Thursday, July 11, 2013

Will the Ideal, Biblical Woman Please Stand Up?

I decided to read Rachel Held Evans' book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, mainly because of the controversy. My "liberal" friends (read: female pastors who, though I don't always agree with, I admire greatly) had nothing but abounding praise for the book. While some of my deeply respected "conservative" friends (and many main-stream conservative leaders) thought the book was heretical and dangerous. And since I tend to fall somewhere in-between these two groups, and I like a good controversy now-and-then, I figured I'd pick myself up a copy.

Another reason I wanted to read this book is because while I am currently living the Westernize version of "biblical womanhood" (full time stay-at-home mom and wife), I have long struggled with the prominent, conservative viewpoint that the greatest way in which a woman brings glory to God is by being a good wife and mother who submits to her husband completely.

My struggle with this teaching doesn't exist because I think being a good wife and mother isn't a godly calling, or because I think wives shouldn't submit to their husbands - I think both are things that bring great glory to God. But when this type of role is elevated as the best, holiest, ideal position for a woman, it leaves out a huge population of faithful, God-loving women: The widowed or abandoned wife, the single mom, women who can't have children, women living in poverty who have no choice but to work to support their families, and single women like Katie Davis who moved to Uganda and adopted a whole houseful of orphans (thirteen to be more precise). And let's not forget that rather famous saint, Mother Teresa. Heard of her? Yeah. Unmarried and no kids.

Are these women unable to fully please God simply because they aren't married or don't have children? Are they "less-than" the ideal, biblical woman?

That just doesn't seem right. God uses all kinds of people in different ways, and a woman's ability to please God isn't on hold until she gets herself a husband and some kids. If the so-called, "biblical role of women" can't be applied universally to all women of faith, why is it being taught as such a rigid truth in so many Christian churches?

I felt Evans' book was, for the most part, an honest exploration of what the Bible says about women and their roles in the family and in faith. The book contained a few unflattering quotes from John Piper and Glen Beck that would probably have my conservative friends shaking their fists, and there were times that Evans approached these (and other) conservative leaders with a little too much snark. There were things about the book that I appreciated and learned from, questions I've always wrestled with that she addressed, and some things I took offense to. But overall, Evans' journey of trying to apply all of the Bible's instructions for women was a well-researched, respectful search for truth.

Reading about Evans' year-long exploration was at times humorous and at other times painful as I was confronted with some of my own judgmental attitudes towards woman who don't fit the traditional mold for a "biblical woman." And I learned that the Bible is full of stories of women who don't fit the mold either, yet are called righteous and faithful.

"The Bible does not present us with a single model for womanhood, and the notion that it contains a sort of one-size-fits-all formula for how to be a woman is a myth.
"Among the women praised in Scripture are warriors, widows, slaves, sister-wives, apostles, teachers, concubines, queens, foreigners, prostitutes, prophets, mothers, and martyrs. What makes these women's stories leap from the page is not the fact that they all conform to some kind of universal ideal, but that, regardless of the culture or context in which they found themselves, they lived their lives with valor. They lived their lives with faith. As much as we long for the simplicity of a single definition of "biblical womanhood," there is no one right way to be a woman, not mold into which we must each cram ourselves - not if Deborah, Ruth, Rachel, Tamar, Vashti, Esther, Priscilla, Mary Magdalene, and Tabitha have anything to say about it." - Rachel Held Evans, A Year of Biblical Womanhood

The kind of marriage relationship I witnessed growing up was one of mutual submission (Ephesians 5:21), and yet I never doubted that my dad was the respected head of our household (Ephesians 5:23). My parents worked through decisions, disagreements, and life as a team. My dad had the option to give the final say on decisions, but he always took my mom's perceptive and opinion into account. He supported her dreams and she supported his. While my mom did chose to stay home with us kids (working part-time as a nurse) and my dad worked full-time, there was still a mutual love and respect between them. There was no "greater" or "lesser" partner in the marriage. They shared the decisions of life the same way they shared the burdens and joys - equally. And they now have nearly 37 years of marriage to show for it. (Love you Mom and Dad!)

I believe that the Bible's admonition for a husband to love his wife and a wife to respect her husband is a model that works beautifully when applied with the betterment of both spouses in mind - and one that can help strengthen marriages and personal faith even if only applied from one side (the wife who chooses to respect her husband and the husband who chooses to love his wife, even when he/she doesn't "deserve" it). And I believe that, if it is possible, having a mother at home with her young children is a very beneficial thing. But due to the fact that people, marriages, and families are made up of all kinds of different personalities and talents, who live in different cultures, financial situations, and realities, it is unlikely that there is only one biblical way for a woman and her family to bring glory to God.

This post is not an attack of the traditional family any more than it is a feminist battle cry for women to rebel and do whatever the heck they want. The Bible does have a lot to say on what a godly woman looks like, but let us not pick-and-choose which standards to universally apply and which to conveniently ignore in order to fit our ideals. Rather, let's acknowledge that there are a lot of different examples of faithful women in the Bible and how a woman of God brings Him glory can take many different forms.

Would love to hear your thoughts and perspectives in the comments section!

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If all goes according to plan (but let's be real, when does that ever happen), I'll be writing more about this book soon. I'll be sharing something very enlightening that I learned about the Proverbs 31 woman...


  1. This is pretty much my exact assessment of the book (and my thoughts on submission, etc) too. My views have changed soooo much on marriage, and it's been a little painful seeing my old views in print (in my books). Just recently re-wrote my first book as an e-book that better reflects the 2013 me.

    p.s. I like you a lot. (you knew that, right?)

    1. I still need to finish reading "Wife Life" - I am loving your re-visited perspectives that are inserted throughout! So interesting to see the change in your thoughts.

  2. Is "Wife Life" your rewrite of a previous book, Marla? BTW, love your P.S. above. You've both come a long way. :^)

  3. I kind of want to read her book, but I kind of don't want to. She often has a snarky attitude that makes me angry. When I read her writings I feel like she looks down on women who choose to let their husbands lead and stay home with their babies and sees them as choosing the lesser role and are not being used as greatly for God and that offends me.

    But I love the idea of looking to see what THE BIBLE has to say about EVERYTHING instead of just believing and doing what I've seen or heard or was taught or read in books. That is something I have been challenged with the past several years and right now I am devouring the New Testament instead of reading Christian books. I want all my decisions and actions to have Scripture to back it up. It has been so freeing and exciting for me!

    I'm glad you reviewed it because I recently heard of this book and was curious about it.

    1. I've had similar feeling about this book Bethany. And while she does tend to be a little snarkier that I appreciate, I THINK she did a pretty good job in this book showing the value of both sides of the line when it comes to the role of women. However, she does lean more toward fighting for the "let women peach, let women work" side over the "stay at home" side - simply because that is her own convictions for her life - and perhaps she becomes a little defense about her own choice. Still, I think her observations are honest, and I can't fault her too much for that.

  4. Thanks, I really enjoyed reading your take on this. I find myself where you are on marriage at the moment. I suppose I will continue to reflect and adjust as the years roll by. I wonder if I could handle reading her book without getting too offended by her snarkiness. I've been trying to read some things outside my norm in an effort to gain a broader perspective as I wrestle with women's issues. I find it very easy to settle into the "norm" of male leadership because I'm a natural born follower. In my marriage, I'm a very respected follower who's opinion matters to my husband, so I haven't had to wrestle with these things, know what I mean? So I'm trying to learn.

    1. You very well might be offended by this book (I was at times). I would possibly recommend reading "Half the Sky" instead (or in addition to). It looks at how empowering women in third-world-countries is making a HUGE difference in the culture. An interesting perspective to read when coming from a "let the men lead" mindset. Because what happens when the men DON'T lead? Should the women just sit back submissively or get food in their babies bellies despite the men? Woman have been world changers in MANY different ways and this book gives some amazing examples of that.


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