If you are an American* evangelical woman over the age of 30, chances are you have encountered at least some of the following:
- Surprise that you cannot attend a mid-week ladies’ Bible study, because you’re at work at that time;
- Disappointment from others that you don’t home school your children;
- Mild feelings of inferiority because you do not bake your own bread (you tried….and failed);
- Frustration at the poor exegesis in Bible study materials marketed to women;
- Your husband being cornered by several men at a social gathering, who are grilling him on why he “lets” his wife work outside the home;
- Nagging guilt because you rarely get home from work in time to drive your children to AWANA or Youth Group.
Stop the Guilt! It’s Not Biblical
Maybe you’ve even wondered at times about a “wardrobe makeover,” to better reflect how ‘biblical womanhood’ is portrayed in Christian magazines. As Elyse Fitzpatrick writes in her excellent book, Good News for Weary Women, “Many of the practices we Christian women pressure ourselves (and each other) to uphold are unnecessary and burdensome.” While drafting this article, I came across an online magazine called, Keepers at Home. Dedicated to the idea that holy = cooking/sewing/cleaning, the site sells a Little Keepers at Home handbook “so that girls ages 4 to 6, can begin to be little keepers and future Christian homemakers!” (Emphasis mine.) Really? Do we really want to send our daughters the message that being a follower of Jesus essentially means cooking well and doing craft projects? Of course, some women love homeschooling their children, baking, and teaching Sunday School – and are good at it! These are great activities, and women who enjoy them should be encouraged.
But so should the women who don’t.
“Biblical womanhood” is an ambiguous catch-phrase which has gained popularity in recent years, often subjectively interpreted to mean “stay-at-home, homeschooling mom who sews and bakes.” As I mentioned in last week’s post, the resurgence of extreme patriarchal thought and overly-conservative gender roles is probably more in response to radical feminism than to the spirit of the Scriptures. What Christian women need to realize is that following Christ does not limit them strictly to homemaking duties, but rather frees them to embrace the unique gifts, abilities and calling He has placed on their lives. As author Sarah Bessey writes, “A man is most truly “helped” when a woman is walking in the fullness of her anointing and gifts and intelligence and strength, not when she reduces herself out of a misguided attempt at righteousness.”
‘Biblical Womanhood’ Takes Many Different Forms
To be sure, no serious student of Scripture would deny the God-ordained gender roles He has established. Nature itself, as well as both the Old and New Testament, inform us of responsibilities (including child-rearing; care of household; and spousal support). Candidly, I am a complementarian and am not arguing that women should seek to usurp their husbands, or fill a man’s role. But what is often instilled in evangelical women is that their gifts and abilities should be channeled only into homemaking, and to seek to use them elsewhere does not honor God. This leads to needless guilt, which comes out both in the counseling room and in private. One source of depression among Christian women is feeling unable to live up to the expectations of being a perfectly ‘submissive wife’ and perfect homemaker.
This is a heavy burden to carry, but for a woman with a college degree it can be devastating – she may even be conditioned to feel guilt for having a career. Using the fine mind God has given her is a way of glorifying Him; and women need to be told this. The world needs more Christian women in medicine; in the hard sciences; and in other fields. Far from being unbiblical, God is greatly honored when His daughters work up to their highest potential. A woman can only serve God with joy if she is doing what she loves; and if she loves computer science more than doing crafts at women’s conferences, she has the freedom in Christ to pursue it. (My oldest daughter, 19, is a freshman at a secular university majoring in chemical engineering. Not only is she preparing academically for a very worthy career, but also, due to the discernment and critical thinking skills she has developed, she is able to discern the anti-God bias and unbiblical worldview inherent in any university). This is as valid a model of “biblical womanhood” as is learning any homemaking skills I have taught her.
The Balancing Act
A well-known celebrity pastor spoke at a conference several years ago on biblically-prescribed gender roles, and categorically claimed that women who pursue careers are outside of God’s will (ie sinning). His entire message was based on Titus 2:5, but he did not touch on the fact that the home can be “kept” by delegating some responsibilities, as the Proverbs 31 woman did. He cited an encounter he’d had with two female students at a Christian university who challenged his view. A law student and a medical student, they insisted they would be as good at motherhood as they would be at their perspective careers. “No you won’t,” the pastor rebutted. “The average physician or attorney works 60 hours per week. You will not be raising your children; you will be paying someone else to raise them.”
While the pastor’s point had some validity – most careers do demand long days and on-call status – it was his black-and-white thinking (and painting all career women everywhere as ‘outside of God’s will’) that was wrong. What he seemed to miss is that there are times and seasons; flexibility of schedules at certain points in careers; options to take unpaid leave. Doctors and lawyers, who are well-paid and will always have job security, have the option of cutting back on their hours during child-bearing years. One of the godliest women I know is a family physician in England. Having recently become a mother, she still practices medicine while raising her own child and being active in her church (where her husband is a deacon). Even after maternity leave ends, it is possible to pursue a career without becoming derelict in one’s duties as a mother.
Embracing Our God-Given Identity
What, then, is ‘biblical womanhood’? (Is it possible to read that phrase without an image of a long dress and head covering coming to mind?) It should be possible. Biblical womanhood means a woman, heart sold out to her King, pursuing the life He ordained for her, and her alone, to live. It means cultivating the passions and talents He has uniquely gifted her with. It means being a leader like Deborah; a businesswoman like Lydia; an instructor of her children like Lois and Eunice; and being actively engaged in charitable work like Dorcas. It can mean staying home and teaching her children full-time, if that’s her calling; it can mean becoming a nuclear physicist or isolating the cancer genome if that is the passion God has instilled in her heart. Just as there are “many members of the Body” (1 Cor. 12:12), there are many individual versions of womanhood that fall well within God’s blessing. Living up to their personal and academic potential to the glory of God is a message girls and women in the evangelical church desperately need to hear. Shake off others’ expectations (no matter how “holy” they may sound); and embrace who you – and only you – were meant to be in Christ. This is true ‘biblical womanhood’!
*Home schooling is illegal in most countries, and women electing not to be employed is not an economic option in most of the world. Even among conservative Christians, the expectation in the Western world is that women will receive higher education and pursue careers commensurate with men.