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Churches Teaching the Doctrine of Shame

March 18, 2015

This is an excellent article and I am posting it because it elaborates on what I also wrote, however imperfectly, about sexuality and orthodoxy.

by Polk Culpepper – Pubblished on March 13, 2015

Many churches teach the doctrine of shame without really knowing it. For example, a core shame message taught in many churches is that you must be like Jesus at all times; anything less and you have failed not only yourself but God. You don’t measure up. You will never be good enough. God will be perpetually disappointed with you. Another example is the teaching that Christians are expected to tithe ten percent of their income to pay for clergy salaries, building maintenance and, where applicable, judicatory expenses. Such expectations make tithing a litmus test for discipleship. Real Christians tithe. Those that don’t should be ashamed of themselves.

The use of shame and guilt has been a widely used technique of control for millennia. Parents use shame to control the behavior and thoughts of their children; teachers use shame to denigrate poor performing students; church leaders use shame to increase donations and control behavior. Because they are accustomed to being preached to by their parents, having fingers pointed at them and being told they are unworthy, shame-based congregations are attractive to shame-filled persons.

Perhaps the most damaging form of shame is that associated with sexuality. Sexual shaming affects the very core of the personality. Being sexually shamed at an early age damages a person for the rest of his life. For centuries (at least since the writings of Augustine) the church has taught that sexual activities are inherently sinful. When a Greek-based duality of body and soul was transposed into the Christian theology of human nature, the body was labeled “bad’ and the soul “good”. Because sexual activity is associated with the body it came to be seen as bad, indecent, to be engaged in only when married and only for the purpose of procreation. And even then, not to be enjoyed, but seen as one’s duty to help populate the world with more Christians.

The fourth century church father Augustine’s low opinion of sexual activity continues to influence the church today. According to Evelyn and James Whitehead, Augustine may have been responding to the shame he felt about the wantonness of his own youth.

“Augustine remembered his youth as a season of obsession in which he hungered for respect and esteem. He clung compulsively to his friends; he was constantly swept away by the impulses of his sexual appetite. Augustine lived in a common-law relationship with a woman who satisfied his sexual needs but was not the respected woman his mother sought for his marriage. His pain at leaving the woman he had been with was intense, and since his arranged bride was too young to marry, he was forced to wait two years for her. His passion was too great, and he took a mistress. With shame he admits his sinfulness: ‘In the meantime my sins were multiplied. . . . I was not so much a lover of marriage as a slave of lust, so I procured another woman, but not, of course, a wife’. In the midst of this frustrated mixture of sexual desire and longing for love, Augustine’s confusion was overwhelming. Could this have been his reason for fleeing to the church and embracing a celibate life” Theologian Margaret Miles surmises: “We must accept Augustine’s evaluation of himself as addicted to sex, from which, he tells us, no friendship was free.” He himself described his life as ‘tormented.’” Evelyn E. Whitehead and James D. Whitehead, A Sense of Sexuality: Christian Love and Intimacy (New York: Crossroad, 1994).

Other early Church fathers labeled sexual intercourse as unclean (Jerome), shameful (Tertullian), and defilement (Ambrose). In 386 CE [AD] Pope Siricius attempted to forbid church elders to make love with their wives. According to modern psychological theories, these and other shapers of early Christian views on sexuality more likely than not projected these ideas on their congregations and the wider church, setting the stage for centuries of sexual shame and guilt.

Following the custom of the time (1960), when I reached the age of twelve I was expected to participate in a Confirmation Class led by the parish priest of the church my family attended. The class remained coed until the time came for the priest to instruct us on sexual matters. I don’t know what he told the girls, but the boys were informed explicitly that physical expression of sexuality was to be confined to the marriage bed and that masturbation was a sin. If you masturbate, as most of us had started doing, you considered to have committed a sin and were expected to repent by confessing same to the priest. I can’t think of a better way for the church to induce shame than to tell adolescents just beginning to experience the joys and wonder of sexuality that God and the church judged what only came natural as shameful and sinful. The church has much to repent for, but perhaps one of the most harmful has been its shame-inducing teachings on sexuality.

Those who escaped the trap of sexual shame were not necessarily off the hook. The doctrine of original sin was the church’s Plan B for ensnaring its members in cycles of shame and self-loathing. The doctrine was originally developed in the second century by Irenaeus, the Bishop of Lyons, during his struggle against Gnosticism. Irenaeus taught that the sins committed by Adam and Eve in the Garden were the source of all human sinfulness, mortality and spiritual enslavement, and that all human beings participate in their sin and share their guilt. In the fourth century, Augustine of Hippo took up the mantel of Iranaeus by writing that Adam’s sin is transmitted by concupiscence, resulting in mankind becoming a massa damnata (mass of perdition), though not destroyed completely of freedom of will.

The corrupt nature of humanity was believed to have been transferred to the descendants of Adam and Eve by way of sexual reproduction, as if original sin piggy-backed on Adam’s sperm or Eve’s egg. According to Augustine, as sinners, humans are utterly depraved, lack the freedom to do good, and cannot respond to the will of God without divine grace. Sexual desire itself as well as other bodily passions were consequences of the original sin and therefore tainted by evil. Augustine also concluded that unbaptized infants go to hell as a consequence of original sin, which led to the development of infant baptism and the creation of a place of limbo where they would remain after death until God figured out what to do with them. The idea of purgatory as a temporary staging area logically followed.

The doctrine of original sin was especially useful to early church fathers as a teaching upon which to base their disrespect of women in general. Misogamist tendencies are clearly evident in the writings of Tertullian and Augustine:

“In pain shall you bring forth children, woman, and you shall turn to your husband and he shall rule over you… God’s sentence hangs still over all your sex and His punishment weighs down upon you. You are the devil’s gateway; you are she who first violated the forbidden tree and broke the law of God. It was you who coaxed your way around him whom the devil had not the force to attack. With what ease you shattered that image of God: Man! Because of the death you merited, even the Son of God had to die… Woman, you are the gate of hell.”
Tertullian (c160-225)

“What is the difference whether it is a wife or a mother, it is still Eve the temptress that we must beware of in any woman … I fail to see what use woman can be to man, if one includes the function of bearing children.”
Augustine (354-430)

In his book Original Blessing, Matthew Fox argues that original sin is both unsubstantiated in scripture and outdated. There is no evidence that Jesus ever used the phrase or was familiar with the concept. “I don’t think it is coincidental that the fourth century is also the era in which Constantine persuaded the church to come to his bed. The doctrine of original sin was a ‘godsend’ for the empire, because it makes its subjects confused about why they’re here, and so they get in line much more efficiently.”

In her newest book Shame-Less Lives, Shame-Free Congregations (The Alban Institute, 2013), Karen A. McClintock contrasts shame with grace. As a child, she was instructed by a ballet teacher who shamed her pupils by comparing them unfavorably with their peers. “I learned that comparison is a form of shame”, she writes. “We were all mercilessly compared to the best students in the class. We were shamed for not properly executing the steps … for anything short of perfection.” Grace, she learned, could only be achieved through hard work. She could overcome her “unworthiness” only by righteous hard work. “Only when I had achieved the perfect line, the perfect form, the perfect leap into the air, then, maybe, I could enjoy the riches of grace.” Church leaders are notorious for using the same shame-based messages to compare less pious laity with more “saintly” ones in efforts to encourage works righteousness.

McClintock, a psychologist and congregational consultant, believes that congregations are in decline because they have become shame-bound. I agree but would posit that shame is but a symptom of the subdisease of codependency, a response to belittling words and actions of others caught in a dysfunctional system which damages everyone involved, but especially those who come to believe that they are defective. That lesson can be and is learned in church families as well as families of origin.

Finally, a message at the core of many conservative, fundamentalist, Christian Right churches is that women and wives are to be subservient to men and husbands. Gender hierarchies in the church, as elsewhere, induce shame in those on the bottom. Women in such institutions understand their role as serving men, their husbands, male lay leaders and male clergy persons. By definition, those at the lower end of hierarchies are considered less than, not as good as, inferior to those at the top. Interpretations of select scripture readings are called upon to support the claim of male superiority. The author of Ephesians had this to say:”Wives, submit yourselves to your own husbands as you do to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.”

A great many Christians in America believe that God ordained a hierarchical relationship between women and men. Women, in this view, were made from Adam’s rib and caused sin to enter the world, and so should not be allowed positions of authority in the church or home. In the words of the New Testament, “It is shameful for a woman to speak in church. Wives should regard their husbands as they regard the Lord. Women are not permitted to speak, but should be subordinate” (I Corinthians 14:33-35). This theology of “male headship” teaches that a woman’s greatest glory lies in bearing children and serving her husband. Some men assert their privileged positions by following what is called “Christian domestic discipline” which includes wife spanking as a means of maintaining the hierarchy that God established, with a man on top and a wife as his “helpmate”.

Male church leaders invoke scripture passages like those above, while ignoring contradictory ones and church history, for no other reason than to maintain power and patriarchal authority. Patriarchal cultures emerged in premodernity but have proved extremely resilient. Their values can be found operative today in cultures and nations and churches throughout the world in which men achieve and maintain social, cultural, economic, political and religious domination over women. Rosemary Radford Ruether has called it “the most fundamental form of domination in society”.

There are no valid reasons in scripture of in the Church’s tradition that rule out the equal status of women, including ordination. Women were leaders in the early Jesus movement. They hosted and presided at liturgies and celebrated Eucharist. The anger and insurgence displayed at the mention of the ordination of women reminds one of the hostility and intolerance displayed by prejudiced whites in the South towards the struggle for rights for African-Americans. Both situations were driven by the insistence on the part of the hierarchy to maintain power in the hands of the few and privileged. Spiritual leadership should not be determined by the presence or absence of a penis.

The adoption of the unattainable ideal of perfectionism by the church has caused spiritual and emotional damage to millions. Would not a healthier attitude for the church be to admit to itself that “it’s okay for the bell to be cracked”, in the words of the Canadian songwriter and poet Leonard Cohen, “that’s how the light gets in”. No bell or congregation or judicatory is perfect or can ever be so. Much less any individual lay member or clergy person. What if the church could see its imperfections as opportunities for grace and salvation/healing? Maybe then it could confront the codependency that devastates it with hope and anticipation. Movement toward truth, repentance and growth is the goal of the codependent church, not Perfection. As Joan Chittister sagely writers:

The problem, it would seem, is to foolishly accept perfection as our standard or goal. But that goal is an oppressive one, and a set up for failure, for no Christian this side of heaven will ever reach it: “The problem, of course, is that we fail. We know ourselves to be weak. We stumble along, being less than we can be, never living up to our own standards, let alone anyone else’s. We eat too much between meals, we work too little to get ahead, we drink more than we should at the office party. We’re all addicted to something. Those addictions not only cripple us, they convince us that we are worthless and incapable of being worthwhile. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy of the worst order because it traps us inside our own sense of inadequacy, of futility, of failure” (p. 195). Instead, we ought to view failure as “among the best friends of the soul” (p. 91). Rather than subscribe to the unattainable, we should come to appropriate the “sanctifying nature of mistakes and calculations” (p. ix).

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