taking the words of Jesus seriously

I grew up along the beaches of Florida and couldn’t get enough of the pounding waves on the sand. I swam against the tide and rolled with the force of the water. I loved the feeling of getting caught up in the turmoil of the waves until I didn’t know which way was up.

But there was something I had to do before I would get to that shore. I often had to walk by a row of surfers, who would grade me. Standing with their lean, tan bodies, they looked me over and assigned me a number from one to ten, based on a few cuts of meat.

I went to school with most of them, so I could give them a big eye-rolling, undergirded with a sigh and a “seriously?” But the dreaded experience stuck with me. To this day, I wear a massive cover-up (it can also be used as a tent), until I get to the very edge of the water to shed it.

The sad thing is that women are not only reduced to their sexuality when they’re on the shoreline. Even in our Christian theology, we have a terrible tendency to reduce the complicated facets of a woman—her intelligence, creativity, energy, talents, and fortitude—into one aspect. We can make it all about sex.

Related: This Pope is a Sinner

When St. Augustine wrote On the Trinity, he tried to work out a conundrum. He wanted to figure out how women could be the image of God. He finally solved the puzzle by writing that when a woman is alone, then she is not in the image of God. It is only when she is joined with a man, when she is one flesh with him, she can be considered the image of God.

Of course, we cannot take our ideas of gender equality and try to compare them to a different time and culture. We shouldn’t judge Augustine by our liberated standards. But, it is important to ask if we let Augustine ideas seep into our current debates. Do we still do this? Do we reduce a woman’s worth to her sexuality or her fertility?

It seems when we determine a woman’s value based on whether she is sexually “pure, ” we do. In youth group, I was often told that if I went “too far” on a date, I would become “damaged goods.” Like those surfers on the beach, the Christians around me were judging my worth solely on my sexuality.

It seems that our current debates on birth control have the ability to reduce a woman to her sexuality as well. We know that contraception is good for the health of women. Birth control allows women to finish their education and be productive in the workforce. It keeps women and children out of poverty. In fact, the United Nations has determined that contraception is a basic human right.

Yet, Christians want to fight for a corporation’s right to practice its faith by refusing to provide insurance coverage for contraception. The voices of clergy tell us that birth control is tearing at the moral fabric of our society and many point to contraception as the reason for decline of Christianity.

When we fight against contraception, we tell a generation of women that Christians don’t care about their education, productivity, or empowerment. We highlight the brooding sense that Christians don’t want women to be intelligent, working beings, but we want a woman’s worth to be solely based on her sexuality.

Related: A Dialogue on What It Means to Be Pro-Life – by Tony Campolo & Shane Claiborne

Where is the other faith narrative about birth control? Where are the voices that remind us that women are made in the image of God, whether they are joined with a man or not? Can we loudly proclaim that the moral fabric of our society will be stronger if women are educated and productive? Can Christians affirm contraception’s ability to lift women and children out of poverty? Can we begin to understand that access to birth control is a social justice issue?

As the Supreme Court gears up to hear whether corporations can act as individuals, extending their personal rights to the practice of religion, the voices of Christians who affirm a woman’s rights have been drowned out. May we stand up with women, with the loud proclamation that we care about women’s health and empowerment, because women are fully made in the image of God.

About The Author


Rev. Carol Howard Merritt is a minister whose writing, speaking, and teaching is anchored in theological and sociological insight. She’s a sought-after keynote speaker, especially on the topic of ministering in a new generation. After being raised as a conservative Baptist and attending a fundamentalist Bible college, Carol studied at Austin Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Texas and became a Presbyterian (USA) Minister. She’s known for serving growing Presbyterian (USA) churches, especially those with a deep commitment to serving the poor and disenfranchised. A pastor for more than a decade, Carol has served Presbyterian (USA) churches in the swamps of Cajun Louisiana, a bayside village in Rhode Island, and an urban neighborhood of Washington, DC. This breadth and depth of practical experience informs her consultations with denominational governing bodies, publishing houses, seminaries, and local churches. The award-winning author of Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation (Alban), Reframing Hope: Vital Ministry in a New Generation (Alban), and Healing Spiritual Wounds: Reconnecting with a Loving God After Experiencing a Hurtful Church (HarperOne, February 2017), Carol is a frequent contributor to books, websites, magazines, and journals. She is a regular columnist at the Christian Century where her blog is hosted.

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