A good friend, with whom I have been in dialogue over my posts on sacred friendships (December 21-24), sent the following story to me. It is all too true to not be troubling if you have the eyes and ears to see and hear.
In the evangelical churches I attended growing up, traditional gender roles were portrayed, taught and even encouraged from elementary age, up. Girls do one activity, boys do another. Pointing to the actions of women in Bible stories as fodder for what “godly” women do. In youth group, boys and girls take on different roles: at events, girls prepare and serve food and do cleaning. Boys do “setup” of sound systems, chairs, electronics. Girls are complimented for having “humility” and “a servant’s heart” and boys are encouraged to be leaders.
Male sexuality is an almost-uncontrollable force that must not be tempted. Women must “avoid tempting the boys,” and in the name of modesty, take responsibility for the eyes and libidos of their male counterparts.
I never remember a pastor talking to the boys and young men about self control and respect for women. It was always a warning not to be “tempted by women.” I do remember hearing middle- aged female youth volunteers or pastors’ wives (we never had women pastors) warn the girls not to tempt the boys, not to dress inappropriately. “Those are your brothers, and you need to protect their eyes.” Islam has a saying about women having “Nine parts of Desire.” When Allah created women and men, he gave nine parts of desire to the woman, and one part to the men.
So women must be covered and separated, because their sexuality is dangerous. Which is effectively the very same thing I learned growing up in the evangelical church.
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Happy New Year to you. Thank you for writing about this. And about friendship and women’s leadership roles.
If Bible study, theological study, and church leadersship is dominated by men, it would not be surprising for this to have happened. There is a great deal of sexual brokenness in this fallen world, both in men and in women. But men see it primarily from their own perspective: a strong desire that seems uncontrollable and cannot ever be tamed, and must be managed by continually averting the eyes, knowing one’s limits, avoiding dangerous situations, and so on.
I am reminded of what happened to Joseph in Genesis 39. When he was tempted by Potiphar’s wife, he rejected her advances and simply ran away. I guess it was the best that he could do, to flee from sexual immorality by fleeing from the person. But I don’t think Jesus would have done that. Jesus was remarkably free in his relationships with women, to the point of appearing scandalous to the Pharisees. When he was talking to the Samaritan woman, I don’t think he averted his eyes and stared at the ground. I think he looked directly at her, seeing all of her, including her God-given beauty and sexuality, and loved her for who she was and for who she was created to be.
At what point, in our plan of spiritual growth and discipleship for men, should we expect them to grow up from the level of Joseph to the level of Jesus?
That’s an actual question, not a rhetorical one.
When I was discipled as a college student during the 1980’s, I do remember being exhorted by church leaders to exercise self-control and treat women with dignity and respect. But as a practical matter, church leaders were content and happy if the young men under their care acted like Joseph — avoiding sexual sin by fleeing from temptation — rather than becoming like Jesus.
In a culture like ours, where men are continually bombarded with hyper-sexualized, idolatrous images of female bodies, where immoral behavior is celebrated and healthy marriages are becoming increasingly rare, helping young men to turn away from sin to become like Joseph seems like a wonderful victory. Perhaps it is. But shouldn’t we expect more? Shouldn’t we expect the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the indwelling of the Holy Spirit to actually heal us of our broken sexuality, so that we actually become like Jesus?
But I imagine that, if young men actually were truly healed and displayed genuinely Christlike attitudes and behaviors toward women, many in the church would perceive it as scandalous.
That’s an excellent point. I have friends who work with Muslims who observed to me that they saw the Muslim culture as not challenging men to grow in self-control, but rather simply to segregate women off as too dangerous.
And Joe, I love your observations. The Joseph response may need to be a first-resort in the moment (especially considering the woman was pulling on his clothes!), but that doesn’t make it the model for dealing with all occurrences of extra-marital attraction, much less all relationships with women.