[Trigger warning: rape, abuse, misogyny]
My apologies that our series on sexual ethics has been on hiatus this past week. As you may know, I decided to pursue a PhD here in St. Andrews and ended up being fully funded to do so---that interrupted my life for a bit. We're back now, continuing the discussion of rape, virginity, and marriage as sexual act begun in this post. (For new readers to this series, my apologies. I am still trying to migrate comments from Disqus to this new space, but it looks like they're still not showing up on that old post. There was hearty discussion, so if you leave a comment that ties into something we've already been hashing out, I may point you toward the old post's comment section.)
Let's reconsider our 'house rules' for this dialogue.
- These posts are about creating a holistic sexual ethic. They are not how-tos or in-every-situation-this. They are paradigms by which we navigate daily situations, or, better, vocabulary by which we engage Scripture and our daily lives more completely.
- These posts are specific in focus. This post, for instance, is about rape and virginity in light of the New Testament. While other issues are worth discussing and will be discussed in the future, let's try to keep the focus on what the post itself is addressing.
- We treat the Bible with respect but not as an excuse. This has more to do with the Old Testament, which we explored last week, but we are essentially agreeing that Scripture is inspired, as God-intended, but nonetheless problematic at times thanks to us now having all of it in one go, 2000 years removed from its latest context. For instance, we see Deuteronomy a bit differently thanks to the Gospels. That's the tension we're willing to engage in these posts: respect without being dismissive.
Let's consider where we've recently been: Deuteronomy 22 and the laws concerning rape.
- As a consequence of Genesis 3, women were considered property, not people. This was not God's intention from the beginning, but a consequence of the Fall. An extension of that claim to property was female physical virginity as a commodity, owned by fathers and sold to husbands.
- A large part of Deuteronomy 22 is poorly translated to us, at times, because the internal context of the passage usually speaks about matters of consent, not several instances of varying kinds of rape. This wasn't tidy or perfect, but it helped us understand why, in English, it sounds so strange to our ears that a sexual encounter in a city is different than one in the country, and so on.
- In cases of rape, however, we had to come to terms with a situation that is pretty daunting: being wed to one's rapist. We determined that this has to do with economic justice, the protection of the wronged woman who was sinned against, and her ultimate wellbeing in the society. This was uncomfortable for us, uneasy, but it did highlight the problem of the Fall, the problem of systemic patriarchy, and the greater hope of what the Gospel would mean for Israel and for the world.
Today, let's look at the radical reevaluation of sexual ethics in the New Testament. We'll be going out of order chronologically, but we'll be going in order ethically, looking at three key passages concerning personhood and consent: Ephesians 5, Matthew 5, and 1 Corinthians 7.
Let's first examine the end of Ephesians 5.
Wives, submit yourselves unto your own husbands, as unto the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. Therefore as the church is subject unto Christ, so let the wives be to their own husbands in every thing. Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ also loved the church, and gave himself for it; that he might sanctify and cleanse it with the washing of water by the word, that he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish. So ought men to love their wives as their own bodies. He that loveth his wife loveth himself. For no man ever yet hated his own flesh; but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the church: for we are members of his body, of his flesh, and of his bones. 'For this cause shall a man leave his father and mother, and shall be joined unto his wife, and they two shall be one flesh.' This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church. Nevertheless let every one of you in particular so love his wife even as himself; and the wife see that she reverence her husband.
This passage has caused many-the-problem over the years. As poor readers, we have a tendency to extract it from its context, skim through the list like they're simple commands, and decide we have it figured out: women are inferior to men and that's that.
But let's slow down for a moment and look at what's happening more closely.
First, the passage is dealing with an explicit relationship: husbands and wives. It is not, as some has misconstrued, relating to men and women. While I think we can extrapolate certain premises from this portion of the Text, we need to be sure, first and foremost, that we're treating it with the respect it deserves and taking it on its own terms. That said, notice that if we were to count the sentences divided among husbands and wives, wives receive three sentences and husbands receive five.
Moreover, we would do well to consider the unique context of the passage. Ephesians is, unhelpfully, split between chapters 5 and 6 in the midst of talking about husbands and wives, children and slaves. Why is this unhelpful? Because as chapter-driven readers it causes us to miss the larger contextual point that Paul is making.
Notice that in his instructions to husbands, Paul stresses that they are to love their wives as their own bodies. This is a radical overturning of Greco-Roman household codes, which, along with the Jewish narrative of the Old Testament following the Fall, viewed women as property, not people.
Paul is making the subversively beautiful claim that women have the same personhood as men, they are free agents unto themselves, not controlled by their husbands. Further, we see this radical Christian ethic of personhood running into Ephesians 6, in which children, who in the ancient world had no rights, are also recognised as persons. Slaves, too, who had more rights than children but were still considered property, are now told that they and their masters are equal in the sight of God.
This, after Paul spends Ephesians 1-3 reminding the Jewish believers that the Gentiles have been grafted into the covenant inaugurated and summed in Messiah Jesus, marks Ephesians as an epistle that is profoundly revolutionary in its exposition of the personhood and identity of all people within and outside of the Body of Christ.
This is what I mean when I say that we can extrapolate Paul's contentious about personhood beyond husbands and wives, because he has made this claim by first presupposing that because of Christ, something radical in the social and philosophical identification of the other has happened.
We see a similar contextual recognition in other oft-used proof-texts for supposed hierarchy such as 1 Peter 3 and Colossians 3, which are also doing more to revolutionise their first readers understanding of personhood than we can appreciate. We contend in scholarship that the Epistle to the Ephesians was one of Paul's circulated letters, which would have been read in front of men, women, children, and slaves in believing communities in Ephesus and elsewhere.
Imagine hearing, for the first time, that you were seen not only as equally grafted into God's family as His chosen people, but that He had also radically reordered social norms. You were not a bought and sold commodity. You were free. You were equal.
That freedom came contextually and with mutuality, hence the instructions to husbands and wives to reflect a specific aspect of grace to one another, but imperatively that reflection comes first and foremost out of the claim of equality. Deeper than basic rights, deeper than we can really understand: people who had never been considered persons before were being told they had a right to their bodies. They had a right to their thoughts. They had a right to their being.
This is the radical, revolutionary, awesome claim of the New Testament, begun in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, pronounced in His resurrection, and thereafter carried out by His Spirit in His male and female apostles and in the members of His Church.
We can say nothing concerning rape and virginity in light of the New Testament without first showing how the Old Testament, here, has been reevaluated. Deuteronomy 22 no longer has the hold it once did, because women are no longer the property of their fathers or their husbands.
This gets into the issue of financial justice for women who are victims of rape in this first century culture, echoing the concerns we raised with the end of Deuteronomy 22 a few weeks ago. (As an aside, I am pleased and honoured that I get to welcome Danielle from From Two to One this Tuesday to share thoughts about what justice looks like for rape victims in today's context.) As it concerns the first century, I would point out the repeated emphasis in the New Testament for the church to care for the oppressed as strong evidence that, were a woman to come to financial ruin because her physical virginity was stolen from her and the culture outside of the Church still viewed that as her only means of securing stability, it was the Church's responsibility to care for and provide for her.
Even still, this understanding of personhood vastly broadens the narrow understanding of sexuality the Old Testament presents us with, which is concerned primarily with female virginity and its physical sign.
So it's only after we understand the way the New Testament is carrying out the vision of reversing the curse of Genesis 3 will we be equipped to better navigate what we are weighing when we consider virginity and rape.
Let us now turn our attention to the specific topic of rape. If rape in the most rudimentary sense is about the forced sexual exploitation of another person through coercive measures, such as but not limited to violence or authority, than the essential issue underlying the act is consent.
Let us consider Matthew 5 as an example of the New Testament's perspective on consent.
Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, That whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart.
This passage is sometimes used to shame men into "bouncing their eyes" and to keep themselves from looking at women with sinful intent. (While I want to heartily affirm that lust is sinful, I would suggest that we've at times confused lust for healthy sexual attraction and the Church could work a bit harder at a balance of Scripture and biology.) I would like to focus, however, on the implicit move that Jesus is making in these brief words: He's assigning agency to the offender, not to the offended.
That is, instead of putting forth a conditional proposition---it's only adultery in the heart if the woman was wearing modest dress and then you exploited her in your mind---Jesus makes this pronouncement without any qualification.
If a man lusts after a woman, regardless of her being fully clothed or fully naked, the sin is within himself, not between them. Here, we find another radical notion in the New Testament: consent. (A good resource for this topic in today's Church, in a very simple and direct form, is this post from Dianna.)
If women are people, not objects, than their bodies belong to themselves. They have a right to give them or not give them to whom they please.
Accordingly, physical virginity is now also a woman's own, not the currency by which their fathers secure for them a husband. Yet it stretches even further than that, when we see this echoed, implicitly, in 1 Corinthians 7:
Now concerning the things whereof ye wrote unto me: It is good for a man not to touch a woman. Nevertheless, to avoid fornication, let every man have his own wife, and let every woman have her own husband. ... I say therefore to the unmarried and widows, it is good for them if they abide even as I. But if they cannot contain, let them marry: for it is better to marry than to burn.
Considering what we have already understood about Paul's proclamation of equality, the passage's mutual respect for men and women to have their own husband or wife as they please is no surprise to us. Rather, let's consider Paul's words to the spouseless.
First, it is helpful for us to recall that Paul is writing, we surmise, under the belief that the eschatological realisation of Christ's return is imminent, which explains the strange wish that the single would remain single, echoing similar things he says throughout his correspondence with the Corinthians. If Jesus was to return the next day or the day after or even within the year, it seemed foolish to attach oneself when, according to Jesus, in the coming kingdom marriage would no longer be.
Second, I want to emphasise that Paul does not distinguish here between male and female singles. Rather, as his language was inclusive concerning husbands and wives, it is inclusive again. He recognises that marriage is no longer an arrangement in which a father sells his daughter to another man, but a relationship in which a male and female mutually consent to being united in marriage. Again, personhood is the underlying power that enables this understanding of consent to be realised.
What this means, then, is that while Paul recognises sexual immorality as sinful, giving a clear distinction of what that means by establishing a dichotomy in the passage---speaking to married persons about their bodies being mutually available to one another---he is nonetheless championing a mutual, healthy sexual relationship within the context of marriage.
He is proclaiming the same logic of sex as union as we first explored a few weeks ago, he is proclaiming that true sexual intimacy, that true sexual, sacramental union, occurs in consented sexual relationships and that those are suited exclusively for the context of marriage.
Within this we also have the resources by which to understand what the New Testament is telling us about virginity: it's not only physical.
Whereas the Old Testament, following the Fall, emphasises a narrative in which women are property and do not have agency, the New Testament subverts this. Whereas the Old Testament, following the Fall, emphasises physical virginity as the sign of purity, the New Testament, through Paul's proclamation of personhood and consent has overturned this. It's not about physical virginity, but about the mutually consented giving of oneself to another, that, that, is what is to be held in the context of marriage.
I am left to I conclude that while physical virginity may be stolen through an act of rape, spiritual, sacramental virginity is only given through consensual sex, the act of uniting, an act that Paul continues to hold firmly belongs in the context of marriage.
A woman or man who has been raped is not sexually united in the spiritual sense to their rapist. The language of unity only occurs in mutual, consensual sex.
What viewing virginity and consent in this way does, perhaps, is this:
Perhaps it is the affirmation to anyone who has ever been abused or violated that even if the physical sign of virginity has been stolen from them, their fundamental, sacramental wholeness of being has not been. The unfathomable guilt, shame, imprisonment in doubt that comes out of being so violated is a consequence of the sin perpetrated against the victim, not their own doing. They were never asking for it. They never deserved it. The abused are not, in any way, the guilty ones. Their bodies are not the guilty ones. Their souls are not the guilty ones. They, the whole of them, are not the guilty ones. And that is the freedom of the Gospel.
Simply, the New Testament is powerfully subverting our expectations: we have the right to personhood, we have the right to say no. If those rights are violated, the violators must be brought to justice, because they contribute to this present darkness, against which we struggle. (Ephesians 6)
Though this isn't tidy. This isn't easy. This isn't the fix. We still have yet to do the hard talk about justice, about afters, about the way ahead. On Tuesday, that's what Danielle will be considering. I hope you'll come back and join us as we continue to dialogue justice in light of abuse.
If you or someone you know is in need of help, my friend Dianna was gracious in compiling the following links for me:
The Rape, Abuse, and Incest National Network (RAINN) [Dianna notes: can be transphobic depending on who you get, which is really unfortunate]
Rape Crisis (England/Wales)
Victim Services (government run)
RAINN also has an international page.
Others are listed here [Dianna notes: many of these listed (state by state) are trans* and LGB friendly.]