I fully intended to move on from Adam with this post, but some recent conversations with Christian friends have sparked a few additional thoughts on our perceptions of gender and sin, so please indulge me one more time on this topic. (Note: I’m suspending my previously made rule for this series on the use of the terms “gender” and “sex” because I’m bringing the topic of sexual relations into this post.))
First, I want us to consider the responses of Adam and Eve following their disobedience in the garden. As the story goes:
When the woman saw that the fruit of the tree was good for food and pleasing to the eye, and also desirable for gaining wisdom, she took some and ate it. She also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate it. Then the eyes of both of them were opened, and they realized they were naked; so they sewed fig leaves together and made coverings for themselves.
Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and they hid from the Lord God among the trees of the garden. But the Lord God called to the man, “Where are you?”
He answered, “I heard you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid.”
And he said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?”
The man said, “The woman you put here with me—she gave me some fruit from the tree, and I ate it.”
Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?”
The woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.”
Genesis 3:6-13, NIV
Out-loud interpretative readings of this text can vary from the comedic to the downright pathetic. What we have here is the first human attempts at scapegoating. Adam and Eve are confronted with their disobedience and both attempt to shift blame, make excuses, and look for some way out of the situation they’ve made for themselves.
We all do this. Our flawed human nature is really good at this (or so we think). We know well the power of misdirection. We’re quick to be the one to yell, “not it!” when the finger points our way. This is a human problem, but somehow when we get specific about sin in our teaching on the issue, we tend to make assumptions about sin based on gender. No pastor worth her/his salt would stand before a congregation and say, “Women sin a certain way, and men don’t have that problem.” That’s heretical. We know every human is capable of sin, regardless of our personal proclivities. Still, we make often make gender-based generalizations.
A few weeks ago, I was talking with some friends about the importance of righteousness in church leaders. During our discussion, we recounted the instances of leaders who had to leave ministry because of “moral failure.” A couple of women in our party wondered if men and women in leadership face the same temptations and failures. The consensus moved toward the thought that men are prone to sexual sin and women are prone to sins like slander or gossip. I disagreed with this theory: citing examples of men and women who defied those expectations and positing that most of our perceptions on this subject are unnaturally skewed because of the prevalence of male leadership and the rarity of women serving in high-profile roles. The consensus shifted slightly, but the idea that men have a proclivity for sexual sin and women have a proclivity for sins related to “manipulation, control, or the misuse of the tongue” is so pervasive, it would take more than the occasionally contrarian counterpoint to wrench it from our discourse.
Think about the last sermon you heard on these topics, or on sin in general, did the examples fall along predictable gender lines? I’m not a gambling woman, but I’d bet you five dollars they did. You could get a crash course in this by immersing yourself in any number of teen ministry gatherings on “purity.” Often, boys are taught to control themselves as sexual initiators and girls are taught to gird themselves as the gatekeepers of virtue. Alyssa Bacon-Liu writes of her experience as a young woman learning about purity and modesty in the church:
There are so many rules in Modesty Culture. So many rules and you know what? It doesn’t make sense. It really and truly doesn’t. And women? We will always lose. Always. The game is designed for us to fail.Because how in the world could I possibly figure out what article of clothing is going to cause a man to lust after me at any given moment? How? Seriously — if someone has the answer, please tell me. To me it seems actually insane to tell girls that every morning when they wake up, they should think to themselves, “What can I wear today that will not cause a complete and total stranger to think sexual and/or perverse thoughts about me?”
Our skirts will never be long enough. Our curves never concealed enough. Our clothes never loose enough. Someone, somewhere can tell us at any given time that we are not modest enough and that we are a temptation and distraction to the men around us.So I stopped playing the game a long time ago. And I started breaking the rules. The rules that tell me that I do not deserve respect based on what I’m wearing. The rules that tell me that somehow I have control over others’ “impure thoughts.” The rules that tell me that as a woman I need to walk through life on eggshells so I don’t tempt or distract a man from God. Or whatever. The rules that tell me that someone else’s sin is my fault.
These ideas about gender and sin are prevalent, but it is difficult to determine where they originate. No serious study of scripture will establish these gender lines. In fact, Scripture is full of examples of both men and women engaging in a number of different sins. Men are schemers, manipulators, deceivers just as often as women are, if not more so, in the Bible. Jesus addressed several women with promiscuous backgrounds in the Gospels.
History actually speaks to a different conceit about gender and sexual desire/temptation. Sociologist and writer Alyssa Goldstein recently blogged about these phenomena at AlterNet in a piece called When Women Wanted Sex Much More Than Men:
today, the idea that men are more interested in sex than women is so pervasive that it seems almost unremarkable. Whether it’s because of hormone levels or “human nature,” men just need to have sex, masturbate, and look at porn in a way that simply isn’t necessary for women, according to popular assumptions (and if a women does find it so necessary, there’s probably something wrong with her). Women must be convinced, persuaded, even forced into “giving it up,” because the prospect of sex just isn’t that appealing on its own, say popular stereotypes. Sex for women is usually a somewhat distasteful but necessary act that must be performed to win approval, financial support, or to maintain a stable relationship. And since women are not slaves to their desires like men, they are responsible for ensuring that they aren’t “taken advantage of.”
The idea that men are naturally more interested in sex than women is ubiquitous that it’s difficult to imagine that people ever believed differently. And yet for most of Western history, from ancient Greece to beginning of the nineteenth century, women were assumed to be the sex-crazed porn fiends of their day.
Clearly, these ideas about gender and sin are flexible and culturally constructed. We don’t know precisely how or why these things get started (though much of it is entangled in the ongoing disenfranchisement of women), but they do have important ramifications for every believer and all of us have the responsibility to understand these issues in light of Scripture.
Let’s look first at the ramifications. When we generalize that certain genders have specific sin patterns, we enable sin to flourish in several ways:
Stigmas can compel people to struggle with sin in shame and silence. I’ve seen this play out with women wrestling against lust. Most Christian women I know have struggled with lust or have had sexual relationships outside of marriage. For many of these women, there is deep shame, and a sense that they are alone. They may have been told, through sermons or the general Christian discourse, that they are “ruined.” In her blog, Sarah Bessey writes:
I was nineteen years old and crazy in love with Jesus when that preacher told an auditorium I was “damaged goods” because of my sexual past. He was making every effort to encourage this crowd of young adults to “stay pure for marriage.” He was passionate, yes, well-intentioned, and he was a good speaker, very convincing indeed.And he stood up there and shamed me, over and over and over again.Oh, he didn’t call me up to the front and name me. But he stood up there and talked about me with such disgust, like I couldn’t be in that real-life crowd of young people worshipping in that church. I felt spotlighted and singled out amongst the holy, surely my red face announced my guilt to every one.
He passed around a cup of water and asked us all to spit into it. Some boys horked and honked their worst into that cup while everyone laughed. Then he held up that cup of cloudy saliva from the crowd and asked, “Who wants to drink this?!”
And every one in the crowd made barfing noises, no way, gross!
“This is what you are like if you have sex before marriage,” he said seriously, “you are asking your future husband or wife to drink this cup.”
Over the years the messages melded together into the common refrain: “Sarah, your virginity was a gift and you gave it away. You threw away your virtue for a moment of pleasure. You have twisted God’s ideal of sex and love and marriage. You will never be free of your former partners, the boys of your past will haunt your marriage like soul-ties. Your virginity belonged to your future husband. You stole from him. If – if! – you ever get married, you’ll have tremendous baggage to overcome in your marriage, you’ve ruined everything. No one honourable or godly wants to marry you. You are damaged goods, Sarah.”
(This description of purity is especially hurtful to rape survivors, who did not consent to sex in the first place.) Women fighting for holiness in their sexuality are reluctant to confess their sins to other believers, preferring instead to contend with their past (or their present) alone. As a result of this isolation, they are more susceptible to failure in their efforts, and they are vulnerable to fear and shame. We tell people that their identity is wrapped up in their sexuality, yet because we do not acknowledge the desires of women, women face more social penalties for sin in this area than men do. These stigmas can drive women into avoidance and fear of being found out. Consider how stigmas inhibit the counsel of Scripture: “If we claim to have fellowship with him and yet walk in the darkness, we lie and do not live out the truth. But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, his Son, purifies us from all sin.If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” (1 John 1:6-8)
Nature becomes a scapegoat that enables us to get away with sinning. This works in two different ways. First, if women are naturally more likely to slander and gossip, it makes it more difficult to hold them responsible for such sins. We could excuse it, the way we do when men sin sexually. “Boys will be boys,” they say. Men may be freer to confess ongoing sinfulness in this area, but they are less likely to be held responsible or accountable for those failures because we expect them. Second, and conversely, when men dishonor or slander someone’s reputation, we may not even recognize it as such because we do not expect it from a man. Disunity is an intense problem in our churches today and when we ignore sin, or relegate it to only one type of person, we facilitate the destruction of relationships within the Body. In both of these cases, we are excusing sin, much like Adam and Eve did. But instead of blaming that woman over there or a serpent, we blame the tendencies of our sex.
We defile the good things God has given us when we make generalizations about gender and sin. As a married woman, I’ve been exposed to a lot of teaching on what husbands and wives think about sexual union. Most of this teaching is bunk and it codifies the two issues above. I’ve often heard teachers (and by this I include pastors) articulate the mystery of the one flesh doctrine this way: husbands want to be “physically” satisfied and wives want “emotional” connection. Even if that were true (and, I am wholly unconvinced it is), such selfishness would be sinful. In an exposition on Paul’s teaching in 1 Corinthians 6, theologian Anthony Thistleton writes:
In this area Paul was far ahead of first-century cultural assumptions in perceiving the sexual act as one of self-commitment, which deeply involves the entire person. Not merely body parts. Paul is saying that sex is meant by God to be the full giving of one’s entire self to the one to whom you belong.
In his sermon, Sexuality and the Christian Hope, pastor Tim Keller adds, that Paul was rejecting the dueling concepts of his day, where one camp said (to paraphrase entire philosophies) “sex is dirty,” and the other said, “get it while you can.” We can see these two philosophies duking it out in our culture and in our churches today. Keller argues that Scripture introduces a radically new way to look at sex: “physical donation must be accompanied by self-donation.” In a marriage, showing up for your feelings or for your orgasmic satisfaction is anything but self-donation, and it is a defilement of God’s purpose in creating sex to express and facilitate the oneness of married life.
Just as through the Scriptures Paul is giving us a new idea about sex, Jesus gives us a new/old idea about sin:
You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder,and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell.
You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’But I tell you that 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: 21-22, 27-30, NIV)
In using such hyperbolic language, Jesus is imploring us to take sin seriously. If we are going to go forward in following Christ, we have to be open to admonishment at all times. We cannot bury our proclivities in excuses and rationalizations, nor should we shame sinners seeking freedom into hiding. Pastor Martin Luther King, Jr. once said, speaking of justice, “Darkness cannot drive out darkness, only light can do that.” In order to walk in the light, we must stop genderizing the human struggle against sin.
Homework: If you’re up for it, and I hope you are, read the whole Goldstein article linked above. It’s long, but incredibly compelling.