This is the first installment in a series on gender and sexuality. My hope is to create a space where I can share some of my thoughts and give room for others to think through new and healthy ways to engage with gender and sexuality.
The first theme that I want to hit on [see what I did there?...] is the sexual tensions between Christian men and women as friends, co-workers, colleagues etc.
After working amongst a high percentage of Christians in many forms of Christian ministry over the past 15 years I have seen my fair share of interesting Christian behavioral management.
From "God doesn't like it when boys wear hats in church" to "tattoos are a sign of rebellion", I have witnessed a depth of Christian behavioral rules.
But one of the rules that I find most disturbing [besides the ever-popular Christian side hug] is the idea that men and women should not ever be together in any kind of setting that might
- leave room for moral misconduct [READ: they will definitely, probably have sex with each other right there in that office/elevator/car etc.] or
- this meeting might lead others to believe something scandalous about them [READ: they probably, most definitely are having sex in that office/elevator/car etc."
After receiving three emails in one week from three different Christian men that they would prefer never to be alone with me so they could honor their wives/marriages I did the only sensible thing that sensible people do and I put my frustration out on Facebook and Twitter.
Many of my Facebook friends resonated with my angst around this practice and voiced some kind of "ick factor" about this seemingly good Christian practice. Some even wrote brief stories about how they have felt shamed, overlooked and under-discipled because they were female and they knew it made the men in their Christian circles very uncomfortable.
However, I did get some arguments who seemed to be utterly surprised by my distaste for this practice. One man did a very mature thing and instead of arguing from a confused perspective he asked questions. He opened the floor for healthy dialogue in order to understand. This was my reply:
"Consider the many women in your life who are incredibly gifted, talented, strong, wise, discerning, intelligent, merciful, compassionate, creative, humorous, passionate and loving. You have much to learn from them and if you cannot be alone with them for fear that you may participate in sexual misconduct or even just fear that others might think that about you, then you are participating in a broken and oppressive cultural understanding of heavily sexist gendered roles.
Women are more than sexual beings. We are thinkers, leaders, philosophers, entrepreneurs, parents, teachers, physicians, pastors, poets and embody a myriad of other qualities and characteristics. If the first thing or the only thing you can see or concentrate on is our sexuality than the problem lies within yourself and the unhealthy social understanding of gendered roles that your sub-community participates in and not in the incredible tapestry of women in the world.
Jesus shockingly defied his religious community and engaged, ALONE with a woman of questionable reputation. He not only thought of her as more than her sexualized reputation but chose to have an intelligent and emotionally charged conversation with her at the Samaritan well that afternoon. He believed she was more than just a sexual being and also empowered her to be one of the very first missionaries of the world. He could have chosen a man, so as not to cause others to question his motives. But no, he was unfettered by the expectations of the broken cultural rules of his peers and entered into relationship with her despite what it might do to his reputation.
After the Resurrection, the first person Jesus chose to share that intimate moment with was a woman. He used women, who were then thought of as non-credible legal witnesses, to be the first to tell the Good News that the laws of sin and death were changed for eternity.
In both situations, Jesus did not appear uncomfortable nor did he give any indication that he was trying to flee the scene because of what others might think about his behavior.
Let us not be afraid of our shadow selves! Let us confront our weaknesses and stop blaming others for our shortcomings. And may we follow in the ways of Jesus to boldly defy the acceptable religious behaviors of our communities in order to be able to enlist traditionally marginalized people into the crucial work of reconciliation."Now, I understand that the idea behind this rule is actually a good one. We should stay away from engaging in anything that may hinder our hearts from displaying to the world the good work of justice, mercy, grace and love.
I get it. In fact, I agree with it.
However, it takes quite a bit of mental and spiritual gymnastics to then jump to the conclusion that we should avoid any kind of real relationship with the opposite sex. [See this incredible blogpost called Not Just Friends] People talk about living in community and intimacy and authenticity. How can we truly do this when we are avoiding 50% of our population? Check out this video by the ever-controversial Laci Green as she describes the social history of friendships between men and women. *NOTE: Don't watch it if you get weirded out by swears.
This rule seems to focus on what we can lose by being in relationship with the opposite gender instead of what we could gain. When we create rules and regulations based in fear of something we miss the opportunity to give LOVE the chance to banish what we are afraid of.
Love is the antithesis of fear and it has the power to help us overcome even the darkest intentions in our hearts.
I also get that there are real life reasons why the Christian Community has come up with this rule. There are real life stories of sexual scandal in the church [sadly, I'm living one of them with my extended family]. Real life people have been wounded and betrayed because pastors and counselors and trusted advisors have abandoned their moral and spiritual compass and allowed their own woundedness to supersede that of others. I understand this pain. I cannot say enough about how much I understand this pain. Healing from this kind of betrayal takes all kinds of Bold Love.
However, putting up reactionary ordinances around gendered interactions is not the solution. Building high walls around areas of our life that are difficult or hard to understand may keep those areas at bay for a while. But eventually those walls will inevitably crumble and we will come face to face with whatever brokenness in our hearts we have feared.
While we are all sexual beings and need to cultivate our sexuality in healthy ways, often our sexual urges our linked to our relational desires. Sex is often a way for us to gratify our relational longing.
We want to be known and enjoyed. We want to know we have the power to stir people's hearts and even feel the strength of knowing we arouse people's desires for us sexually.
These are very good desires and ones that are no less godly than our desire to worship God or serve the poor. The unfortunate truth is that the people of God have historically linked our sexual desires to being dirty, nasty and ungodly. We have taught our children and preached to our grown ups that sexual desires should be kept in the bedroom of married couples. We have relegated an entire part of our being to just one part of life. And what about those who aren't married yet or have no plans to get married soon or [gasp!] ever? Should they just turn their sexuality off?
"Sorry singles, you don't get to experience the exhilaration of your God-given sexuality cuz you're not as privileged as us married people."
This blog post is not about masturbation or the infamous "how far is too far" question. Again, I'm kinda over all the rules and regulations I grew up thinking were good practices. All of the behavior management has caused me and so many others to fear our sexuality and hate ourselves when we can't seem to make our sexuality disappear until we say "I do" or when we [double-gasp!] are attracted to some one that is not our spouse.
No, this blog post is about exploring all that we can discover about the beauty of our sexuality and learning how to stop fearing it. What if we began to nurture our sexuality, paying attention to it and not trying to shut it down each time we feel overwhelmed. What if we tried to understand the link between our sexual desires and our relational desires?
What if we were able to stop shaming ourselves for desiring to be desired?
What if we could face the sexual, relational, emotional and spiritual wounds of our lives so that we can live in a continual process of healing and freedom?
If you struggle with your thoughts or motives when you are alone with the opposite gender, or even the thought of being alone with them, more than likely, there is a space in your heart that is needing attention. If you are a spouse that gets panicked at the thought of your husband/wife being alone with the opposite gender in general, perhaps there are betrayal wounds from the past that need to be attended to with care and respect. Our relational, emotional and spiritual wounds are very real and play powerful roles in how we live our lives.
Responding out of discernment is different than responding out of our wounded history. I generally feel comfortable with Josh building genuine friendships with women. However, there have been moments when I have felt a strong sense of discernment that something was not quite right. Each time I have felt that way, it was helpful to talk with Josh about it to try to determine whether it was my wounded past rearing its insecurities or whether there was cause for legitimate concern. In one case, I felt uneasy and couldn't pin-point why. Eventually we found out that this friend of his had been unfaithful to her husband. I had the strange, spidey-sense called Women's Intuition because I picked up on her dishonest motives.
Instead of creating regulations steeped in fear, perhaps we should put up healthy boundaries while we are on the road to healing. Seek out a reputable therapist who can ask good questions about what it is that you are needing emotionally and physically that you can learn how to get in healthy, life-giving ways. The goal of this healing process is not to take away our sexual desires but to help us learn how to embrace them and give them their appropriate place in our lives. Dan Allender has given us an incredible library of resources that can help us in this process! Books like To Be Told, The Wounded Heart, or The Healing Path.
The institutional church is crippled by the lack of strong female leadership within its congregations. I attribute part of this gaping hole to the fear that we have placed around the power of our sexuality. Men have historically been the leaders, pastors, preachers and teachers. If those men cannot or will not build genuine relationships with women we will continue to experience the heartbreaking lopsidedness of the Body of Christ. If women do not do what Sherly Sandberg, in her book Lean In suggests and step up to the pulpit to use our gifts, we will continue to participate in the oppressive culture of male patriarchy.
The fear of being sexually immoral has been the disease and Love gently calls us to banish fear by shedding light on the thing we fear, no matter how ugly it may look in the light of day.
One last thing. I have heard the argument for a lifetime that "men just think differently then women" and so we should not cause our brothers to stumble because we don't understand their mindsets and they are more visual/sexual/lustful than women.
(Come on, Rebecca! You can do this!)
Second, I will say this with as much grace and humility as I possibly can conjure from my very female perspective.
Men are not rabid animals looking to copulate with any breathing thing.
While I will never really understand what it is like to have so much testosterone flowing through my veins, I think I may always believe that self-control is a virtue that is not just reserved for the estrogen-carrying gender.
I realize that testosterone is a strong force, especially for teenage boys who are getting such potent doses of it! I get that this can cause everything to seem sexy and that women with their softness and beauty and lack of offensive odors are almost just too much to handle.
But we're not. We're not too much to handle.
And men are not just hormonal beasts. They are so many other things and all those things make up a very complicated gender that has truth and beauty and strength and tenderness and so much love to give. I am committed to empowering my sons to be all that they can be and giving them space to feel the testosterone rip through their bodies like a raging rapid. But I will always uphold that they can be the master of their belief systems and they can channel all that aggressive, sexy goodness into impressive ways of making the world a better place. They can be virile young boys while still being able to honor and respect girls. They can be men with robust sex drives, who still are able to see women as whole people who they have much to learn from and treat them as such.
It all comes down to how we embrace all of the parts of who we are. Our sexuality, our intellect, our emotions, or souls. Do we honor each part and understand the needs of each part? Can we see that while our sexuality is very powerful and sometimes can seem to take over, it is not the only part of who we are?
Can we learn to appreciate our sexuality for what it is and as a result begin to find new and relationally sound ways to live comfortably with it instead of always living in fear of it?
Imagine what we could accomplish when women and men are in relationships of integrity and appropriate intimacy with each other. Where girls and boys are taught to move closer to the differences between us instead of hide behind our fear of them. Where masculinity and femininity become less prescriptive and more appreciated for the mysterious and powerful things that they are.
Inklings? Reflections? Please do share...
***Special Note: If you struggle with a Sexual Addiction that is an entirely different story and should be treated with sensitivity and compassion. For resources and a directory of support systems for recovery you can check out this link.