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The Politics of Female Sexuality

The Maddening Mystery of The Gender Barrier

Hug When Hugged

The general rule of the road, for most ministers, is Hug When Hugged. Do not initiate a hug. Most pastors insist the ministers form a receiving line at the end of service, which is absolute torture for me, not just because of this gender business but because I've got a mild case of social anxiety disorder. The worst time of the service for me is the end, where I'm greeting the people and having to make snap judgments about handshake, side hug, shoulder touch, neither, and where all manner of emotions and spirits manifest themselves as people pass by, either beaming and happy to see you, or resentful of having to shake your hand. At the end of the day, women are a mystery, if not quite a paradox. I sometimes liken them to dolphins—far more intelligent than most men believe and living happier lives. A woman's capacity to love is amazing. And, all most any woman asks out of life is to love and to be loved, be cherished. I was taught, growing up, that it is not only polite to tell a woman she's pretty or compliment her in some fashion, but that such compliments serve a needful purpose. It costs us nothing, gentlemen, absolutely nothing, to compliment a woman's shoes, or to at least notice that she's wearing her hair a bit differently. Most men could care less about those kinds of compliments, as they tend to make us feel like we're being set up for the punch. But women are like flowers: they need warmth and sunshine. They flourish on love, they wither from loneliness.

Knowing who, when and how to hug women at church is an important skill for male ministers. For some women, and, shockingly, some kids, church will be the only genuine hug they get all week. Some kids race up to you and throw their arms around you because they're starved for affection and contact. Many, many women at our churches are likewise starved but are afraid to display it, afraid to let anyone know that one of the reasons they look forward to church is the fellowship. This is not necessarily sexual, it's more communal. Human contact, the warmth of an embrace. Someone who genuinely cares about them. Things too often missing from many sisters' lives.

Some women can't stand to be touched. There's some emotional baggage left unclaimed on the carousel. She has sadness hidden behind doors we cannot and should not force open. She often sees all men as the enemy or, at least, as predators, when it just isn't so. Earning her trust takes many, many days and more patience than many of us have. Consequently, once that trust is earned, sometimes she can misinterpret our motives, mistaking actual love and care for romantic interest. Women simply respond to kindness. There have been many times I have shown kindness to someone who subsequently interpreted that kindness as romantic interest because that's the only male kindness she's ever known: that temporary faux concern men exhibit when they're trying to get the drawers. She's never experienced pastoral love, agape love, so she doesn't know how to respond. She responds the only way she knows how, the only way she's experienced love. And then gets her heart broken when I have to slam on the brakes; the doctor should not be dating the patient.

So, this is all a minefield, one I find alternately frustrating and fascinating. I love women. I love being around them. I love listening to them, learning from them. I love their strength. I love how they can get their heart broken, but just dust themselves off and try again. That just amazes me. I am absolutely fascinated by their power, by their wisdom and beauty.

But I don't want to live with one.

I've learned, from painful experience, that I am a loner. Most women simply are not wired properly to live under the same roof with me and would drive me nuts trying to make me comply with their Oprah Book Club approach to life. Most women I've loved have thought there was something wrong with me, that I need fixing, that it's not normal to eschew social situations. I've been involved with precious few women who just accept that I am different, who live their lives and allow me to live mine while finding some common ground to build upon. I believe God has granted me wisdom and patience, the gift of singleness. I love women, but I love observing them at a social distance. It's a lot like observing an eclipse or staring into the sun. Women were just one of God's most wonderful and delightful ideas, but for this minister, they are best observed cautiously and at a distance.

Which makes my contact with them Sunday morning all the less nefarious: I have, absolutely, no ulterior motives. But my gender has behaved very, very badly towards these people. Ministers, in specific, have a major weakness for women and, as a result, in the minds of many sisters we are all guilty until proven innocent or gay. I am neither. I'm just a regular guy, with regular temptations and regular faults. But God has empowered me to move beyond those faults and to stop making excuses for sin. Ministers who sin, ministers who stand in the pulpit Sunday after having bedded half the alto section in the choir, are risking their mortal souls over foolishness. They have blood on their hands as they are causing these “little ones offense.” [Matt 18:6] Worse, by standing before God's people, while word of his abuse of his covenant spread throughout the flock, he is, in fact, denying the holiness of God, which is what the Bible means when it speaks of an “abomination.” And, yet, sexual immorality among ministers is so common, nobody really blinks at it anymore. You sisters just keep giving it up to these guys, and keep coming to church and playing this idiot game, falling out and catching vapors Sunday morning knowing what body parts were being tugged and groped the night before. This is what the old folk mean when they talk about people “playing church;” what they really mean is our having a form of godliness but denying the power thereof  [2Tim 3:5].

Unannounced Baggage: Things she won't tell you shapes her response to you.

Beyond Gender

So, how does God want us to be? There's a lot of fairly repressive instruction in the Bible, treating women, essentially, as children to be seen and not heard. In Biblical times, a man could take several wives and, if that wasn't enough, he could take on several other women to service him sexually as concubines—all of which was just fine with God. Society's move towards monogamy, and the slow evolution of women's rights, has created a more balanced, more progressive society. But the old baggage is still there, men's predilection towards exploiting women, women's automatic defenses against, suspicions and mistrust of men.

I believe we should step back from gender for a moment, and see one another as souls. The Bible teaches us that, in eternity there'll be no gender. God is, in fact, beyond gender as assigning a gender to God limits His holiness and omnipotence. So, what if we tried to see one another as souls first, respectful and mindful of one another's needs? What if, instead of just calling women “sister,” we actually treated them as if they were our actual sisters. The women in the church should be off limits. It's really that simple. You cannot effectively serve and date at the same place, it exposes too many of your vulnerabilities. I'd bet 99% of the time the relationship will not lead to marriage, but your ministry will be destroyed because everyone will see your weakness. Ministers dating within their own congregations are ultimately naive or selfish and, likely, lazy and weak. It takes real strength to be a good doctor. The best doctors will tell you it's against their ethics to date a patient.

I'm surprised—well, then again, I'm really not—that more black churches do not have ministerial training for ministry leaders and ministers that deals specifically with these issues. There's just a kind of vague awareness of what is proper and what isn't, and, these days, a blind eye increasingly being turned toward both. There is simply so much sexual immorality going on in the ministerial ranks of the black church these days that such behavior, in and of itself, may in fact account for the black church's overall political impotence and spiritual apostasy, the exploitation of women being the problem's nexus. Rather than cherish her, we cannot resist temptation—often provided by her as she responds to our kindness in the only way she can. We should be wiser than that. We should be stronger than that. Because the beauty of God's grace in us, the wonder of God working through us, can all be lost when we stop ministering to these, when we stop giving and start taking. These women are our sisters. We must be a source of comfort and wisdom to them, and they should feel comfortable around us and feel secure enough to come to us.

Because of our weakness, many women bring the same rules of engagement into the church house they'd use in, say, a night club or bar. They arrive with their defenses up and their mistrust in full effect. The aggressive, icy stand-offish behavior. We call them “sister” but we are, for the most part, grooming them like cattle for the slaughter. And, sisters, once you start giving it up in church, you will get passed around from one guy to the next until you end up having to leave your church—which is the enemy's goal in the first place, to break down our unity and destroy families.

Self-Pastoring: Mom won't say anything, Pastor won't say anything.


Brothers, we have to learn to love without exploiting. We need to give without taking. This glorious and marvelous gift of God, our sisters, is to be cherished and protected, afforded the same dignity and respect we ourselves expect. And, simply put: hands off. We have to mature beyond following our baser instincts and we have to protect ourselves from the overwhelming power of her smile, of her touch. She is on our watch, she is not ours to exploit. We need to be men, men of God, men of honor. We need to seek God's strength to see women as people first and not as objects or prizes. And we must understand the enormity of damage we do to the cause of Christ, to our sisters, and to ourselves, when we make foolish excuses for behaving like high schoolers—showing kindness and then exploiting those we've been kind to.

It is precisely this shameful legacy that keeps us all in bondage. That keeps our sisters trapped in suspicion, unable to trust, unable to reach out. Surrounded by the choir and family and friends, she is, nonetheless, completely alone. Lost in her trouble because we are, to her, what every other man is to her—a predator. Until that changes, until we men grow up and become the men God would have us to be, the labyrinth of sister do's and don'ts will only get more complex.

As with all things within the church, this is a pastoral issue. A top-down issue. But it is one I've never, not once, seen addressed in the black church. Which isn't to say it's not being addressed in your church, it just hasn't been addressed in any church I've been a member of. It's just not, apparently, a priority. Pastors should make it a priority. Many pastors are, themselves, caught in these traps—compassion becoming passion becoming exploitation. Many pastors cannot teach certain things because they themselves are convicted. And, afraid of their being found out, the teaching, the preaching, the work of the Lord simply doesn't go forward.

There really should be no gender barrier in church. Church should be safe ground, not hunting ground. Women should feel safe and loved and surrounded by men of faith they can rely on and trust. The complex menu of sister do's and don'ts is damning evidence that this is, in fact, not the case. That our churches are failing to honor our covenants with God and with each other. Pastors: you simply must do a better job. You simply must care more. These are walls that simply must come down. As a race of people historically exploited, we should be the last to practice exploitation.

And, while women will, likely, always be a mystery, Perhaps, if we were better men, the list of do's and don'ts would get a lot shorter.

Christopher J. Priest
10 April 2002  (Original)
27 March 2006  (Updated)

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