Our theme for the month of June is “Sex and the Church.”
First, I learned about sin.
Then sin again.
How the church talks about sex reflects how the church, at times, talks about God—as if he relates to humans as an equation based on conditions, rather than as a creator who, quite simply yet unfathomably, loves his creation.
I believe the church meant well, but for as much as we talked about grace and forgiveness and God’s love and how we did not—nor could not—earn it, we spent more time talking about all the things we should not do if we wanted to live up to God’s standard of goodness and grace.
I know I’m not alone in this.
I asked three women in their twenties who grew up in the church to share about their experiences learning about sex through worship, youth group, Sunday School, catechism, and “The Ring Thing.” I’m not going to say that what they write—or what I write in response—is absolute truth, but I do promise that these stories and thoughts are honest.
And I think honesty is a good place to start.
Story 1: “I’ve saved myself for you.”
I remember attending a day camp called “The Ring Thing” that taught about virginity and saving sex and all the horrible consequences of losing your virginity. In the end, we were given a ring to present to our future spouses, along with the line: “I’ve saved myself for you.”
In middle school, Patty Gatty came and talked to us about saving sex for marriage. She was more focused on trying to get us to be proud of being virgins.
“I have a magic pill that ensures you will never get pregnant!” she joked. “Really, it can be any pill, but put it between your knees and don’t let it drop! You will never get pregnant.”
Which now I see as very sexist, like it is only the woman’s job to say no.
My experience said that God is the law. Follow him or face the consequences. Stay within the boundaries and you will always be safe.
Story 2: “That shirt looks nice on your body.”
While growing up, the church taught me that sex was an activity to be avoided. Youth group meetings often focused on “godly dating,” “how far is too far,” and most importantly, saving sex until marriage. I heard the “dirty shoe” and “tape that is no longer sticky” analogies more than once. Unsurprisingly, most of these messages addressed modest attire but did not hold the boys accountable for averting their eyes.
This message was most vividly reinforced to me one Sunday when I was fourteen. My mom had bought me a new shirt (mom-approved for church!) and my youth leader/catechism teacher, a married father of three, commented, “that shirt looks nice on your body,” all while looking me up and down. I remember feeling ashamed (I caused someone to sin!) and very uncomfortable that my awkward, gangly body could elicit that reaction from someone close to my parents’ age. I was incredibly creeped out. As much as I had been educated about “saving myself” and “purity,” I didn’t have the knowledge or words to identify the incident for what it was: sexual harassment.
Story 3: “The whores Jesus still loved.”
Every February, we would have a “love focused month.” They taught that you absolutely should wait for marriage. We were separated—guys and girls—and I was taught by the youth leader’s wife … she basically told us (tearfully) how much she had hurt her husband because she hadn’t waited for marriage.
I think that there is an emphasis on women’s sins being connected to sex—the whores Jesus still loved, etc. I learned later at Calvin how these simplistic readings of the Bible can be really harmful to women (ex. the story of the women at the well). However, outside of these classes at Calvin, I rarely see more broad interpretations being taught.
I wonder if sex elicits so much shame because it’s associated with nakedness, which is the first recorded human perception after Adam and Eve ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. Genesis 2 dictates that Adam and Eve know they’re naked, sew fig leaves together, and then hide. When God asks where they are, Adam responds: I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid. (2:10)
I’ve been noticing a narrative arc in scripture lately of God constantly pursuing relationship with his people through the consequences of sin. While I grew up in the church, I couldn’t see that part of God’s character because I was so focused on the inherently sinful condition of human nature. My love for God was overshadowed by the fear of the punishments sanctioned when humans inevitably failed to live up to his standard of goodness and grace.
The story of the Garden of Eden was always poised as a cautionary recount of the fall that we should try our hardest not to re-create: Adam and Eve ate from the tree that God told them not to eat from, so they were kicked out of paradise and forced into toil and labor.
But I think the narrative arc of scripture focuses less on sin and shame and its consequences and much more on God’s love, faithfulness, and redemptive work in response.
Sure, God sends Adam and Eve out from the Garden of Eden, but Genesis 2 ends with God placing cherubim to guard the way to the tree of life—maybe so Adam and Eve don’t live forever in their fallen state.
And God doesn’t cast them from his presence.
He goes with them.
Because that’s who he is.
Ultimately, I think God wants us to respect one another and our bodies. Maybe that means waiting to have sex until you’re married. But that also means not causing a fourteen-year-old girl to feel like she needs ten showers because of a look you gave her. That means not incriminating your partner for sleeping with someone before meeting you. That means having more compassion than telling young girls, “Just keep your legs closed.”
I love the church the most in the moments of raw and honest vulnerability—because we certainly are all imperfect and pending imperfections. The problem is when the church focuses on imperfections more than God does; when we talk about sin and shame too often in the church, we risk misunderstanding and misrepresenting God.
The story of the woman at the well in John 4, for instance, is so often positioned as Jesus still talking to a human with a triple whammy against her:
She’s a woman.
She’s a Samaritan.
She’s had five husbands and now lives with a man who is not her husband.
While Jesus points this out, her sin isn’t the focus—she was probably married five times because all her husbands died and society made it impossible for women to fend for themselves. Either way, the fact that she is an adulterous Samaritan woman that Jesus is still talking to isn’t the point of this story.
I think we can tell because verse 27 is so random: Just then his disciples returned and were surprised to find him talking with a woman. But no one asked, “What do you want?” or “Why are you talking with her?”
I think verse 27 is included because it doesn’t matter that Jesus is talking to a woman. It doesn’t matter that she’s a Samaritan. It doesn’t matter that she’s an adulterer. The point this story rests on is that Jesus knows her. Intimately. Because he is the Messiah. And this is the first time Jesus openly reveals himself as the Messiah.
And you know what happens next?
An adulterous Samaritan woman becomes history’s first recorded evangelist.
Church, can we talk about that?
Cassie Westrate (’14) graduated with a double major in writing and international development studies. She currently lives in West Michigan, where she works as a writer, hangs out with her pet bird, and fights crime by night. Just kidding about the crime.