I had an allergic reaction a few weeks ago, and it had nothing to do with the high pollen count.
I was listening to a DVD of a Christian speaker talking about false messages that our culture sends to women – a very good and timely topic. There is much to dislike about the way popular culture pimps out a sexually supercharged image of women everywhere from online porn to the posters hanging up outside Victoria’s Secret. I think a number of women have also bought into the pressure to achieve according to a certain definition of worldly success. Then, too, many women feel the weight of condemnation when something goes wrong with their families, say a marriage falls apart or a prodigal goes astray. Yes, I would agree that we are in need of a biblical understanding of womanhood and our place in the world.
The thing is — and this explains my allergic reaction — I’m not sure that God has laid out such a handy-dandy definition as this speaker seems to be suggesting. I think she has boxed up definition of Christian femininity that is much too small. Certainly, we accept the authority of ALL God’s Word. We do not dismiss verses because they are inconvenient to how we want to view ourselves. I do think, though, that the traditions of men have so tangled up the question of how we as women are to understand ourselves that it behooves us to re-examine just how God does portray women in His Word. The plain truth is that the contemporary church has divided itself into two camps, and I am not satisfied with either of them.
Please note, I am not a theologian. If you are looking for someone who knows Hebrew and Greek to explain this to you, I can’t. I can tell you that this is an issue that has left me with some old wounds and some bitterness that is desperately in need of forgiveness. I also know that my issues are small time compared to women who have suffered at the hands of abusive fathers and husbands, an experience which I have never had. Contemporary women are suffering from a full-blown identity crisis. We don’t need someone to say, “God loves you. Now here are all the biblical ways that you’re second-class.” Nor do we need a false image of womanhood that has nothing to do with the people God made us to be.
Let me ask you this. What mental image comes to you when I say the word “lady”? Is there a certain way that a lady looks? And, if so, why? Paul’s famous admonition goes as follows: “And I want women to be modest in their appearance. They should wear decent and appropriate clothing and not draw attention to themselves by the way they fix their hair or by wearing gold or pearls or expensive clothes. For women who claim to be devoted to God should make themselves attractive by the good things they do” -1 Tim 2:9-10 (NLT). The three Scriptural requirements are that our appearance be modest, that it be appropriate, and that it be completely overshadowed by our actions. I don’t think we should turn this into a legalistic decree against all adornment. But rather, I want us to consider whether our mental image of a “lady” does not automatically include a certain polished and put-together look that is nowhere mandated by this verse.
In fact, I think this verse is pretty clear that God does not define womanhood by externals. Sound obvious? Not to every sermon, book, or article I’ve encountered on the subject. There is always the tribute to “inner beauty,” which is usually characterized as a virtuous character and a quiet spirit, but the author (male or female) always seems compelled to add that “of course” women still want to be attractive, and that we should do our best with what God gave us. Or, as the preachers were wont to say when I was a girl, “A little paint never hurt any old barn.”
Aside from the disrespect of that last aphorism, would you be surprised to know that up until very recent times (think the last century), most Christians assumed that make-up was immoral? A woman who painted her face was seen as deceptive at best, or, at worst, a fallen woman advertising her wares. I am most certainly not suggesting we go back to that, but I am wondering why the church so emphatically reversed its opinion. For the better part of nineteen centuries women were taught that their faces looked exactly as God wanted them to look, and that they needed no artificial improvement. They were not told in one sermon that they were fearfully and wonderfully made, and then told in the next to do the best with what they had. Talk about sending mixed signals! Lord knows, I don’t want to idealize our fore-mothers, who didn’t paint their faces, but who did squeeze themselves into impossible shapes every time they put on a corset. I do want us to step back and consider that how we portray an ideal womanhood is every bit as time-bound and changeable as the ideals of our ancestors.
I think there are a number of people in the Church at large who have imprinted their own fantasies, or their own mistaken nostalgia, on verses that have to do with women. As if the words “JUNE” and “CLEAVER” appeared in the 31st chapter of Proverbs. I’ve read the Bible on the Proverbs 31 woman, and that is one formidable dame. When the 18th century Bible commentator Adam Clarke was seeking an example among his own contemporaries, he cited Susannah Wesley — not for her housekeeping, but for her intellectual accomplishments. He mentions her virtue, then adds, “Besides, she was a woman of great learning and information, and of a depth of mind, and reach of thought, seldom to be found among the daughters of Eve, and not often among the sons of Adam.” She was admirable, not just for excelling among women, but for excelling among men as well. Moreover, if you read Clarke’s commentary, he is quite clear that even in his own day there was a place for women in industry and trade. I mention this because what passes for nostalgia in some evangelical circles has very little to do with history. For most of history, a woman who did not have to work with her husband to make ends meet was a rare thing. A status symbol in fact. A woman who didn’t have to work in a workshop or a factory or on the farm was advertising her husband’s affluence; she was staying at home because he could afford it, and most men couldn’t.
And this brings us to the third part of Paul’s description of beauty. The idea of femininity that is promoted in churches is often largely passive. It involves a certain look or the belief that only men are called to ministry and women are perpetually cast in the supporting role. Yet, Paul implies that the godly woman has work of her own. Certainly, the Proverbs 31 woman does. In both passages, women are not only offered, but enjoined to the dignity of meaningful work. The Proverbs 31 man is, in fact, able to take an active role in the community (“sitting in the gate” indicates a position of leadership and influence) because his wife is working with him, and he is not the sole provider for his family. The woman of I Timothy 2 is defined by and approved for her good works, not by her appearance, however pleasing. By “good works,” we can understand an active and outgoing virtue. There are no awards in Scripture for the person of either gender who leaves the important work to everyone else.
So what do we do with all this? Well, I suppose we can validate a certain amount of concern that girls have about their appearances. There is a place for teaching what is modest and appropriate; even feminists cringe at the sight of young girls dressed like sex slaves. But I do have a problem that much of the church materials addressed to young girls are centered around these first two characteristics (modest and appropriate dress), and the third quality, that of being defined by our work rather than our appearance, seems to be relegated to a supporting role.
If the church really wants to combat the demeaning representation of femininity in our culture, it needs to get serious about cultivating the talents and gifts of girls. I don’t mean cliches about “girl power.” I mean that the church needs to recognize that God has invested real and powerful gifts in every woman — gifts of great worth and significance — and that the entire body of Christ is weakened every time a girl fails to identify and use those gifts because she was brushed off or set aside. Better still, impress upon each the fact that God made her for relationship with Himself, that she was made for God’s will and pleasure (Rev. 4:11), not for a man’s, and then watch her regulate her dress and actions accordingly.