Early attempts by the missionary church in Africa to change or eradicate Female Genital Cutting failed because they fundamentally misunderstood its social currency in African communities. In our previous article, we strove to understand the practice of FGC: what it is, where it happens, who it happens to, and most importantly, why.
Female Genital Cutting is something the Church should be concerned with.
As a rite of passage, Female Genital Cutting is a hallmark of becoming a true woman in many communities. It has deep cultural significance. So what stance should the Church take? Is it biblically justifiable to oppose FGC and if so, how can we do this practically and sensitively?
Should The Church Oppose Female Genital Cutting?
The gospel brings with it a King who rules all the earth and has dominion over all peoples (Deuteronomy 10:14; Psalm 24:1-3; Job 41:11). This means that Female Genital Cutting, whether it occurs to members in the church or out in the broader community, is something the Church should be concerned with.
Some specific issues with FGC which should alarm Christians include its damage to women as image bearers (Genesis 1:27), its propensity to harm, and potential to result in death (either during the procedure or at childbirth many years later). Further, FGC deeply hinders mutual sexual satisfaction in marriage. This interrupts marital intimacy, which is a precious gift to us from God.
FGC forms and upholds a rite of passage. But the practise hurts women and negatively impacts marriages
At a basic level, FGC forms and upholds a rite of passage. But the practise hurts women and negatively impacts marriages. Therefore, it is a social symbol that threatens a woman’s life and destroys her wellbeing. Far from FGC bestowing womanhood, it cripples it (Psalm 139:14; Ephesians 2:10).
2 Ways The Church Can Engage With FGC
We believe that a collaborative, long range approach involving elders, authority figures, and the broader community is the model that the church should adopt in addressing FGC. Where communities themselves agree to abandon the practice, Female Genital Cutting is inevitably eliminated quite rapidly.
Considering this, we suggest that the church engages with the practice in the following two ways.
1. Be A Church That Teaches
The church’s teaching needs to provide a compelling story of image bearing (Genesis 1-2). Linked with this, it must also clearly show that the body is a sacred temple, where God dwells within us by the Spirit (1 Corinthians 6:19-20). By doing this we can dislodge the prerogative of body ownership from other people to God. This will go some way in redirecting FGC, at least to an age of consent.
Teachings on personhood and what it is to be a male or a female must be addressed
Address Creation, Gender & Identity
Whether your audience is Christian or non-Christian, it remains true that our bodies are gifts given by God. These bodies must be honoured and respected, both in their male and female expressions. The creation account must set up both who we are and our dominion over the earth.
Added to this, teachings on personhood and what it is to be a male or a female must be addressed. For much of what FGC aims to do is provide an answer to these questions. This goes way beyond Africa. The topic of gender fluidity is fundamentally addressing this same question the world over: Who am I?
Disconnect Female Genital Cutting From Circumcision
In some instances of FGC, communities understand it to be linked to circumcision – the covenant sign from the Old Testament. They see it as extending to both men and women today.
Here, teachings on ritual or outward signs as proof of worthiness must be addressed. Naturally, sound teaching on New Testament baptism and its place in covenantal inclusion will play a role in placing FGC in perspective. While beyond the scope of this article, some theologians present baptism as a functional substitute for FGC.
The actual act of cutting is only one regrettable component of a valuable tradition.
Still, it remains critically necessary for the church to explore alternative rites of passage in conversation. For we must exercise caution not to eliminate the cultural values associated with FGC. The actual act of cutting is only one regrettable component of a valuable tradition. This tradition is built around sharing collective wisdom, bonding, and social placement.
Discuss FGC In Relation To Sin & Cleanliness
Specific teaching on the nature and workings of sin and cleanness should also be explored. For FGC is concerned with avoiding sin and promoting cleanliness.
Churches can shift the pursuit of godliness from an external act to an internal, spiritual reality. This new internal reality can be corroborated externally by teaching on the core of sin, as the fountain of distorted desire and rebellion against God. In Mark 7, for example, Jesus teaches that sin does not come from external, physical sources, but from the heart (Mark 7:18-23).
God judicially declares ‘clean!’ over our lives by the blood of Christ.
The desire for purity and cleanness is not only noble but God-given. Firstly, God judicially declares ‘clean!’ over our lives by the blood of Christ. Then he internally reshapes us by the Holy Spirit, within a community of believers.
This teaching can reorientate what purity means for women. Here, pastors have the opportunity to address the intrinsic need for purity of both men and women—not primarily before one another but before a God who willingly issues cleanness in Christ to all who come. What FGC fails to do Christ truly can do. And that’s simply because the problem of purity resides firstly in our being. In the words of one gospel author (Matthew 5:11, 18) as well as Selena Gomez: “The heart wants what it wants.”
Define Sex As A Gift For Men & Women
Finally, churches must teach about sex as a created gift for both men and women. Before marriage, sexual purity and virginal status are commanded for both men and women (Mathew 5:28; 1 Corinthians 6:13, 18). The place for sexual enjoyment is within marriage.
Yet what FGC misses is that the people who get to enjoy sex are men and women (Song 7:11-13; 1 Corinthians 7:3-5). FGC robs women of the gift of sexual pleasure and sacrifices marital intimacy and mutual enjoyment.
FGC robs women of the gift of sexual pleasure and sacrifices marital intimacy and mutual enjoyment
Jacob Kibor has outlined valuable biblical teaching material which is a great place for any church to start addressing the underlying “goals” of FGC. These lessons, available in his book, include clear teaching in these key areas: man and woman in God’s image; mutual love; caring for the body as a temple; respect; sex education; hospitality; confession and forgiveness; fear; discipline; standing against the crowd; and role models within the community.
Helpfully, Sandy Wilcox covers similar material more briefly. Her work includes teaching for perpetrators, victims, and married couples who must foster intimacy while living within the realities of FGC.
2. Be A Church That Cares
At the risk of suggesting that sound teaching is not an act of care, this section will consider non-proclamation care. We might also call this “loving your neighbour” in deed (Mark 12:30-31).
Minister To Those Affected By FGC
Firstly, the church should be an accessible open place for those who are exposed to Female Genital Cutting. If refuge is sought from undergoing the procedure, or recovery from its trauma, then the church must provide it.
This is not necessarily the charge of the pastor or staff team. In fact, where possible and necessary, churches should start ministries run by women who have undergone FGC themselves. These women will understand the pressures, challenges, and pains involved.
Where possible and necessary churches should start ministries run by women who have undergone FGC themselves
These ministries need not start with elaborate or expensive housing. They can simply include open lives and homes—meaningful hospitality. A place and people prepared to walk alongside women.
In some communities women tend to be the social glue, which means that reform will require attentive and influential gospel women speaking and living the truth about FGC.
Avoid Socially Isolating Women and Girls
It is also critical to understand the impact of ‘removing’ a girl from her community. Some girls run away to avoid FGC. Other girls are taken in for protection. But much wisdom is needed here. Whether a church should further isolate a person from their own cultural environment requires prayerful thought.
Whether a church should further isolate a person from their own cultural environment requires prayerful thought
Stephen Lenku Tipatet, a Kenyan pastor in the region of Isinya has developed a fine initiative in providing education and protecting vulnerable girls. But this ministry deliberately works against a socially isolating approach. Stephen has set up a reconciliation centre for girls and families and provides alternative rites of passage for girls within the community.
It is one thing to protect someone from FGC, but it is quite another to simultaneously rob them of a sense of belonging.
This is an excellent model for pastors to imitate. This model embraces communal reform through consistent dialogue with communal authorities: the elders, chiefs, and matriarchs. It also takes the long view towards change and strives to keep social acceptance and inclusion paramount.
It is one thing to protect someone from FGC, but it is quite another to simultaneously rob them of a sense of belonging. There are many stories of women who return home to undergo FGC because the pain of exclusion was greater than the pain of the procedure. This points to the great social coercion of FGC that has to be overcome.
The Truth In Love
Female Genital Cutting is a complex cultural practice. Every single case is unique and each life impacted by it remains cherished by God. Thus it requires attentive, wise action.
Each life impacted by FGC remains cherished by God and requires attentive, wise action
Any church looking to break ground within a community that practices Female Genital Cutting must work hard at its teaching. This requires robust teaching on image bearing, the body as sacred, personhood with its male and female expressions, a biblical theology of circumcision, the goodness of sexual enjoyment for both partners, and how cleanness and purity is won in Jesus and worked out by the Spirit.
The church must then embody that teaching amongst its own body of believers as well as within its broader community. This will be achieved by honouring and loving girls and women in truthful speech and persevering care.