Any woman who has been part of organized women’s ministry knows that sooner or later you’re going to encounter Proverbs 31.
This passage is a mainstay for discussions about Christian womanhood; and in our consumer-driven culture, it graces everything from Bible covers
to refrigerator magnets.
But recently, several women have been challenging a typical approach to this text. At the recent Q
event, Women and Calling,
progressive blogger and author Rachel Held Evans reiterated her long-standing concern that we tend to misuse this passage, making it more of a “Pintrest page come to life” than the poem it is. Sarah Bessey makes the same point in the recently released Jesus Feminist.
She writes: Some evangelicals have turned Proverbs 31 into a woman’s job description instead of what it actually is: the blessing and affirmation of valor for the lives of women… It is meant as a celebration for the everyday moments of valor for everyday women, not as an impossible exhausting standard.
These women have a legitimate concern. How many Mother’s Day sermons or Bible studies have turned Proverbs 31 into a checklist? How many times have teachers used it to reinforce their private applications of gender? How many times have you felt defeated from just listening to such sermons? So let me go on record as saying that I agree with Evans and Bessey. With one caveat.
Proverbs 31 is intended as a blessing and affirmation, not of all women, but of a certain kind of woman: a wise one.
Because while Proverbs 31 isn’t prescriptive, it is
descriptive. It is designed to tell us the kind of woman who deserves honor and praise. In this sense, the poem is the culmination of an entire book whose main goal is to teach the difference between wisdom and foolishness. But as the beginning
of Proverbs point out, you don’t become wise via a checklist; you become wise by fearing the Lord.
To be fair, it’s easy to confuse prescriptive and descriptive passages. Obviously it happens in Proverbs 31, but it happens just as often in less controversial texts. The Beatitudes
or the Fruit of the Spirit
can quickly become metaphysical checklists if we divorce them from their Source and view them as goals to meet in our own strength.
Just be peaceful. Check.
Just be kind. Check.
Just be humble. Check.
Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera…
But while these passages are not intended as “To Do” lists, they are a kind of “field guide” given to describe what we will look like if our hearts are being changed by God. They describe the fruit and bark and leaves of the tree so you can know what kind of tree you’re looking at
. In the case of Proverbs 31, the poem shows how wisdom embodies itself in feminine form; so that in a beauty only God Himself could conceive, a book written primarily to young men doesn't climax with a description of a mature man but with a description of a mature woman.
Evans rightly pointed this out during the Q event. She noted that the original audience of Proverbs 31 was men, and joked, “Can you imagine a men's conference where that was the central text?“ (It was a pretty funny thought.) But even this isn’t the whole picture. The main audience of Proverbs 31 is men—true—but it’s given to men in order to teach them the kind of women they should celebrate. One of the assumed purposes is to distinguish wise women from foolish ones in order to help men “find”
a good wife.
Talk about sexist.
Or maybe not. Maybe this actually affirms a woman’s imago dei
. To understand what I mean, consider Proverbs as a whole. Throughout it, you’ll find this recurring theme: weak men can be ruined by strong men but strong men can be ruined by foolish… women. Yes, women.
And here’s why: Women are men’s spiritual equal.
Think about it. If a woman were not equal to a man, then her spiritual life would be of little consequence to him. She simply wouldn't be able to influence him for either good or bad. But if, as we are, equal image bearers, reigning as queens alongside earthly kings, then the kind of women we become is of supreme significance. We have intrinsic power that we can use for either great benefit or great destruction.
Because of this, Proverbs is intent on teaching young men to flee from foolish women in order to embrace and affirm wise women. This is why they are to avoid the adulteress
but to delight in the wife of their youth.
They are to avoid women who are quarrelsome
but to celebrate those who speak with kindness
. They are to avoid women who tear down their homes and to run to those who build them up. In other words, a wise woman can make a man; and a foolish one can break him
This assumption of a woman’s power is implicit in the description of the Proverbs 31 woman who wields influence over both her home and society. Because of her wisdom, her husband sits in the gates. Because of her wisdom, her household doesn’t fear the coming winter. Because of her wisdom, her children rise up and call her blessed.
In this sense, Proverbs 31 is both a song of affirmation AND a standard of what maturity looks like. We must not shy away from the descriptive principles simply because they have been misused. Apart from them—apart from knowing that a wise women “stretches out her hand to the needy”—we wouldn’t be able to distinguish her from a foolish one and we’d end up assuming that ALL women deserve praise when in reality, not all of us do.
To quote The Incredibles:
“When everyone’s super, no one is.”
Not all women are sacrificial.
Not all women work hard.
Not all women are kind.
Not all women are generous
Not all women are joyful.
Some women are selfish.
Some women are lazy.
Some women are mean.
Some women are stingy.
Some women are bitter.
But a woman who is wise, a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised. She is such a rare find, so exceptionally valuable that Proverbs 31 describes her as more precious than a jewel. A beautiful, expensive, glittering jewel. So that just like light reflects and radiates through a diamond, the light of God’s nature reflects and radiates through her, bursting forth in resplendent glory. And for this kind of wise woman, wise men get up on their feet and cheer.
So, yes, please don’t reduce Proverbs 31 to a checklist or a Pintrest page come to life. But let’s also remember a harder truth. Wisdom doesn’t come naturally to any of us. Our only hope of being this kind of noble woman comes by looking into the face of the One who is Wisdom Himself and allowing Him to conform us to His own likeness. And when we do, He will make us the fully formed image bearers we are destined to be. He will make us women of kindness and grace and sacrifice and love and joy. He will make us like Himself.
If you're a regular reader here at sometimesalight
, you'll know that there's not much "regular" about my writing. I post randomly with little regard to schedules or consistency. (Hence, the word "sometimes" in the title.) My writing style is just as unpredictable; I write reflective essays; I tackle theological issues; and sometimes I find myself responding to controversies in society and the Church. And all I can say about it is, "Welcome to my head."
This blog has been a wonderful place for me to explore the things that interest me and I believe, to a certain extent, interest you. But occasionally, when I'm lucky enough, I get to explore these same issues in places more clearly suited to the topic at hand. This past week, I had the chance to write a piece for Her.meneutics
, a site of Christianity Today, to explain why I don't call myself a feminist
Those of us in the Church have a complicated relationship with the word "feminist." For some, it epitomizes all that is wrong with modern culture; for others, it represents fighting the abuse and neglect that women have endured for millenia. For my part, I find the term limiting, only as useful as your core assumptions about what it means to be a person and what it means to be woman. From the piece,It's these deeper questions that ultimately keep me from embracing the title. By definition, feminism doesn't have the language or categories to answer them; after all, as my sisters assure me, feminism simply means believing women are human—nothing more, nothing less.
I prefer a more robust label, one that answers both what it means to be a person and what it means to be a woman:Christian.
Ultimately, what you believe about a woman's value is directly tied to what you believe about the God who made her. Cultures and philosophies without this foundation have little way of pursuing lasting equality because they do not base it on personhood as revealed in Jesus Christ, the perfect Image made perfect Image Bearer. The essence of Christianity, on the other hand, is about restoring us—male and female alike—to full humanity. For a woman, this doesn't mean defining herself in relationship to men or the roles she fills but in relationship to God's own nature. It means freeing her to live as the image bearer she is, to embrace both the responsibility and privilege that this entails.
You can read the rest here.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
Last week, TOMS shoes announced that they were revamping
their approach to helping the needy. For those unfamiliar with TOMS
, the company has made the "buy one, give one" model a cornerstone of its corporate identity; for every pair of shoes bought, they donate a pair to an impoverished child. But as altruistic as this policy sounds, TOMS has also been heavily critiqued for it with several folks
questioning how much good it does to manufacture shoes in one developing nation, ship them across the ocean to sell to wealthy Westerners, and then ship a second pair back across the ocean to a different developing nation.
To be fair, TOMS’ impulse to save the world is not a new one. Doing it clumsily is not new either.
Harper Lee captures this exact predicament in her book To Kill a Mockingbird.
Set during the Great Depression in the rural South, the book is narrated by young Jean Louise Finch (aka Scout), the daughter of a widowed lawyer. One summer, their sleepy town is shocked awake when a black man is put on trial for assaulting a poor white woman. Scout’s father deftly proves his innocence but to no avail. A jury of 12 white men finds Tom Robinson guilty. The following scene comes just days after the verdict: Today Aunt Alexandra and her missionary circle were fighting the good fight all over the house. From the kitchen, I heard Mrs. Grace Merriweather giving a report in the living room on the squalid lives of the Mrunas, it sounded like to me. They put the women out in the huts when their time came, whatever that was; they had no sense of family—I knew that’d distress Aunty—they subjected children to terrible ordeals when they were thirteen; they were crawling with yaws and earworms, they chewed up and spat out the bark of a tree into a communal pot and then got drunk on it.
Immediately thereafter, the ladies adjourned for refreshments…
It was customary for every circle hostess to invite her neighbors in for refreshments, be they Baptists or Presbyterians, which accounted for the presence of Miss Rachel (sober as a judge), Miss Maudie and Miss Stephanie Crawford… The ladies were cool in fragile pastel prints: most of them were heavily powdered but unrouged; the only lipstick in the room was Tangee Natural. Cutex Natural sparkled on their fingernails, but some of the younger ladies wore Rose. They smelled heavenly.
Mrs. Grace Merriweather sat on my left, and I felt it would be polite to talk to her…
“What did you all study this afternoon?” I asked.
“Oh child, those poor Mrunas,” she said, and was off.
Mrs. Merriweather’s large brown eyes always filled with tears when she considered the oppressed. “Living in the jungle with nobody but J. Grimes Everet,” she said. “Not a white person’ll go near ‘em but that saintly J. Grimes Everett… The poverty… the darkness… the immorality… [When he was] home on leave. J. Grimes Everett said to me, he said, ‘Mrs. Merriweather, you have no conception, no conception of what we are fighting over there.’ That’s what he said to me.”
“I said to him, ‘Mr. Everett,’ I said, ‘the ladies of the Maycomb Alabama Methodist Episcopal Church South are behind you one hundred per cent.’”
“Jean Louise,” she said, “you are a fortunate girl. You live in a Christian home with Christian folks in a Christian town. Out there in J. Grimes Evertt’s land there’s nothing but sin and squalor.”
This scene works for one reason: the ladies in the room are so intent on saving the heathen that they can’t see that their own society is just as depraved, just as ruthless, just as helpless. They cannot see that that they have just convicted a man of a crime he did not commit based simply on the color of his skin.This scene also reveals a great deal about our attempts to help the poor today.
The problem is not that westerners use their wealth to relieve the oppressed, to finance microloans, to help areas ravaged by natural disaster; the problem is not that we take the gospel to those who’ve never heard. The problem is not that we sponsor children in the slums of Kenya and Bangladesh. The problem is that we too often forget that we ourselves are sponsored children.
That we are just as needy, just as desperate, just helpless as the people we think we are saving.
I recently attended an event that spotlighted the work of Compassion International.
Since 1952, Compassion has been raising funds to support impoverished children, and by all accounts,
doing legitimate, quantifiable good. During the session, the Compassion spokesperson told the story of Eliud
, a boy living in Kenya’s second largest slum. Unable to attend school or even eat on a regular basis, Eliud had no hope for his future. But then an unexpected knock came to his door and with it, unbelievably good news.
News that didn’t make sense, that couldn’t be true. Someone in a far away country was going to care for him. Someone he had never seen or heard of. And yet, his representatives were standing there offering him a chance to live. And then the provision came, accompanied by letters and words of care and love. But still Eliud has never met his benefactor in the flesh. Never seen his face. Never audibly heard his voice. But grace came to him and so he believed. He accepted the good gifts and grew to love this distant stranger and one day, hopes to meet him face to face.
And as I listened, I couldn’t help but hear the gospel.
The only problem is that most of us don’t think of ourselves as Eliud in this story. Most of us identify with the giver. We think of ourselves as Messiahs. We say things like, “I’m giving because Jesus gave to me” when we really mean “I am Jesus.” The problem is that we human beings tend to give out of our self-sufficiency rather than out of our desperation. And when we do, despite our best intentions, we end up just as clueless, just as arrogant, just as ugly as the “civilized” women of the Maycomb Alabama Methodist Episcopal Church South.
Helping the poor is a tricky business—whether in the slums of Kenya, in the inner city, or in rural Appalachia. In the end, our generosity must be motivated by humility and grace. We must give to the poor, not because they need us to save them (or we need them to save us from our own wealth). We must give to the poor because He has already and is everyday saving us. We must give to “the poor,” not because we are so different from them but because we've finally realized that we are so very much the same.
Lee, Harper. To kill a mockingbird
. Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1960. pp 241-244.
Nursing Mother by Pieter de Hooch (1659)
Yesterday, Jared Wilson posted a somewhat unlikely piece on his blog, The Gospel-Driven Church. Enlisting Paul’s description of ministry in I Thessalonians 2:7, Wilson encouraged his fellow pastors to engage their work with gentleness, “like a nursing mother taking care of her own children."
Before I go any further, let me express how much I appreciate Wilson’s writing. Like any public figure, he’s faced his times of being misunderstood, but those of us who regularly read him know that he is a man committed to Jesus and shepherding his people well. Barring his irrational attachment to the Patriots (Go Steelers!), I have nothing but good to say about him.
So my response to his post has less to do with what he wrote than with his being a man who has never nursed an infant a day in his life. (As my husband used to mumble to me during 3 o’clock feedings, “I’d love to help you, honey, but I’m simply not equipped.”) This kind of situation is Exhibit A of why I’m such a proponent of a female voice in the Church. There are things that men simply cannot know instinctively. Just as there are things that women cannot know. This interdependence is a good thing. In fact, God’s making us male and female is one of those design features that seems so obvious that it’s easy to forget its genius. So don’t think of this post as a contradiction to Wilson’s original post but an addendum. An “expert testimony” of sorts on what it means to be gentle like a nursing mother.
Among my generation of women, breastfeeding has made something of a comeback. With the American Academy of Pediatric’s recommendation to nurse infants to at least twelve months, many young mothers are choosing to breastfeed despite the fact that their own mothers often did not. Because of this, they are also learning the hard way about how unbelievably demanding it can be.
Nursing an infant is manual labor, folks.
Despite its resurgence, breastfeeding still exists under a bit of stigma, relegated to back rooms and behind closed doors. In my opinion, this sequestering of nursing mothers is as much a loss to society as it is to the mother and child, leaving us all a tad ignorant of what breastfeeding actually entails. We have a popular notion of nursing that is often worlds away from the reality.
So when we encounter Paul’s metaphor to engage in pastoral ministry with the “gentleness of a nursing mother,” it’s easy to conjure up an idyllic picture of mother and child blissfully settled in a rocking chair, complete with a vintage Instagram filter and soft edges. The perfect embodiment of domestic contentedness. (*sigh*) But let me warn you; if you try to apply this notion of gentleness to pastoral ministry, you’re in for a rude awakening.
And in order to understand this, all you have to do is read the rest of the text. Immediately following the metaphor of a nursing mother, Paul writes:So, being affectionately desirous of you, we were ready to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you had become very dear to us. For you remember, brothers, our labor and toil: we worked night and day, that we might not be a burden to any of you, while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God.
When Paul describes the gentleness of a nursing mother, he’s not describing a passivity or assumed tenderness; he’s describing a gentleness that comes from a place of deep self-sacrifice, self-giving, and tireless commitment. Nursing an infant requires gutsy, down-in-the-trenches, hour-by-hour dedication. And it is motivated by the depth of love that a mother has for her child.
It is a gentleness that allows itself to be inconvenienced, to be awakened at odd hours of the night and interrupted at meal time.It is a gentleness that is vulnerable enough to freely offer the most private parts of oneself only to be bitten in return. It is a gentleness that is attentive, that calculates feedings and ounces gained, not as a way to keep score, but to be assured that her child is flourishing.It is a gentleness that has the faith to believe that the same God who daily provided manna in the wilderness will also provide the next round of nourishment for your little one.
I Thessalonians is not the only place that Scripture uses the metaphor of breastfeeding. In his first epistle, Peter writes that we are “like newborn infants, [who] long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good."
We’re not talking Similac or sippy cups here. We grow up into salvation as we partake of the very life-giving nature of Christ Himself. And this is where the application to pastoral ministry becomes even clearer. Pastors minister to their congregations, not through their personalities or their programs, but by offering them the life-giving milk of the Word as they themselves have received it.
As any nursing mother can tell you, your ability to nourish your child is directly tied to whether you yourself have been nourished. When a mother is under stress, when she has not consumed enough calories, when she has not rested properly, her milk supply drops. And suddenly what should be a rewarding experience for both mother and baby becomes a time of frustration and helplessness. When the milk won’t flow, everyone ends up in a big puddle of angry, messy tears.
Breastfeeding mothers are some of the most resilient people I know. Their gentleness is strong, powerful, and life-giving. They embody a gritty attentiveness that flows from a place of persistence and self-sacrifice. But is a gentleness that can only be sustained as she herself is sustained. So that ultimately, when Paul enlists the metaphor of ministering as a nursing mother, he is not simply speaking of gentleness in some abstract, idealized way. He is speaking of a gentleness that comes only by feeding on the One who is Gentleness Himself. By feeding on the One Who carries the lambs in His arms and gently leads those that are with young.
It was one of those moments when I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. So I opted to just shrink lower into our second-row pew, stifle my giggles, and hold my seven year-old son close, thanking God for him and all his glorious honesty.
If you are a regular reader, you know that my husband pastors a rural church; and while we do our best to keep our kids out of the fishbowl, we do expect them to participate in the full-scope of congregational life. Including our mid-week service. This isn’t usually a problem, but like all of us, there are those days when they’d rather stay home. Perhaps they're tired, busy doing other things, or in the case of my seven-year-old son, simply find Legos more interesting than having to sit still for an hour.
On this particular Wednesday night, we had dealt with the standard objections over dinner, and by 7:05, everyone was safely ensconced in our normal pew with our heads bowed as one of the deacons opened the service with prayer as only a deacon from a rural Baptist church can. About half way through, he asked God to touch the hearts of “those who could have come tonight but chose not to.”
Not missing a beat, my son piped up, “Well, I didn’t want to come, but I HAD to.”
To be fair, my son’s resistance to church is not the only discipleship hurdle we face with our children. It is easily matched by his older sister’s recent acknowledgment that she finds God's eternality “weird” and the fact that their little brother regularly asks to pray at meal time for the sole purpose of being able to control the length of the prayer. (“Dear-God-Thank-you-for-this-food-help-us-to love-each-other-Amen.”) If success is measured by religious conformity, we’re batting 0 for 3 here.
Still, these kinds of situations have the potential to worry Christian parents who desire to pass faith on to their children. With the reports of widespread Millennial angst and stories of even apologists’ daughters rejecting Christianity,
it easy to lose heart. And when we do, it’s even easier to respond by simply doubling our efforts to force faith into them through more catechism, more Bible memory, more “church.”
We do this because we are conditioned to think that discipleship is primarily the accumulation of religious knowledge. A quick Google search for “children’s discipleship” brings back resource after resource—everything from catechisms to Bible memory systems to pint-sized devotional books--all promising to produce the next generation of believers. What I rarely hear discussed is the necessity of discipling our children through “natural revelation.” When theologians use the term “natural revelation,” they are referring to what God has revealed about Himself through the world around us. “Specific revelation,” on the other hand, is what God has revealed about Himself through the Scripture—and what is often the mainstay of our efforts to instill faith in the hearts of our children.
And while I believe Scripture is essential to the process of belief,
Scripture was never intended to be engaged in a vacuum. Instead, faith happens as the Holy Spirit impresses the truth of God’s Word (specific revelation) onto a heart that has been primed to accept it by experiencing the truth of God in the world around it (natural revelation). Like a pair of chopsticks, the two must work together.
The Apostle Paul understood this and it’s precisely why in Acts 17
—that famous Mars Hill sermon—he begins by appealing to what the Athenians already know through their experience of the world. They already believed in some “unknown God” because they could see His works both in them and around them. So too, most of us already understand the importance of this approach in evangelism; we craft winsome arguments and appeal to the nature of the cosmos and the intrinsic code of right and wrong that seems to be written on every human heart. What fewer of us understand is that we must evangelize our children this exact same way. We must disciple our children through wonder as much as through catechism.
, G. K. Chesterton, that great British philosopher of the last century, writes that he gained his understanding of the world as a child:“My first and last philosophy, that which I believe in with unbroken certainty, I learnt in the nursery… a certain way of looking at life, which was created in me by the fairy tales, but has since been meekly ratified by mere facts.”
It is this “certain way of looking at life” that many Christian parents neglect—or perhaps have never even acquired for themselves. We are not merely stuffing our children’s heads with facts; we are shaping hearts to believe that certain realities are true. So that when they do finally encounter the facts of faith, they will already have hearts that can recognize them. When they finally memorize “In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth,”
it will find lodging because they have already gazed up into this same heaven and marveled at its brilliant stars; they have already let the sand from this same earth slip through their chubby fingers and work its way into every nook and cranny of their tiny bodies. So that in the end, they don’t believe there is a Creator simply because Genesis 1 tells them so; they believe there is a Creator because they have seen His Creation.
As you go about discipling your children, as you teach them their Bible verses and correct them when they disobey, do not neglect the sacred discipline of awe and wonder at God’s creation. Take them to the mountains to walk forest trails in search of the millipedes and butterflies that are the works of His hands. Take them to the seashore to be knocked over by the power of a wave so that one day they’ll know how to be knocked over by the power of God. Take them to the art museum to thrill at the colors, shapes, and textures whose beauty can only be explained by the One who is Beauty Himself. Take them to the cities to crane their necks to the see the tops of sky scrapers and shiver with anticipation at God’s miracle of physics that keeps them from tumbling down.
And then take them to Church.
Take them to Church to bow their heads and receive the Word that gives them the ability to know the God behind all these wonders personally. Take them to Church to let the joy of their little hearts overflow in worship of the One through whom all these things consist. And take them to Church, so that in the midst of other worshipers, in the midst of other image bearers, they too will eventually be able to find their place in the great, wide world He has made.
There’s this tower in Italy. It leans. Maybe you've heard of it. When construction began in 1173, it looked fine, but over the centuries, as floors were added, the lean became more pronounced. This resulted in countless attempts to stabilize it—everything from adding counterweights to shoring up the foundation—and yet today, even though the tower still stands, it continues to lean.
Recently, there's been a growing conversation about something called “New Wave Complementarianism.” Some
have suggested that this conversation isn’t “new” at all but simply a return to original complementarian positions. Still others
have suggested that this new wave is entirely
necessary because the “old wave” reached too far. And others
have said that it is simply a reaction to what’s happened in some churches in the name of complementarianism, but isn’t really a discussion of its core essence.
But no one denies that the tower is leaning.
Still, don’t take my word for it. Remember that time Bob Yarbrough said these exact things
at the 2012 EFCA Theology Conference. (Remember that time D.A. Carson spoke at the same conference.) The truth is that there is a “lean” in complementarianism, and it is evidenced by what is being taught and modeled in our churches. Our practices reveal our core assumptions better than any talking points ever could and because of this, they end up being the best indicator of whether or not we need to check our foundation.
So for me, the pertinent question is: “What’s been missing from the conversation that has allowed the tower to lean?”
My approach is predicated on the belief that the Church is the pillar and ground of truth and that Christian truth is discovered through paradoxes. Specific to this discussion, 1) Men and women are the same and 2) Men and women are different. But the paradoxes of the Christian faith are more than simply a set of checks and balances; the tensions actually force us to think more deeply and articulate more fully what we believe. The tension forces us to better understanding (and sometimes humbly admit that we don't understand at all.)
Because of this, if something starts leaning (oh, like say our understanding of gender), we must go back and figure out what has not been held in tension that should have kept it straight. Like Tim Keller, I consider myself a “complexifier”
and believe that we must bring ALL of Scripture to bear on these issues, not simply the passages that speak specifically to gender. So for my part, the conversation surrounding New Complementarianism (a.k.a., New Wave Complementarianism, New Wave OF Complementarianism, a group of friends talking among themselves who stumbled across the concerns that others already felt)—for my part, the conversation must not be about simply recovering original complementarianism but about asking ourselves what has been missing, or at least underemphasized, that has allowed the tower to lean in the first place.
Today I’m laying my cards on the table. I’m doing this because we must have this conversation together. It’s bigger than any specific set of bloggers—bigger than any “movement.” I’m also doing this because while I am a writer, I am also a wife and mom, and at this point, my children need a mother and my husband needs an ezer
more than complementarianism needs another blogger.
So in no particular order, here’s what I believe this conversation must entail; we must:
- Develop a robust definition of imago dei.
- Define the differences between men and women in relationship to God’s nature, not simply in opposition to each other.
- Consider the limitations of gender-based discipleship. If gender becomes the paradigm for sanctification, we have unintentionally made gender more significant than Christ. The goal is not masculinity or femininity—the question is immaturity vs. maturity.
- Admit that if we’re going to use the categories of male and female, we cannot begin with them—we must base them on the foundational category of humanness. As a female person, I have more in common with a male person than I do with a female cat.
- Understand that Christianity does not have a masculine-feel or a feminine-feel. Christianity should feel Christlike—it should feel fully-human.
- Recognize that equality must be the basis for headship--not simply the ying to its yang. Headship, whether in the church or home, exists precisely because we are equal.
- Clarify that the goal of headship is union—that Christ's headship results in the uniting of all things in heaven and earth and reconciling all things to Himself.
- Differentiate between headship and manhood as well as submission and womanhood.
- Reinforce responsibility/authority paradigm of headship. Any authority is given in order to fulfill a responsibility; it does not simply exist.
- And while we’re at it, clarify a Christian view of authority—especially if this is the going to be the key difference between men and women.
- Understand that headship exists only in specific circumstances—headship is not unilateral and some men will never exercise headship because they will never hold a position that calls them to.
- Differentiate between headship and leadership as gifting.
- Realize that passages that speak to men and women’s differing roles flow out of deeper doctrinal paradigms. We understand roles best when we start with the doctrine and work toward application, not vice versa.
- Remember that the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. Roles are given to enable relationships; relationships are not meant to serve roles.
- Discus how denominational and sociological contexts affect our applications and differentiate between application and doctrine.
- Reclaim an understanding of eldership that invests authority in the office, not the person. When we define authority by cultural cues or personality instead of the process of ordination, we can cordon off areas of ministry that the Scripture does not.
- Consider how we assign value. We cannot simply declare that men and women are equal; we must function in a way that displays this.
- Recognize that this will be difficult in a subculture that elevates pastors and teachers to celebrity status--how do you assign value to women when they will never hold those positions?
- Dismantle the false paradigm of gender vs. gifting. Gender is biological gifting and it flourishes alongside other gifting.
- Embrace a view of the whole person that elevates the providence of God to combine gender, talents, and personality into a unique package with unique strengths and unique limitations.
- Actively pursue women’s unique gifting.
- Consider whether focusing the conversation on “roles” has reduced people to functions instead of agents—do we simply become “workers” in a weird Marxist reality?
- Stop overextending Ephesians 5. A wife is not perpetually in a position to be rescued by her husband. Sometimes a wife will be Christ to a husband in need. (I Peter 3)
- Explore the role of husband as “husbandry”– including the responsibility to ensure that those under your care become all that God has made them to be. Explore the same for "wifery."
- Wrestle with whether or not “complementarianism” should be equated with a conservative reading of gender. Is it possible to have a conservative reading of gender and not be “complementarian?” (If nothing else, we need a new word because complementarian doesn’t spell-check.)
There. I’ve laid out my cards. Feel free to pick them up and play them. None of these ideas are “new”—but they are things that I believe have been missing and have led to the lean in our tower. It’s time for us to figure out why, to revisit established paradigms, and courageously press deeper into the mystery and wonder of God’s good design. Semper Reformanda
You don’t have to spend much time in the Christian blogosphere before you encounter the stories of those who have been hurt by the Church. These first-person narratives are often raw and unsettling—they include details that most of us would rather not know, and ones that once we do, we can’t easily erase from our minds. These stories are unusually transparent and reveal a pain that is clearly lingering. Because of this, it’s easy for some to discount them as exercises in self-absorption and unhealthy introspection. After all, shouldn’t we leave the past in the past? Can’t we just move on?
And we could do that, we could let things lie if spiritual abuse weren’t an ever-present reality, if it didn’t regularly make headline news. We could move on if pastors didn’t tell seventeen-year-old girls that they were “God’s gifts”
to fulfill them sexually. If victims of such abuse were not made to feel that they were somehow responsible or that they would hurt “Christ’s cause” to speak about it.
And I guess we could leave well enough alone if spiritual abuse didn’t cut both ways. If ministries didn’t routinely supplement budgets by underpaying staff with the caveat that they’ll be eligible for welfare. If pastors’ wives and children weren’t targeted for the sake of simply existing. If 1,700 pastors didn’t leave ministry every month
—many out of despair and discouragement.
But they do.
And so we must talk about spiritual abuse, because we must remember that the danger isn’t in how dramatic it is but in how common it is. The danger of spiritual abuse isn’t simply in the extremes but in how quickly, how easily any of us can use another person’s love of God to pursue our own goals and our own agendas.
I myself don’t have a salacious story to offer—no tragic account of childhood abuse or breaking away from some cult-like congregation. And yet, my husband and I have wrestled through the pain of working in the Church, of rejection and false accusation, of feeling abandoned by those to whom we looked for advice and care. We’ve also watched as friends have walked darker paths and still bear scars from those who wielded power over them. And we’ve watched as they have wandered from church to church—not because they’re troublesome—but because they’re looking for Jesus and He’s simply not as present in most churches as He should be.
So when I speak about spiritual abuse within the Church, I do so from a place of trying to grapple with the brokenness of Christ’s body. It is not about adding fuel to the fire or airing grievances. It’s not about “getting back.” (Although this will be a legitimate temptation for people who have been deeply hurt.) When I write about spiritual abuse, I do so with the express purpose of finding healing, of learning to be whole again.
Because while my husband and I have chosen to stay
in the organized church—even to make it central to our lives--the choice didn’t come easily. It came through tears and brokenness and times of angry questioning. It came through feeling abandoned by God and wondering why He thought it was such a good idea to gather a bunch of dysfunctional people together in the first place.
Yet, for all that I don’t understand, I do know this: Jesus is the only answer to the brokenness.
Rejecting the Church will not heal the pain.
Harboring bitterness will not heal the pain.
Denying these stories will not heal the pain.
Only Jesus can.
A couple of weeks ago, I stumbled across Ezekiel 34
in which God speaks against those who have abused and scattered His flock. He speaks against their greed and self-service and warns that He is coming against them in judgment and vengeance. But to the broken, hurting lambs, He says this: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out... I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered... I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak.
This is where you find healing. This is where you find wholeness. This is where you learn to love again. You find it in the tears that flood your pillow as you cry out to Him. You find it in the questions that you bring to Him. You find it in His love and you find it in His justice--in arms ready to hold you at the same time that they are ready to fight to protect you. You find it in Jesus, the Good Shepherd.
And when you do, when you find His healing, you may also discover that you can return to His broken, messy flock. Because in returning to His Church, you’re not so much expressing confidence in His people as you are expressing confidence in Him. And in returning to His Church, you may also find that you can point the way for other hurting, broken, dirty sheep as well. You can point the way to the true Shepherd of their souls.
This is what has happened for my husband and me. By committing ourselves to Jesus, we’re learning to open ourselves again to the love and beauty of His people. We’re learning to trust Him enough to walk into the arms of a congregation who loves well. We’re learning to trust Him enough to receive the healing and restoration that only His body can offer. And we’re learning that even though we may walk through dark valleys, He will always come find us, and He will always lead us home.
Last Friday night found me and my family (along with several dozen other folks) sitting in Miss Kay’s proper parlor singing at the top of our lungs.
We almost missed it. Like the classic “big picture” person that I am, I had mixed up my dates, double-booked house guests, and created the very distinct possibility that we would be absent from a mainstay of the church’s yearly calendar. File this one under “How NOT to Be a Good Pastor’s Wife.”
Fortunately we didn't miss it. A little rearranging and a couple blushing conversations later, we ended up at Miss Kay’s front door promptly at 7:00. (Okay, not promptly… but we did get there.) The evening began like any other social gathering—food and small talk—but then about forty minutes in, something happened. A whisper spread through the house and with the enthusiasm of children, this eclectic group aged 17 months to 77 years assembled themselves in the front parlor (yes, I do mean parlor). Out came the guitars; next a mandolin; and before you knew it, someone was seated at the piano, running gospel scales up and down.
Then it began.
And with the initial chord, with the first blend, I knew that I was witnessing something special. I was witnessing what is fast becoming one of the rarest (and soon to be extinct) forms of social interaction in our culture—communal singing. Now this wasn’t the embarrassed-national-anthem-mumbling type of singing that happens at ballgames and graduations. No, this was classic “daddy sang bass, mama sang tenor”
and everyone instinctively did seem to know how to “join right in there.” Song after song, voices called out favorites and all of us--from the boy soprano to the bass who in a another life had traveled with a gospel group—sang with abandon. At times, a soloist would take over and the rest of us would simply drop back without a word. We repeated choruses and elongated final lines all via a silent understanding that only exists between people who have lived a lifetime together.
For my part, I joined in when I could although I was raised more Watts
. Mostly though, I just sat in awe—in awe of the secret that I had been entrusted. A secret best kept in mountain hollers, family reunions, and small country churches—the secret of singing as community.
We are people who are quickly losing the capacity to live together in peace. We are consumed by our private issues and personal angst; so much so that we can’t even elect a president in civility. At the same time, we are losing the ability to sing together; and as this piece
notes, even when we want to, we don’t know what to sing. And as we lose the music, I’m afraid we’re losing something more. We’re losing a metaphor for life, for how to live and engage in community, how to be silent when the soloist is singing, how to support the melody with our harmonies, how to not need the spotlight. Because as we lose the ability to sing together, we also are losing an opportunity to learn how to work together to reach larger goals.
What’s saddest to me is that we’re losing this in our churches as well. After decades of projecting lyrics onto overhead screens, the gradual disappearance of hymnals, and the repetition of simple melodies, we may have just raised an entire generation that never once encountered the beauty and wonder of singing in parts. (To quote Church Curmudgeon
: “Worship team practice is canceled. Use the four chords from last week.") This is not a rant against contemporary music—our family has been part of communities that have been exclusively contemporary and those that have been strictly traditional. And in every case, there’s been good... and otherwise. This is simply a call to not forget that corporate singing must be corporate.
It must be more than simply singing in unison because our congregations are not uniform. They represent people of different backgrounds, giftings, personalities, and ages; and what better way to embody that than through music that lets you find your place and sing at the top of your lungs.
Because honestly, corporate worship was never intended to be--nor can it ever truly be—simply a collection of individuals expressing their private worship to the Lord. No, we must sing in parts. We must embrace the unique callings that we each represent and then combine our voices in harmony to praise a God who can orchestrate the motliest crew into a beautiful chorus. And we must teach our children this—it is as necessary as any other educational experience or process of socialization. We must teach them the magic of harmonizing and the joy of not having to be the soloist; we must teach them the wonder of singing as a group.
And along the way, we might just learn a little something about life in community as well.
I have a confession to make. This week, I watched Mad Men
for the first time.
For some this may sound like a confession of moral laxity; for others it’s a confession of being horribly out of touch and having lived the last five years in a cave. Still, apart from the rampant licentiousness, unchecked greed, and ubiquitous alcoholism, I have to admit that it’s a pretty engaging show, especially as it captures the glamour of mid-20th century Manhattan--the perfect pencil skirts, the tailored three-piece suits, the sleek cars, and the poolside lunches at the Astoria. In its attempt to be historically accurate, Mad Men
is also quick to make (and overstate) the point that this was a world dominated men, a world where housewives were vacuous ninnies, and the only women with any sense of power were the “hens” at the office who knew how to get a man to do what they wanted.
Of course Mad Men
is interesting in itself, but it’s been particularly interesting as my exposure to it coincides with the ramped up conversation surrounding traditional gender roles. With this week’s release of Rachel Held Evans’ A Year of Biblical Womahood,
everybody and her cousin seems to be parsing conservative interpretations of gender via the late 1950s and early 60s. Evans explains how she understands conservative mores here
"The term 'Biblical womanhood' is basically a reaction to feminism. It means a woman who stays home and submits to her husband. It's a remembrance of June Cleaver—not what we see when we actually read scripture."
Now I can’t speak to Evans’ experience, but this correlation is funny to me. It’s funny because, despite being a woman who identifies as a conservative, I’ve never once thought of myself as June Cleaver. And the main reason isn’t because there’s anything wrong with June or even with women who care for their families fulltime. (I’m a SAHM myself.) The main reason my conservative understanding of gender has never led me to recreate the 1950s is because of what was happening below the surface. In a word, June was June, not because of conservative gender roles or because she stayed at home; June was June because of what broader society was pursuing at the time—stability and comfort. June Cleaver vs. Kingdom Values
During the 1950s, the United States experienced relative peace and prosperity for the first time in over two decades. In this context, Ward and June became icons of stability, comfort, and ease; they represented a generation who had known deprivation their entire lives, who as children had endured the Great Depression, and who came of age through the atrocities of WWII. By the time the 1950s rolled along, they were also a generation desperate for “the good life.” In this context, a woman’s role was naturally reduced to being a comforter, a nurturer, a source of emotional stability the same way that a man’s role was reduced to being a source of financial stability. (Think how important it was for a man who had grown up in the leanness of the Depression and watched his mother and sisters work in the factories during WWII to be able to make enough money to enable
his wife to stay at home. And think too how important it would have been for women--who only a decade before had welcomed broken men home from war--to provide them with some sense of domestic normalcy and peace.) In this sense, gender roles weren’t simply about men oppressing women as so many Millennials think—although as Mad Men
is quick to point out it was very easy for selfish men to do so--no, gender roles of the 1950s were a way to work toward the societal values of rest and stability.
So here’s my question: Is June Cleaver really synonymous with a conservative Christian understanding of gender?
I grew up in a very traditional home. I was taught to respect my father as head of the family and my mother spent years at home caring for us. But despite being traditional in their understanding of gender, my parents were very non-traditional in their view of the world. Instead of teaching their children to pursue stability and comfort, they taught us to love God, to sacrifice for his kingdom, to seek heaven’s riches over those of this earth, and to never forget where we were heading. The effect was that these kingdom dynamics created a different paradigm in which I applied conservative gender norms. Instead of thinking that the greatest good for me was to marry, have children, and rear them in a comfortable suburban environment, I grew up believing that the greatest good for me was to follow Christ, to devote myself to His service. That might very well mean marriage and children, but it could have as easily meant working overseas, pursuing post-grad degrees, or relieving the sick and oppressed. June Cleaver never once entered the conversation.
So I don’t think the problem is as simple as conservative gender roles. The problem comes when we use conservative gender roles to further our own comfort, our own sense of stability, or our own sense of ease.
And my guess is that this
is what many of my peers are confusing when they associate a conservative reading of gender with the 1950s. Ironically, conservatives fall prey to the same mistake when they insist on shaping applications of gender after a Cleaver-esque domesticity. No Stepford Wives
Because let’s be clear on one thing: the kingdom dynamics of love and sacrifice call us to apply gender roles very differently than we would if we were pursuing lives of ease and stability.
When you believe that you’re pioneering a new country, when you believe that you’re pushing back the boundaries of brokenness, when you believe that you are fighting to see the kingdom of God reign in the hearts of men, it’s highly unlikely you’ll be content as June Cleaver.
Instead your role models for womanhood will be women like Katharina von Bora
, who singlehandedly managed her family estates thus enabling her husband (Martin Luther) to do nothing less than turn the known church on its ear. Your role model for womanhood will be Abigail Adams,
great-granddaughter of Puritans, whose minister father insisted on her education and who by her intelligence and grace helped her husband (and son) establish the very foundations of our fledgling government. You’re more likely to look to a woman like Caroline Ingalls
who sweated alongside her husband, built her home with her bare hands, plowed fields, and tamed the frontier all for the sake of a dream. And you’re more likely to model your understanding of Christian womanhood after someone like Elisabeth Elliot
who rejected the opportunity to be June Cleaver and went instead with her husband to live and die in the jungles of Ecuador--all to tell those who had never heard that Jesus lives.
These were no Stepford wives
And yet, neither were they feminists in a political sense. (As a former nun, Katharina von Bora’s most revolutionary act was marrying and having children.) No, they were simply strong women who embodied all that it means to be human—they embraced their femininity, their capacity to bear and nurture life, their minds, their husbands, and their individual callings all in pursuit of goals and glories greater than their own private issues. Deeper Issues
Today, the easiest way to undermine a conservative understanding of gender is to align it with 1950s domesticity—something that that both liberals and conservatives are prone to do. But we must acknowledge that applications of gender are simply an expression of deeper values; poor June Cleaver was really only ever a presenting issue. The deeper question is what is driving us: Are we being motivated by our own needs or our own fears? Are we looking for lives of ease and comfort? Are we willing to use others to achieve that for ourselves?
Or are we pioneers, pilgrims on a journey from this world to the next? Are we men and women working together in pursuit of the kingdom of God? Are we captured by a greater vision and a greater dream of what God is doing in the world? When our churches are motivated by finding comfort in this life, it’s very possible that we would end up recreating a 1950s context; but as we concern ourselves with service and love, as we valiantly pursue the kingdom, June Cleaver with all her niceties and comfortable stability will have little place in the conversation. Until then, let’s put a moratorium on associating her with a conservative understanding of gender; and as a first step to that end, maybe we should all watch a little less Mad Men
from now on.
(As promised, this is the first in a series about singleness and the Church by guest blogger Christa Bohannon.)
In my circle of friends and acquaintances, this was the year for weddings and engagements. I know four different couples who got married this spring and summer and then two more good friends got engaged just a few weeks ago. I’m honestly very happy for all of them, but at the same time, I would be lying if I didn’t admit to struggling with the temptation of a “when’s-it-my-turn” pity party. The plain truth is I am single at 33, and marriage, let alone a date, seems highly unlikely right now.
Still when Hannah and I reconnected this summer, I was initially very excited that she wanted to hear my thoughts and humbled when she offered me the opportunity to share about singleness on her blog. However, as my excitement dwindled, I found myself running for cover. Writing about singleness meant facing the reality of my circumstances yet again.
And since we are being really honest here, I’ll admit that sometimes it’s easier to hide. In fact, if it’s fight or flight, I often choose escape--usually running to the nearest story, whether it’s in a favorite TV show or novel. I think another other story is better than mine so I just hide out there for a while. And all the while I deceive myself into thinking that I’m waiting patiently in my singleness; but functionally, I’m living the opposite. I’m quietly rebelling against God’s sovereignty and providential leading in my life by thinking that anything other than Jesus will satisfy the longings of my heart.
Now, before you feel sorry for me (or perhaps even chide), let me say that God is graciously at work. The Spirit opens my eyes again and again to see that my greatest satisfaction will not be found in a husband but in knowing and pursuing Christ with my whole heart. And in spite of my running away, the Father still lavishes me with gifts, reminding me over and over that he doesn’t withhold anything good from those who walk uprightly
. His gift to me right now is singleness because in his mercy and wisdom, marriage for me would not be good. Remember, the Father gives good gifts.
So if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that singleness and marriage are both gifts. For the longest time I thought marriage was a given--deserved even. I expected that I would finish college and get married like everyone else. But of course, the longer you are single, the more you hear talk of a different gift, the “gift of singleness.”
Maybe like me, you’ve thought this gift of singleness was a super spiritual gift for people who chose
to remain single and celibate their entire life. And this gift gave those who possessed it supernatural ability to be constantly joyful and content in singleness and celibacy that seems entirely impossible to everyone else. The trouble is that this view of the “gift of singleness” is not only unrealistic; it is also far too individualistic. I would say the same for our view of marriage too. We like to think about what joys we may get from
marriage, but what would happen if we better understood both of these gifts in a broader corporate context? Marriage and singleness are gifts to the Church
to use in serving Christ and the Body, not simply gifts for our personal happiness. So when I say the Father gives good gifts, it is two-fold. His gift of singleness is given as much to me for my joy
as it is to the Church for the edification of the entire Body, just as the gift of marriage is given ultimately to display God’s glory and covenant-keeping love to the Church and the world.
With their gift, a married couple uniquely pictures God’s covenant love in a way that I can’t. In my singleness, I can display something about God’s sufficiency that those who have a spouse as a constant companion may be tempted to forget. In fact, singleness points us uniquely to the reality of the new creation in which one day no one will be given in marriage because the shadow that pictured The
Marriage will no longer be needed. We will all dwell in union with Christ our Bridegroom, finding our greatest delight and satisfaction in the presence of Jesus himself. When you look at it that way, the Church needs both
gifts--neither marriage nor singleness is a better gift than the other.
Recognizing the broader purposes of these gifts will determine how we use them to love and serve the Body. Over the next couple of posts, I hope to share some specific observations and recommendations on how married and single Christians can interact in ways that use these gifts—both singleness and marriage--to the fullest. Until then, let’s start by encouraging one another to keep fighting for contentment in Jesus in whatever trying circumstance we are facing. This Truth is what we must all cling to as we fight for true joy--whether we are single, married, waiting on children, a better job, or children to outgrow a certain stage. Fill in the blank; we are all in a fight for contentment to believe that Jesus is our greatest joy.
So if you see me running away from the fight, feel free to drag me back again.
A native of southeastern VA, Christa Bohannon studied Christian Missions as an undergraduate and ultimately received her MA in English in 2004. After a stint as a Jr High English teacher, she now works as an Instructional Systems Developer and is active at Redemption Church. She's always eager for a good story, especially if it is accompanied by coffee and good friends. She also loves to travel and sometimes pretends to be a runner.