Okay, so the Week of Mutuality has turned into the Week-And-A-Day of Mutuality, but bear with me! This is the twelfth post in our series dedicated to discussing an egalitarian view of gender—including relevant biblical texts and practical applications. You can read the rest of the posts here. The final post, a list of resources, will appear this afternoon. As requested, I’ll also post links to every post in the series on Tuesday.
There is one more myth regarding “biblical womanhood” that we really need to address as part of our series—and that is the myth that a true woman of God is defined by her roles as a wife, mother, and homemaker. I spend quite a bit of time exploring this in my book, A Year of Biblical Womanhood, but it’s so important to the conversation surrounding gender equality in the Church, it’s worth discussing in an abbreviated format here.
Back to June Cleaver?
It has been said that every movement needs an enemy, and for the complementarian movement in evangelicalism, the clear enemy is feminism.
One of the movement’s founding documents, The Danvers Statement, states as its chief concern “the increasing promotion given to feminist egalitarianism” and “the widespread ambivalence regarding the values of motherhood, vocational homemaking, and the many ministries historically performed by women.” According to the statement, “distinctions in masculine and feminine roles are ordained by God as part of the created order.”
At its heart, complementarianism is a religious reaction to second-wave feminism in America. And as a result, much of its literature is preoccupied with recapturing an idealized vision of pre-feminist, 1950s America that relegates a woman’s identity to her roles as wife, mother, and homemaker.
The reality is, most of the complementarians I know don’t really want a full-fledged return to the patriarchal culture in which the Bible was written....no matter what Denny Burk and Russell Moore may say. Most do not want to return to a time when fathers owned their daughters and sold them to the highest bidder (Exodus 21:7; Nehemiah 5:5; Genesis 29:1–10), when multiple wives and concubines were a part of everyday life (even for men of God like Abraham, Jacob, and David), when women were forbidden from owning property, when foreign virgins could be captured as spoils of war (Judges 21), when a woman’s lack of virginity could get her executed (Deuteronomy 22:11, Leviticus ), when the stories of brave women like Tamar and Dinah and Esther and Vashti and Leah and Rachel emerge from contexts of oppression. Furthermore, anyone who has studied ancient Near Eastern culture knows that the familial structure we see represented in scripture was nothing like the nuclear family epitomized by the Cleavers, but would rather have included multiple generations and relatives living together in clans, with women working long hours “outside of the home” in the fields, tending sheep, gathering food, trading goods, etc.
But rather than admitting that they don’t actually want a return to “biblical womanhood” or “biblical patriarchy,” complementarian advocates instead bend the biblical stories to fit a June-Cleaver-shaped mold. And so, in complementarian literature, we see an emphasis on biblical passages that celebrate marriage, motherhood, and domesticity to the neglect of passages that celebrate singleness and women whose lives looked nothing like the nuclear family of pre-feminist America. [This is why we end up with bizarre treatments of the story of Esther that try to cast the marriage between Xerxes and Esther as a model for “godly submission" in marriage. Trust me. These two are no Ward and June Cleaver, what with the harem and death threats and all.]
In Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, Dorothy Patterson writes that “keeping the home is God’s assignment to the wife—even down to changing the sheets, doing the laundry, and scrubbing the floors.” She questions the godliness of any woman who would choose to work outside of the home, arguing that “we need mothers who are not only family-oriented, but also family-obsessed...Too many women rush headlong into a career outside the home, determined to waste no time or effort on housework or baby-sitting but rather seeking to achieve position and means by directing all talents and energies toward non-home professional pursuits.” Patterson goes so far as to compare women who choose not to have children to the people who practiced child sacrifice in the Bible! (See Recovering Biblical Manhood and Womanhood, p. 364-377)
For the project, I read multiple books that repeated these mantras of marriage, motherhood, and homemaking. After a while, I began to understand why they might be so appealing to women: In a culture that too often downplays the significance and challenge of homemaking, here was a celebration of it. In a world where women talk about being “just a mom,” here was an affirmation of the dignity of motherhood. This complementarian literature provided a much-needed reminder that God’s presence can be found in the day-to-day tasks of washing dishes and changing diapers and managing a home—something I, as an egalitarian, wholeheartedly affirm.
The mistake these complementarians make is not in saying that a woman honors God by serving in the home. The mistake they make is in saying that the only way a woman honors God is by serving in the home. In an attempt to honor the dignity of marriage, motherhood, and domesticity, they have inadvertently made these roles into idols. They have forgotten that the “God of all pots and pans” (as Brother Lawrence would say) is also the God of all board rooms and assembly lines and classrooms and office buildings, and that a woman can bring glory to God with her life whether is married or single, a mother or childless, a domestic champion or a woman whose talents lie elsewhere.
Jesus did not teach his followers to be “family-obsessed.” Far from it.
Jesus identified his disciples as his brothers, sisters, and mothers (Matthew 12:48) and insisted that his followers prioritize faith over family bonds (Luke 14:25–26). When the disciples asked Jesus if it is better not to marry, Jesus conceded that some may choose to castrate themselves “for the sake of the kingdom of heaven.” And when the Sadducees tried to trip him up with a trick question about marriage after resurrection, Jesus responded, “When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven” (Mark 12:25). Many early Christians took these teachings so seriously that they remained celibate, sometimes even castrating themselves, in anticipation of Christ’s coming kingdom. Paul himself never married, praising the celibate lifestyle as free from distraction and heartache in a world where many followers of Jesus were being persecuted by Rome (1 Corinthians 7:32).
For centuries the Church honored the contributions of single women and widows to the extent that their stories occupied the majority of Christian literature. The gory accounts of early Christian martyrdom included the celebrated heroics of unmarried women like Agatha (scourged, burnt, torn with meat hooks for refusing to marry the pagan governor of Sicily), Agnes (beheaded for refusing suitors and consecrating herself to Christ alone), Lucy (executed for distributing her wealth among the poor rather than marrying), and Blandina (a young slave thrown to wild beasts in the arena for professing Christianity). Some of the most outstanding women in our “great cloud of witnesses”—from Phoebe, to Marcella of Rome, to Teresa of Avila, to Lottie Moon—have been single women.
It appears that modern-day attitudes toward singles in the church have been largely affected by the Reformation, when, as a reaction to the cloistered life in Catholicism, Luther and the Reformers elevated the virtues of homemaking and domesticity above those of rigid asceticism. “The word and works of God is quite clear,” Luther wrote, “that women were made either to be wives or prostitutes.”
Luther’s legacy still affects Protestants today. As we saw in Leigh Kramer’s contribution to the synchroblog, rather than celebrating singleness, the church often treats it as a problem to be solved. And when women are told that their identity lies solely in their roles as wives, mothers, and homemakers, it’s easy to see why so many young women are leaving the Church. My prayer is that someday, all women, no matter their marital status or procreative prowess, will be equally honored by the Church.
A common refrain among Christians is that “motherhood is a woman’s highest calling.” I must have heard this 1,000 times growing up. While men can honor God in varying capacities through work, family, and ministry, a woman’s spiritual aptitude is measured primarily by her ability to procreate.
I understand that many pastors elevate motherhood in order to counter the ways contemporary culture often dismisses the value of moms. This is a noble goal indeed, and the Church should be a place where moms are affirmed, celebrated, honored, and revered. But the teaching that motherhood is a woman’s highest calling can be painful and isolating for women who remain unmarried or childless.
Carolyn Custis James said it well in her book, Half the Church:
"To define women solely in terms of marriage and motherhood simply does not fit the reality of most of our lives. Even for those women who enthusiastically embrace marriage and motherhood . . . a substantial part of their lives is without a husband and/or children . . . Furthermore, the traditional message to women is tenuous at best—all it takes is a single tragic phone call for her to be dropped from that demographic. It happens every day.
A message that points to the marriage altar as the starting gate of God’s calling for women leaves us with nothing to tell [unmarried women] except that God’s purpose for them is not here and now, but somewhere down the road."
A Christian woman’s highest calling is not motherhood; a Christian woman’s highest calling is to follow Christ. And following Christ is something a woman can do whether she is married or single, rich or poor, sick or healthy, childless or Michelle Dugger.
As I said before, the modern-day “biblical womanhood” movement as expressed by complementarianism, has its roots, not in the ancient near Eastern culture in which the Bible was written, but in the pre-feminist American culture.
Therefore, you find in complementarian literature a heavy emphasis on homemaking as God’s ideal occupation for women. For support, complementarians often turn to the “wife of noble character” found in Proverbs 31. (Some also appeal to Titus 2. See Emily Hunter McGowin's contribution to the synchroblog: “That the word of God may not be reviled: Titus 2:3-5 and Women's Proper Place”)
The subject of a twenty-two-line poem found in the last chapter of the book of Proverbs, the “wife of noble character”—or, more properly translated, eshet chayil - “woman of valor”— is meant to be a tangible expression of the book’s celebrated virtue of wisdom. Packed with hyperbolic imagery, the poem is an acrostic, so the first word of each verse begins with a letter from the Hebrew alphabet in succession. This communicates a sense of totality as the poet praises the everyday achievements of an upper-class Jewish wife, a woman who keeps her household functioning day and night by buying, trading, investing, planting, sewing, spindling, managing servants, extending charity, providing food for the family, and preparing for each season.Like any good poem, the purpose of this one is to draw attention to the often-overlooked glory of the everyday.
The author is essentially showing us what wisdom looks like in action. (The astute reader will immediately make a connection between the Proverbs 31 Woman and Woman Wisdom, found in earlier chapters of Proverbs.) The only instructive language it contains is directed toward men, with the admonition that a thankful husband honor his wife “for all that her hands have done.” As my friend Ahava taught me, in the Jewish tradition, it is the men who memorize Proverbs 31, so they know how to honor their wives.
And yet many Christians interpret this passage prescriptively, as a command to women rather than an ode to women, with the home-based endeavors of the Proverbs 31 woman cast as the ideal lifestyle for all women of faith. An empire of books, conferences, products, and media has evolved from a subtle repositioning the poem’s intended audience from that of men to that of women. One of the more popular books is titled Becoming the Woman God Wants Me to Be: A 90 Day Guide to Living the Proverbs 31 Life. No longer presented as a song through which a man offers his wife praise, Proverbs 31 is presented as a task list through which a woman earns it. The details of the passage have taken precedent over the message of the passage, and somehow, through the centuries, we’ve managed to turn a poem into a job description.
I’ve dedicated an entire chapter of my next book to Proverbs 31, so I won’t spend more time on it here. Instead I want to focus on a woman from Scripture who proves that it’s not the domestic accomplishments of the Proverbs 31 Woman that matter, but rather her virtues of wisdom and valor.
The Bible doesn’t give us June Cleaver. And it doesn’t give us carbon copies of the Proverbs 31 Woman either.
No, the Bible gives us Deborah and Ruth, Vashti and Tamar, Mary Magdalene, Mary of Nazareth, Mary of Bethany, Junia, Priscilla, and a host of other women who can never be crammed into a single mold.
Take, Ruth, for example. Ruth could not be more opposite, at least on the outside, than the Proverbs 31 Woman.
Ruth was a Moabite. (This was a big no-no back then, as men were forbidden from marrying foreign wives).
Ruth was childless. (After eight years of marriage to her first husband, Ruth had never given birth to a child.)
Ruth was single. (And as a childless, foreign widow, Ruth would not have been considered a desirable wife by most Hebrew men.)
Ruth was dirt poor. (Rather than exchanging fine linens with the merchants to bring home a profit to her husband and children like the Proverbs 31 Woman, Ruth spent her days gleaning leftovers from the workers in the fields so she and her mother-in-law could simply survive.)
And yet, despite looking nothing like June Cleaver, Ruth is bestowed with the highest honor. She is called a woman of valor—Eshet chayil—the exact same phrase used to describe the woman of Proverbs 31. (See Ruth 3:11)
And get this:
She is called a woman of valor before she marries Boaz, before she has a child with him for Naomi, before he becomes a wealthy and influential woman.
Clearly, it’s not what you do that makes you a woman of valor; it’s how you do it! Ruth is not identified as a woman of valor because checked off some Proverbs 31 to-do list by keeping a clean house and producing children, but because she lived her life with incredibly bravery, wisdom, and strength. If both the wealthy, domestic superstar of Proverbs 31 and the single, childless, field-gleaner Ruth are identified as women of valor in Scripture, then Christians should be able to honor women who exhibit strong character, regardless of their various roles and stations in life.
One of the greatest mistakes of complementarianism is its emphasis on roles, as if they alone define a person. But, as Dan mentioned last week, our roles are not static. They change depending on circumstances. They shift with passage of time. Women who ground their identity in their roles as wives, mothers, and homemakers will have little solid ground on which to stand when those roles, for whatever reason, change.
It is our character that defines us, not our roles. If the Bible teaches us anything about women, it’s that women of valor can be found in all kinds of cultures, in all kinds of roles, and in all kinds of circumstances.
The truth is, a woman of noble character will fulfill any role with valor.