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Published Date: March 5, 2008

Published Date: March 5, 2008

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The “Facts” About Women or The Truth About God?

I heard a preacher recently declare, “Don’t let the facts blind you to the truth.” Can facts overshadow truth? Consider the Cross. Imagine how the disciples must have felt as they watched Jesus die on that hill. Though the Romans nailed Jesus to the tree, though his corpse was bound and sealed in a cave, within a few days these facts were swallowed by the truth — that Jesus, the Lord of the universe was alive, as he had promised.

In a similar way, the “facts” we receive regarding gender may not always represent God’s truth regarding men and women. Though a billion dollar industry works to persuade us otherwise, the truth is, sex is not the highest good in life. While the church often continues to describe ministry (and life) in pink and blue roles, the truth is that God’s purposes for human beings far exceed narrow gender stereotypes. Like Jesus’ resurrected life, men and women who are born of the Spirit are not limited by human gender-constructs. 

For this reason, many Christian women have, throughout history, fanned into flame God’s gifts within them (2 Tim. 1:6–7), rising above the limitations often placed on their gender. Embracing God’s truth regarding their value and worth, many women of faith were not bound by gender roles. Rather, as God equipped, impassioned, and enabled their service, these wild-hearted daughters pioneered many gospel inroads around the world. As we reflect upon their lives, let us consider “the outcome of their way of life and imitate their faith” (Heb. 13:7).

Perhaps it was during the early church era that women’s rejection of gender roles was most keenly observed. And their difficult choices lent the gospel great momentum. As Christians came into bitter conflict with their culture during the third and fourth centuries, the decision to follow Christ was also a rejection of family, children, and even life itself. 

Consider the young mother Perpetua, who was martyred in North Africa in the third century. Imprisoned for her faith, Perpetua was separated from her young child, whom she was still nursing. Her father came to her trial holding her young son, begging Perpetua to remember her role as mother. Yet, Perpetua’s commitment to God reigned supreme. Like Christ, she would drink of the bitter cup. She endured cruel guards, an abusive mob, and a public martyrdom. All of these facts she faced bravely, with a bride’s glowing face. She was ready to embrace the truth of her life, that this world and all of its roles are temporary. What matters is a heart that responds faithfully to God’s call, regardless of our gender. “Will you, Perpetua, take up your cross and follow me?” Her reply was sure and her legacy filled the early church with courage. 

Remember the life of Paula, who, like Perpetua, left behind family and wealth to follow Christ. After coming to faith, Paula, also a young mother (and widow), gave away her massive wealth to build hospitals, churches, and monasteries. Perhaps most importantly, Paula purchased ancient manuscripts in order to give the western world a Bible in their own language — Latin. Trusting her youngest child, Toxodious, to God’s care, Paula traveled to Palestine, where she and Jerome completed their translation work. Because Paula faithfully took up her cross, Christians enjoy churches, Scripture, and a tradition of translation that continues to enrich the Body of Christ today. Like Perpetua, Paula embraced God’s truth that life is fleeting, and that our opportunities to serve Jesus are precious, personal, and never bound by gender. 

Reflect upon Syncletica, a wealthy fourth century woman from Alexandria. Though highly educated, rich, and strikingly beautiful, Syncletica hungered for holiness and longed for life utterly abandoned to God. After the death of her parents, Syncletica shaved her head, and with her blind sister, moved to the wilderness outside Alexandria. Here she devoted herself to prayer, reflection, and study. Her passion for God and intimacy with Christ attracted others who also craved God’s presence. Soon a band of women asked Syncletica to become their spiritual director. Reluctantly, she agreed to lead them in the lessons she had learned in the wilderness, and many Christians followed her example during the early centuries. 

Like Paula, Syncletica willingly became an exile, where, stripped of all comforts of class and the restrictions of gender, she acquired a dependency upon God that led to a mastery of self that came to characterize not “feminine Christian faith,” but the highest and best of Christian spirituality. Defying cultural expectations for women, Syncletica did not marry or bear children. She did not concern herself with lavish clothes or physical beauty — even though this offended the women of her class. She was not concerned to win their favor; she had a reckless desire to please only one lover — Jesus. Though she was not a mother in the traditional sense, she produced many healthy spiritual children, and her wisdom continues to nurture our spiritual vitality today.

We could recount the lives of many Christian women and men, who rejected the limitations placed on them by their culture. Their legacy offers important insights to the questions I am continually asked by college students when I’m invited to campuses to speak on gender. Many of their questions have to do with life choices they feel pressed to make while in college. A surprising number of young people have been reared not on Christian classics like Pilgrim’s Progress but on Christian pop literature — which colors all of life in simplistic categories, pink and blue. 

Sadly, the brightest and best are deeply concerned about getting the gender “facts” correct, that they appear to overlook some truths about their lives. Some women fear they may not be captivating enough to find someone to “lead” them, or some men worry that they are not sufficiently dominant so that someone will want to follow them. Some even worry that their clothing inadequately reflects their gender. What is truth about gender? The truth is, Jesus stands at the door and knocks on every human heart, asking, “Will you take up your cross?” For some of us, taking up our cross will mean leaving our beloved families and country, working as Paula did, in far off land like Palestine in order to accomplish an important mission. God may ask us to detach from places of prestige and prominence in order to serve Jesus as a pilgrim, missionary, or martyr.

Yes, human existence is lived as male and female, and that we would never wish to change. However, the body is subject to God’s Spirit, and the Spirit leads us to freedom, after first leading us to the Cross. May the “facts” we hear about gender never overshadow the truth about God. The truth is, our highest purpose in life is following Jesus, rather than gender roles.