This article is the second in a three-part series in response to the recent Twitter conversations on #ThingsOnlyChristianWomenHear and #ThingsChristianWomenShouldHear. Read Part 1: “3 Ways The Church Can Love Sexual Assault Survivors.”
I read Sarah Bessey’s recent thread #ThingsOnlyChristianWomenHear with fascination. As I perused the comments, I was both amused by the absurdity of it all and grieved by the negative impact these sexist statements have on the community of God. This Twitter dialogue garnered so much attention that it was picked up by secular media, including the Huffington Post, which highlighted the ungodly comments and beliefs foisted upon women in many Christian circles.
I have heard many #ThingsOnlyChristianWomenHear in church, women’s groups, Bible studies, and even casual conversation with friends. Too often, I’m forced to defend women and Christianity against toxic ideas that should have been dismissed and settled long ago.
One tweet in particular caught my eye:
You’re too pretty to be a minister. #ThingsOnlyChristianWomenHear
— Hannah Sutton (@SuttonHannahL) April 20, 2017
The implication that a woman’s appearance determines whether she should or should not be permitted to preach the gospel is absolutely bewildering and heartbreaking.
What was the offending person trying to communicate? That Hannah’s attractiveness means she should pursue a modeling career? That she is unintelligent and therefore ill-equipped to preach a coherent message? That her beauty is too much of a distraction for men in her congregation? (Yes, that’s another #ThingsOnlyChristianWomenHear). Now that I think about it, I am unaware of any mainstream church that has a problem putting a beautiful woman on stage to lead worship. If she isn’t too pretty to worship, why is she too pretty to preach?
I too have been the target of the beauty-based stereotypes of fellow believers. Upon sharing my story of gender discrimination in ministry as a guest blogger on another site, a Facebook “friend” who was well acquainted with the events and had observed my personal grief over the situation wrote in the comments section: “You are too beautiful to be believable,” complete with a heart-eyed emoji.
I was stunned at the vicious dig at my integrity because of my looks. But there was more behind her “innocent” comment about my beauty. It was a statement of solidarity with the pastor who mistreated me. It was a way to undermine my story and cast doubt on its veracity. It was a message to others who might be emboldened to speak out.
As I pondered beauty, I searched the gospels for Jesus’ comments on appearances. Jesus had scathing words for scribes and Pharisees on appearing outwardly beautiful and righteous while being inwardly unclean. This is a clear message that we should focus on character before beauty.
I found a bit more direct talk about beauty in the Proverbs of Solomon. Oft-quoted Proverbs 31:30 states “Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord shall be praised.”
For many years, I believed that “vain” in this context meant “excessively proud of or concerned about one’s appearance,” as defined in English dictionaries. However, as I studied the Hebrew root of the word and looked at its usage in other Old Testament texts, I found a more accurate definition of “vain.” Figuratively, it is something transitory and unsatisfactory. However, it is also drawn from the Hebrew root meaning to “lead astray.”
Many churches teach that women’s beauty incites men to lust, hence their unbalanced emphasis on female modesty and women’s clothing—the idea being that they’ll avoid “leading their Christian brothers astray” (another #ThingsOnlyChristianWomenHear). Passages like Proverbs 31:30 are used to reinforce the point. However, when I looked at the various nuances of “vain” in Hebrew and in the context of the Old Testament—transitory, lead astray—I came to a different conclusion about the intent of passages on beauty and vanity.
Perhaps beauty leads us astray because we’re shifting the focus from character and calling onto transitory things such as outward beauty, which changes with culture and fades with age. A woman who fears the Lord shall be praised because her fear of the Lord is not transitory, like her beauty. It does not lead her astray, because it is based on the outpouring of her righteous heart, not her physical appearance.
Perhaps women’s beauty “leads astray” not because it incites men to lust, but because Christians use it as another excuse to unfairly disqualify spirit-filled women from their God-given callings as pastors. Perhaps women’s beauty “leads astray” because we twist it to hamper women’s work of bringing the heavenly gospel-project to earth.
Perhaps beauty “leads astray” because we’re too focused on the external and not on the internal. Remember what God told Samuel, who wanted to anoint Eliab rather than David as Israel’s future king: “Do not consider his appearance or his height, for I have rejected him. The Lord does not look at the things man looks at. Man looks at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”
Even Samuel, a prophet of God, was tempted to focus on the external beauty of the handsome young man in front of him rather than the internal beauty of a young boy that had captured God’s heart. It is a bit intriguing to see that people are inclined to put men in leadership because of their attractiveness, yet tell women they do not belong because of theirs.
Samuel’s story tells us that God’s people have struggled with placing beauty before character and calling for thousands of years now. Christians, of all people, should know the dangers and deception of neglecting to discern hearts and accepting outward beauty as shallow evidence of ministry preparedness.
Too pretty to pastor? I hope and pray that God judges my heart and character too pretty to not pastor.