Our Bodies are Evil: The Heresy of Gnosticism and Purity Culture Today
In a desire to provide guidance to our children, Christian parents and churches can create an unhealthy, unbiblical and even heretical culture. In this study by recent Greenville University graduate and St. Paul’s Free Methodist Church assistant pastor Kait Mathews, we are invited to give a thoughtful consideration of the theological heresy and psychological trauma. Presented on July the 19th, 2020 here is Pastor Mathews’ work:
“As the Gospel began to circulate through the Roman world in the first century, the ancient heresy of Gnosticism was one of the earliest to infiltrate the Church. The word Gnosticism originates from the Greek word gnosis which means knowledge. The Gnostics believed that there was a secret knowledge that was exclusive to those with a true understanding, which then would lead to the salvation of the soul. This spiritual salvation was superior to the Gnostics, because they saw the human spirit as naturally good, but imprisoned in the body which was naturally evil. Thus, the goal of the Gnostics was to free the spirit from the person embodying it and that was only possible with the mysterious knowledge of the “true understanding” that they possessed. The split between spirit and body led the Gnostics to distort the early church’s cognizance of who Jesus was. Gnostics envisioned Jesus as the messenger of the “true understanding” and they didn’t think that Jesus was fully man. Rather, His body just seemed to be human. This is also known as the heresy of Docetism. This seemingly human Jesus is a denial of the Christian doctrine of the incarnation of Jesus as fully man and fully God.1 I think a danger in reading our passage from Romans today is that we might get the impression that Paul is trying to teach Gnosticism.
Although this heresy is one of the earliest for the church, that does not diminish the impact that it still currently has within the church today. One manifestation of Gnosticism in our society today has been with the objectification of women.
Today, our passage from Romans (8:12-25) seems to be quite fitting in such chaotic times when thinking of the objectification of women in our society, and even on our college campus. I have found myself on numerous occasions thinking of the upcoming semester and the students coming back to campus. I am reminded of the alley between Joy and Jansen known as “Catcall Alley.” I am reminded of the stories of women being sexually assaulted on our campus, but too afraid to come forward to report it due to concern for how their perception by others would be changed. I am reminded of a conversation from the small group that I led in the spring semester of this past year. The discussion ventured to purity culture within the church today. Multiple women in the group began discussing events called Purity Balls that were supported by their youth groups, which I had vaguely heard of previously.
Upon researching these, I discovered that over 1,400 Purity Balls are federally funded around the country each year, where young girls pledge their virginity to their fathers in promlike events. At these events, the girls recite a pledge vowing to be chaste until marriage and name their fathers as the “keepers” of their virginity until a husband takes their place.2 In my own experience, I do not hear about men being virgins, as the term virginity is almost exclusively when speaking about women. This objectification is particularly frustrating when there is no scientific working definition for virginity. Yet, society continues to emphasize that a woman’s worth is based on
1 From “The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation” by Justo L. Gonzalez, 2010. 2 From “The Purity Myth,” by Jessica Valenti, 2009.
their ability to remain pure and be a virgin.3 Even worse, “impure” activities are not limited to only sexual activity, but also includes staying out too late, drinking, or simply having guys that are friends.
The Church has a lot to say to young women about virginity, but once they have lost their virginity, the church begins to propagate the heresy of Gnosticism. When thinking with the mindset of the body being evil as the Gnostics propose, women look at their bodies and are reminded that up until that last century they were something that could be owned, traded, bought, and sold by men.
The virginity movement wants to propose the idea that a girl’s body and what she doesn’t do with it is what makes her valuable or not. This assertion that a girl’s ethics are based on her passivity is ridiculous and heartbreaking when we consider that the CDC reported nearly 1 in 5 women have been raped during their lifetime. 1 in 3 female rape victims experienced it for the first time between 11-17 years old, and 1 in 8 female rape victims reported that it occurred before age 10.4 This creates cognitive dissonance as the Church pushes for purity yet ignores the traumatic events that are perpetuated at rates that are seemingly inconceivable.
As many of those girls are young and their first experience is being raped, how does the Church continue to ignore their experiences? How are women expected to uphold a purity standard that cannot be attained?
When a girl is told as an 8th grader by her youth pastor that she is a chewed piece of gum once she has sex, but then is raped as a junior in high school, how would she feel after the encounter? Do you think it would be possible for her to decipher that she was raped, or would she be filled with tremendous shame thinking that all of her value was ripped away by someone else? Will she think that her actions somehow caused the encounter? Do you think that she would choose to reach out to her church, the same people that had deduced a woman who has had sex as a chewed piece of gum? Even if she does get the courage to reach out to the Church then, do you think the Church would have been able to help her to have an understanding of what being raped is even?
We are currently living in dangerous times. Our Romans text states, “and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and joint heirs with Christ–if, in fact, we suffer with him so that we may also be glorified with him. I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us.” I ponder, how are we suffering with those women who have been objectified? Or, are we actually the perpetrators of the shame, guilt, and confusion of women who have faced these monstrous acts, because of the purity culture that we have been conspicuously silent about. Statistically speaking, a woman that you know has suffered from
3 From “Virgin: The Untouched History,” by Hanne Blank, 2007.
4 From https://www.cdc.gov/injury/features/sexual-violence/index.html.
rape and I imagine those women are waiting with eager longing, after being subjected to futility, for our world to help in the healing.
As we turn to our Gospel (Matthew 13:24-30, 36-43), the Church is given instructions how to respond. With the problem of purity culture illuminated for us, now seeing the dangers of it, we must navigate what the weeds planted by the enemy and what that has created which causes women to be objectified in our society today. Although the enemy planted these weeds as we were asleep among the good seeds, as the text suggests, we cannot be complicit in the violence against the victims of objectification and rape.
If we are to be those that are the good seeds, we can live beside the weeds without being influenced to think like them. Location is actually essential for change. The good seeds must not be uprooted too soon, because the proximity to the weeds who think differently than the good seeds, allows a space for dialogue between the weeds and good seeds. Christians are not called to isolate ourselves and only live among like-minded people, rather we are capable, and it is necessary for us to live within systems that are broken and with people who do not share the same values and this text challenges us not to uproot ourselves from places that are broken. We can live in a broken system, in this case one that objectifies women, but we do not have to play by the same rules as those that are weeds.
A challenge for the Church to be the good seed is for us to begin to learn more about the objectification of women and how the systems in place are diminishing the worth of women to nothing more than their status as a virgin or not. As women share their life experiences of objectification with the Church, we must not diminish their pain, stories, or emotions. We need to embrace the women, name the experiences for what they are, and rightly define the pain that has been suffered by them without rationalizing the systems that have perpetuated the false teaching that women are somewhat of a lesser than men. Jesus operated His ministry in liminal places, so we must also strive to do this. No place is too desolate, nor is anyone abandoned by God – the reign of God extends divine holiness and a commitment to human well-being to places that we might have thought were beyond the limits.
As we begin the journey in dismantling the objectification of women, our psalm gives words that we are able to meditate on. The last two verses can especially guide us, “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. See if there is any wicked way in me and lead me in the way everlasting.” (Psalm 129:23) Where we are now, is where God has planted us. When we begin to bloom, will we become the wheat or the weeds?
As Gnosticism was disproven as a heresy, women deserve a model of morality that is based on ethics, rather than based on their bodies. With eager longing, I wait with all of creation. I am groaning for the coming day where we are able to live in a world that is representative of the will of God being done, on Earth as it is in Heaven. First, we must listen.”
To watch the video click here. (10:50)
Kait Mathews studied ministry at Greenville University (‘20) and currently is on the pastoral staff at St. Paul’s Free Methodist Church in Greenville, Illinois serving as the Pastor of Church Logistics. Kait also works at Greenville University and serves as the Shapiro Program assistant in the Bastian School. This program seeks to embody a Christian theology of restoration, while combating fear, ethno, and religiocentrism through experiential learning by inspiring students with a vocational vision of reconciliation