Do you find yourself reluctant to attend women’s retreats, Bible studies, or conferences because too often they focus on fashion, dieting, women’s emotions, and new forms of abdominal exercises? Are you confused by Christian blogs for women where, again, the discussions center on fashion and appearance? How many times have you perused Christian bookstores or event booths where resources for women fixate on beauty? A CBE staff member suggests that Jesus might turn these tables over, angry that the daughters of Abraham—destined as strong agents of gospel-service—are reduced to lesser pursuits.
Perhaps it was for this reason that Catherine Booth (1829–1890) made a similar observation over 100 years ago. She said that it “will be a happy day in England when Christian women transfer their sympathies from poodles and terriers to destitute and starving children.” Co-founder of the Salvation Army, Catherine Booth was one of the most able evangelists, preachers, and activists of her day. She worked tirelessly to rescue young girls enslaved in brothels throughout London’s East End. Together with her husband William, she built a denomination that would become one of the great evangelistic and humanitarian organizations in the world. If Catherine Booth were alive today, she might express concern for how the church has again minimized women’s destiny, from strong agents of rescue (Gen. 2:18), to those made passive and in need of rescue themselves through aspiring to physical beauty. She might observe, as others have, that in becoming captivating to men, women have abandoned their place beside men in exercising a shared dominion over the earth (Gen. 1:27-31). This error has held them captive to a false and capricious identity that is not only fleeting and harmful, but is also at odds with Scripture.
In the early chapters of Genesis God says, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a strong helper as his partner” (Gen. 2:18, NRSV). Woman was this strong helper, and, according to scholars, the Hebrew word used to describe women’s help (ezer) means to save and rescue, a term used most often for God’s deliverance (noted in passages like Ps. 121:1-2). Scripture makes it clear that women’s creational destiny is to provide a vital and powerful form of rescue. Thus, from the early church to the present, women have lived out this destiny, often in the face of prejudice and resistance, and with minimal mention in church history.
That is one reason why it is important to cast biblical vision and historical recall for Christians today, challenging the shallow beauty cult that distracts and co-opts the energies and talents of women. Few in our day remember that the driving force behind Moody Bible Institute was Emma Dryer (1835-1925), whose vision to reach the world for Christ—through a Bible institute in Chicago—eventually garnered the support of D.L. Moody. Few remember that one of the most prominent US missionaries was the freed slave Amanda Berry Smith (1837-1915)—also one of the most capable Christian leaders of her day. Few know that women preached in evangelical institutions like Moody Bible Institute and Prairie Bible Institute, as well as at evangelical revivals around the world. Few remember that Amy Lee Stockton and Rita Gould were two enormously prominent twentieth century evangelists, ministering to audiences of thousands. Though women’s preaching is viewed as liberal by some today, these women were the theological conservatives of their day. They preached the good news of Jesus because Scripture compelled them to “go into all the world and proclaim the good news to the whole creation” (Mark 16:15). They were obedient to God’s Word, and they used their talents—including their skills of preaching and teaching—not only for women and children, but also for the whole creation, as Scripture teaches.
How did we lose our biblical focus for women? How did we trade our crowns for casting before the throne for the tiaras gained for women who captivate? The history of modern missions offers some insights.
During the modern missionary movement (early 1800s), women outnumbered men on mission fields two to one. These women were mostly single, and, because of this, they were often denied a place of service in denominational mission organizations. So they founded their own mission organizations, funded their own work, and occupied all levels of service and leadership—efforts that led to the largest expanse of faith in all of history. However, by the 1930s, their own successful organizations were absorbed under traditional missionary societies, and therefore male control. As a result, we lost their extraordinary leadership and many of their histories. We also lost vision for what women might accomplish as strong and powerful help. Without their example, fewer women aspired to their greatness. What was left for women to pursue? Tragically, we exchanged our calling as strong and active gospel-agents for something anemic, self-absorbed, and passive—we endeavored to become beauties in need of rescue.
Thankfully, the superficial and fleeting rewards of outer beauty have turned many back to Scripture. Perhaps, like Catherine Booth, we might restore a biblical vision of women’s purpose by declaring: “It will be better world when churches, blogs, and Christian conferences view women not as passive beauties to rescue, but as agents of God, empowered through the Holy Spirit, attending not to their appearances but to the lost, the abused, the friendless, and to those who do not know the saving and sanctifying power of Jesus.” From the women who proclaimed the risen Christ on Easter morning, to the great evangelists of the twentieth century, women’s newness of life centered not on their appearances, but on the power of the Holy Spirit. Let us consider the outcome of their extraordinary lives and imitate their faith, as the author of Hebrews directs (13:7).