This morning, pastor and blogger Tim Challies responded to a post I wrote a few months ago entitled “Thou Shalt Not Let Thyself Go?” The original post, which I wrote as part of my year-long experiment in biblical womanhood, evoked more than 250 comments and remains one of our most-read posts of all time.
It examined a popular teaching among some Christians that women should maintain a certain standard of beauty throughout all seasons of life, and that a woman who “lets herself go” may be indirectly responsible for her husband’s infidelity. I noted the fact that no such teaching is found in the Bible and that women face enough pressure as it is in this department without added expectations from their religious community. The impassioned responses that followed the post revealed that many women have indeed suffered under the weight of these expectations and struggled at times with guilt whenever pregnancy, sickness, or a major life change alters their appearance.
While Challies took great care to broach the subject with caution, I was disappointed to see him return to the familiar refrain that “outer beauty reflects inner beauty” and that a good wife will keep up appearances for her husband, “choosing an attractive sweater instead of the stained Mickey Mouse t-shirt.” He refers to 1 Corinthians 6, a passage in which the apostle Paul admonishes couples in the Corinthian church not to deny intimacy to one another, but which says nothing about women maintaining a certain level of beauty in order to please their husbands.
I think my case is as strong now as it was then. The Bible never demands that women be beautiful nor does it justify a man’s infidelity because his wife “let herself go.” If anything, it presents a fairly consistent picture of beauty as a passing pleasure. Challies and company are free to teach that women should stay beautiful for their husbands, but I wish they would stop referring to this teaching as “biblical” when it is not.
[ I am of course not saying that I think women should forgo basic hygiene in a deliberate effort to spite their husbands. The suggestion that this is what I was implying is simply ridiculous. I have never in my life met a woman who did not want to be beautiful for her husband. But I have met many who are so burdened by the impossible standards imposed by our culture that they feel as though their efforts will never be enough.]
This most recent turn of events has reminded me of why I took on this crazy project. It seems to me that this whole notion of “biblical womanhood” has become so distorted among its evangelical advocates that no one knows what it means anymore. We’ve gotten caught up in the details—is it “biblical” for a woman to wear a stained Mickey Mouse T-shirt?—and we’ve failed to ask the more important question—wait; what do we mean by “biblical”?
And yet “biblical womanhood” hangs so heavy over the heads of Christian women that many live in nearly constant fear of disappointing their husbands, their children, or their God.
At the root of the problem is the fact that we have grown accustomed to using the word “biblical” prescriptively (to mean, “what God wants”) rather than descriptively (to mean, “that which is found in the Bible”). We have forgotten that behind every claim to a biblical lifestyle or ideology lies a complex set of assumptions regarding interpretation and application.
When we turn the Bible into an adjective and stick in front of another loaded word (like “womanhood,” “politics,” “economics,” and “marriage”) more often than not, we end up more committed to what we want the Bible to say than what it actually says.
...More on this to come!
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