What we talk about when we talk about women in church: part two

biblical woman

"Women are built to be housewives," he said. 

"Women are not married to their houses," I said, aghast. "Women who work in their home are homemakers."

Where did this teacher of God's Word get the idea that women are "built to be housewives"? From Titus 2:4-5: "Then they can urge the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God."

It was a perfect example of proof-texting, or taking a short passage of Scripture written in a specific context for a specific reason and making it fit a prescribed agenda. My head was spinning. 

You see, in just a few verses, with a very strange turn-of-a-phrase, my entire identity was called into question. Often I did not enjoy the keeping of my home. I didn't marry until I was 35 years of age. And I had not been able to bear any children. Instead of keeping quiet at home, I was attending seminary.

So was I built defectively? Did God forget me? Only if I bought into this myopic version of "biblical womanhood." It would take me awhile to make the case that every woman was gloriously created for God's Kingdom business. Whether in the home, in the workplace, mother or no, visible leader or not. Each one of us is Kingdom-called, and our circumstances and gifts are assets, not liabilities.

Some observations:

  • Why is it that the biblical woman is often modeled or praised as one who doesn't take risks, one who conforms rather than speaking out against injustice, one who gratefully falls into a role of quiet calm and passivity? Because this would exclude many women in the Bible itself, including women like Rahab who hid the spies and Priscilla who "put her neck on the line" for the sake of the gospel. I doubt women like Deborah, or Phoebe, or Lydia or Junia or The Unclean Woman or Mary Magdalene would fit anyone's definition of conformity in the religious culture of their day. Instead, it was their holy boldness that seemed to distinguish them.
  • As Rachel Held Evans noted in her book My Year of Biblical Womanhood, what one thinks of as a "biblical woman" is selective, indeed. Which verses will be your guide? Evans writes, "Using the word biblical prescriptively like this almost always  involves selectivity." So you are silent in church (1 Corinthians 14:34-35)? OK. But why aren't you wearing a head covering (1 Corinthians 11:6)?
  • God created each girl and woman in his own image and commissioned them for serious business alongside their brothers in Genesis 1:27-28:  God blessed them and said to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.” No female can be excluded from this grand vision by her circumstances or lack of opportunities; it is a wildly inclusive plan. And through Jesus' words in the gospels, a woman's calling is defined even further. We see it in this quote from Reclaiming Eve:

Let me be clear: the highest calling on any woman's life is to love the Lord her God with all of her heart, to love her neighbor as she loves herself, and to take the good news of Jesus to the world. While I am sorry if this news comes as a shock to you, I would be more sorry if I didn't point out what Jesus is asking of each of us. We can be single, divorced, married or remarried, mothers or not, employed outside the home or within it, full-time Christian workers or full-time professionals, but we will never realize God's vision of community until we understand what our highest calling is—and what it means to appreciate and enter into the spiritual family we were created for from the beginning.

So what is a biblical woman?

She is not primarily a homemaker or a breadwinner, a mother or a childless woman, a person who "has" worldly possessions or "has not." (For, in fact, living up to a current ideal can be rather costly sometimes. Read this reality check on our privilege by my friend Jenny Rae Armstrong.)

In fact, she is not first and foremost created to live up to the label of "biblical woman." Her primary focus must be becoming like Jesus. Instructed by Scripture, her life hidden in Christ, set in his community, growing to reflect his image more and more. She is empowered by his Spirit, with a call to serve however she is gifted, in a specific place and time in history.

What a beautiful relief.

Your turn: Share your experience with the phrase "biblical womanhood." How are women set free in Jesus?