Tag Archives: #church

Tackling the hard questions about being a Christian woman

I’m a bit of a Goldilocks when it comes to a lot of things. I don’t like Summer because its too hot. I don’t like Winter because it’s too cold. I like Spring because it’s juuuust right. I’m like this with films and books too. It’s a classic but it’s too long. It’s entertaining but it’s too fluffy.

Well, I read a lot of books about women, about Christianity and about christian women. I struggle sometimes because they are too academic, or they are written by someone who is well meaning and learned, but not with an eye to the realities of some of the chaos of life, or the reality of being a woman that is less than Utopian. But I also wince when they are too light-weight and not biblically grounded enough. It’s hard to find books that are just right.

I am always on the hunt for books about being a Christian woman in the real world that help me wrangle with how to be a Christian mum, how to process issues of the day, how to be a Christian (and a complementarian) in a secular workplace and how to exercise complementarianism as a single mum.

If you haven’t had to grapple with the complementarian and egalitarian issues as yet, here’s a quick overview: These are the two primary positions on male-female relationships. Egalitarians say that men and women are equal in value and equal in function. We are the same in every way, holding and exercising equal authority and with no barrier to any activity, including preaching. Complementarians say that men and women are equal in value and different in function. This stance says that men are tasked with primary authority and that we are made for, and (should) exercise, different functions. And while there are degrees within this position, this includes a restriction on some things, most notably holding positions of authority over men.

That’s a very thumbnail sketch but we’re talking the gist of things here.

Personally, I am a complementarian. In all my Bible and commentary reading, it still seems to me to be the most biblically correct position. This is different to my egalitarian sisters and I would just say that this difference of opinion does not define my relationship with them, as there is far more fundamentals that we agree on than issues that we don’t. There are many areas we can respectfully disagree and still rejoice in Christ together.

Where my complementarian belief leaves me personally though, is working through what is the biblical application in my real and (very) messy life.

I have read a lot of books that have been helpful. Notably Hannah Anderson’s Made for More, Courtney Reissig’s Accidental Feminist, Carrie Sandom’s Different by Design and Claire Smith’s God’s Good Design.

Kathleen Nielson’s book Women of God however, is an absolute cracker.

The tag line of the book is “Hard questions. Beautiful truth.” and it certainly lives up to this. Throughout the book, Nielson raises, and tackles, questions that have been in the forefront of my mind, and those of some of my Christian sisters, for a long time. Her style is to pose a question, answer it from the Bible, but then keep asking “But what about….”

This is the great encouragement in this book. She recognises that shallow or trite answers might be true, but as women’s lived experience is deeper, so must be the answers. So she keeps asking until she bottoms out each issue.

Sometimes they are not necessarily easy truths. For example, there is an order of creation and that can be a difficult truth to reconcile and live out when our inclinations might strain against it. But what Nielson does is help to put the question into context and, because she keeps asking questions, she can help us to understand the nuance and beauty of the truth as it is meant to be – not what we might immediately assume it to be.

As an example, she tackles the order of creation and how historically, church elders have assumed that meant that women were in some way inferior to men, or “limited in the way they bear the image of God – in comparison to the way men do.” What she then shows is that God’s creation of women revealed man’s great need (man’s alone-ness is the only thing in creation that is “not good”) and then reveals woman as God’s great gift to complete creation so that it was good.

But then she keeps going – how woman’s role as “helper” is in no way demeaning; how it is wrong to apply order of creation theology to a secular workplace, to which this Scripture does not speak; how the intentionality of order of creation places a burden on man as the teacher and leader – not because woman is incapable, but because that is what God has tasked man to do. “This makes sense:” says Nielson “to lead means to go out before, so that others follow. Eve cannot bear that leadership responsibility because she wasn’t there before.” That might seem like an accident of circumstance, but with God, there are no accidents – so we must look into what this order of creation means.

She notes strongly that man is cursed because he failed to perform his primary responsibility to lead. This doesn’t cancel out Eve’s sin, but Adam’s sin is equally bad. Her sin is giving in to temptation. His sin was that, as the first created, he was to obey God and lead his wife (which includes leading her in the one law of Eden about the tree, which was given to him before Eve was created). He failed. And he was cursed.

This starts putting things into perspective. Order is not about inferiority. Its actually much bigger. Its about God’s plan for all of creation. This is hard for us because we can’t conceptualise that big. And “we often live in a way that assigns value according to roles” and God didn’t ascribe value to each role – our value is completely equal. It is us who ascribes value to the different roles of men and women and that’s what we strain against.

That is not to say that our differing roles haven’t resulted in terrible realities for some women and Nielson acknowledges this terrible sinfulness in our clumsy and sometimes wicked application of Scripture. But her aim is to get back to what God intended. She does this in an engaging and accessible way and at the same time really excavating through layers of questions that we all have about difficult passages of the Bible in the Old and New Testaments, and how they are applied.

This is a great book for avid readers and newcomers to the subject alike. It is a great read and by the time I got to the end, I felt so much more informed about what complementarianism means in practical application – in real life. I would also say it is a worthwhile read whatever your position is as there is helpful biblical wisdom in here. Most of all though, this book left me feeling so much more informed on reading and applying biblical wisdom from God’s revelation on women and so much more confident about the person God created me to be.

The diagnostic question to ground you when you feel the fear rising

Fear is both rational and irrational. It is a rational response to a perceived or actual threat. When there is a threat that requires a response, fear is the trigger that floods our body with the right biological chemicals for us to meet it. It gives us the energy to fight or flee (if we think in prehistoric terms).

It is also an irrational response though when we put that energy into circular thinking, leading to amplified fears. Fear becomes panic. No matter how we channel that panic, it is unhealthy. Especially when we are working at home, we can be in our heads too much. Unchecked, we can’t help but think of more things to worry about. Fear flourishes when it finds fertile ground. It’s like cancer. And if we let it metastasize, it can have serious negative consequences.

Now, I am a mad fan of connecting with friends and, when need be, psychologists and therapists. Outside of that though, there is a simple diagnostic question that we can use to ground ourselves and stay focused on the positive and the real.

Write down on one piece of paper:

What I believe

Then jot down everything that you currently believe that your fear is feeding – such as:

  • I will not be able to get food for my kids with all the panic buying
  • My parents will get sick
  • I’m going to face financial hardship

There is power in writing it down. It takes it out of your head. It makes it concrete – not just a half shadowy thought. It makes it something to be acknowledged.

So then, write down on another page:

WHAT DO I KNOW TO BE TRUE?

This is where we can write down everything that is a solid truth, like:

  • I have enough food for the next week
  • My parents are in as safe a possible space as we can make for them
  • I don’t have any savings, but I have a job this week, I am surrounded by friends/family who may be able to help, I am a problem solver and I am resourceful IF I face financial hardship – but that has not happened today.

AND because we are Christian, we can also add so many more things we know to be true:

  • God is in control
  • Jesus is my Lord and savior
  • God is faithful
  • God works for the good of those who love him
  • I am a child of God

Write these down. See them in black and white on the page. Know them to be true.

This exercise can be done as many times as you need to and can be done with a friend or trusted colleague. Hopefully this will be grounding enough to help get you through the day. And since one of the things we know to be true is that God communicates with us in the Bible we can meet him there whenever we want.

I’ll admit, in these times of uncertainty, I have felt fear and worry on various days – sometimes rational fears and sometimes irrational. But I have my Bible open on the desk in front of me so at any time I feel wobbly, I can meet God in those pages.

This grounding exercise doesn’t make the fears go away, but it can re-anchor us when negative emotions are starting to rise up.

If the fears are flourishing though, please seek help. Reach out. We need to support each other and we want to as well – reaching out is not a weakness. It is allowing others to support you and, given strength and support, you can then strengthen and support others.

Do not be terrified, do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go. (Joshua 1:9)

Between Christianity and feminism: Where is a womans’ place now?

Continuing a theme from this week which started with Do we still need International Women’s Day and What are Christians to make of gender equity in the workplace, I wanted to explore this issue of where a woman’s “place” is. In my reading I’ve come across opinions that are pretty unequivocal in Christian writings on one hand and “Big F” Feminism on the other. A woman’s place is in the home, they say. Feminism has destroyed the family and puts pressure on women to be working when what they really want is to tend to a godly hearth and home. A woman’s place is wherever she wants, say others. Christianity has suppressed and oppressed a woman’s natural desire to do valuable work in the world.

Far out! What are we to make of that?

Well, OK, lets ask the question – is there a prohibition in the Bible on women working outside of the home? Not that I can see, although some would argue with that. Advocates of the “woman’s place is in the home” paradigm lean on Titus 2:1-5:

You, however, must teach what is appropriate to sound doctrine. Teach the older men to be temperate, worthy of respect, self-controlled, and sound in faith, in love and in endurance.

Likewise, teach the older women to be reverent in the way they live, not to be slanderers or addicted to much wine, but to teach what is good. Then they can urge the younger women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, to be busy at home, to be kind, and to be subject to their husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God.

It’s important to see that this is not prescriptive – it is not a universal command but relates to the character of the people Paul is talking about. Why do I say that? Because scripture is littered with women who have a variety of occupations outside the home and Paul mentions no censure of them:

  • In the Old Testament, we see women with many jobs – not least of which is the famous Proverbs 31 woman who buys and sells land and goods ‘sees that her trading is good”
  • In the New Testament we see some women were servants (see Rhoda in Acts 12:13) and Lydia was a dealer in purple cloth (Acts 16:14-15)

In addition, in New Testament times, women worked in a variety of professions including artisanal work, shop keepers, fullers and dyers and many more. So women working was not at all uncommon and Paul is not talking to some Utopian ideal. He is speaking to character and a reverence for God’s created functional order (which can be observed in our occupations outside the home as I discussed here).

Women working has been a reality of life since the beginning. Women worked when there was a need. Through time, this has included many money making occupations within or associated with the home. For example, women were wool makers, carders and dyers, weavers, bakers, dressmakers – and yes OK, we might not find those terribly scintillating but theses were honest to goodness professions. As Dorothy L Sayers (who was a strong Christian and did not identify as a feminist) helpfully points out in her 1938 essay “Are Women Human?”:

“It is all very well to say that woman’s place is in the home – but modern civilisation has taken all these pleasant and profitable activities out of the home, where the woman looked after them, and handed them over to big industry, to be directed and organised by men.” She continues, “It is perfectly idiotic to take away woman’s traditional occupations and then complain because she looks for new ones

Part of the Christian focus on marriage is also a cultural hangover from the Reformation. The reformers (principally Martin Luther and Martin Bucer) exalted marriage to a status just below scripture itself. I am not exaggerating. They believed that the marriage relationship and family unit was where God’s work would be achieved and where culture would change. Bear in mind the culture they wished to change was built on the corruption of the Medieval church and which they felt needed to be revolutionised through a re-focus on scripture and the familial unit among other things.

As a Reformed Evangelical, I’m a mad fan of the reformers but this particular one created a hierarchy of purpose that echoes down to today. This exaltation of marriage has hangovers still in our churches, leaving many with the feeling that singleness is the entry level with progressive level-ups through “work”, and then “married-and-working” with the highest level at “married-with-kids-and-not-working” which is second only to paradise in the presence of God.

On the other hand, separate to the relentless onward march of progress, the women’s movement has opened doors to opportunities that were denied women for centuries. In so doing, women who would rather make their occupation in the home do feel under great pressure and can be made to feel as though they are wasting themselves, and somehow should be obligated to do “valuable” work outside the home.

This is a very poor outcome of feminism and I find that very disappointing. It is by no means an across-the-board reaction within the women’s movement but it can be a damaging by-product. Particularly because this leaves women in an impossible situation. Women already feel guilty if they leave their children to go back to work (even when they love their work and really want to). They also feel guilty when they don’t work and choose to support their children full time through the formative years.

The Bible does focus on the family to a certain extent. Partially this is cultural (the ancient near east was built on familial clans and tribes) and women’s work was more limited. But also God’s creation itself began with the man-woman relationship and their first command is to go do some procreating. God’s people is built on the idea of family.

In addition, God’s teaching comes through the parents. In Proverbs there is an exhortation to heed the teaching of both father and mother (see Proverbs 1:8 and 23:22 as examples). This is striking because in the rest of the ancient near east, the mother is absent from these kinds of wisdom exhortations. God sees this teaching in his ways as a joint effort – built through the family unit. So just as the Bible does not censure women who work outside the home, there is also a strong family component to biblical teaching – not at the exclusion of all else though. The Bible still illuminates the power and potential in young single people and widow(ers) and the church family to whom we are not biologically related, but to whom we are deeply spiritually related under Christ.

The point is that both/either is OK. The Bible does not censure women for working so if you want to (or for many of us, need to), then we should not feel guilty as Christians for doing so. And we can take advantage of the opportunities afforded us through the women’s movement – even more so now as flexible working conditions become more available to us so we can balance work and family far more readily (although this is not the norm yet). By the same token, a focus on the family is biblically good. We see this time and again in scripture. If you don’t have to work and would rather focus on home (which is a full time job in itself) and even volunteer in ministries at church, that is a great and wonderful thing – but there is no hierarchy of purpose and we should be clear on that, lest we fall into legalism. We know what pleases God and it isn’t the outward trappings of where we work and what we do – it is the demeanor of our hearts, curved towards Him.

So, as with many things, the reality lies somewhere in between the two extremes. Women being in the home is not prescriptive. Women being out in the world is not a command. What is important is how you build your house. A fall-back should always be Psalm 127:1 “Unless the Lord builds the house, its builders labor in vain.” How do we build our home through the lens of God? How do we do our work through the lens of God? Do we keep a godly focus on the family even though we have/want to work? How do we build the work/home balance so we are still (to the best of our ability and among the realities of life) expressing obedience and humility to God?

Sometimes asking ourselves these questions might result in some changes being made so we can be more intentional in what we are doing. We also need to support the women around us who may be feeling the pressure both ways – whether they are working outside the home or within it. We should support women who – married or unmarried – don’t or can’t have children and so feel the extra pressure of not conforming to this “woman in the home” picture.

Both work and home can be done obediently and in humility. Both have value. Both can glorify God. And we should support each other to do this.

So the question as to where a woman’s place is needs to be shifted. We need to ask:

Whether at work, or in the home, or both, are we glorifying God in everything we do?