Warning: this article may be sexually explicit to some. While I think it is fine for teens, other parents may feel differently. Parental discretion is advised.
I know it’s hard to believe in this day and age. After 50 years of discussing women’s rights in our culture, there are still those who believe that women are subservient to men and that they must hide their bodies under loose and drab clothing so as not to cause men to stumble into lust. Anything she does to make herself attractive is an in intentional act to stimulate men around her. They are even told to cover their elbows because some men confuse them with breasts. All of this is in the name of Christianity.
Men are also told that to look at an attractive woman once is an accident, but to look too long or to sneak a second peak is lustful, which is the same as sin as adultery. They are not even allowed drive dualies, pickups with double rear tires (Google it!) because to some people they can resemble a woman’s pelvis and that, too, will cause men to sin.
Really? Yes, really! I learned these things on my recent trip to Ohio and I’ll be honest, such teachings and practices really make me grieve over the repression this puts on women and how it makes sexuality creepy. Who makes these rules, anyway, except sexually frustrated men and women who think sex is dirty?
Over the past three years I’ve spent a lot of time with people coming out of religious groups that distort the teachings of Scripture to create an environment where women are required to dress and act in ways that won’t challenge men’s authority or provoke their sexual appetites. I’ve listened at length to the damage this has done to them and my heart goes out to any who were raised according to these teachings. They are cruel, abusive, and rise from the pits of hell, not the instruction of Scripture. They crush the very core of how God made women to demonstrate his glory in the world.
Almost all of this thinking is built on the misapplication of two Scriptures: Paul’s admonishment for women to dress modestly (1 Timothy 2:9) and Jesus’ declaration that looking on a woman with lust is the same as committing adultery (Matthew 5:28).
In the first instance, Paul is talking to women to consider modesty in their dress and the context has as much to do with flouting their wealth as it does sexual provocation. But Paul doesn’t define what that modesty is, trusting the Spirit to write his ways onto their hearts not religious leaders to enforce their code of conduct. Most women know the difference between dressing as a lady and cheapening themselves in crude attempts to gain attention, but just because a women’s manner of dress provokes jealousy in some women or lust in a man doesn’t mean she’s being immodest. Their brokenness is not her standard. It’s between her and God to sort out how she presents herself and all will eventually discover that true beauty is inside the person, not on the outside.
In the second instance, Jesus’ words do not blame the cause of the lustful look, but the lust itself. He wasn’t trying to expand their guilt for lust they didn’t act on, but helping them to understand that their freedom from it comes from inside not outside. Lust rises from a broken place in the human heart, not from a top cut too low, pants too tight, or a skirt too short. Our hope for healing is found in him and how he views people around us, not by removing all temptation around us.
We’ve raised too many young men who think that an arousing glance is the same as lust, multiplying their guilt and shame and their fixation on sex. But most men are not an elbow sighting away from full-fledged lust, and if someone is, that is the fault of their twisted appetites not you. Sexual desire is not lust. Lust is an obsession for sexual gratification with another outside of marriage. Sexuality is a gift God gave humanity and should be celebrated not distained. Trying to ignore an attractive woman, especially when she’s gone to so much effort to make herself beautiful is absurd. Appreciating beauty in the creation whether it’s a waterfall, sunset, or a woman is part of our human experience and God’s grace. Don’t make it dirty and don’t load yourself up on guilt because an attractive person catches your eye. Someone can draw your attention, without driving your lust.
I realize I’m writing this at a time when sex has been devalued by a careless and over-indulgent culture. We cheapen it by making it easily accessible, encase it in the fake thrill of pornography, and view it only as the gratification of a craving and not the most powerful expression of marital celebration and unity between a committed couple. You do not make love to an available body you can’t resist, but to celebrate the unity of the one you deeply love and with whom you share all of life.
But asking women to bear the responsibility for sexual brokenness is not only is unfair but also has never worked. Men who grow up around women dressed in drab are no less curious about sexuality and are often more fixated on it because it’s the constant focus. Notice it is only the women who are forced to dress out of step with culture, even though most of the lust issues seem to reside in men. Our distorted view of repentance and forgiveness allows a man to confess his failures and feel forgiven enough in the next moment to lord over women to do his bidding. They demand women not to do anything that might incite even one man to an impure thought. How disgustingly convenient, and no wonder some women in these cultures grow up feeling dirty just for being a woman.
One of the saddest emails I’ve received came last week from a woman living in the regret of having raised her children this way: “We have eight children and the grief of raising them legalistically is overwhelming. I simply do not know how to live this life or love them well. I live in constant, exhausting fear. I dread the dawn and wonder how I will get through the rest of my days. I am 60 now. For all the talk of God and His love, I rarely seem to fully trust him. Seeing my kids making decisions that bring pain-filled, long-term consequences is more that I can bear. The world seems so dark to me, and I feel so stupid in my parenting and in my living.”
I want this woman and all like her to know that there is no mistake so big God can’t overcome it and that it is vitally important for you and your family to walk in the growing joy of his freedom, not the regrets of the past. At the same time this is a sad reminder of how deeply these religious lies oppress us all, but to also admit that they oppresses women a hundred times worse. They have been blamed for man’s indiscretions and forced to repress themselves in deference to it. It has destroyed many a woman and it’s time to speak up on their behalf. If you’re awakening to a richer relationship with Jesus and find these views to demean you as a person and restrict you’re freedom in Christ, good for you! It’s time for men to stand up for women, not to them, and cheer them on to increasing freedom.
Here’s what I would like women raised in this captivity to know:
First and foremost, I’m so sorry that your passion to know God and follow him was exploited by false leaders and teachers to make you diminish yourself and the gift God made you to be in the world. I am sorry for the repression you suffered because others made you the focus of their sin. I wish there were some way to make up for all the years wasted under religious oppression, but there is none except to help you untangle the web of lies about God, men, sexuality, and yourself that will allow you to find the freedom God has for you now and end this cycle of destructive behavior in your family with this generation.
Second, reconsider with God every conclusion you’ve made about your womanhood and femininity and discover the joyful delight of being the beloved daughter of an affectionate Father. Talk it over with God and each other as you sort out what’s true and not true about the way you were raised. The truth will set you free in ways you may not even begin to imagine yet.
Third, never again believe that you are a second-class citizen of God’s kingdom. You have wisdom to share with the rest of us and are not more prone to deception because of Eve’s failure. The piece you add to the body of Christ through your insights, personality, and story provide critical facets of God’s reflection no one else can offer. Be the you God created so you can enrich his church in the world.
Fourth, your body is not disgusting and you don’t need to hide it in shapeless drab in the fear of inciting lust in men. If you’ve come to believe there’s something dirty about the way God made you, ask him to show you differently. Learn to celebrate the body and the life God gave you, not the way the world does through exploitation and excess, but in letting God be fully glorified in all of you. If men around you struggle with lust, that is their problem, not yours and don’t let them put it back on you.
Fifth, don’t beat yourself up for not seeing through all this earlier, or even raising your children in it. It may have been all you knew and you thought you were doing God’s work. Now that you know you weren’t, forgive yourself and let God make you an example and voice of freedom to share with your family. It may take awhile, but your freedom and transformation may rescue your family from these lies.
Sixth, you are not under the headship of your father until you marry, or a pastor to protect you. The only covering you need is Christ alone. Subservience to the males in your life is not Godly; it’s religious bondage that will tear you apart. Women do not need a male covering to lord over them. They need to know men who are willing to lay down their lives, as Jesus did, and create a safe place for them to explore all Father has for them.
Seventh, live free inside that which love teaches you to do. Transformation is a process and it may come slowly especially with other people in play. I respect women who know their liberty from these things, but for the love of their husbands lay down some of that freedom as God coaxes him along as well. But this has to be an act of love, led by God, not of fear or staying captive.
And what about the men? I realize those from this environment have also suffered with this preoccupation with sexual appetites and desires. You’ve been damaged too with distorted views of women, sexuality, and shame that make it almost impossible for you to see God’s love for you in a sea of guilt about sexual temptation. Ask God to set you free as well, but never forget what this has done to your sisters is far more destructive than what has happened to you. Stop using God as an excuse to control the women in your life and become a champion for their freedom and liberty.
For those of you raised in the captivity of men’s misplaced lust it is past time for you to discover your freedom. He made you in his image and wants to set you free from all the lies that have controlled you and demeaned you. Many of us are rooting for you to come into the full glory of being his beloved and letting your light shine in the world.