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Pastors, Please Stop Preaching A Narrow "Biblical Womanhood"

On May 25, 2017

“At the heart of every woman,” a pastor once commented on Mother’s Day, “is a God-ordained desire for beauty, marriage, homemaking, and motherhood. If you doubt it, check out the covers of women’s magazines at the grocery store.”

I chafed at his generalizations. I couldn’t deny that magazines marketed to women tend to cover beauty, decorating, recipes, and finding the perfect [insert project, costume, snack, etc.] for kids, among other stereotypical topics. Some women I know relate to them, while others just roll their eyes.

But I wondered if that pastor would have a different perspective if he could become a beetle on a wall at a women’s retreat. Would it surprise him to learn that most of us don’t sit around curling our eyelashes, voting on paint and fabric swatches, or even talking about our husbands and kids? Sure, we care about how we look. We want to make the most of our surroundings and support our husbands and kids. But there’s so much more. We want to thrive in Christ. We want our gifts and energy and time to count in the fullest ways possible. Most of us who love Jesus want to make the greatest difference possible for all eternity.

At the same time, we hear Christian leaders stereotype and limit us to the domestic realms, fencing us from our fullest potential in Christ. And not enough of us realize that stereotypes and limitations (like ruling on whether women can or can’t become police officers) have more to do with human traditions than God’s actual intentions. Many present-day church leaders buy into teachings of church fathers who had a limited perspective on women’s abilities. It’s not that the writing and ministry of these leaders was all wrong or bad. But much of their teaching on why God created women fell short of God’s basic plans for marriage and community. And, sadly, some of their inaccurate teachings persist today, minimizing Christ’s work through women.

Augustine, for example, taught that a woman’s goodness is exemplified in her skills as a man’s helper—no more. Her purpose, he claimed, is for bearing children, and little else. Of course, marriage and motherhood are beautiful ways for a woman to serve God. But Genesis 1:27 paints a fuller picture.

Actually, in Genesis, God explains that the first man and woman share a purpose—to rule and subdue the earth in a joint partnership. She exists to help care for creation—including him—not just him. God made her to help care for creation—including children—not only children.

God instructs the first man and woman to “be fruitful and multiply.” No doubt, procreation involves male and female contributions. Interestingly, God offers no blueprint for men’s versus women’s work. Katelyn Beaty unpacks an excellent theology for our work in A Woman’s Place: A Christian Vision for Your Calling in the Office, the Home, and the World.

Nowhere does the text break the sphere of home into a one-woman job, like some Christian leaders do today.

Chrysostom believed God made females naturally inferior to males. Women, he taught, were made for the humbler responsibilities of life—service to men, children, and home.

His teaching also conflicts with foundational instructions for the first man and woman to rule and subdue the earth in life together (Gen. 1:28). There’s no way around the fact that God made a she to co-create a God-glorifying culture with a he.

God means for male and female to reflect the magnificent dance—between Creator, Word, and Spirit—in a community.

Neither male nor female exemplifies the fullest possible life when working apart from each other. Our unique contributions as men and women, and unique individuals, offer the fullest possible expressions of life in Christ. Yet some Christian leaders today herd men and women into separate spheres of life and ministry.

Irenaeus claimed that women are prone to deceit, gullibility, and tempting males to sin. He blamed the first woman for the first man’s fall. Men, he insisted, should not trust women. Women, he erroneously taught, need men to protect them from innate sinfulness. Sadly, some leaders today carry on this thinking.

Scripture paints a different picture: God holds the man responsible for his choices and behavior (Gen. 3:17-19; Rom. 5:12). God opposes the man’s attempt to pass blame on the woman, assuming moral superiority.

God calls the woman out for acting on her confusion. The text tells us she is deceived. We can only imagine the details. Did the woman search her husband’s face as the serpent lied that humans could be as smart and powerful as God? Did the man silently wait to see if she would give in before taking the risk himself? Nowhere does God question: “So why didn’t you follow your husband’s leadership?” We don’t know all that went down in those moments. Good theology never imaginatively fills in blanks.

We can be sure that turning her gaze from the Creator’s instructions to the Serpent’s lies didn’t go well for the woman. The man and woman took the serpent’s bait and reaped the consequences—equally.

Sometimes it’s hard to see the difference between God’s plans versus human agendas. Scripture paints a more accurate picture than the stereotypical thinking of some church fathers, which prevails in many present-day stereotypes and in pseudo-Christian culture.

If we hear on Mother’s Day—or any other time—that women achieve the pinnacle of womanhood through beauty, marriage, homemaking, and motherhood, let’s remember the bigger, fuller picture of what’s possible in Christ. After all, Scripture—not the interpretations of some church fathers and present day leaders—provides the basis for our faith. Let’s plant our feet on the safe ground, looking first to the one who is far above all rule and authority, power and dominion (Eph. 1:21-23).

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