From Part 2:
“In church services, women rarely hear themselves reflected in the nature of God. And when you don’t see yourself represented in something as important as faith, then it is really difficult to take ownership of the whole thing. There’s a devaluing that happens, whether intentionally or unintentionally.”
Shame and Modesty, or “How Patriarchy Put Us in Our Place”
Even if we start teaching from the pulpit that women have value, it’s in the pews that a toxic view of women often resides. It’s here that an even more sinister force takes hold and widens the path for abusers to step in.
In classes and sermons alike, I was charged with being a “good woman.” Somehow this charge always seemed to be dependent on my relationship with a man or as a caretaker. I was taught that my goal was to be a “Proverbs 31 woman.” But Proverbs 31 was never taught in its context. Rather than a laundry list of things woman must be, it’s instead a praise of the everyday accomplishments of woman in her totality, including her adeptness at management and investment. It’s a poem that Jewish men—not women—are taught to memorize, in order to know how to be wise. A Wife of Noble Character (the title of this chapter) is better translated as A Woman of Valor, Eshet Chayil in Hebrew. I never knew this. This chapter was always thrown out as a list of what made a “perfect” woman and how to be a virtuous and good woman.
Sounds harmless, right? When used recklessly, however, this characterization of the “good woman” tends to lay the foundation for shame. We start to pick apart women who do not fit this model. She who steps into a calling that is not what we’ve carved out for her is highly suspect. So women start to seek conformity, instead of celebrate diversity. Women who speak in a different tenor from us are demonized. And it comes out in our language and our teachings:
“She is bitter.”
“She just wants the spotlight.”
That language devolves into toxicity:
“She deserves what she gets.”
“If only she had worn or done or said this, she wouldn’t be in that situation.”
“Serves her right.”
But what is this? It’s certainly not God-breathed or the way Jesus talked about women. Well, welcome, y’all, to the patriarchy.
Patriarchy is a social structure, and almost every society from the beginning of time has shared this structure. In a patriarchal society, men have a monopoly on power and women are expected to submit. It comes from the idea of father-rule. The father is the authoritative power, and daughters and wives defer to him. In the past, this manifested through property rights, civil rights, and marriage. Men were the only ones allowed to own land, the only ones allowed to vote, and only with a father’s approval, could a daughter marry. Men were allowed to work, but women were not. Even further in the past, women were actually seen as property. Daughters and wives were owned and controlled by their fathers and husbands.
But that was then, this is now. This isn’t a country where women have no rights—we’re all equal, right? Here’s where things get tricky.
Today, in the United States, patriarchy is much more subtle and much more casual. The glass-ceiling and salary discrepancies are just a couple of examples. It includes rigid gender roles, including authoritarian parenting. Blind submission and the expectation that women stay home and have as many children as they can. It’s ideas like all women need a man to complete them, or women who are career-driven and outspoken will drive men away.
Patriarchy comes out through jokes like, “Women just need to stay in the kitchen,” or “She’s got you on a tight leash.” It comes out in comments that stereotype women: “Just like a woman, always talking,” or “She’d just shop away our house if I let her.” It even comes out in comments that are meant to lift up women: “Look at my smokin’ hot wife.”
Patriarchy gives men permission to talk down to and demean women in millions of small, seemingly insignificant ways because society sees the men as superior.
Unfortunately, patriarchy doesn’t stop when it gets to the doors of the church building. It seeps in—often through the teachings and culture of purity and modesty. It’s in this purity culture where shame takes root.
Purity culture is the idea that purity is tied to sexual activity: purity is virginity, and uncleanliness is sex outside of marriage. Purity culture solely concentrates on women’s behavior, and how that behavior affects men. Churches that embrace purity culture seem to be duty-bound to teach the holiness of modesty, virginity, and dignity to girls and young women. But embedded in these teachings is a dangerous theology: a woman’s worth is tethered only to her sexuality.
One of my friends remembers a Sunday school teacher who took out a new tampon and explained how different girls were before and after they lost their virginity. She said, “Here’s a tampon in its wrapper. Anybody would think it’s perfectly fine. You’d use it, like this, wouldn’t you? But what if it was used? Eww. Who would want to touch that? Completely worthless.” I’ve heard of youth ministers passing around cups of water to have teens spit into them, illustrating that they’d drink it untouched, but wouldn’t go near it after it’s been passed around.
Purity culture says that women are responsible for men’s sexual sin, women’s bodies are shameful, women shouldn’t have any sexual desires, and sex before marriage makes her dirty and unwanted.
In purity culture, men are depicted as sex-crazed and unable to control themselves around women; but these sexual desires are normalized. God made them to crave, want, and need sex. For women, however, any sexual desire is seen as wrong and inherently sinful. Young girls are told to protect their “brother” from stumbling by watching what they wear. This teaching suggests to a girl that her body is something that can cause sin. Her body–and her body alone–can make someone fall from the grace of God.
Purity culture also sets up a very twisted conception of men, unhelpful for both genders. Girls are made to be afraid of boys and their lust. Boys are reduced to only their carnal desires and made to fear girls, lest they be tempted. Neither gender gets the benefit of community with one another.
One of the biggest teachings of purity culture centers on modesty. Modesty is typically not thought of as being a negative discussion, but in my experience, our current modesty doctrine contains problematic messaging for young girls and women. Modesty is usually (almost always) paired with shame.
Typically, any time modesty is discussed it is only in relation to what women wear. In fact, I have trouble recalling a sex talk in church that did not mainly focus on how to dress. Modesty “keeps” men from stumbling and is seen as the sisterly thing to do. (The unspoken words here are: “If a boy actually stumbles, it’s your fault and the fault of your swimsuit.”)
Many times, the responsibility of purity and modesty and sexuality are placed squarely on the shoulders of women. We see this in dress codes for camp or youth group outings. There’s an inconsistency. The rules that girls are asked to follow are a lot more burdensome than their male counterparts. (For example, how often have the men in this room had to use a ruler to determine appropriate shorts length?)
Obviously, we don’t intend to teach that girls are only worth what they’ve saved for marriage. We usually teach modesty out of a desire to keep girls safe and minimize any harm that might come to them. In doing this, however, we tend to be one-sided.
The problem with patriarchy and purity culture and its modesty doctrine is rooted in its denial of personhood. Boys are not taught to be modest in their thoughts and desires because the girls are supposed to be taking care of that. Girls are told that their worth lies in their sexual purity—and for survivors of sexual assault, this can be devastating.
Churches must change the messaging. Men need to be held accountable for their actions. Both boys and girls need to learn the importance of consent and the inherent goodness of their bodies and sexuality. Girls need to be taught that modesty is not shirts and shorts over bathing suits, but, instead, an attitude before God.
The question is always going to be, how do we teach modesty and purity without shame? I believe it starts with an affirmation that within each person lies the image of God. Whether a virgin or not, that girl is worthy in the eyes of the Lord and of the church. A no-shame modesty doctrine discusses consent and the reality that we live in a fallen world and that there are people who take advantage of that and commit evil. It emphasizes confidence and self-esteem, and helps girls figure out how to see themselves in relation to God and not to men. It teaches a dress code that isn’t tailored toward keeping men pure, but instead, helping girls feel comfortable and appropriate in each situation.
Purity is taught joyfully and practically, underscoring the fact that as Christians, it is Christ—not us—that makes us pure.
Intrinsic beliefs about who women are and what worth they hold are important. When women are defined only by what they have to give to men, something sinister takes place. Continually, women who speak up are bombarded by comments and insults that don’t engage their thoughts or ideas but instead attack their bodies and womanhood.
In the church, the narrative we write for women is important. If the narrative is narrow and unyielding, if the roles are predetermined and leave zero room for diversity, then those who are seen as outliers become the outcasts. The outcasts become the vulnerable. The vulnerable become the victims.
The church abandons its charge to minister to the “least of these” and becomes a haven for misogynists, racists, and abusers, many times to the detriment of our women.
(This is Part 3 of a multi-part series. Part 4 will examine rape culture in the church and the prevalence of abuse and violence against women among Christian communities.)
Kaitlin Shetler received her bachelor’s degree in social work from Harding University in 2009 and her master’s degree in social work from the University of Tennessee in 2010. She currently serves as the director of the ACCESS Ability program at Lipscomb University and is a Licensed Master Social Worker (LMSW). Kaitlin has over twelve years experience working with at-risk populations, including survivors of domestic abuse, older adults, and the disabled. She lives in Hermitage, TN, with her brilliant husband and sweet baby girl and attends Hermitage Church of Christ, a community that has welcomed her with open arms and little to no eye rolling. Her passion is working alongside people to better the church and the world through advocacy, service, and dismantling oppressive systems. She often speaks and writes on feminism, abuse, disability, race, and sexual assault within church contexts.