Thou Shalt Not Let Thyself Go?

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In my quest for biblical womanhood, I’ve found that sometimes there’s as much to learn from what the Bible doesn’t say as there is to learn from what it does say.  

Today’s post is about something the Bible doesn’t say

Back in 2006, Pastor Mark Driscoll made headlines when in response to the Ted Haggard scandal, he declared:  

“At the risk of being even more widely despised than I currently am, I will lean over the plate and take one for the team on this. It is not uncommon to meet pastors’ wives who really let themselves go; they sometimes feel that because their husband is a pastor, he is therefore trapped into fidelity, which gives them cause for laziness. A wife who lets herself go and is not sexually available to her husband in the ways that the Song of Songs is so frank about is not responsible for her husband’s sin, but she may not be helping him either.”

Driscoll’s comments rightfully drew some fire and I believe he eventually apologized, but I fear that the sentiment behind these remarks—that the Bible holds women to a certain standard of beauty that must be maintained throughout all seasons of life—remains pervasive within certain sectors of the conservative evangelical community.

 In Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, Dorothy Patterson says that “God’s woman gives time and effort to her appearance” and hails Jonathan Edwards’ wife Sarah as the perfect example, citing comments made in the eighteenth century about how she “stayed attractive, and fifteen years later she was still able to entrance men much younger than she was” (p. 369). 

In The Excellent Wife, Martha Peace tells women to remain beautiful and sexually available to their husbands always, saying “the husband should be so satisfied that even if another woman entices him, he won’t be tempted” (p. 121).   

And in several weddings over the past few years, I’ve heard the officiating ministers (all of them male) warn young brides to avoid “letting themselves go” after having children or else their husbands might be tempted to “look elsewhere.” 

The message is as clear as it is ominous: Stay beautiful or your husband might leave you.  And if he does, it’s partially your fault

It was this message that inspired me to devote the entire month of February to studying everything the Bible says about women and beauty. I turned the Bible inside out, combed through dozens of commentaries, conducted word searches and topic studies and extensive research…and guess what. I’ve found nothing in the Bible to suggest that God requires women to be beautiful. In fact: 

  • Most of the passages that include “woman” and “beauty” in the same sentence are warnings about avoiding the temptations of a beautiful woman.  (Proverbs 6:24-25 is one of many examples.)
  • While young love is certainly celebrated in the Bible, (Song of Songs, Proverbs 5:15-19), there is nothing to suggest that a woman is expected to maintain a certain standard of beauty throughout all phases of life in order to adequately please her husband.  As Proverbs 31:30 famously states, “Charm is deceitful and beauty is passing, but a woman who fears the Lord should be praised.” 
  • The Apostle Peter also acknowledged the fleeting nature of beauty, reminding early Christian women that “your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as braided hair and the wearing of gold jewelry and fine clothes. Instead, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight” (1 Peter 3:3-4). 
  • While several of the biblical matriarchs are described as beautiful, others like Leah, are not. Despite the fact that Jacob preferred Rachel, God blessed Leah with six children.  And I found no cases in Scripture in which a wife shares responsibility for her husband’s infidelity because she “let herself go.” 

As I’ve mentioned before, the Bible includes many passages that are difficult to understand and to reconcile with our present standards of morality. I often struggle with what appear to be misogynistic elements of the Levitical purity codes, of ancient Israeli wartime conduct, of the letters of Paul and the doctrines of the early church. But in this case, the misogyny is new. The ancient writers of Scripture seem to affirm what all women know -  

That our bodies change as we get older. 

That our bodies change when we bear children. 

That our bodies change when we get sick. 

That our bodies change as we experience joy, pain, life, death, victory, heartache, and time. 

And frankly, the suggestion that men are too weak to handle these realities is as emasculating as it is unbiblical. 

My goal in exposing this myth about “biblical womanhood” is not to berate Mark Driscoll or to suggest that Christian women everywhere should trash their skirts and blouses and break out their sweatpants and banana clips. (Anyone see “30 Rock” last week?) 

Rather it is to help set women free—from the lie that God is disappointed when our bodies change, from the lie that it’s our fault when men cheat, from the lie that we become worthless as we grow older, and from the lie that that the Bible is just another glossy magazine whose standards of beauty we will always fail to meet. 

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Ladies - Have you been exposed to the myth that beauty is part of “biblical womanhood”? Have you ever felt pressure from the Church to look a certain way? 

Guys – What is your reaction to the suggestion that a wife’s changing body incites men to cheat?

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