prevent lust is false: lust wants what it wants and will see it where it wants.

The assumption that men are ravenous, sex-crazed beings, trapped by their passions: false. Men desire companionship and affirmation and sex and love, just like women. Women experience lust and sexual urges and visual stimulation. These things vary from person to person, but not so much gender to gender. There is great compassion in Jesus for our humanity. 

The Bible verses on modesty we all used as proof texts for the misconceptions and legalism we held so dear? These were largely about compassion for others and humility. True modest is not drawing undue attention to yourself. We wear what fits the occasion and is respectable. Finding the line of what’s appropriate and reverent: this is modesty. It’s a heart attitude, not a set of rules defined by gender stereotypes.

I have learned that my shame over my body was wrong. My body is hallowed because Jesus took on a body. My body is beautiful in the echo of creation and redemption perfection. My body is human and flawed and funky in my fallenness. But I am not to be ashamed of how I was made or loathe myself for it, and I am not guilty for the sins of others who may happen to lust after it. I can dress without fear, because I am not responsible for the worst possible outcome. I am responsible for doing well and living in a manner that reflects the grace I know in Jesus’ unconditional love.

Overcoming lust doesn’t happen by working harder. I tried. Overcoming lust happens by loving Jesus more than loving self-service. Shame over past lust and past sins is inappropriate–grace is active in the lives of the saints, and we are conformed to holiness by Jesus’ love. Not by working hard because we think that’s a what good Christians are supposed to do. We are transformed by taking each day on its own and not being anxious over transgressions that have already been cast away. Perfect love casts out fear.


Click for source.

I’d like to start a regular feature here about the concept of gender roles within the church, and how they affect us, why they affect us, and how they ought to affect us. I intend for this to be primarily a discussion, and I ask that you engage these posts by first laying down your assumptions. Please be willing to read these posts on their own terms, and then compare them with what you believe after you read them. I would also love to get topic suggestions and questions from my readers to address in future posts.

I’ve had this idea for over a year. It’s been kicked around with my sister, with my husband, with my friends, all in various shapes. I’ve sat on it so long for fear of losing my passion for it, for fear of processing it for myself and finding my need to write about this wane as I grow firm in my beliefs and move on. And for fear of how it will be received.

But I haven’t been able to move on, to burn off my passion with a few months of talking in private. Instead, the number of conversations I’ve had with people about these issues has grown steadily. I’ve become aware of a deep communal need to sort this out in my generation of Christians – those largely raised in the church and coming into adulthood with a unique mixture of earnestness and cynicism. I’m not alone in needing to talk about this, and I’d like to open it up on my blog to enable other Christians to discuss it as much as they need.

Before I continue, I must lay down a clarification of purpose. This blog happens to be written by a woman, but it is not a women’s blog. I’m writing for Christians, in general. I find that the young men of my generation are often just as perplexed and discouraged by these issues as the women are, and need to discuss these things equally.

I’ll get things going with the first real post for this feature later on in the week; in the meantime, I should clarify my personal biases.

***

Most of you know I was raised in a fairly patriarchal homeschooling family, and there were a lot of positives as well as negatives from that experience. I was also part of a cult-like church which emphasized strongly that a woman’s highest calling [read: any other life pursuit is looked down on] was to be a wife and mother and make a home for her family. I was the only one of my graduating peers in that church who went out of state for college, and I was one of the few girls of that group to say that I wanted a career and I wasn’t sure if I’d be a great mom one day. (I’m sure the reality was much, much more diverse than this, but it was my perception of things at the time and it reflects, I suppose, the intense loneliness I felt in that group.) I was also one of the few girls interested in questions of theology and doctrine, and often resented that I was a girl and therefore couldn’t go to seminary.

These experiences, among other things, created in me a sensitivity to gender expectations within the church. This sensitivity was jolted into personal frustration when when my dad pressured me to submit to his discernment on (read: his feelings on and the resulting decisions regarding) my relationship with my boyfriend, now husband. I pushed back against this, asking him why, if he could trust that God was speaking to and leading me to change churches, couldn’t he also trust my discernment in regard to my boyfriend’s character? The response I got was based on the assumption that daughters are to submit to the authority of their fathers until they are wed (at which point, I was told, the authority would transfer from the father to the husband).

I couldn’t believe it. My dad never meant to treat me badly, but the assumptions he was acting under were based on the teachings of the church we were part of for my teen years, and that church had been a place that (for us) fostered serious spiritual abuse. Challenging his assumptions brought our conflict to these terms: I had to prove (using verses from the Bible) that my beliefs regarding my spiritual independence from my dad’s authority was biblical, and then he would be willing to agree to disagree. This is very typical of us – our relationship has always been based in mutual respect for the other’s intellectual integrity, and still is. So, I took him up on his terms. I pulled out the concordance and the Greek lexicon and I drafted 5 sloppy pages on why I thought his interpretation of various verses, especially the NASB translation of 1 Cor. 7:36-38, wasn’t accurate, and responded with my own set of verses and commentaries to justify my spiritual emancipation from him. [As an aside, I have come to the conclusion that these sorts of hunt-and-peck use of verses as proof texts for this and that grey area issue is an abuse of scripture. The purpose of the Bible is not to give us detailed instructions on moral living, but to display the character of God and our relationship to him.]

This was a highly painful season for us. He felt rejected, I believe (which was never my intent), and I felt manipulated and unloved (but he never meant it this way). It was painful and stressful and I probably misremember t0 my own benefit.

This interaction brought to my attention, once again, the reality: in the church circles I was raised in, women are expected to defer to men, and there are significant social and relational consequences if they don’t.

Finally, two other things occurred to push me over the edge into “accidental feminism” or, really, a state of heightened awareness of the church’s messy relationship to gender issues:

First, I was attending a little Presbyterian church for a while during college, and one Sunday they were short on ushers. I heard about this and offered to help for the service.  The ushers functioned as the greeters, the distributors of the offering plates, and they also passed out the bread and wine during communion, row by row to the congregation. I was told that they’d rather go without than have me help–I was female and they didn’t want a woman distributing the elements. I was shocked. I wouldn’t be preaching; I wouldn’t be sanctifying the sacraments; I would just be handing a basket of wafers down the row, then a tray with little juice cups. But because I have a vagina, I wasn’t allowed to help.

The second thing was this: I was fighting with spiritual dryness and decided to sit down to reread the gospel and epistles from the apostle John, in an attempt to see Jesus at his most relational. Reading through these books took a lot longer than I anticipated. I was stunned by my reintroduction to this Jesus. Coming to these passages deeply empty and under significant emotional distress about the situation with my dad allowed me to come to these pages with new eyes. And I realized: Jesus loved women. Jesus didn’t treat them like the rest of society did at that time. He took them seriously, he interacted with them without shame or superiority, and he made them significant members of his entourage, and the first witnesses of his resurrection. I saw that the way Jesus treated the opposite sex was nothing like how the church was dealing with gender issues, and certainly nothing like what I was experiencing from the church as a woman. Furthermore, the Jesus of the Bible didn’t really line up very well with the ideals for “masculine Christianity” as posited by the likes of Mark Driscoll, Stephen Altrogge, Douglas Wilson, or John Piper. And then I knew that, if the church is to be Christ’s hands and feet in this world, these things would have to change.

So this English major (who was also in the middle of an honors seminar love affair with Jacques Derrida), began to reconsider all her assumptions about what the church had taught her about sexuality and gender, and revisit all the proof texts for these issues with fresh curiosity for context, audience, linguistic implications, authorial intent, etc.

Now, I’d like to take this personal study of mine public, and explore individual issues relating to the Bible, gender, and the church along with you.

***

A word of clarification regarding the title (with thanks to David for coining it!): this snarky turn of phrase refers to the modesty panel/modesty rail in the front of the first pew in most old-style churches. This panel derived from times when churches weren’t heated and parishioners needed the paneling to contain heat in the winter, but evolved into what it is today because of shrinking skirt lengths and concerns about peeping toms in the choir. Or something like that. I’m a born-and-raised Christian kid. This is my front-row perspective and I’ve decided to stop holding back on what I see.

I chose “immodesty” because I am deliberately drawing attention to grey area issues in the church, insignificant compared with the gospel and the creeds, but pertinent to most people and frequently ignored by the privileged. Immodesty, as my dad says (quite well, I think), is “drawing undue attention to oneself.” In homage to With apologies to Flannery O’Connor, I hope to draw “large pictures” for the blind that they might see what is before them – both the positive and the negative. I will draw magnified attention to these issues for the sake of those working through them, and for the sake of those who don’t yet realize that these issues are worth consideration. Furthermore, I think it’s funny that one’s awareness about this issue often starts with questioning traditional modesty teachings.

I also chose the word “rail” with a bit of tongue-in-cheek humor: women with controversial or non-conformist opinions are often accused of being “shrill” or “emotional.” A shrill tirade used to be synonymous with “railing” at someone, and while I intend to be reasonable and calm, I am sure that my discussions will be called rants. So I’ll just take the liberty of truncating that: here I will reasonably “rail” about issues pertaining to gender in the church, and I might get a bit exaggerated with it to make a point. So gird up your loins! We’re going to start with the topic of modesty and lust later this week. Okay, I’m done with the cutesy puns.

Do you have ideas for topics to discuss on Immodesty Rail? Email me at mattiechatham [at] gmail [dot] com.


Have you heard of a “commonplace book”? It’s an old idea, and has been most recently resurrected by hipsters bearing Moleskines. Basically, it’s a notebook full of  accumulated everyday notes – your shopping list, a quote from the book you’re reading, the recipe copied from your mom’s cookbook, a sketch from the metro of the weird bag lady, the outline for the novel you’re planning on writing.

I think I’m going to steal the idea for these link roundups I’ve been posting and call the series “Commonplace Links.” The theme is this: I think they’re all worth reading, to expand one’s understanding of the world and compassion for others. They intrigued or tickled my fancy, or perhaps they sobered me and challenged me to step outside myself. I may not agree with all the ideas presented therein, but I will pretty much always think the concepts contained are worth weighing out without bringing my own presuppositions and baggage to the table. If you read them too, I ask that you give them the courtesy of a fair read, even if you instinctively disagree or it’s not terribly well-written. This will be a weekly feature on Thursdays, and I’ll take recommendations if you have anything you’d like to pass on.

So, here we go again! Commonplace links for your perusal.

“Is ambition a sin?”  – Rachel Held Evans responds to the “Top 200 Church Blogs” fiasco (basically a lot of really good women bloggers were missing for weird reasons and the compiler of the list wrote a patronizing apology) with a graceful analysis of the deeper assumptions involved.

“In Defense of the 4-letter Word” Addie Zeirman posts on the appropriate use of strong language in a Christian’s vocabulary. After a particularly rough week, my brother said he was feeling shitty, and got jumped on by some well-meaning friends for using “foul language” and not “representing Christ well” and not “using words that build up.” Here is a lovely, succinct post which captures why the comments of those kids rubbed me the wrong way.

“Jesus Was Otherwise Engaged: Impacting All Women, Not Just One” – Ortberg reacts to the discovery of a text supposedly from the 4th century which indicates that Jesus may have had a wife. His response is calm and thoughtful–the discovery, if true, doesn’t change much. Jesus already drastically impacted how women are viewed (in historically positive ways), and he elucidates on the beauty of this.

“The Dark Side of Weight Loss” – NSFW, but worth seeing. One woman photographs the ravages of her major weight loss on her body. This is art.

“Why Women Hide Their Pregnancies” – NYT article on pregnant woman in the workplace/on the job hunt. Makes me want to just move to Scandinavia. Women there get 6 months off work after they give birth, guaranteed. Humph.

“Julia Gillard Launches Blistering Attack on Sexism” – After I finish with Sweden, I’ll just to Australia. This video is the most epic blast of calm reason. If our presidential candidates could speak half this well, voter turnout would spike. Just watch it.

“Espresso and the Meaning of Life: Embracing Reality through Everyday Liturgies” – I’m happy to be introduced to this new webzine, Fare Forward. This post on the ritual of making coffee for the love of the thing is beautiful. Walker Percy, of course, is involved. It goes very nicely with my series on incarnation and eating.

“Ask a stay-at-home dad” – Last week, some bloggers said that stay-at-home dads are “man fails.” Utter silliness. Take a look at this delightful interview with a Christian dad and enjoy his apologetic for why he chose to stay home with his son.

“Bamfield’s John Vanden” – My brother- and sister-in-law introduced me to The Bills last week on the roadtrip. Some of the best new folk I’ve heard in a long time. If you like Allison Krauss, Mumford and Sons, or The Avett Brothers, you’ll like The Bills. Go listen!

Have recommendations for me? Email them to me at mattiechatham [at] gmail [dot] com.


This week has been so busy. We’re getting ready to head to Maine for a week of vacation with family, and then celebrate the wedding of my dear friend and former college roommate, Anna. (Go read her happy post about it — she and Tim got set up by their parents and the story is pretty adorable.) It’s going to be lovely. I’m hoping to schedule some posts so there’s not complete silence over here next week, but if there is, I don’t apologize. You’ll benefit later.

I’m working on some upcoming posts and new features, but for now I’ll leave you with a list to some posts I read this week and found to be thoughtfully chewy or just plain good. Some of you have probably read these already from my Facebook. Either way, I’d love to hear your reactions to any of these in the comments!

Family First Is Not A Biblical Viewpoint” — A little article which addresses making an idol out of your family and mistaking loyalty to family as a higher value than faithfulness to God’s calling for your life. As the daughter of a family-first Quiverfull family, I found this directly addressed issues I felt unduly guilty about. I love my family dearly. But my loyalty to Jesus comes first.

An Honest Pregnancy Update” — This is a bit of honesty from Nish of Nish Happens. Pregnancy is not always hearts and roses and farting cute rainbows. This post is good to read.

Oh My My My: Part 12” — Wedding photography superstar “I’m Kristen” writes the best part [so far] of her newlywed love story. Okay, I don’t get sappy over love stories (yeah, sorry). But this? This? Caleb’s letter (in which he describes leaving legalism for real grace in a relationship) made me teary.

Welcome to Motherhood” (series) — Joy writes about the birth of her first daughter in a mini-series this week, with two posts daily. This is a really wonderfully-told story of a newlywed couple coming to grips with God and their newborn daughter’s birth defects.

The Day I Destroyed My Diet Pills” — If you don’t read only one post on this list, read this one. Tamára tells about the day her littler daughter called herself “chubby,” and she realized the massive importance of passing on a healthy body image. So much honest grace in this little post!

Why I Don’t Like The Church” — Jessica Bowman posts (just before visiting yet another church, to try it again) about her struggles with the modern evangelical-type church. I relate to this post way too much. These issues are part of what drove me away from the non-denominational churches of my childhood to find something more staid and established.

Why I’ll Eat Anything You Serve Me” — This post on “Becoming Peculiar” follows up nicely with my series on food. Kathleen explains why, despite her own strict dietary restrictions at home (for various reasons), she puts community and fellowship first and eats anything served to her when she eats away from her own kitchen. This is beautiful.

Complementarianism’s ugly relationship with rape” — One of my long-standing issues with complementarianism is the logical loophole allowing for marital rape. A little provocative, but worth reading soberly, without jumping to defensiveness.

Esther Actually: Vashti, the Other Queen” — Rachel Held Evans outdid herself here. I’m probably getting to be obnoxious about how much I openly love this blog (and RHE’s memoir, Evolving In Monkeytown). But this post. THIS post. RHE is responding to Mark Driscoll’s rather perverse assumption that Esther is a godless book featuring Esther’s sexual sins. This third post in the series, on Vashti, is really splendid.

Enjoy. See you when I get back!

p.s. I have red hair now. My temperament finally has a matching external indicator!


Being the first of most of my friends, either from church or college, to get married has made it necessary to do my own research on birth control options, without having many married female friends to pass information onto me about their decisions and research (this is, of course, because in conservative Christian circles, it’s usually assumed that you don’t have sex before marriage, and so education about birth control is either passed on by hearsay, your mom’s [usually bad] experience with it, or WORLD magazine articles about the pro-life movement). Any information I received was either 20 years outdated, sketchy on the science, or based on Catholic “rhythm method” information about how the female fertility cycle works.

My mom’s a nurse, so I like to take medical science seriously and believe in the worth of precautionary measures and immunizations and all that stuff that’s often dismissed in super-conservative circles as bad science and propaganda from pharmaceutical companies. While I am suspicious of the FDA and pharmaceutical groups and their back room brokerage, I do believe that most of the fine print information for medications is as accurate as possible, and I have the curiosity and patience to sort through it.

So when Kevin and I got engaged, we talked a lot about our expectations for family planning and what we felt convicted about and called to (to use the common phrases). Since I came from a big family where I had been heavily involved in helping with my younger siblings, I really didn’t feel comfortable trying to have kids right away. I [rightly, so far] felt like God had a lot of things to teach me before I became a mom, and we both wanted some time to be a married couple together before starting a family. (This is a bigger issue for some people–“Is God okay with me trying to control when I become a parent? Is this an issue where I lack faith?”–than it was for us. These questions are worth prayerfully considering on your own and together as a couple. For us, we felt like we would honor God better by waiting a bit so we could be a more mature couple and give our kids stable home, financially and emotionally and spiritually.)

We didn’t want to try to use the fertility charting method, since it would be hard for me, for various reasons, to get an accurate prediction. Once we were agreed that we both liked babies, wanted some eventually but not right away, and that we are pro-life, Kevin told me that what we decided to use was up to me, saying “it’s your body, you decide. Just talk me to me about it and explain why.” Then I got real cozy with researching hormonal birth control methods and why the pro-life movement is so strongly opposed to most of them.

What I found surprised me. Most of the information I had heard growing up was based on half-science, old science, or Catholic theology (which is a different thing entirely, and I’ll get into that a bit more later). And just for the record, my mom wasn’t the source of this misinformation–she understood the science, but she and dad felt a particular call (not just the Quiverfull-that’s-what-every-godly-couple-does! groupthink) to have a large family right away. But what I found is that, if you’re protestant, there’s no reason why you can’t be staunchly pro-life and ethically use most hormonal forms of contraception. (I’m going to leave out, for the sake of time and space, discussion of why a Christian would want to control fertility and only have planned babies. The protestant position on this is usually pretty laissez-faire as long as the right-to-life of a fetus is upheld. The Catholic perspective is much more complex. For my part, I want children and am very “pro-life”–on this issue, the death penalty, and war.)

The biggest problem that I see is simply a lack of education on the subject. A lot of abstinence-only sex-ed leaves out information on what contraceptives are and how they work, because it’s assumed that if you educate kids on that, they’ll feel more comfortable having sex. This is a weak argument–if kids are horny and don’t have the self-control or moral impetus to abstain, they’ll just have sex anyway. Abstinence-affirming sex ed with information on contraceptives could potentially prevent a lot more abortions than continuing to promote abstinence-only.

In homeschool circles, sex-ed is usually absent altogether, which is an even worse issue. This causes fear and body image problems and a ton of guilt issues that just shouldn’t exist for Christians. But I digress.

So, common things I heard about birth control that aren’t true (I’m not going to cite a lot of sources, because I want to encourage you to do your own Google search and read the fine print yourself. Also because I’m lazy, and I’d prefer to keep this post to layman’s terms.):

  1. All hormonal birth control is abortifacient.
  2. If you use the pill for a certain amount of time, it’ll be harder to have a baby later or might even make you infertile.
  3. Hormonal birth control might be abortifacient, but we don’t know. However, all morning-after pills cause abortions.
  4. Birth control should only be discussed once a couple is engaged, otherwise it’ll encourage premarital sex.

[if you think of other common assertions that should be discussed, comment and let me know!]

Here’s what I learned, in response to each of those statements!

One. Most birth control isn’t hormonally strong enough to cause an abortion if taken during pregnancy, and it’s designed to work in such a way that conception can’t occur if taken properly. The pill comes in two forms: one type uses a combination of the hormones progesterone and estrogen, and this fools the body into thinking that the woman is pregnant. Although ovulation and a period still happen, the uterine lining is thickened so an egg can’t implant , and the cervix forms a mucus plug during ovulation to prevent sperm from passing through. Essentially this allows for a normal cycle (using placebo pills to initiate a period), but creates an environment where it’s essentially impossible for fertilization to occur.

The second type iprogesterone only, and this inhibits ovulation altogether and stops the usual cycle from occurring. This is the method, I believe, which caused some infertility scares in the past, but I understand that this issue has been eliminated and doctors generally agree that there are no real detriments from preventing ovulation and a period from occurring–the earlier issues was caused by the hormone dosage.

There are, obviously, some risks associated (however inconclusively–increased risk of breast or cervical cancer for those with genetic predispositions to these diseases), and some side effects (water retention, moodiness, etc.), but the side effects are usually minimal or none if you’re on a dosage and hormonal proportion that works well for your body type and preexisting issues. (For example, I was on a pill for 9 months which made me prone to anxiety attacks, and once I switched to one that had a different variant of progesterone, as well as a slightly different progesterone to estrogen ratio, the mood swings and anxiety subsided and I was more my normal self. The downside was that on the previous medication, I didn’t have any cramping, but on the new one I experience some normal cramping on the first day of my cycle. )

The primary concern I’ve come across from pro-lifers who are okay (in theory) with the pill and accept that it won’t cause an abortion if taken according to the doctor’s instructions is this: if I miss a day, the packet tells me to take two pills in a row. It also says that if I miss 3 days in a row, I need to use other forms of BC and wait for my period to start before going back on the pill. Does this mean it’s trying to overcompensate and abort an accidental conception?  I don’t think so, and here’s why: one day isn’t long enough for conception to happen–it’s just trying to keep you from experiencing “breakthrough bleeding” mid-cycle (caused by missing the hormones for a day or two). With the three-day instruction, if your body goes back to its own cycle in the fastest way possible (conception after 3 days would be highly unlikely) and you do accidentally conceive in those 3 days, the direction to stop taking the pill is to prevent birth defects if you are pregnant at that point (taking the pill then wouldn’t cause an abortion, but it might hinder proper development a bit). If you haven’t conceived and have missed 3 days of the pill, the instructions still ask you to stop taking it because your body has experienced withdrawal from the hormones and needs to “reset” by going through the normal period cycle before you can restart the medication.

Two. The pill/patch/Nuva ring (I’m going to just lump these together as “the pill” or “BC” from here on out) have been constantly improved since they first came out. Various brands have had problems and lawsuits over the side effects, and each time this happens, the company producing the drug has had to go back to the drawing board and try to improve the “recipe” to eliminate these issues, just like any other big manufacturer. They want customer loyalty. In the 70s and 80s, there were definitely issues where some forms of hormonal birth control made it harder to conceive right after discontinuing use, and some even caused infertility.

These issues have largely been eliminated now, though it depends, of course, on how fertile you were before going on the BC, how much of the hormone is in your system and how long your body will take to adjust to start cycling normally again. A lot of this is more connected to your own metabolism, cycle length, and natural hormone balances. Because hormonal BC has been improved so much since the 80s, infertility issues after using BC are going to be preexisting issues with your own body and not the fault of the pill. Check with your gynecologist to make sure you get the best hormonal option for your body–because every woman is different, different hormonal cocktails will work better with your body than with mine or anyone else’s.

This is the benefit of coming to BC right now–there’s been enough time and research put into this so that there are a lot of different dosage options and just about everything is a refined and improved version of the stuff our moms had available to them.I had irregular cycles, but no major issues like endometriosis,  and I have high metabolism and a naturally low BMI, so I needed a low-dosage option. Someone else might be better off using a higher dosage or a different proportion of progesterone and estrogen in their BC than what I use.

Three. The morning-after pill isn’t actually an abortifacient, either, even though it’s designed to prevent pregnancy after unprotected sex. There are three main types of the morning-after pill and they use different hormone combinations/dosages to thicken internal mucus and delay ovulation. This creates an unwelcome environment for sperm and allows the woman’s body to hold off on releasing an egg until after the longest potential life span of sperm. The one emergency contraceptive that would be unethical for a Christian to use is the RU-486 pill, which does terminate a pregnancy in the first trimester. Personally, I think that the RU-486 is as morally wrong as abortion. But I also think that victims of incest or rape should have access to the standard morning-after pill as a matter of course.

Four. I think every adolescent should be educated about birth control. And I think that a couple should discuss their expectations and ethical beliefs long before they get engaged–these are issues where it’d be healthy for spouses to be in agreement. I appreciate Kevin’s respect in letting me decided what I’m most comfortable with, but I also really want him to be equally comfortable with the choices we make in this area.

Beyond all this, girls should be comfortable with their bodies and taught to understand how things work and why, and hormonal birth control can be a great help for a woman with endometriosis, irregular cycles, painful cramps, etc. Even if a girl isn’t sexually active and doesn’t need to get a pap smear or vaginal exam done, it’s healthy for her to go to a gynecologist to just discuss her cycle and make sure there aren’t any issues that may need investigation or treatment–things like delayed puberty or missed periods are often symptoms of an eating disorder or intense stress; severe cramps can signal endometriosis or polycystic ovarian syndrome or a hormone imbalance, etc. These things are significant, and parental insecurity about a sex talk isn’t a good reason to avoid helping your daughter know why her body works the way it does and how to know if something is amiss.

What else am I missing here? Feel free to raise questions in the comments–but be kind to me. I’m strongly pro-life (don’t bother arguing this), I’m not a chemist or a doctor, so this is just what I’ve learned through research, and I might be wrong. Check with a real doctor if you’re unsure about something, and correct me if you have medical qualification on this subject and see a mistake I’ve made out of my inexperience.

Finally, regarding the Catholic position (and I’ll just summarize generally because I’m not a Catholic–feel free to chime in if you are!): Catholics have a very detailed theology of the body that overshadows their theology of marriage and the purpose of it. Protestants don’t consider marriage to be a sacrament, and this is the fundamental difference. Because marriage is one of the seven Catholic sacraments, procreation in marriage is a sacred duty and the ability of that union to give life has a higher sacramental value than is commonly held by protestants. Therefore, any contraception is considered to be going against God’s design for marriage. This would include, I have been told, even the use of condoms. As a result, Catholics attempting to delay pregnancy will typically use a method where the couple charts the woman’s fertility via temperature readings,  learning to understand what types of mucus are discharged during peak fertility, etc. When the woman’s 3-5 day fertile window opens up, they will abstain if they want to avoid pregnancy. This is actually a pretty safe method of preventing pregnancy (and a really useful tool if you’re trying to conceive), but you have to really pay attention to your body’s rhythms and be very accurate with the temperature readings and subsequent charting (there’s actually some good technology available to make this easier, too). It’s a lot of work, but if marriage is a sacrament for procreation in your theology, it is worthwhile and ethical.