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The Bride of Christ
Sarah M. Wells

“Woman, where are they? Has no one condemned you?”
“No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you,” Jesus declared.

John 8:10–11

I learned in college Bible studies, after I became part of the church—the bride of Christ—after I was gathered into the arms of grace and rescued, that a woman should not dress in such a way as to be a stumbling block to men. We were billboards for the wandering eye if a little skin was shone. Why make it harder on our Christian brothers if we could avoid it? Men are visual creatures.

It was a hard pendulum swing for the girl who used to walk the amusement park in a white crop top and cut-off shorts hoping for attention from the boys who traveled in packs, a tough turn for the high school girl who posed for glamour shots with friends in clothes we would never buy but loved for the way they accentuated our assets. We leaned forward, stuck out our chests, and grinned in women’s dressing rooms, dressing to lure a brand of love. Instead, miles away from high school, I began to dress with an awareness of what seeing my body might be doing to those boys around me, those good Christian boys who were trying to maintain their purity. “Modest is hottest,” I learned, and now, ah, I was enlightened. From the distance of my college campus ministry, I shook my head. I had been wearing the wrong brands.

The reasons for modesty were clear: Showing skin caused others to sin, to think bad thoughts, to want me for my body, to lust instead of love. Short sleeves are fine but no tank top straps, no low-cut v-neck, no cut-off shorts. I glared at the high school girls who walked into my church sanctuary wearing ruffled skirts with the seam a few inches below their crotches. What were their parents thinking? What a pity. I stood so far from the football field where I fan-kicked into the splits wearing nothing but a white leotard and shimmery tights underneath a sparkly Dallas Cowboys uniform. I remembered the way I walked way back when, hands in my back pockets, abdomen tan and bare. About those girls I knowingly thought, You don’t want that kind of attention. I know you do, but you don’t, really.

Maybe dressing in long sleeves and jeans served as a sex repellent so the boys could only wonder what a girl’s body looked like under all that fabric, as if we weren’t all hungry for intimacy and longing to be filled with some resemblance of the love we raised our hands and voices to each Sunday morning, each song sung as if to a lover, “I want to be romanced by the King of the Ages,” songs meant to engage the emotions in a fervent relationship with the God of the Universe and the God of my heart. It was okay to be pursued by Jesus, it was okay to declare that God’s “love has ravished my heart and taken me over, and all I want is to be with you forever.” Even John Donne begged, “Take me to you, imprison me, for I, / Except you enthrall me, never shall be free, / Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.”

It was okay to use the language of romance to talk about God; it was okay to be on fire for Jesus, to raise our hands and cry, to place our hands against our hearts and beg him to come into us. Isn’t this what Jesus wanted?

And yet, in our relationships, we were terrified of crossing lines. How far is too far, we asked our college small-group leaders? Can we kiss? Can we touch? Can we grope? The most conservative vowed to save even their lips until their wedding day. Sex was the thing to avoid until it was within the appropriate confines of marriage; sex was the definition of impurity, the evil that would undo our relationship with God, poison the hope for a healthy marriage. Do not touch. Do not tempt. Wait, hold out your hope for human intimacy until your wedding day; then, sex will suddenly become okay, good even, holy even, beautiful even.

Until then, dress modestly; you don’t want to tempt a boy into sin, you don’t want to cause him to think unclean thoughts, make him do things to you he might regret later, lead him to touch you when you don’t want to be touched (if you don’t want to be touched, and you don’t, right, because it would mean disobedience, discipline, wrath of God in guilt and shame), and you know, it will be your fault, you should have been more modestly dressed, you shouldn’t have been at that party, you shouldn’t have been alone with him in his room. You were asking for it. It’s your fault.

This is what I thought to myself when my best friend of ten years, my best friend who wore t-shirts with sleeves and jeans, modest in her composure, who wore no makeup, who led prayer events and coordinated See You at the Pole movements, when my best friend asked me into her room and said in more words than this, “He violated me.”

I looked at her, stunned.

“Are you sure?” I asked, “Are you sure?” It was months ago, this moment between her and her ex-boyfriend. Why now, why did she wait to say something? “Are you sure?”

Did she cry, or was she ice already, walled off and composed, her confession a throbbing and bleeding muscle of heart in her hand, outstretched as her eyes hardened. How many times we had raised our palms to the ceiling together to worship in a sanctuary, begging to be filled with the Holy Spirit, begging to be made clean, begging to be made new.

“It must have been a misunderstanding,” I said.

And then silence, a silence that began in that room and stretched long for years between us.

“I need you to leave my room,” she said, “This friendship is over.”

But didn’t you want it? You must be confused. I’ve done far more with boys than this, far more than this has been done to me with boys; this is nothing, nothing at all, you are being naïve, you were sitting in his room with the door closed, weren’t you? Didn’t you invite this? Didn’t you want it? This is the way the boys are, don’t you know? There must have been something you did that said you wanted it, didn’t you? Didn’t you?

The lover of our souls, the Christ, who met the woman at the well in broad daylight and talked to her as if she was a person, not a Samaritan, the Christ, who offered her living water, who broke every societal norm and social rule in regards to her, the Christ, who was touched by the woman who bled and said, You are healed, go in peace, be free from your suffering, the same Christ bent down and wrote in the sand, the Pharisees seething, he bent down next to the woman caught in the act of adultery—caught in the act of adultery, no male partner thrown down next to her—and asked her, Woman, where have they gone? Has no one condemned you? And she said no one, Then neither do I condemn you.

But I left her. I left her in her bedroom alone. Hands outstretched.

Jesus. A

 

Sarah M. Wells  is the author of Pruning Burning Bushes (Wipf and Stock, 2012). She serves as managing editor for the Weatherhead School of Management and associate editor for River Teeth.

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