The Mod | The Sacred Vagina? Nadia Bolz-Weber and Sexual Purity

Monday, 04 Mar 2019

Last month, Pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber spoke at the 2019 MAKERS Conference, an annual conference on gender equality.  Before her speech, she brought out a small sculpture of a vagina she’d had welded from donated melted-down purity rings and presented it to feminist icon Gloria Steinem.  Those who donated their rings received a ‘Certificate of Impurity’, stating that the donor will vow to lead ‘a SHAMELESS, open and free life, with love for themselves and their body, knowing that they are already holy,’ as well as a ‘SHAMELESS impurity ring’.

Bolz-Weber has already made waves with her bestselling book Pastrix: The Crazy, Beautiful Faith of A Sinner and Saint,[1] the story of her own conversion, journey through church-planting, and the ups and downs of life in ministry.  Five years later, she remains theologically liberal on a variety of issues, so those familiar with her positions on gender and sexuality will perhaps be unsurprised by this gesture.  In an interview with the Huffington Post, Bolz-Weber discussed the rationale behind the project, saying that it was a symbolic gesture to reclaim female genitalia from the control of the church and re-assert female ownership of it.  “This part of me is mine and I get to determine what is good for it and if it’s beautiful and how I use it in the world.” She sees the project as an encouragement to women to see the power of “tak[ing] symbols and words and actions that might have harmed me at a different time in life and to reclaim and redefine and rework those into something healing and humorous.”  “The idea is to tell former purity ring wearers that they are holy because of the life that God has breathed into them, and that this holiness isn’t something that can be taken away by another human being.”

Shocking though this act might be to conservative Christians, it should not be surprising. Bolz-Weber has identified herself as not just a theologically liberal, but an aesthetically non-conservative pastor, so using female genitalia as a symbol of both defiance and hope is almost to be expected.  What should grab our attention isn’t the display of female anatomy, but the way she is addressing a very real brokenness in the Christian community.

Purity Culture vs. Sexual Purity

While I disagree with Bolz-Weber on a number of theological and biblical points (her ideas about sin being prominent among them), I do share her concern about purity culture.  Scripture quite clearly calls women and men to sexual purity outside of marriage and sexual chastity within marriage—Paul writes to the church in Corinth that the sexually immoral, idolators, fornicators, and those who practice homosexuality will not inherit the kingdom of God.  He reminds the church in Ephesus that sexual immorality, impurity and covetousness must not be named among them, and admonishes the young men in Titus’ congregation to treat the young women as sisters, with all purity.

The leaders of the purity movement rightly take these admonitions seriously, and their motives are good.  The problem is not with sexual purity per se, but in the manner and emphasis of the movement’s message, the brunt of which tends to fall disproportionately on young women—“Don’t go out alone at night,” “Dress modestly,” “Don’t be a stumbling block,” etc.  This, combined with the continual focus on the biological differences between men and women and warnings about the potential dangers of male-female intimacy, creates the impression that (1) all men have a sexually predatory nature, and that it’s a woman’s job to protect herself from it, (2) the burden of male sexual purity is mostly on women—she must not dress, act, or talk in a manner that will ‘cause them to stumble,’ as her brothers cannot be expected to exercise self-control or bear the responsibility for their own thoughts and actions themselves, and (3) men are walking sexual time-bombs and there’s nothing they can do about it, except get married.

Don’t misunderstand—men and women are certainly biologically different, and that will of course manifest itself in their sexuality.  But the call to sexual purity cannot fall solely on women. We cannot reduce a woman’s worth to her virginity and a man’s sexual nature to purely biological impulses.  Doing so disassociates human sexuality from its proper context as an important and wonderful aspect of our creaturely composition and degrades both to the level of purely sexual beings with no value or purpose apart from their sexual agency.  We are not animals without souls who engage in intercourse for procreation alone; we’re image-bearers of the triune God whose sexuality is a marvelous aspect of who we are as human beings. The physical urge and biological impetus is an important part of that—one that we do well to recognize—but it’s not the only part.  That urge is accompanied by a moral conscience and (in the case of the Christian) a heart regenerated by the Holy Spirit and reoriented by love of God and neighbor. Certainly, a woman’s sexual purity is important, but not because it’s the only thing of value she has to offer—she is more than an unbroken hymen. Men’s sexual drive is a good thing, but it does not and should not control him—he is not a beast looking for release wherever he can get it.

As a result of the purity culture’s elevation of a woman’s virginity to her holiness, and the degradation of a man’s sexuality to that of uncontrollable impulse, many women and men today severely struggle to understand what it means to glorify God in their sexuality.  Some struggle with guilt and shame long after they’ve repented of their sin (or after a sinful act was committed against them); some live in constant fear of committing the same sins today they repented of tomorrow; many live with no idea how to reconcile their sexual urges with their holy identity. Bolz-Weber does well to acknowledge the hurt occasioned, and in an attempt to heal the wound, offers her own medicine: bring an offering (donate your old purity ring), I will be your mediator (I am the priestess sculpting the offering), and I will confer upon you the holiness you crave (I’ll send you a certificate and a new ring).

Unfortunately, the history of the church is rife with examples of leaders trying to mediate holiness.  During the Middle Ages, the sale of indulgences, the issuing of pardons in exchange of donations, and the power struggle of the church leadership blocking the laypeople from the word of God resulted in a massive reformation and schism in the church. Anything that attempts to replace the true gospel message of healing and hope is fraudulent at best. Fortunately, Scripture gives Christians their own signs and symbols of reassurance, ordinary elements with a sacred purpose.

Sculpture and Certificate vs. Word and Sacrament

Bolz-Weber understands the value of symbols.  Her sculpture acknowledges the wrongs inflicted upon earnest Christians, affirms the beauty and worth of the female body, and asserts a woman’s value as being more than simply sexual.  A good friend of mine who keenly feels the damage of purity culture commented to me that she wishes she had a purity ring that she could send in to be destroyed. This makes sense—there is catharsis in ritual—but while destroying the symbol of the culture that caused needless pain and shame may make one feel better, it cannot actually absolve us of our sin, sexual or not.

One of the pitfalls of purity culture is that it elevates sexual sin as permanently damaging as well as eternally damning—Christ may have borne the punishment for our failures, but virginity cannot be restored.  It is the unforgivable sin, and all others pale in comparison. While the Westminster Shorter Catechism does say, “Some sins in themselves, and by reason of several aggravations, are more heinous in the sight of God than others” (WSC 83), we must remember the following sentence: “Every sin deserveth God’s wrath and curse, both in this life, and that which is to come” (WSC 84).  Our sexual sin does not condemn us more than gossiping to our friend, the pride in our hearts, or our lack of love for our neighbors. Any sin—every sin—warrants the fair judgment of God. Purity culture has the tendency to elevate sexual sin to an unsavable nature while downplaying the ‘respectable sins’ into inconsequential faux pas. This in turn causes us to seek symbols and signs to relieve us of the one sin, when God has graciously provided those to heal us from all our sins.  Melting the symbol of our pain may be a therapeutic exercise, but it cannot propitiate the wrath of God against all the sins we commit every day in thought, word, and deed. We need something greater than a purge to free us from the guilt and shame of all of our sins.

This is what makes the gospel of Jesus Christ so glorious—all of our sins, public and private, have been done away with by the sacrifice of his own body at Calvary.  There is no need for a human mediator who says, “Come, let me remove your guilt and shame;” our Savior has already done it. We don’t need a defiant symbol of the assertion of our own power and autonomy because we have the freely given symbols of our salvation on Sunday—the word of the gospel, the water of our baptism, and the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper.  His word declares our guilt in the law and our freedom in the gospel; the waters of baptism signify the washing away of our sins; the bread and wine signify the sacrifice made on our behalf by Christ and the new covenant wherein we are free not by our virginity, but by the gift of his righteousness. These signs and seals, the practice of Lord’s Day liturgy, the very Word of God contained itself are all precious tools given by God to remind us that there is no sin so great that his blood cannot cover it, and no wound so deep that he cannot heal it.  He knows the perversion of his Word that turns good exhortations into heavy burdens, and the sinful corruption of our own hearts that turn good desire into lust. He knows our shame and the bitter regret of wishing we knew better. He knows our feeble attempts to reconcile our feelings with who he declares us to be, and that we will desperately seek any means of healing and hope to deal with the depth of pain. For all these reasons and so many more, he has given us these powerful symbols, his living word, and the family of God to remind us that no matter how broken we may be, no matter how great our shame and guilt, we are now and always will be his children, precious and beloved in his sight.

 

 

 

Sherrene DeLong  (MAT, Westminster Seminary California) is a contributor to All Are Welcome: Toward A Multi-Everything Church.  She lives in Virginia with her husband and son.

Brooke Ventura is the digital editor of Modern Reformation.  She lives in Ontario, Canada with her family.

 

 

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[1] Read Executive Editor Eric Landry’s review of the book here.

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