Church Language Can Affect Rape Culture for Good or Bad — Part 1

Gather around Church, we need to talk. Perhaps we should grab some coffee and sit down because this is going to get uncomfortable.

We need to talk about the way we talk about sex, modesty, and women’s roles and the message we send to both women and men. I don’t want to talk about the importance of waiting until marriage for sex. I don’t want to argue about whether we should dress modestly (and what the heck that even means). And I don’t want to have the complementarian vs. egalitarian debate about women’s roles.

Actually I do want to talk about all of those things, but not today. Another time, with another coffee. 

Today I want to talk about the implications of our language. 

Words matter.

We talk about society objectifying women, the dangerous consequences of movies, music, advertising, and porn. We bash culture for the way it treats God’s daughters, but we’re often blind to the fact that we are doing the same thing, just in a different way.

After I started writing this post, #ThingsOnlyChristianWomenHear began trending on Twitter. Spend some time reading through it to see some of the ways church language has hurt and harmed women. (Then I put this post away for a while to continue processing before finishing writing it.)

I knew the way we talk about modesty and women’s roles was a big deal, but I didn’t realize just how much it affects so many women. I tweeted this (not expecting much with my handful of Twitter followers) and my notifications didn’t stop for over a week:

The logical fallacies are mind-numbing. Both of these things cannot be true at the same time, and yet in many churches, Christian schools, and organizations, this is what we’re taught. Of course, it’s completely twisting Scripture, but they are able to isolate verses to defend it. 

For this particular post, I want to focus mainly on the way we talk about modesty and the repercussions it has.

This is not an argument against modesty; it’s bigger than that. It’s an argument that the women and men, girls and boys in our churches deserve better than we’re giving them. 

Consequences of “Protect the Guys” Language

Everywhere I have ever been that has had a female specific dress code, or that teaches anything about modesty always tells us not to be a stumbling block for the guys. In non-Christian settings the wording is different, but the meaning is the same. But for Christians we get lectured about not being a stumbling block because of this one verse:

“Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak” (1 Corinthians 8:9).

In context, Paul is telling the Corinthians that while they know eating food that was sacrificed to idols is fine because the idols are not real, there are others who don’t know that, and think it was sacrificed to a real god. If they ate the food sacrificed to idols in front of those with a weak conscience, it might cause them to eat it too. For those who think it’s sinful, eating it would be a sin because they believe it to be a sin. Therefore, Paul concludes it is better not to eat the meat at all rather than risk causing another to sin (See 1 Corinthians 8).

In general, we can apply this passage to mean we shouldn’t do things that would cause another person to sin. Paul seems to always be more concerned about bringing people to Jesus, and helping them in their faith than he is about his own rights and freedom. 

I can hear you saying, so then shouldn’t women dress modestly to not be a stumbling block to men? 

It sounds good. It sounds right. But in practice and teaching it results in objectification, exclusion, and rape culture

Telling women that we need to dress modestly BECAUSE men are visual and have a really hard time controlling their lust, so we must protect them is nonsense. I’m sure that extra ½ inch of my shoulder is so much more sexy than the rest of my shoulder that he’s going to be thinking about it for the rest of the day. But if only I had been wearing a tank top with a “two finger” strap, he’d be fine.

Come on? We don’t really believe this do we? 

Stop teaching women that we’re objects to be lusted after, and stop teaching men that they can’t control themselves. Stop teaching all of us that it’s the woman’s fault if she exposes too much and a man lusts after her, or worse rapes her. 

You know what Jesus said about it? 

“‘You have heard that it was said, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I tell you anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell. And if your right hand causes you to stumble, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to go into hell’” (Matthew 5:27-30 emphasis added).

Jesus doesn’t make women responsible for men’s lust. He tells them to take responsibility for their own sin. Unfortunately, in practice we’ve twisted this verse and made the right eye into the woman. “If a woman causes you to stumble, throw her away.”

Society teaches women and men that women are objects to be used for a man’s pleasure. And many Christian circles teach women and men that women are dangerous objects to be avoided and covered up until such a time as we get married, and then our bodies exist to serve our husband and make the babies. 

Jesus didn’t treat us this way. He treated women as full human beings worthy of love, respect, and autonomy. Jesus was alone with women, and never once did He talk about what they wore. Not only did Jesus spend time alone with women, two different women washed His feet with their hair! And let’s not forget the NAKED woman who was caught in adultery and dragged before Him. Jesus didn’t say, “Woman, you are naked, and I am a man who is visual, therefore you must cover up before we can have this conversation.”

And guess what? Jesus “was tempted in every way, just as we are — yet he did not sin” (Hebrews 4:15).

Self-fulling Prophesy

Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t — you’re right.
— Henry Ford

It’s time to stop saying men cannot control themselves. Men, actually, are capable of controlling themselves. But if we keep telling men that they are biologically designed with sexual impulses that they cannot control, or that are extremely difficult to control, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. 

It becomes an excuse. 

And we are doing a huge disservice to both men and women with this kind of teaching. It perpetuates objectification, rape culture, victim blaming, and the sidelining of women in ministry and in business. All because we need to protect these poor weak men from seeing a ½ inch of shoulder or thigh, lest they fall into a pit of uncontrolled lust. 

Come on friends, we can do better than this. Do we not have more faith in our “brothers in Christ” than this? I use that term because we’re often told to cover up to “protect our brothers in Christ.” Maybe it’s time our brothers start protecting us by taking responsibility for themselves, and helping to change a culture that reduces us to a piece of chocolate cake…

More on that next time. 

Until then, remember you have been redeemed for more.