Sexual violence and the church

 From self-gratification to self-giving 

I was a fan of CBC radio’s flagship program “Q” just about from the beginning. With its arts, culture and entertainment content and smooth-talking interviewer, Q was a hit with me instantly. I was absolutely shocked when host

Jian Ghomeshi was ousted from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation for allegedly assaulting several women. On the heels of that scandal, related stories of misconduct emerged (involving members of Parliament, Bill Cosby, Dalhousie dental students), sparking public conversation about sexual violence against women in Canadian society.

We receive mixed messages regarding sexual violence and women. Our culture seems to place a high value on gender equality. Yet dark corners in our society (such as the porn industry) normalize degradation and abuse of women. Phrases like “the right to privacy,” “sexual preference” and “personal taste” (cf. Ghomeshi’s pre-emptive Facebook post) justify an attitude that we are owed self-gratification as sexual freedom.

To be clear, men can experience sexual violence, and women are certainly not immune to attitudes of self-gratification. But I wish to speak to the attitude of sexual entitlement that justifies sexual violence against women in particular, both because it has become a topic of national conversation and because it is an attitude that can be hidden or even “Christianized” within the language and structure of church communities, blinding us to sexual violence in our midst.

In my own experience as a pastor’s wife, teacher and mentor, I have seen the effects of sexual entitlement in the church first-hand – from public disrespect for female leaders to abuse in marriage relationships and even sexual assault. Too often these events are passed over in silence.

I’d like to suggest the following principles to safeguard against men’s vulnerability to sexual self-gratification and the objectification of women.

1. Purity is for everyone

“Do not rebuke an older man harshly, but exhort him as if he were your father,” the apostle Paul writes in 1 Timothy 5:1–2. “Treat younger men as brothers, older women as mothers, and younger women as sisters, with absolute purity.”

Purity is the standard when it comes to all our relationships. However, the way words like “purity” and “modesty” are used can put all the onus on women. For example, when we emphasize only how what a woman wears might affect a man, it suggests that men have no responsibility to control themselves and that women’s bodies are instigators of sexual sin. By doing so, we can inadvertently reinforce an attitude shared with pornography: that women are sexual objects.

“Purity” and “modesty” aren’t only for women, but are part of an overall attitude of humility and moral character – virtues for which we all
need to strive.

2. All members have value

Christ saw women as equals; that he included women in his larger crowd of disciples shows that women were worth listening to and worth teaching.

Are women’s perspectives respected in our church communities? Are women reasonably active and represented on boards and at conference meetings? Are women giving input to the direction of our denominational community in a wide range of spheres? Or are women’s voices relegated to “women-centred” contexts only?

The answers to these questions are not unnoticed; children, youth and new members in our church communities quickly pick up on whose perspective is valued and whose is ignored or relegated to the sidelines.

Making the church a safe place means treating women not as objects supporting and servicing male desire but as active, thinking, gifted members of the body of Christ (as affirmed by the 2006 BFL resolution on women in ministry leadership).

3. Love is self-giving

The attitude of sexual entitlement can be particularly harmful to marriages and families. The idea that all sexual practices are permissible within marriage, along with teaching that emphasizes the wife’s duty to submit to her husband (neglecting the mutual submission Paul teaches in Ephesians 5), can make wives little more than objects for gratification.

It’s regrettable that some popular Christian books on marriage buy into this narrative of entitlement, “Christianizing” and propagating it. The Bible is clear: wives and husbands belong to each other in mutual love and submission. And no one – not even married people – is entitled to sex because sex is a gift.

But beyond individual marriages and family relationships, the church itself is God’s family. “The right to privacy,” “sexual preference” and “personal taste” foster attitudes of entitlement because this type of language leaves love out of the picture.

As the church – Christ’s presence in the world – it is our job to counter narratives of entitlement with the story of God’s self-giving love; a story told through the love we demonstrate to each other as brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers in God’s family.

Jessica-Morgun—Jessica Morgun is a member of the Broadway Gathering, Saskatoon

8 Comments on “Sexual violence and the church

  1. This column is certainly an important contribution addressing a topic that must be spoken about.

    But based on the Bible’s authority (the theme of this month’s MB Herald), I will suggest that God’s answer to violence and wrong attitudes is not a thorough-going egalitarianism. That approach is simply a conforming to the pattern of this world, which is forbidden by Romans 12:2.

    Despite what is often claimed, Ephesians 5 does not teach “mutual submission” between husband and wife. Ephesians 5 is much more demanding than that. It teaches (as does the rest of the Pauline corpus) that a wife is to submit to her husband as the church does to Christ while a husband is to love his wife as Christ self-sacrificially loved the church.

    Similarly, the apostle Peter (in 1 Peter 3) teaches that a wife is to submit to her husband, while a husband is to live with his wife considerately and treat her respectfully. Scripture nowhere teaches husbandly “submission”.

    A healthy interpretation of Ephesians 5 can be found in the front-page article here:
    http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.395.2065&rep=rep1&type=pdf

    • Richard, if your first reply to this article is about headship, you missed the forest for the trees in the article.

      • Did you actually read what I wrote, Mike? The word “headship” does not appear there.

        Jessica’s article contains a strong, recurring promotion of egalitarianism (including repeatedly mentioned “mutual submission”) as the answer to the problem of sexual violence in the church.

        I believe my comment is warranted, and I stand by it. (Except for the accidental run-on italics in the last two paragraphs.)

  2. Thank you Jessica Morgun for this piece. I think you are getting at something very necessary and important, especially # 3, the idea of entitlement propagated in some Christian books as biblical, thus once more using the Bible “against” the other. The way forward is as you suggest.

  3. Jessica, thank you for a well written piece.

    Richard, it occurs to me that in the context of sexual ethics in particular, mutual submission is at least implied in the relevant texts. I wonder how you understand the meaning of Ephesians 5:21, where Paul seems to preface his teaching to wives and husbands with and admonition to believers to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ”?

    Also, in the context of marital relations, his counsel to wives and husbands in 1 Corinthians 7:3-4 is that the “husband should give to his wife her conjugal rights, and likewise the wife to her husband. For the wife does not have authority over her own body, but the husband does. Likewise the husband does not have authority over his own body, but the wife does.” This seems to indicate a mutual submission, and one that is in line with the spirit of mutual edification that is part of Christian discipleship in the church.

    I am curious to understand what you believe Paul’s words to husbands in Ephesians 5:25 to mean. Christ “loved the church and gave himself for her”, and also took the “form of a servant,” “made himself nothing,” and “humbled himself” (Philippians 2 — it seems appropriate to draw upon this passage because Christ is the model for husbands Ephesians 5). My question is this: Is this not a consummate picture of submission? Does submission not yield to the welfare and interests of others? And if both husbands and wives are actively practicing this, does it not facilitate a wonderful marital harmony? I am really not sure why this proposal is not immediately commendable, and attractive.

    Brian

    • Thanks for your invitation to comment, Brian.

      If you’re wondering how I understand Ephesians 5:21, I recommend that you read the classic article in the link I provided. I think the exegesis in that piece is difficult to contradict.

      Regarding Ephesians 5:25, Christ is indeed a marvelous model for husbands, but he does not represent “a consummate picture of submission” to the church. His submission was entirely to his Father’s will. Further, it is not “submission” that yields to the welfare and interests of others; that is a description of “love” (compare Philippians 2:3f. with the preceding two verses). Husbands are told to love their wives; they are never directly instructed to “submit” or “be subject” to them. Christ and the church do not submit to each other; the submission is one way in that model (Ephesians 5:23-30).

      1 Corinthians 7:3f. does indeed discuss a two-way requirement in marriage, in terms of “debt” and “authority,” so it does perhaps come close to “mutual submission.” It does not, however, use the word “submit.” And it concerns one specific area, which is quite different from the command for wives to submit to their husbands “in everything” (Ephesians 5:24) with “full” submission (1 Timothy 2:11).

      I am completely in favour of marital harmony, which I have enjoyed for almost 40 years, and more so as we both mature. But I am not in favour of tampering with Scripture, using human wisdom, in an attempt to achieve that or any other worthy goal.

      In conclusion, I will note that husbands and wives are both instructed to “love” each other (Ephesians 5:25; Titus 2:4), but there is no direct command for husbands to “submit” to their wives (no matter how one might interpret Ephesians 5:21). That reality may be challenging for us to deal with in this day and age, but I suggest we need to rise to that challenge.

  4. Let me add what I wrote in a letter to the editor in the Herald a few years back:

    Erika and I were missionaries for 23 years with MB Mission. We worked shoulder to shoulder all this time, as do most missionary couples. Numerous times, one of us had to take up responsibilities when the other was ill or had to travel. There has always been a division of labour according to gifts.

    As far as preaching goes, we both enjoyed it. However, during a special time of revival when I gave an altar call, only a few responded. The next Sunday, many more responded when Erika preached. It was a no-brainer to realize that Erika was God’s primary instrument in this area. not I.

    Had it been culturally appropriate, I would have consulted with the church council to see if they discerned this as well, and then taken the matter to the church body. If they had agreed with me, I would have been happy to no longer be the primary preacher.

    Billy Graham’s daughter, Anne Graham Lotz, has an incredible ministry. Billy considers her to be the best preacher in their family. It makes you wonder: How many Annes are there in our churches, just sitting in the pews?

    It’s not that I’m a wimp. Latin America, with its machismo, required required that I be the pastor, and I enjoyed it. But there’s no way I could have done it by myself. Rare is the missionary who hasn’t said his wife is his rock, the one who keeps him on an even keel. The overarching principle for us is Ephesians 5:21, where we submit to one another out of reverence to Christ.
    In any event, I will have to answer to the Lord not only for the gifts I had, but whether I allowed Erika to exercise all of hers. When all is said and done, before the cross, we’re all on level ground.

    I didn’t say this in the letter, but “level ground” is a hidden reference to the church of that name pastored by Karen Heidebrecht-Thiessen. There are many other women in pastoral ministry in our MB churches. May there be many more.

Subscribe to MB Herald via email

Enter your email address to receive notification of new posts.

%d bloggers like this: