Impure: Harmful or Healing Liturgy?

(This post is not explicit but does discuss elements of abuse and the normalization of sexual violence in the church through liturgy. It may make some uncomfortable, especially those with histories of trauma. If you feel this applies to you, there’s no pressure to read it.)

Not all churches or religious spaces are “liturgical” like the Catholic or Anglican communions might be. Yet, all churches have particular spiritual languages and practices that order their worship and shape the way their audiences view their relationship with God and others. Whether premeditated or spontaneous, songs, prayers, gestures, as well as scripture readings, creeds, and rituals give form to one’s faith and directs worship. In this post I’ll be using the term liturgy to refer to these general elements.

Liturgy can edify but it can also silence and re-traumatize. It’s role in perpetuating cycles of sexual violence in the church and associated households cannot be underestimated. At the same time, liturgy has creative and theological power to address and interrupt spiritual, physical, emotional, and sexual violence.

Further reading to consider as you read through the following two major areas of concern:

Is God male?

The Bible, as well as religious language often in used in Christian contexts, frequently refers to the divine imagery of God as a King, Lord, and Father with exclusive male pronouns. Submission and surrender to God may also be included alongside this imagery. Combined with the authority of predominantly male clergy, this can be harmful for survivors of trauma.

Although female clergy may be increasing, men are often elected/hired/called as leaders in evangelical congregations. Yet there is a significant gender gap in the pews. Research finds that women may pray more and attend services more regularly where they make up the majority of many Christian communities.

In a country where 80-90% of reported rape victims are either young or adult women, what messages does male-centric liturgy communicate to survivors of sexual assault and rape in the pews?

photo: joshua eckstein

“Not only is scripture interpreted by a long line of men and proclaimed in patriarchal churches, it is also authored by men, written in androcentric language, reflective of religious male experience, selected and transmitted by male religious leadership. Without question, the Bible is a male book.”

Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza

Perpetuating the exclusive patriarchal nature of these images, terms, and environments fosters potential justification of abuse of power and resulting violence. Even though they may believe the Bible to be inspired and authoritative, these factors can make it difficult to participate in worship and connect with God as not only as survivor but also as a female. Trauma can feel alienating and isolating, perhaps even more so within one’s faith if it feels as if God has abandoned or betrayed them.

To echo the concern of Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, in the words of Mary Daley, “If God is male, male is God.” If we believe the idea God is a sovereign male ruler of “his” children, then the hierarchy of male leadership over women may also exist. This is fertile soil for abuse of power. Women and survivors alike may ask, is there a place for me? Will I find relief or protection from my suffering?

So, is God male? We use male pronouns in sermons, songs, and in our prayers. The Hebrew Bible also uses the third person singular pronoun in reference to God, which we’ve translated as male. And of course, the person of Jesus Christ is male but does this mean the Holy Spirit and God “the Father” are also male?

  • God is not a created, gendered being like humans are and cannot be accurately reflected in an image or seen outside Jesus Christ. Language about God always requires an analogy since God is beyond being.
  • God “the Father” is a metaphor used by Jesus Christ in Matthew 6 and 28 is not a literal relationship. God did not contribute any biological matter to create the Son. The Son is a person of the Trinity, which has no beginning. Father-language is used to reflect a personal relationship and can be appropriate to use, although not exclusively.
  • Deuteronomy 4:15-19 prohibits images of God and idols, both male and female. Creating either a male image or female image for God is idolatrous.

It might be grammatically awkward to withhold gendered pronouns while talking about God but it offers a more precise foundation from which to worship, communicate, and cultivate healing. Other gender-neutral names for God include I Am, Creator, Divine, Light, Vine, Redeemer, Potter, Sustainer, and Word.

(This brief video covers the Swedish church in their exploration of gender-neutral language for God and the diverse perspectives.)

The Eucharist

The Eucharist is one of the most fundamental practices of the Christian faith. It can be spiritually nourishing for both the individual and the community. Yet just as something has power to inspire and provide sustenance for the soul, there is the potential for this power to be damaging.

Sitting, standing or kneeling, bread or wafers or crackers, grape juice or wine, small plastic cups or drinking straight from the silver chalice — the combinations for communion abound. The prayers associated with each element may differ but often reflect the story of the Last Supper.

photo: nicole honeywill

Researcher, Hilary Jerome Scarsella sees the eucharist and other ritual acts as “a negotiation of power relations.” From the language to the posture, communion can be interpreted as harmful for those who have experienced sexual violence. Trauma can be relived, unfortunately. Hearing the words and prayers of the eucharist, kneeling to receive the bread and cup from male clergy, or simply kneeling at the rail to drink from a cup, may produce a strong, if not visceral reaction from those who have been abused.

“The survivor who shared the second glimpse described taking the bread and wine as practice for the next time the person abusing her would force his body on her. Her communion participation, then, seems to have functioned as practicing the role of abuse victim quite literally. In communion, she took on and embodied the role of one who does not have the power to decide what will and won’t be allowed into her body.”

Hilary Jerome Scarsella, Victimization via Ritualization: Christian Communion

Scarsella was also included in a Menonite group who adjusted the language in their communion prayers in an effort to frame the unjust, bodily sacrifice of Jesus Christ in a light unique to him. Their work resulted in two alternative texts for prayers included in their eucharist. The first removed the words “body” and “blood.” The second left these words but added more contextual information (or “framing words”) to better communicate the message of freedom and salvation from sin and suffering.

“In other words, does our worship release captives? Or recover sight for the blind? This process felt like participating in what Jesus announced his whole mission to be about.”

A group member from #WeAreMenno: A new Mennonite communion liturgy addresses concerns of sexual abuse survivors

The fact that scripture and faith practices of the Christian tradition have been used to oppress and re-traumatize others does not invalidate their ability to provide restoration and healing. Often this requires stepping outside of “the way things have always been” and humbly listening. We read scripture and participate in our faith with lenses unique to our personal biases and experiences. Recognizing this and allowing others the space to speak and be heard could be transformative.

Here are some examples of liturgies for survivors of trauma and sexual violence. While researching on purity culture and the damage done at the hands of the church, these prayers and songs inspired me to continue, especially this song.

Read more in this series:

Impure: Female Sexuality in Purity Culture

(This post is not explicit but does discuss elements of abuse and the normalization of sexual violence in the church. It may make some uncomfortable, especially those with histories of trauma. If you feel this applies to you, there’s no pressure to read it.)

Father-daughter purity balls, abstinence-only campaigns, Christian dating literature and Bible devotionals have implications not only on how a young girl is to interpret her role in her evangelical community but also significantly impacts her understanding of her own sexuality.

Power and control are the foundational elements of an abusive relationship. Purity culture uses these concepts, as well as fear, to (directly or indirectly) maintain male power over women. In terms of sexuality, the combination of these elements results in young girls and women being silenced and shamed for natural sexual desires.

photo: Tamara Bellis

Consent, or lack thereof.

Women have very little, if any, bodily autonomy within purity culture. As Dr. James Dobson was building his case against the sexual revolution of the 60s and 70s, Roe v. Wade argued for a woman’s right to privacy. Against this background, the sexual purity movement argued a woman’s body was not for herself but something to be given to others.

Fathers are tasked with the protection (or control) of their daughter’s sexual purity assuming that a virgin is one of the greatest gifts a husband can receive. (In Christian literature, the word virgin is most often associated with females.) Some even believe the father takes the place of a romantic partner, in a way, while his daughter waits for a spouse. The father protects his daughter’s gift and guards her heart (or hymen) with rituals, vows, rings, and exclusive modesty. The language of “gift,” used in many books like Ludy and Ludy’s When God Writes Your Love Story, denotes possession and ownership.

Especially in the context of courtship, the assumed heterosexual marriage relies on parental consent, although mothers are notably secondary or not present in similar literature. Marriage involves a transference of “protection” from father to husband. In this role, a wife is taught to be submissive to her husband’s authority and sexual urges, even by sacrificing her own sexual pleasure. Within marriage, consent is rarely defined or discussed, leaving lots of room for personal interpretation. Separation or independence from either her father or husband is viewed negatively and assumes her purity is at risk without male protection, meaning single or LGBTQ+ women do not fit in the prescribed box.

“A message that points to the marriage altar as the starting gate of God’s calling for women leaves us with nothing to tell them except that God’s purpose for them is not here and now, but somewhere down the road.”

Carolyn Custis James, Half the Church

The female body is treated like property of the system and property does not require consent. And while she may say “yes” or “no” to his marriage proposal and perhaps “I do” at the altar, the decision has already been made due to the power that rests in the hands of her father and potential husband, and perhaps even her pastor.

Fear of the female body and her libido.

Language of “purity” in this evangelical subculture attempts to expand upon the definition of virginity by including not only physical but also emotional purity. Myths encompass the female libido and body.

“Growing up within the purity movement, I was never taught about my own sexual response and sexual desire; I was only taught how to control the sexual response of the men around me.”

Amanda Barbee (Read her article, Naked and Ashamed: Women and Evangelical Purity Culture here.)

Purity culture teaches it is unnatural for women to be sexually assertive or competent. Men are assumed to have “animalistic” libidos, while women are “passive” and prefer emotional intimacy. For females, their thoughts must be carefully shielded against emotional closeness and sexual desires, though these sexual desires are assumed to be a lesser struggle for them than for men. Constantly, young girls are told to “guard” their bodies, minds, and hearts from the sexual desires of themselves and others.

  • In “Unhooked: How Young Women Pursue Sex, Delay Love and Lose at Both,” author Stepp believes only men should initiate sex. She suggests women find fulfillment in other areas, such as the kitchen or hospitality.
  • In Shalit’s book, “A Return to Modesty: Discovering the Lost Virtue,” she argues women are naturally modest and pure, only to be corrupted by the world around them which tempts them to be sexual. Shalit does not believe female sexuality is healthy apart from marriage.
  • In Leslie Ludy’s blog and books, she suggests emotional intimacy is only for a husband. Impure thoughts must be confessed.

From very early ages their bodies are sexualized, objectified, and perceived as dangerous to the male gaze and assumed to threaten his ability to lead or fight. A woman’s reproductive functions have been interpreted as unclean and connected to the myth of “hysteria” or stereotypes of being “overly emotional.” Tertullian, an early Christian author, believed womanhood was essentially tied to destruction and sin, based on Eve’s actions. This idea has been carried into our world today, likely through benevolent sexism. If this is true, as the weaker spouse, women require male protection since they are more predisposed to sin. (This is theologically inaccurate.) If a woman steps outside of this protection, either by dressing “immodestly,” having sex outside the prescribed context, remaining single, or identifying as LGBTQ+, she is then assumed to be a threat to the group.

photo: Suad Kamardeen

Those who are single or LGBTQ+ are not the only ones cast aside in purity culture. Girls and women of color may have more challenges within purity culture than those who are considered white. Media surrounding sexual purity may appear as diverse but a second glance will prove “purity” is directly connected to youthful, slender, cisgender, white virgins. This narrow defintion is elevated above all others, which implies those outside this definition are predisposed to impurity. This contributes to the racist idea that whiteness is the default or “normal” standard in our society.

“To justify breeding, the institutionalized sanctioning of ongoing rape of enslaved black females to produce future laborers, white supremacist patriarchs had to position the black female in the cultural imagination as always “sexually suspect.” To make the black female body machine, vessel, was an act of dismemberment — a mutilation that ensured this group would always be seen as less than, as not really and truly worthy of desire…[White and black men] could dare to fantasize and/or enact sexual acts deemed degrading with black female bodies since it was impossible to ruin that which was perceived as inherently unworthy, tainted and soiled.”

bell hooks (Read her essay, Naked Without Shame: A Counter-Hegemonic Body Politic here.)

These assumptions were not extinguished with the Emancipation Proclamation or the Civil Rights Movement and have continued to be passed down in a variety of ways. I highly recommend bell hooks’ entire essay, as well as the work of Dr. Thema Bryant-Davis.

Shame and silenced survivors.

Unless controlled by a father or husband, girls and women are taught to believe their sexualities are dangerous and their bodies cannot be trusted. Without bodily autonomy or an equal share of power — females are denied sexual pleasure.

“Yet taking the joy out of sexuality is a surefire way to ensure not that young women won’t have sex, but rather that they’ll have it without pleasure.”

Jessica Valenti, The Purity Myth

Purity literature in evangelical circles rarely contrasts premarital sex and sexual violence. When combined with the common elements of rape culture, purity culture views sexual assault and rape as simply sex, and specifically sin if outside marriage. Victims/survivors become perceived of as sinners who have not lost their voice but their purity. These messages can be implicit, but others are direct. Dimarco, in “Technical Virgin,” argues women are always responsible for men’s lust and the resulting thoughts and actions.

“By accepting “boys will be boys” and excusing the behavior of perpetrators we alter the accepted definition of sexual violence to the detriment of those suffering. When this definition changes, sexual violence in its objective form cannot be reported, because it has been normalized by the community.”

Heather Hlavka (Read her article Normalizing Sexual Violence: Young Women Account for Harassment and Abuse here.)

If sexual violence is recognized for what it is, there is no structure to report abuse or to recover from various types of trauma. The abusive cycle of power, control, and fear can begin again as rape myths and victim blaming may overwhelm any chance of being heard and helped appropriately. Purity culture is abusive to female participants but especially to victims/survivors of sexual violence and single, LGBTQ+, and “minority” girls and women. Men also suffer, although in different ways. Sadly, anyone outside the patriarchal, heteronormative definition of “purity” is likely to feel the weight of myths, victim blaming, and other forms of hostility.

“If one member suffers, all suffer together;” 1 Corinthians 12:26

Read more in this series:

More resources:

Impure: In Defense of the American Family

Nothing is created in a vacuum. Purity culture is quite the mix of misguided pastoral care and political concepts. The rise of a sexual purity doctrine isn’t exactly a new phenomenon in church history, nor do I believe the church is done wrestling with their attempt at counter-cultural sexual ethics. Here I want to focus on just a couple key elements in purity culture’s recent history.

Dr. James Dobson

The purity culture you may have been raised in was shaped by many different political movements and people throughout the 20th century but one figure in particular kept appearing in the research I read: Dr. James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family. (Adventures in Odyssey, anyone?)

photo from latimes.com

In the 1970s through the early 2000s, Dobson’s career grew from psychology to pastoral care, and yet again to politics. His books and radio show on children and parenting became popular amongst Christian fundamentalists and evangelicals. During this time society was exploring a sexual revolution, rights to abortion and contraception, the equal status of women and those included in the LGBTQ+ community — things Dobson argues will destroy the American family.

In defense of the family unit, Dobson believes and advocates for the following:

  • Families, and associated values, should return to “the ‘Happy Days’ of the 1950s” with traditional gender roles. (Dobson and Bauer, Children at Risk, 1990.)
  • Sexual immorality is a “threat to survival” for healthy families, who are to be a reflection of the created order, (i.e. the conservative understanding of gender hierarchy as believed to be found in the Adam and Eve’s relationship.) Sexual sin has the power to “destroy the institution of the family.” (Emotions: Can You Trust Them? and The New Dare to Discipline, both published in 1992.)
  • Sexual liberation, as seen in the 1960s-1970s, was a “social, spiritual, and physiological disaster.” To save a nation, Dobson believed you must save the family. (The New Dare to Discipline, 1992)
  • Secular sex education “breaks down the natural barriers between the sexes and makes familiarity and casual sexual experimentation much more likely to occur. It also strips kids — especially girls — of their modesty to have every detail of anatomy, physiology and condom usage made explicit in co-ed situations.” (Dobson advocates against comprehensive sex education.) (The New Dare to Discipline, 1992)

Now let it be known, Dobson is not solely responsible for the sexual purity movement. There were many other authors, pastors, public figures or groups alike who echoed his concerns and carried influence. Elisabeth Elliott, Paige Patterson, Jerry Falwell, and Pat Robertson, among others in groups like Promise Keepers, the Moral Majority, or Christian Coalition pushed similar messages. Dobson’s success lies in his ability to creatively articulate the perceived problem and solution from his widely known platform. Despite denying his involvement with politics, his voice captured the attention of millions, even the ear of politicians and presidents who would support conservative legislation on abstinence-only sex education.

photo from religionnews.com

The Significance of Abstinence-Only Sex Education in the US

Purity culture is founded upon the practice of abstinence before marriage. This practice is not inherently damaging, but the methodologies used to teach and sustain it have been controversial. Since the 1980s, the federal government has spent over 2 billion dollars on abstinence-only focused programs, yet even with good intentions these programs may not have been helpful to youth. Setting the theological background aside for now, here are a few (very, very brief) historical points on sex education in the states:

  • Federal government funds abstinence-only sex education in 1981 through the Adolescent Family Life Act.
  • Through the welfare reform this funding expands in 1996 and provides resources to public and faith-based programs, now known as Title V Abstinence Only Until Marriage (AOUM) programs.
  • In 2004 it was found that 11 out of 13 AOUM programs were not teaching scientifically accurate information on reproductive health and contraception and instead emphasizing traditional gender roles and religious beliefs. (Read more.)
  • Critics have argued AOUM programs are focus on “character and morality,” while comprehensive sex education focus on “health behaviors and outcomes.” (Read more.)
  • Researchers have found the results of abstinence-only education are not necessarily different than the results of comprehensive sex education. In fact, those who participated in abstinence focused spaces had an increased risk for STIs/STDs based on decreased condom use. (Read more.)

Without accurate information, developing an informed sexual ethic is extremely challenging. Abstinence before marriage is in no way a bad thing, yet if this all-or-nothing approach is the only tool in someone’s back pocket, they will be extremely unprepared (emotionally/physically/spiritually) if/when something does happen to them or a friend.

If you are interested in more details on these programs, here are a few resources to dig into:

I found this information helpful so I hope it proves helpful to you as well. As I continue to unpack purity culture here, we’ll soon see how Dobson’s intentions to protect became weapons in the church arsenal to be used against the vulnerable and those suffering at the hands of sexual violence.

Read more in this series: