Saturday, January 09, 2016

Discipling Healthy Male/Female Relationships in the Church Part 2: Attractive Women

In Part 1 of this series, we explored what beyond sexual relationships (or sexually charged relationships) is left for relationships between men and women in the church. At one level, that feels like a ridiculous question. We all know that a TON is left. Yet, as any single woman who walks into an evangelical church knows, sometimes it feels like not much with the opposite sex is left for her at all. She has to avoid making eye contact or smiling too much with pretty much every man in the church for fear of being thought of as forward or too interested. I hear this from a lot of women and have experienced it myself. Our sex-crazed secular culture has radically infiltrated the church, and our battles against it have often made us hyper aware of sex instead of giving us a counter cultural way of thinking about male/female relationships in the Body of Christ.

I wrote on this back in October as well. At that time, fall out from incest in the Duggar home had me thinking.
Watching the Duggar family struggle through their scandals the last few months helped solidify this in my mind. No family had better fences against a sex-crazed culture. But the fences didn't work. Instead, sexual attraction entered the very family relationships that should have been the most immune to them. When young men are taught to guard themselves from all women, that the primary sin issue to be wary of with the opposite sex is sex itself, don't be surprised when that teaching infiltrates relationships between brothers and sisters. Josh Duggar should have learned a different kind of relationship with his sisters, a healthy one in which sexual temptation was anathema. Then from practicing healthy family relationships with the opposite sex, he would have a foundation for treating other women as sisters. Instead, the opposite happened. Hyper focus on sexual temptation resulted in temptation entering a relationship in which it should have never been named.
Brothers and sisters, fathers and daughters, mothers and sons, Paul particularly modeled treating non-biological coworkers in the Church using these models. Furthermore, he understood the difference in phileo, agape, and eros love and didn't mix them up in the wrong relationships. In Christ, we can too. In Part 1, I discussed healthy examples of non-sexual male/female relationships that I have experienced. In this post and the next, I will discuss particularly unhealthy tendencies.

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I remember walking into a Chick-Fil-A with a good friend years ago. She was an attractive, happily married mom of two. I'll never forget the change in the demeanor of the male cashier from waiting on me to waiting on her. He wasn't rude to me, and he was appropriately attentive. But his entire demeanor reached another level of interest when he moved to take my friend's order. I could tell she got his attention. He was enamored. He didn't stare at her breasts or anything inappropriate like that. But he was clearly on high alert. She was pretty, and she drew his eye.

I'm not drop dead gorgeous by any means, but I am reasonably secure in my flawed appearance. Some people would think it an asset to be drop dead gorgeous, but I have also watched it be a struggle for friends and have thought a lot about this dynamic that physically beautiful women face, particularly God-honoring women who are not seeking to use their beauty to manipulate men. Men sometimes cast on these women impure motives. But I know many beautiful Christian women who draw men's eyes without any effort, even when the effort has been put in to NOT draw men's attention. They are beautiful, and as a majestic mountain draws our attention, so can physical beauty on a woman.

First, I want to say that in Christ, that is OK. It's OK to observe that a man is handsome or a woman is beautiful or a mountain is glorious or that an infant smells like heaven. But what do we do after that observation? In all of those scenarios, the one I see breaking down again and again after observation is when a man observes a physically beautiful woman. This is the one out of those scenarios that many times results in a violation of some nature, even if it's just putting the woman in an awkward or uncomfortable position.

We understand how secular culture abuses this observation of beauty. A man observes the beauty, and then he wants the beauty. If he does get the beauty, he uses, sometimes even abuses it. If he doesn't get the beauty, he resents it. We call it lust – when a man can not appreciate such beauty without wanting to take it and use it for himself. But what about such observation of beauty in our Christian culture? This is where I am burdened. Because instead of plowing a counterculture that is orthogonal to secular culture, we have often reinforced sinful tendencies by expecting men and women in Christ to default to the world's ways of relating.

Consider the Billy Graham rule, which results in pastors treating every woman like someone they need to keep their distance from. I understand why people have such guidelines – they are afraid of being accused of something inappropriate. Maybe they have even personally felt temptation toward something inappropriate in such a context. We all know of a situation in which Christians harmed their families by acting out on such lust. But this rule for the opposite sex is just the flip side of the world's sensual ways of relating between genders. Alan Noble at Christ and Pop Culture says it this way.
Evangelicals like me are terrible about understanding and promoting “modesty,” and I think a major reason for this is that men don’t know how to live with beauty without owning it. Either it’s ours, or it shouldn’t exist. So, when we see a beautiful woman, it frustrates us. ... 
We don’t want to covet, we don’t want to desire to have her, but what choice do we have except to ignore? And sometimes, probably all the time, beauty doesn’t let itself be ignored. There aren’t enough burkas in the world to hide the beauty of what God has made.
(P. S. If you have a tiny budget for good online content, I highly recommend subscribing to Christ and Pop Culture's monthly online magazine.)

There is a better way for the two genders to relate in the Church, one that isn't the negative side of the world's sensual coin but a different currency altogether.

How do we disciple toward such healthier patterns in male/female relationships? Seeing a woman's beauty may be inevitable for a man. But men and women can exercise the ability to see through the surface of physical attractiveness to the human being made in the image of God underneath. Zack Eswine talks of Jesus re-mentoring him on this when Jesus interacts in Luke 7 with a woman known as a sinner and the Pharisees who judged her.
I remember my stepgrandparents' Playboy Channel, the Hustler porn magazines under the sink cabinet in the upstairs bedroom. I think of Papaw's closet. I am crushed with a realization. I cannot see or minister to women until I learn the grace to see through her body to who she is. “Sightless, unless the eyes reappear,” a poet says. … 
So, when Jesus says, “Do you see this woman?” I'm humbled by his rementoring (Luke 7:44). 
I'm humbled because the pastors (with Jesus) only saw the “sort of woman” she was. All they saw was her body and her sexual ability in life. In this, they were no different from the men she had slept with. They too, though they were not pastors, saw only her body and her sexual ability. I should say, rather, that most of her body went unnoticed by either kind of man. The religious men and the irreligious men had this in common: they looked at the woman, but they did not see her. Edenic eyes gave way again, poked out amid the haze. The religious denounced her. The irreligious desired her. Both were blind. 
I'm also humbled because Jesus isn't looking at the men when he asks them this question. The poignancy of this escapes my words. He has been looking at Simon and his friend, speaking to him and to them. But now, before he asks this question about whether they see her, he turns toward the woman. They no longer receive his gaze. She does. He speaks to them but looks at her as he asks, “Do you see this woman?” 
I wonder what it must have been like for her in the presence of Jesus' gaze. There was no lust in his eyes, no use of her behind his smile, no flirtatious familiarity or flattery in his tone. Her given beauty was noticed and cherished; her heart and mind were understood and known. Had she ever in her life been looked at by a man with such delightful purity, the sheer enjoyment of human company? And, in turn, had these men ever known that they could learn to look at a woman in this way of grace? 
Sensing Jesus p. 220-221
Rachael Starke wrote a helpful article at The Gospel-Centered Woman that gives concrete, alternative ways to work through this issue.
When it comes to questions of how Christians should see the human body, whether our own, our neighbor’s, or a stranger’s on a screen, traditional answers have focused far more on what to do with our eyes than with our minds. ... 
Having an understanding of body image that is grounded in the gospel instead of the world is not so much about keeping our eyes closed but in having our darkened minds enlightened so we can see the One whom our bodies are made to reflect. ... 
For those who have identified with Jesus’s bodily life, death and resurrection, the Spirit of the One who dwelt first in the womb of a woman now dwells in us through faith, making us His living, working temples, as we wait for the day when our spiritual faith will become physical sight, and we exchange our own mortal bodies for eternal ones. Given His eyes and His mind, we will once again see our bodies and our neighbor’s as containers and displayers of glory – not our own, but Christ’s. We will see that the glory of our bodies is not ours to exploit, but God’s to be declared. We will feed and clothe and live and move in them as though they are in Christ’s body, because they are.
When I put these thoughts together, I see first the value of acknowledging external physical beauty. There's no way to avoid it, and in Eden I don't think we needed to. In Christ, we are redeemed and restored from the two equally troublesome choices to it – to take and use such beauty or resent it and shame it because it can't be ours. In Christ, we are equipped to see with eternal eyes, to appreciate the image-bearer beneath the beauty who will be equally precious to God when the weight of age diminishes her youthful external looks. Though the majestic mountain may crumble, the inner soul of an externally beautiful sister in Christ worships with God eternally. The great gift of the gospel is its ability to equip us to see through temporal things to appreciate the eternal things beneath, and in the case of a physically beautiful woman, the gospel calls us to see the eternal soul beneath the exterior and to desire her eternal good as a sister or daughter.

Some might think I'm encouraging men who have successfully avoided temptation from women in their churches to engage them and open themselves up to temptation. But if this avoidance by such a man has resulted in ignoring or shaming a woman, then I don't call that successful at all. Some men in the church have no concept of the deep damage such ignoring/avoidance does to the woman at the other end. You may have successfully avoided eros temptation, but you have done so at the expense of brotherly, phileo love, which is disobedience too.
1 Peter 1:22 Having purified your souls by your obedience to the truth for a sincere brotherly love, love one another earnestly from a pure heart,
Practically speaking, let us exhort each other to practice the discipline of seeing others as Jesus saw the woman of Luke 7 – seeing through the external to the eternal underneath. And as we see to the eternal soul underneath, let us exhort each other to treat sisters in Christ as sisters in Christ. Let us encourage one another in the differences in phileo, agape, and eros love and to stamp down eros with anyone that is not our spouse. But as we discipline ourselves against eros temptation, may we continue to stir up phileo, brotherly love. THIS is a countercultural response.

8 comments:

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  2. Wendy, I am really enjoying reading your thoughts on this subject. It's been eye opening. As a single woman in my 30s, and a disciple of Elisabeth Elliot (a hero of my faith!) I've had no idea how to relate to men without seeming to forward or friendly, and I've even gone so far as to wonder if women and men can/should be friends! I've gained so much from your insights on the familial relationships between women and men, and how marriage is not the ultimate male/female relationship. I honestly don't think I've ever heard this before!
    (An aside: One thing that grieves me is the lack of single men in my wonderful gospel-centered church. There are a slew of amazing godly women with very few men. I'm grieved because after reading I am confirmed in my already-there grief in lack of male friendships. May God provide men to whom to relate in Christ-honoring ways!)
    I'm also challenged and inspired by your reasonable security in your appearance because of your identity in Christ. That, to me, is most beautiful. :)
    Thank you for your thoughtful intentionality in writing. I always look forward to your next post.

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    1. Yep -- no idea how to interact with men without seeming forward. I get that. I am thankful for several pastors and elder friends that helped me over that hurdle simply by treating me like a normal person with no weirdness. I encourage you to cultivate friendships with married couples too. That's blessed me.

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  3. Thanks for this series of posts, Wendy.

    I wonder - Have male/female relationships have been tainted because, like it or not, our culture has been heavily influenced by Sigmund Freud? We do not see people as humans first but through the lens of sexuality. The Christian culture as bought into this as well by telling singles to look at another single of the opposite gender as your potential spouse or another's potential spouse rather than your brother/sister.

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    1. @Persis, I can DEFINITELY relate to that. Mid-thirties, very happily single and like a previous commenter, I don't think I ever heard that men and women could have relationships outside of parental ones, Pastoral ones - very informal and uncomfortable - apart from marriage.

      I was raised in the Church and have male friends, but they are all Muslim males who consider it Haram to have anything apart from platonic relations with me because I am Christian, or people from work, old University friends or 'family friends' I grew up with. I've handled the awkwardness thus far by unconsciously adapting asexuality for a few hours on Sunday morning at Church. I also was heavily indoctrinated in the "look at all other single people of the opposite gender as my (or someone else's) potential spouse". It's interesting to have that defined, because I used to just see it as normal and part-and-parcel of being a Christian.

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    2. Yes. Personhood precedes gender. In other words, I have more biologically, emotionally, and spiritually in common with a man than I do with a female cat. We often have forgotten that in our conversations.

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