Many lies have infiltrated the church's rhetoric on gender issues. These distortions and myths have personal and communal consequences for Christians. They directly impact the health and reputation of the body of Christ, and they hurt women. That’s why we need to set the record straight. So here are three lies the church tells women and why they’re so dangerous for us all.
1. You’re Causing Your Brothers to Stumble
Have you ever imagined what it might be like to carry the weight of other people’s sins on top of your own? Women don’t have to imagine. That has been a part of the church rhetoric for centuries. History indicts women for supposedly having an indecent and consuming sexuality (Tertullian) and for the shamefulness of our bodies (Martin Luther), and charges us with the weighty responsibility of regulating how men respond to our physical forms (Saint Clement of Alexandria).
Sadly, this woman-shaming theology of modesty is still present in the church.
By teaching girls that our bodies are dangerous—the very root and cause of male lust—the church implicitly and explicitly ties the knot between female sexuality and shame.
Women grow to accept two things about themselves:
1. When men behave inappropriately, it is because women provoked them to do so with their overwhelming sexual appeal.
2. We are not sexual, and have no individual sexual desires.
Men suffer just as deeply. Women learn to never trust men, and men learn to never trust themselves, because they “only want one thing.”
I attended a Christian grade school for six difficult years. Girls weren’t allowed to wear tank tops, much less (gasp!) have a bra strap showing. If a girl ever broke the dress code, even unintentionally, she could be forced to wear a massive, ugly, smelly sweater for the rest of the day as punishment.
It was the ultimate scare tactic—and the threat of a public shaming kept us all in line. All of this, mind you, so we didn’t cause our (poor) brothers to stumble. I personally thought my brothers must be pretty clumsy if my bare shoulder was enough to send them face-first into the floor.
I still carry the scars of my experiences with modesty culture. Long talks about female responsibility and uncontrollable male physicality had consequences. And I still have to resist the urge to tug my dress down when I’m around Christian men, in case they may think that I'm trying to tempt them.
I don’t have a problem with women choosing to cover their bodies. I have a problem with the woman-shaming, male-excusing theology that prowls behind modesty culture.
When I pull on my clothes in the morning, it’s not about men. Women may choose to dress “modestly” or not (PS modesty is also cultural), but we should do so because it makes them feel affirmed and empowered and beloved in God's sight. It should not be about protecting men.
2. You Shouldn’t Use Your Teaching and Leadership Gifts
For many people, the Spirit’s gifts can mean challenges, joy, disappointment, and even sacrifice. But rarely are they so intensely suppressed as are the leadership and teaching gifts of Christian women.
I’m not talking about the misuse of gifts out of arrogance or selfish desire. I'm talking about the soul-crushing weight of knowing you are gifted and being unable to use your gifts. I'm talking about feeling a calling while also believing that following it would dishonor God.
Christian women know that weight, that heady internal conflict. Many of us feel compelled to pull on lead boots to weigh down our gifts and keep us in line. We rein in our gifts and try to avoid threatening or “overthrowing” the patriarchal order we're told is "biblical."
But gifts have a way of breaking out of the cages patriarchy has built. God makes our gifts so impossible to ignore, our callings so loud, that we can rarely avoid unleashing them. We must act. We must serve. We must teach. We must lead. We must fight. Why?
Because the spirit will not lie quiet in us until we use our gifts fully. That disquiet in our hearts—the longing so deep and fierce that it will not cease its whisper-shout for action—this is the work of the Spirit in women. And it's bigger, stronger, and more courageous than the theology of those who would hold us captive.
Women will lead. We will use their gifts to bring love and justice to the world. And to God be the glory.
3. Proverbs 31 Is One-Size-Fits-All Biblical Womanhood
This is a beautiful chapter, but it’s not a perfect prescription for womanhood. I like Proverbs 31 as much as the next person—when it isn’t used to remind me of everything I’m not and everything I ought to be.
Christians use terms like “biblical womanhood,” and “good Christian woman” without thought for what they actually mean or who they alienate. But the assumptions that accompany these words hurt many women who can't ever hope to conform to them.
Women who don’t marry don’t fit the mold. Women who don’t or can't have children aren’t the ideal either. These standards exclude many women of color and women experiencing poverty. Proverbs 31 has been stretched and twisted to mean so many things in modern culture that aren’t supported by Scripture.
The church caricatures this figure until she is unrecognizable. A well-run home is the ultimate testament to the godliness of the Proverbs 31 woman. It is the fully-able, nurturing, dutiful, pragmatic wife and mother who is to be praised. Not the woman who merely fears the Lord. It’s this narrow snapshot of womanhood that is often celebrated in mother’s day sermons and in women’s small groups. But the outliers of womanhood remain, in many cases, invisible in the theology of the church.
The woman of Proverbs 31 deserves to be commended. But she's not the model and measuring stick by which we all fall short. There's no singular definition of biblical womanhood. Because a biblical woman is simply a woman who seeks God.
Women are crushed under these supposedly biblical standards. But in Christ, women are liberated. We are free to live and love like Jesus and manifest the complex entirety of who God created us to be. We can embrace our differences, giftedness, and unique worth as women of God. Because we are, each and every one of us, women after God's own heart.
As Christians, we are called to reject these gendered falsehoods for the beautiful reality of the gospel. And when we do, we will free women to flourish in the Spirit and use their gifts to revolutionize the world.