Strong women are needed in the church today. I don’t mean opinionated women; those of us who have a view on how everything should be done. Rather, I mean strong, courageous women who will stand for the Gospel-truth; who will fight for injustice; who will comfort the broken, who will guard, teach and model Jesus to her children and who will glorify God through the trials and triumphs.
Over the past few months, women in the church have been under the spotlight. As debate and comment has been at an all-time high, the emotion that has hurled has reminded me of this need for Holy Spirit empowered women to minister to the church and the world in need of Jesus.
Being a strong woman in church isn’t an easy road. I come from a long line of strong women and have always been encouraged to use my strength to advocate for those unable to, use my mind to think and study, and to use my hands to work hard. But within a church context, these same characteristics unfortunately haven’t been taught.
I remember when Dave and I went to church, glowing with the news of our recent engagement. In the wave of congratulatory comments, the one that stood out was from an older man who ignored me as he told Dave that he had chosen a ‘fiesty’ one. This, along with jokes about my place in the kitchen continued to reinforce the idea that submission meant weakness. For a woman to submit, she needed to keep passively quiet, simply an accessory on her husband’s arm.
With the recent reporting on Domestic Violence in the church, I can see how an inaccurate teaching on Headship, an imbalanced focus on the wife’s submission over the husband’s love, and an overabundance of devotionalised resources for women rather than those encouraging women to engage their minds and grow as theologians has propagated this. Rather than debating the journalistic methods employed, or the absence of Australian-based data, I believe our conversation needs to look at how we can change the way we treat, teach and train women within the church. We then need to look at the opportunities women are given to use their gifts within the church. In all discussion it should be noted that none of this should be at the expense of men, rather women alongside men should be given opportunities to learn, grow and serve.
I am conscious that Christian women’s experiences are many and varied and so many of my comments will, sadly, be generalizations. Thankfully, I also know of churches where women are flourishing. But, I also acknowledge that there are women out there suffering. And where these women are suffering, there are other women hearing it and feeling ill-equipped to respond to their friend’s cries for help. So how do we discuss Biblical womanhood and how do we meet the need that is so clearly evident?
- Strong Women Are Needed in the Church
Strong womanhood needs to be embraced, taught and modelled. As a youth, I often felt conscious of speaking up too much in youth group discussion time, or asking too many theological-based questions in case the guys in youth group felt I was overpowering or too ‘full-on’. In the years since, I have still experienced these apprehensions. In talking with women, I have seen I am not alone in these feelings. Strength in men of any age is seen as something wonderful; it is something young women are attracted to and Elders get excited about. Strength in women however is more often seen as something needing to be suppressed or neutralized. In this way, submission is seen not as a Spirit-empowered conviction that takes strength, but as a characteristic only attainable by the quiet and more reserved of women.
Mothering my strong-willed children (2 of whom are girls), I have come to see that God created strength and if he created it, he can use it. The strength isn’t the issue, how it is used is. Like any personality traits, all are prone to certain struggles. For the strong, humility, listening to others and allowing others to lead is often more of a battle.
Yet when a desire to learn of God and his word, and a confidence to share these discoveries is held by a strong woman, instead of judging her as being puffed up, we could instead recognize this as leadership potential. I’ll never forget reading Jen Wilkin, in her book ‘Women of the Word’Jen Wilkin, “Women of the Word”, Crossway, 2014 sharing her story. For years, Wilkin had felt like her desire to share her answers in Bible Studies meant there was something wrong with her. It wasn’t until someone pulled her aside and identified a teaching gift in her that Wilkin felt relieved of this burden and was able to start using this gift to glorify God and edify her church (and now the universal church!)
The church needs to teach of strong women of the Bible. In an article “Real Men Love Strong Women,” published last year on DesiringGod.org, Paul Maxwell writes “Strong women are as vital as strong men to God’s purpose in the church”Paul Maxwell, “Real Men Love Strong Women”, May 12, 2016, Retrieved: http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/real-men-love-strong-women/. As Maxwell expounds this statement, he identifies women like Jael, Deborah, Abigail and Lois and Eunice who exposed evil, rebuked good men and raised believing sons. These women model Biblical strength that is directed Godward and used for his glory and purposes. In my years in church, I have only heard one sermon on Deborah, the other women don’t seem to ever be given the sermon spotlight.
As men and women, we need to be taught to recognize that Godward strength, can bring beautiful glory to the God who created it. Young men need to be taught that strong women can be their greatest allies, and strong young women need to look for men who will encourage their strength, rather than suppress it. As Maxwell prayerfully concludes, “Jesus, give men the grace to see the beauty of glorious female strength. Give women the resilience to remain strong long enough for the right men to find them beautiful for the right reasons. And help men and women to fall in love with proven, genuine faith, which is “more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested with fire.” (1 Peter 1:7).
If strong women aren’t encouraged to direct their strength to God, they are often left feeling like a square peg in a round hole, unable to joyfully use all they are to live out their calling, to glorify God and enjoy him forever Westminster Shorter Catechism, http://www.pcaac.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/ShorterCatechismwithScriptureProofs.pdf/. Dangerously, they can become bitter and resentful or they can look outside the church to use their gifts.
- Biblical Womanhood is Many and Varied
I often get frustrated when I read of the struggle in the New Testament Philippian church of the Judaizers who were trying to lure the new Christians back to Judaism and the law (Philippians 3). Why on earth would they want to go back to what Jesus completed and freed them from? But then I look in our churches, and take part in discussions and recognize that we are prone to doing the exact same thing.
So often we try and set ‘formulas’ or create laws as to how to do or be certain things. The Bible does set some fairly clear guidelines, but then God also gives us lots of freedom on other issues. Instead of enjoying the immense freedom, we so often appear to focus on the boundaries we have been given and just like Eve we spend our time hovering by the tree and getting resentful that perhaps we are missing out. We create extra rules for ourselves so that it isn’t just about not eating the fruit, we add in that we can’t touch it (Genesis 3:3). It isn’t just about women managing their homes (Titus 2:5), we add that women must not work outside the home. It isn’t about a woman loving her husband and children (Titus 2:4), it becomes about a woman adhering to a set parenting and spousal formula. Instead of the conversation being about a woman submitting to her husband (Ephesians 5:22, Titus 2:5, Colossians 3:18), it becomes about women not holding a difference of opinion to their husband. Instead of it being about women not holding the authority and responsibility that comes with Elder (1 Timothy 3), it becomes about not praying or not singing or not reading the Bible from the front.
As I turn to the pages of the Bible, I see womanhood in all its beautiful brilliance. From the very beginning, God took time to lovingly fashion Eve. He looked at Adam and saw he wasn’t complete in and of himself- so he made him a helper; and gave him a wife. Adam looked at Eve and broke out into poetry that “at last” he had one that was of him, but slightly different. The man and woman; husband and wife, harmonious and loving, complementing one another perfectly.
Then we look down the line of other women. We see Sarah, physically beautiful and loved by her husband, but struggling with unmet expectations for children. We see Bathsheba, who was seduced by a King but then ended up raising her son Solomon to love God. We see the prostitute Rahab who was cleansed and forgiven, and grafted in to God’s people. We see Esther who was in a foreign marriage but ended up being put there ‘for such as time as this’. Each of these stories are different, none of them providing a formula for us, as each woman is different just as we are each different. The common link however is a malleable heart and a desire to honour God in the midst of their struggles and circumstances.
- Women Are Theologians Too
I have regularly heard women share that they feel as though they don’t know enough about the Bible. Sadly, many women seem to feel as though the study and knowledge of God (theology) is unattainable. I remember when Dave went through a real growth in his passion for God and the Bible a number of years ago and I actually felt a bit jealous. But then, in what I now recognize as a Spirit-ordained moment, it dawned on me that we are all called to love God through growing in our knowledge of him, no matter our gender. I can use the same zeal I have approached studying secular topics with studying the Bible- and how much more rewarding it can be!
Our church-based women’s events need to model this. Dave and I have often spoken about the way events for women seem to outnumber those for men. Over the years, I have been involved in planning some of these events in the churches we have attended. As social creatures though, the majority of local church women’s events seem to revolve around developing relationships with each other or evangelism, rather than equipping church women with a deeper understanding of who God is.
In recent years, it has excited me to see a shift taking place. As women we are more educated than ever before http://theconversation.com/who-goes-to-university-the-changing-profile-of-our-students-40373/. As we grow in our pursuit of careers and academia, it makes sense that this desire for knowledge and understanding filters into our desire for a more rigorous teaching of the Bible. I wasn’t alone in my experience- women all over the world are crying out for a deeper understanding of God! Women’s Church-based ministry needs to respond to this.
Dainty morning teas, craft evenings and Christmas dinners (all of which I have attended and enjoyed!) in and of themselves will not call women to recognize their need for a deeper understanding of God. It will work to reinforce event-based ministries, rather than Bible-based ministries that we so desperately need. I strongly believe that we need to transform our minds in this. It is not the responsibility of the church to provide fun events for us to attend: training and equipping us to know God, study his word, live out the gospel and use our gifts to edify one another is however. Let’s encourage one another that theology isn’t something that has to happen through a college, we can rigorously study the Bible in our discipleship partnership, in our local Bible study at our church’s events for women. But we need strong women, equipped to faithfully lead and teach us.
- Strength in Partnership
How are women serving in your church? Are women given leadership opportunities? Are women flourishing as they study God’s Word? Are women sharing how God is at work? Are women, just as men using all that they are to glorify God, edify the church and reach the lost?
At the heart of the matter, it comes down to a matter of the heart. As the oft-quoted saying goes, men and women were created equal but different. How this plays out however will always be a struggle thanks to the curse (Genesis 3). Under the grace-filled gospel though, there is healing, forgiveness and restoration. We can learn from the feelings of resentment that have been voiced fairly loudly by women in recent months and we can be strengthened and unified once again by the work of the Spirit. We serve a God who is in the business of transformation!
Together, we can be stronger and we can get back to the gospel-work we are called to. If you are a leader in your church or marriage, may you lead with love, looking for opportunities to train those under you, whatever their gender, to identify and use their gifts and personality traits to glorify God and edify the church. If you are a husband, may you love your wife and allow her to flourish. If you are a woman, may you recognize your strengths and weaknesses and use all you are to glorify God and edify the church. And may we all aim to encourage one another to grow in our knowledge, understanding and love of God as we live out the gospel in our lives to a world that is hurting and lost and desperately in need of Jesus.
|↑1||Jen Wilkin, “Women of the Word”, Crossway, 2014|
|↑2||Paul Maxwell, “Real Men Love Strong Women”, May 12, 2016, Retrieved: http://www.desiringgod.org/articles/real-men-love-strong-women/|
|↑3||Westminster Shorter Catechism, http://www.pcaac.org/wp-content/uploads/2012/11/ShorterCatechismwithScriptureProofs.pdf/|