The Church Has Body Issues (Part 1)

body issues

by Jenell Paris and Hannah Rasmussen

“Since my friend came out to me, I’m struggling with what the pope said about homosexuality.”

“It feels like church events are not aimed at people like me, who don’t fit the girly-girl stereotype, or who plan to be celibate.”

“I can’t get over the fact that God is a ‘he.’ The Bible was written by men in a patriarchal culture, and, based on my church experience, it doesn’t seem like much has changed.”

“I used to attend church with my single mom, but we were treated like second-class citizens.”

“Since the rape, I’ve looked to the party scene for fulfillment. I want God, but I’m too scared Christians will judge me if they know my secrets.”


As a college student (Hannah) and a professor (Jenell), we hear students longing to connect the sacred to the sexual, and to see how they can join their bodies with the body of Christ. Truth is, we often settle for far less than the fullness of life in Christ—compartmentalizing sexuality and gender instead of integrating it; ignoring it instead of addressing it; or moralizing about select behaviors instead of companioning young people in their spiritual journeys.

Genesis 1:27 describes sex and gender as an integral part of creation: “God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them” (NLT). The great commandment is to love the Lord our God with our whole lives (Matthew 22:37–38). The question is not whether our gender and sexuality are related to bearing the image of God, but how they are connected.

No doubt about it, the church has body issues. God is certainly big enough to handle these issues and questions, but is the church brave enough to effectively address them?

Holiness Infused With Compassion
[Jenell] Sex, gender norms, labels and practices are changing quickly. As a professor, I hear students asking new questions like, “When, exactly, is virginity breached?” or “What does it mean to have sex?” These questions emerge because oral sex, pornography, and outercourse (intimacy to orgasm without intercourse) are now part of the mainstream sexual repertoire. I’m sometimes uncertain whether to speak of homosexuals, straights, LGBTQ, or to not label sexuality at all; my students use all these terms, and each carry different connotations. Using the correct language is a balancing act. I want to keep up with culture because new labels, words, trends and practices really do shape how people experience sex and gender. But on the other hand, borrowing the words of a hymn, I want simply to “tell the old, old story of Jesus and his love,”[1] helping young people see their lives as part of a story greater than themselves, one that arcs toward the love of God.

Those of us who lead ministries need to find a balance between raising questions and having answers, between cultural relevance and the “old, old story.” Raising questions is important, but endless speculation is hardly fruitful. At the other extreme, offering an airtight package of answers (Gender Roles According to Expert A, or Sexual Boundaries According to Expert B) isn’t the goal, either. Though they may express it with annoyance or boredom, youth rightly perceive over-reliance on moral teaching as missing the mark—having a “form of godliness” that denies the full power of God (2 Timothy 3:5). Holiness is fullness, and this does not mean moral perfection.

Holiness is living life more and more centered on and located in the love of Jesus. John Wesley said that when we follow hard after rules and laws, we may perform right behaviors, but for the wrong reasons. Instead, when we know God loves us, we move more and more toward the freedom, mercy and grace that flow from that love. And thus, right action is produced when we are motivated by our love for God, not by our fear of punishment or desire for approval from earthly religious authority.

When the church is merely a dispenser of answers regarding right and wrong behaviors, the body of Christ transitions into a group dependent on church leaders for answers: What does God think of this behavior? How about this one? The church’s apparent obsession with controlling people’s sexual behavior reduces the mystery and complexity of sex to a list of rules. Instead of being invited to begin or continue a lifelong journey toward God, they are often made to feel like criminals standing in the dock, not travelers on a journey. Stewardship of sexuality and gender should not be neglected. When a person orients his or her life toward Jesus, an actual body—sex and gender included—comes along for the ride.

When we believe–and teach–that gender and sexuality are integral rather than incidental to life with God, life becomes about so much more than avoiding behavioral sins, and Christ’s lordship can begin to transform and impact all areas of life. Leaders can empower the body by teaching discernment. We can teach the lifelong skills of studying Scripture in its original contexts and thinking critically about how to apply that teaching today. Those who sit in our pews and chairs can journey with us as we sort through Christian culture, secular culture and the Bible, and as we discern how to live holy lives. For me, this journey is well worth the effort.

However, it isn’t always comfortable.

To be continued tomorrow

1. Charles Johnson, One Hundred and One Famous Hymns (Halberg, WI, 1983).

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