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Published Date: October 21, 2020

Published Date: October 21, 2020

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Claiming Consent in the Body of Christ

Editor’s note: This is one of the Top 15 2020 CBE Writing Contest winners.

[Trigger warning: themes related to sexual abuse]

For forty years I have continued to show up to church. I bring my childish body, my teenage body, my womanly body, my middle-aged body back to the orange pews, the green padded chairs, those grey stacking chairs we dragged across the cement floor in the cold church basement every time I went. I keep returning to collect the pieces of me that are shattered and scattered across platforms, hallways, and classrooms, believing that the Divine Body, broken for me, would run his nail-pierced hands across my own collected scars and make them disappear.

I first heard Sunday school lessons that frightened me, and later sermons as an adult that confused me, by loudly proclaiming my worthlessness as a sinful, suspicious human and a female human, no less.

I was told I would never be good enough, and year after year, I believed them until those tapes were fused into my heart, crushing my tender soul. I longed to be worthy, to truly belong to the body and to the One whose body I pledged allegiance.

I was also told over and over again that the body of Christ was broken for me, but I could not understand to what end? If Christ’s body was broken for me so that I could become whole, why was my female body continually being broken apart?

Surrender. Repent. Repeat.

It seemed that everyone else’s opinion of my body needed to be considered and trusted to be the truth, even when it made me uncomfortable and deeply ashamed of myself. For a long time, I did not trust my Spirit-filled instincts to stand up and say enough to sexist comments couched in spiritual admonition. I questioned my understanding of biblical truth and resigned myself to following misogynist church policies that demeaned the full personhood of half the congregation.

It was as if following Jesus needed to be first filtered by men and then reinterpreted to women. One Jesus yet two divergent pathways.

Month after month, year after year, I watched the men gather at the Communion table, breaking the bread and passing around silver trays lined with little plastic cups of lukewarm grape juice. Always a recipient in the pew, never quite a full participant at the table.

This is my body, broken for you.

What I Learned about My Body in Church

As a child and early teen, I did all the right things and memorized the right verses. I sang in the choir and attended girls club. I worked at summer camp and taught VBS. But the neighbor down the street took my body and broke it for his own twisted pleasure. And the teenage boys, sons of church elders, felt it their right to trap me in a corner and press their aroused masculinity against my childhood innocence.

This is my body, broken by you.

While I was taught to memorize Scripture, to wear nothing that could cause any male to “fall into temptation,” and to sing all four verses of Hymn 365, I was not taught to say no. I was never taught that my body, like Jesus’s, was in fact mine to give away as I chose and not taken away through corrupted power and misogynistic control.

Consider the biblical narratives of Esther and Ruth. These women are often praised for their roles in the redemptive narratives of sparing genocide at the hands of a corrupt government official and restoring a damaged reputation and reproductive lineage. Both are foreigners in the countries they find themselves and oppressed women living under the dominant ruling patriarchal system of ancient times. Strong women? Yes. Brave and resilient? Of course. And also urged to use their female bodies to influence powerful men for spiritual liberation.

Was this God’s plan all along for womankind? Was my body only useful when it was being used by others?

And yet when I examined the words and behaviors of Jesus, I could find no hint of exploitative directives leveled toward women on behalf of men.

How Jesus Teaches Us Mutual Consent

Every word and deed recorded of Jesus’s life and ministry was rooted in intentionality and purpose. He walked into the Jordan River to be baptized as a demonstration of his devotion and commitment to God and his mission. He invited the fishermen and the forgotten to eat with him. He laid down his life and surrendered himself unto a humiliating death. None of these were ever taken from him.

Jesus lived a life of informed consent and modeled what that should look like for both women and men.

So why was I not taught that as a vulnerable, trusting young girl? Why was the truth of my agency and capacity as an image bearer of the Divine not proclaimed as beautiful, powerful, and utterly hopeful? I believe it is because when a woman says no, the patriarchal ecclesial system that requires her to stay quiet in order to maintain its power and control begins to crumble.

Let me show you how this works in the well-known story of the woman caught in adultery in John 8:2–11. It feels emblematic to me that it is the religious leaders who drag a woman out from the shadows and parade her body in front of the very men who condemn her to death, while shielding the man equally guilty of sexual sin.

But what does Jesus do? We are told he bends down and positions his own body in a vulnerable way, as to perhaps catch her eye and connect her back to her humanity. While we will never know what he wrote in the dirt, we know that the men standing around ready to stone her are shamed into dropping their rocks and leave the temple courts (of course this spectacle was carried out on sacred space). Jesus does not tell her to cover up or that she shares the blame. He says,

Jesus: Dear woman, where is everyone? Are we alone? Did no one step forward to condemn you?

Woman Caught in Adultery: Lord, no one has condemned me.

Jesus: Well, I do not condemn you either; all I ask is that you go and from now on avoid the sins that plague you. (John 8:10–11, The Voice)

This is her body, restored back to her.

Jesus restored her body. Her choices. Her future.

The religious leaders slunk back into their stained-glass shadows to lick the wounds of their pride.

The consent that Jesus models both in his own life and in his interaction with the woman caught in adultery is based on mutuality—clearly communicated, deeply understood.  How he repositions his body demonstrates an awareness of what the people around him at the time need to feel both a sense of connectedness and kinship. His way of addressing the issue, not calling out the person, keeps intact one’s agency over their ideas and actions, holding space for the possibility that change and transformation can take place.

This is how participants in any healthy relationship engage one another. This also requires the ability to be seen and heard, to create shared meaning, and then to act out of that shared meaning in respectful, healthy, Christ-honoring ways.

For the woman dragged out into the open by the very men who kept her in the dark, Jesus silenced their accusations and severed their control. I often imagine the scene when it is just the two of them standing together in that dusty village square, Jesus returning her to herself and she walking away, free. Free to become who she was always meant to be. We see Jesus modeling consent in his very presence, never coercing participation or agreement, never insisting on religious dogma over relational restoration.

Practicing Consent Together

So what changed for me? Honestly, becoming a children’s pastor launched me into a deep dive of deconstructing the biblical texts, examining the sexist interpretations I inherited and recognizing their destructive incompleteness. As the spiritual director for vulnerable young lives and knowing the secrecy and shame that shaped my formative years in the church, at the hands of the church, I was determined to tell a different story. And as a follower of Jesus—the one who set me free from the toxic half-truths that I would never be good enough for full inclusion in his work because of my female body—I was no longer buying that lie.

For women and men to practice consent we must be free to embrace and enjoy our own bodies. To acknowledge the beauty and complexity of our unique shapes and sizes, the shades and colors of our inner and outer body parts, our DNA and the social, emotional, and psychological intricacies that reveal our true selves. The psalmist’s declaration that we are remarkably and wonderfully made needs no disclaimer.

Consent cannot be one-sided or conditional upon inherited church practices or narrow biblical interpretation. If we continue to uphold a view of gender roles that keeps women under men’s authority, agency over one’s body and decision-making will never be possible for women. We will always defer to culturally biased male authority over female autonomy. If we relegate God’s work for women based upon the subjugation of their bodies by men wielding unbiblical control, women, young children, and girls will continue to see themselves as half participants in their spiritual liberation, always doubting their God-given instincts to know what is right, what is wrong, and what is true. Consent must transcend our cultural and religious bias and must be rooted in the life and work of Jesus, the Christ, the One whose body we claim to follow and be part of.

What would it look like for us to reimagine theological interpretation and application through a lens of consent? What would it take for us to want to study the life of Jesus, his posture, and presence as one who embodied informed consent? And how might that radically disrupt our current faith communities’ teachings about leadership, gender roles, and our understanding of personal power when we relinquish control over one another and reclaim our agency and autonomy as valued parts of the divinely orchestrated embodiment of the image of God?

Do this in remembrance of me.

Related reading:
Hey Church, We Need to Talk About Consent
3 Ways to Foster Healthy Sexuality in the Church
A Tale of Two Rapes: What Tamar and Bathsheba Teach Us About Power, Consent, and Sexual Violence

Photo by Josh Applegate on Unsplash

Three women smiling at the camera, each is holding a present.

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