Missing the Point: "Propriety" and Authentic Freedom
I am growing to really really love Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. Living each day with Him brings greater clarity each day to the pieces that didn't make sense to me at the start. I am far enough into it all now that I get that it works, that He was telling the truth about life and people and relationships. (Follow Him, and see for yourself!)
I love the stories of His interactions with the Pharisees, too! His theme there is "You're SO missing the point!!" We see that with His reaction to their reaction to His disciples eating grain as they walked through a field on the Sabbath. We see it as He talks about what is dedicated to the Temple and what is used to care for and honor one's own parents. We see it as He tells His stories, like the one of the sinner and Pharisee in prayer, or the one of the good Samaritan. And it occurs to me that we often miss the point just as badly, don't we?
We relate to Jesus just like the Pharisees related to Moses, David, and the prophets, don't we? We ignore Christ's words as "unrealistic" or "undo-able" and substitute in our own proprieties to keep us safe from the sins we know would devastate us, individually and as a community. For instance, Jesus tells us not to just not commit adultery, and not to just not divorce illegally, but to avoid divorce completely if it is within our own power, and to manage all this by beginning at the beginning and not fantasizing about sex with someone who is not your spouse. Evangelicals say that that would be nice if it were possible, but especially men are not capable of not fantasizing about sex with other women; so we will make sure at least that it doesn't go any further than fantasy by putting in place our own proprieties about contact between the sexes. This allows men to be men (and women to be women, although that isn't as much a part of the evangelical myth as of the hidden reality) and enjoy the occasional "unavoidable" fantasy, but never pay the consequences that "real sin" would cost them or our whole Christian culture. And, like the Pharisees, we are so missing the point!!!
Sexual purity and faithfulness in marriage are valued by Jesus because they are necessary to foster a culture of the necessary and appropriate intimate relationships that should exist in the church, and ultimately in the new kingdom. Impurity and unfaithfulness do not just rob our spouses of what we have promised them, and do not just injure us in what we lose in our own character and in our marital intimacy. Impurity in thought or action also robs the object of our thought or action of the relationship God intended us to have with that person, and robs us of the same. The hallmark of our identity as Jesus' disciples is to be the love we have for each other, and it is to nourish us and form us. We are a BODY made up of each other, and each part is necessary for the whole to function as He intended it to function, here and now, in our lives together. We have jettisoned the treasure of those healthy relationships to maintain the facade of purity and faithfulness so that we can look "nice" and like we never needed a Savior or His Kingdom in the first place. We are pharisees ourselves now, and if we want the treasures of the kingdom, we better let go of our silly "propriety" and let Him direct us into actual holiness in a way that actually works for real men and women. He gives us His Spirit poured out on us and He tells us how things really work -- and so the power to follow Him and live in His Kingdom is available.
But we allow for a little "invisible" mental sin but "keep it safe" by living by our "proprieties". I am so glad Jesus didn't live that way Himself! If He had, He would never have let the whore cry over his feet and kiss them and wipe them with her hair. He would never have ministered one-on-one to the promiscuous woman at the Samaritan well at an odd hour when good girls were back home with their water -- especially after she flirted with Him. He would never have allowed Mary to learn Torah while Martha played the appropriate role for a godly woman, because learning Torah was not only forbidden to women but was far too intimate a teaching relationship between rabbi and disciple. And the accounts of His "improprieties" for the culture go on and on!
Of course, He was Jesus, and so He couldn't think lustful thoughts, right? Or, even if He could, because He was fully man as well as fully God, He was God, and so He wouldn't have had the same danger as another man, right?
I don't think that gets us off the hook! As I said, He has given us His Spirit and has taught us TRUTH about how things really work. And an examination of His life and then an examination of human culture teach us that He calls us to a purity of thought and not to rules because it really is what comes out of a man that defiles him, and all the external rules in the world won't restrain a mind and body stirred up by cultivated fantasy. We are not -- as the gnostics taught - divided into body and spirit, with each functioning independently. We are whole people, and any attempt to live lives that assumes otherwise will lead to disillusionment with a gnostic world view. It just doesn't work! What I do affects my mind and will, and what I do flows from my mind and will. What I desire motivates my actions. What I think about will form my life.
So I'm not called to pull myself up by my bootstraps and make myself sinless. I'm not called to try really really hard to "not think about pink elephants" and keep my thoughts pure. I am called to "fix my eyes on Jesus" and called to "love one another, for by this they will know that you are my disciples" and am called to let Him "make me better" as I stay in honest relationship with Him and with my community of faith. But, within that context, I need to know how things work and what following Him will end up looking like. And He does tell us how things work and what following Him will end up looking like!
In the area of gender and sexual relationships, He held up three principles for us to live by:
- He called for sexual purity and sexual faithfulness, beginning at our thoughts and continuing to our actions.
- He treated everyone with respect -- men and women -- and not just with respect, but with appropriate openness to a growing familial intimacy. We are to be brothers and sisters, mothers and sons, fathers and daughters.
- He managed His sexuality not by rules that limited real agape relationships, but by managing His own thoughts and emotions, even if a woman appeared possibly provocative, as did the Samaritan woman at the well. We are to manage our purity the same way -- by learning to control our thoughts, which control our motivation toward action. (And, again, we do this by focusing on reality and on Him, and not by focusing on "not thinking about pink elephants". I can't make myself stronger here, but I can focus on Him and let Him guide me through the process, as much time as that takes Him. My salvation is wholly a work of His grace, and I cannot add to it! I must just "abide" and let Him heal me and change me.)
We demonstrate that we actually do understand that men are not incapable of doing anything but surrendering to their hormones by how we handle true familial relationships in our culture. If we hear of a pastor molesting his daughter, we do not generalize that father's sin and thus call for all fathers to be kept out of situations where they are alone with their daughters and something bad could happen, nor say that we should at least apply that standard to pastors even if not to all fathers, because pastors must be held to a higher standard. Nor do we even call for limits on the numbers of times that a father can be alone with his daughter, or any other such idiocy. We understand that the value of a father-daughter relationship is so very great and that the normal inhibitions and love of most men are so very sound that the problem was not with the circumstance of the father's time alone with his daughter but rather with that particular father's lack of love and self-control. He was sick -- not normal! -- and hurt his daughter deeply in the process. And a huge part of how she has been hurt and of how hard her healing will be for her is this: her very healthy need for her father's love and affection has become mixed with a sick desire for his sexual attention, because that is what he cultivated. And separating those two things out for her will affect all her relationships and will affect her whole life, because it will be hard for her to separate inappropriate sexual intimacy and very healthy relational intimacy.
(I think it is an important aside here for me to make clear that this is not part of my personal experience! On the contrary, my father's love for me and clear mental discipline and clear boundaries with all women -- but obvious sexual enjoyment of my mother exclusively -- lay the foundation for my belief that men are capable of much more than we seem to think they are! Not only have I never heard my father speak disrespectfully of a woman, but have stories from my ex-husband of the ways he is careful to respect women even when "alone with the guys.")
So our healthy familial relationships illustrate that we do possess the ability to be around attractive people of the opposite sex and never have any hint of sexual fantasy cross our minds. Those relationships matter too much to desecrate them by even "harmless fantasy that no one would ever know about." We get there that the fantasy would harm something sacred. To be the Church that God intended us to be, we need to function as a family. There need to be real relationships between men and women who are not married, or we will continue to function with men in power and women behaving neurotically and the Spirit being limited by a culture that cannot respond as the un-crippled BODY of Christ was intended to respond to the world around us. God created us male and female for a reason, and all the voices need to be heard and all the gifts need to be exercised to fully live as the community God intended us to be. The greatest cost of sexual fantasy and of the compensating distance men and women put between themselves and their brothers and sisters in Christ is the cost to God's purposes for the Church in the current generation. Men who sit in closed offices and only interact with women other than their wives in artificial interviews cannot effectively lead and minister to the Church as a body. The Church as a body requires leaders who can effectively hear and utilize all the voices and gifts that God has given them to shepherd.
The culture of secular corporations and secular educational institutions is teaching us all that men and women can work effectively as a team of equals. In that world, a utilitarian focus on the organizational goals keeps things real in their "proprieties." We can apply the same sanity to the goal of following after Christ as He teaches us His values and agendas. We are still sinners, and bad things will still happen -- but a focus on Christ and an honesty with each other will be much safer than a blind adherence to the "do not taste, do not touch, do not do this, do not do that" form of "safety from sin."
So what would this look like for the Church? Would it be okay for your husband to become intimate friends with someone that is working with him on a particular project or committee? Would it be okay to have your wife riding alone with your male pastor once a week to a class they are taking together? Would it be okay for your female pastor to be meeting together with a male elder for private prayer at a set time each day?
We need to grow up! Rules about propriety don't keep us from hurting our own marriages or someone else's marriage. Obedience to Christ and accountability to the whole community as we all speak the truth to each other DO. If my husband is friends with a woman with whom he works closely, he knows and she knows the nature of their friendship and focus, and I probably do, too, and most of those who are on-lookers do, too. People pick up on romantic and sexual vibes very quickly, and likewise have good sensors to tell them when things are appropriate and focused on healthy organizational goals. If your wife is riding alone to class with any male friend or coworker and it doesn't feel right to you, it probably isn't -- no matter what she might tell you about your sensors being broken. But if all is well, you probably feel peace about it, and so will other on-lookers. And that 60-year-old female pastor relates very appropriately to the 32-year-old man she's praying with each morning, and her congregation knows them both well enough to affirm them in their daily prayer time; so it's quite appropriate for them to continue praying together.
I'm not saying that we shouldn't be wise about how we all relate! Nor am I just saying we should uniformly ease up on the "rules", because many grow out of the common sense and wisdom I'm talking about in the last paragraph. I am saying we should add this "rule" to the mix: every woman and every man deserves full participation in the community of faith, and for those in power to limit input from the opposite gender and justify it by "proprieties" is wrong. The social rules in place must show a high value of inclusiveness in circles of planning and power, with the understanding that decisions by committees are made primarily in one-one-one conversations before the committee convenes, and not it committee meetings. Social conventions that provide for real relationships between men and other men and between women and other women, but no friendship one-on-one between the sexes except for married couples or in groups that prevent real conversation about anything important just don't support the healthy community that we are destined to live in! A high value of sexual purity and marital faithfulness is designed to protect healthy community, and that healthy community will best nurture the individuals that will participate in healthy faithful marriages. Let's not miss the point here!!!
The men and women I know who seem to really walk with God each day don't debate any of this stuff. They know what the goals are, and they can sense if they are "fixing their eyes on Jesus" or not, and if you and I are, too. They understand all the agendas that our emotions make us latch on to . . . and that a need for power, or a desire for sexual excitement, or a fearfulness about life and what will happen next that results in a huge need for control, or a need to minimize conflict and justify the status quo, or a need to challenge the status quo because of an enjoyment of conflict for its own sake, or any of the other dynamics that we're all subject to . . . all yield to His authority and His agendas, but most of all to His LOVE. And it is that love that we are called to deliberately and consistently offer up to each other, unhindered by "proprieties" that have a root purpose of allowing hidden sin without allowing it to become public.
May we all grow in that wisdom! May we become a culture that reflects the reality of our sinfulness and of His forgiveness and healing of our sinfulness! Then we will not live by "silly rules", nor will we need to deliberately flaunt another's "silly rules", but we will walk in righteousness that all can agree upon, because "against these there is no law." "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control."
And that is who we are. Let's live in it fully. He wasn't lying when He promised us that power, together in an honest community . . . His Kingdom come, right here, right now!