Why it bugs me when “the church” tells me how to be a woman

by Anna Blanch on September 15, 2011

For the philosophers among you, I forewarn, this is a strawman argument.

It really bugs me when the church tells me how to be a woman and then tries to tell me that there’s only one way to be a good Christian woman – I especially get a little bent out of shape when Proverbs 31 gets invoked to do it. Although to be told it’s more likely to be 1 Peter….

It bugs me when women feel hesitant about living life because of the judgment they might face over their decisions not being “feminine” enough. All three of the professions in which I have been trained were until the last couple of hundred years the sole domain of men. Does that mean that I am not fit for their tasks? Does being a woman make one less able as a lawyer, a military officer, a tutor and lecturer?

It’s possible some reading this will answer Yes to that question.

I relish the extraordinariness of the woman in Proverbs 31 – she’s a seriously kick-butt gal. I certainly don’t have the hours in the day to do as she did (and i don’t have a husband or children).

So when “there is neither jew nor greek, slave nor free, male nor female,” was that a paint by numbers, choose your own adventure scenario?

Why is it (ironically) that these extremely culturally anachronistic words (in first century Jerusalem) are so often forgotten? and in there place exists a watered down version of that equality before God. I’m increasingly wary of cultural standards being syncretisticly co-opted by the church and then rehashed in a rather oppressive way.

I really liked Joy’s questions at the bottom of the “Pushy and Loud” post:

I think the issue is what is at the heart of the way you express yourself. Are you trying to prove your value to others and make sure they notice you/remember you/respect you/etc? Or are you genuinely passionate about the topic at hand or excited about the circumstance or what God is doing or inviting people to join you?

Gosh, like Miss Britt, I wholeheartedly believe that God made me this passionate, this excitable, this logical. There’s a beauty in that acknowledgement. God loves you. All of you. He’s not waiting for you to tame that bit or knock off that rough edge. You are loved! You are free to explore your gifts and talents. You are free to love those around you…

In relation to the “Quiet and Gentle Spirit for the Pushy and Loud” post I received the following question:

How do you practically live out a quiet and gentle spirit in a world that expects and encourages masculinised females?

It seems at times that being content and humble is viewed as a weakness, rather than a desired attribute. Here in ———– there has been some discussion about young females acting and wanting to be like one of the boys, in manner, speech and activities. It disturbed me and when I spoke to a few friends (non-xns) and they really didn’t see and problem with it…  

okay. You’re right, contentment and humility can be seen as weakness, but you can be content and humble and still seek after god’s best and excellence in all you do. It’s about whose approval you’re after and your end goal.

I think there is a sense in which there’s great power in women being aware of her significance and singularity as a woman. At the same time, there are lots of different kinds of women and it’s also problematic when the institutional church imposes an idea of womanhood and manhood that actually takes more from culture (albeit 50 years ago or more) and says society has it wrong because women should dress, talk, act, and only be involved in certain things. Gosh, my mother is no less a woman because she’s not really into baking and she’s brilliant with her hands and making/inventing things!
It’s a difficult balance – it’s more important to get at the spirit of the biblical text (1 Cor 7 and women’s heads always being covered for instance) rather than assert things always be one way only in terms of a woman conforming to a certain cultural set of behaviours or standards.

Indeed, you or I would be considered prideful by many Amish communities because of the amount of time we’ve put into educating ourselves and the care we take over our appearance. Everyone exists on a spectrum when it comes to asserting the importance of Christian cultural standards of behaviour, dress etc. These things matter far less to me now, than having a clear conscience and heart about what would please God.

As for your friends who are not Christian. Why would they see a problem with the way they speak, or behave? You cannot expect others to want to live in a manner worthy of a calling to serve and worship God if they a)do not believe in God or b)do not feel that believing in God compels any such thought or behaviour. It does not mean that I think it right, but these things are for God to judge. Your job is to love your friends. More than that, though, your calling is to honor God with you heart, soul, mind and body. The Holy Spirit guides in matters of conscience such as these. Seek not to conform to the standards set down by your church, but by the law written on your heart!

So what do you think? Am I being a little “sensitive”? or does this bug the heck out of you too?

Image: Composite image created by me.

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  • vahva

    Fortunately I'm not part of a church that has these views about how women should behave but it certainly bugs me if I hear these opinions anywhere else!

    I think the church too readily likes to revert to stereotypes – male, female, yoof, elderly. Just look at the flyers made for men's ministry vs women's ministry – oh they make me cringe! Women all love chocolate and watching chick flicks and doing their hair and going shopping. Men all love football and beer and curry. I always find myself wanting to go on the men's weekend away!

    Although I think sometimes separating into single sex groups is helpful for prayer and having accountability I really hate it when the church sets up some kind of 'type' we should aspire to be. Jesus NEVER does this! We are called to be Christlike – he's the only person we should be imitating, and, I would argue that this has nothing to do with gender – it's about our attitude (Phil 2:5).

  • http://changingworship.wordpress.com Robb

    Sorry, I'm not a woman so I probably shouldn't have an opinion.

    I'm in a position where it is not the "done thing" for someone like me to be there. Working class people as priests? Working class northerners as a priest? Heck, in the 1950's and 60's I wouldn't be allowed to speak on TV as "no one will be able to understand him". Watching a documentary from the 1950's about the advent of regional broadcasting is hilarious. My life prospects if I had been born 25 years earlier were "work down the mine". Not the same thing but you will see where I'm going….

    You met me at Greenbelt and you may have noticed that I like you have a personality that works at a million miles an hour. I read your post on spirituality and being an extrovert yesterday and nearly replied to that. The church tries to define spirituality as "a quiet person". QED, some people are born as spiritual introverts and some others are born as unspiritual extroverts.

    Perhaps I am lucky, the myriad of different churches (and variety of different denominations) I have been involved with have spent their time empowering everyone. Not one of them has tried to define anyone’s role by gender. I guess you can work that out by meeting Ruth who is a high flyer in the NHS with no kids, a Harley and a singing in a rock band. I'd like to see the person who could go up against the good doctor in a reasoned academic debate about the subject.

    So what does it mean to be an excitable extrovert person who is in a role that would traditionally not be open to you? For me it sometimes causes problems. People expect a quiet "prayerful" type. This is everyone. From the bottom to the top. Are you trying to be "one of the boys"? Many of "the boys" are quiet and peaceful spiritual types. Many of them wish they were. Personally I have realised that God makes each and every one of us and is happy to talk to us as we are.

    The quietest monk at the local monastery where I trained for a year was always thought to be "uber spiritual". "He's always praying you see, he's a spiritual giant". I spoke with him about this once and he quietly said "I don't know what they're talking about. I'm usually daydreaming".

    Perhaps I am like your non Christian friends. I've only been a Christian for just over a decade and I was at school in the 90's. The angst about personality type and gender weren't on the radar. We were all told we were equal and able to be whatever we wanted to be. It is only since joining the church that I have learned that I am an evil oppressor who uses my bolshy northern personality to oppress people.

    Sorry, I ramble. Be loud, be proud, be a woman. Make no apologies for who you are and how you were wonderfully made. I look forward to another freight train conversation in the future where we both talk at a million miles an hour to each other.

    • http://goannatree.blogspot.com Goannatree

      You are awesome Robb. You can always comment here! Thankyou and darn-tootin' this doesn't just affect women! I was smiling and nodding as i read your whole comment. Say hi to the good Doctor for me! ps: I can hear that train whistle now!

      • Robb

        I am so using the phrase "darn-tootin'" at some point this afternoon!!

        I just read something over at http://revdlesley.net/2011/09/15/go-placidly/

        "Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember the peace there may be in silence… avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit".

        I almost want to add "…like Peter" when I read this guff.

        Within the church people often treat me as a vexation to the spirit. Outside the church no one bats an eyelid. I wonder if we predominantly attract a "certain type of people" and when someone doesn't conform we don't know what to do with it.

        The funny thing is that when we look to the bible we see some strong confident people. Look at Mary ordering the Son of God to take action, "Son they've got no wine".

        • http://www.joyinthisjourney.com Joy

          {butting in.} I agree with all of this. The church doesn't know what to do with misfits, people who don't fit the typical mold. It throws everyone into a tizzy. But I'm beginning to think that God wants me to do exactly that — shake everyone up so they open their eyes, wake up, and start doing what they do with their minds engaged. So many people seem to drift without really seeing or knowing what or why they do what they do.

          • Robb

            Actually, I’m normal. It’s everyone else who refuses to conform =D

  • http://ontoberlin.blogspot.com Hannah Mudge

    It USED to bug me a lot and caused a couple of years of turning away, spiritually and feeling rejected by the church. There was a time in my life, when i was just out of my teens, where i had very low self esteem and a lot of 'issues'. As I had started to become passionate about gender issues, I had also just got engaged. I started to feel like the odd one out in my pretty conservative church where, as a woman, you were pushed towards one of two options – kids' work and refreshments – and some men in the church didn't like it when a woman was seen to be asserting authority, spiritual or otherwise. When I got married I started to resent people asking me 'if I was working' or when we planned to have children. I felt as if I had become 'Luke's wife' rather than 'Hannah'. I didn't want to be seen as 'going against God' because this upset me, but when it came down to it I knew I was feeling like I had to suppress my personality and my interests. Sadly some popular theologians and prominent teachers unashamedly take much of their stance on gender expectations from 20th century culture and justify it by saying that it's "necessary", because it reinforces that there are particular differences between men and women.

    The situation for me is very different today and in the church we attend now I would never be made to feel like that. As you say I think a lot of it is about recognizing your significance and worth as a woman and also recognizing that this doesn't mean becoming a clone of some ideal of "Biblical womanhood" from a book. Last month we went to Momentum and I went to a couple of seminars on women and leadership, and gender and theology. Upon leaving the seminars I overheard several young women talking to their friends about what they had heard, saying things like:

    "But I need to know that I have God's permission to follow my calling and I'm not sure if it's Biblical!" and
    "I just can't help doubting my gifts because of some of the things the church says about my role".

    It just broke my heart to be honest.

    On another point entirely,

    "Everyone exists on a spectrum when it comes to asserting the importance of Christian cultural standards of behaviour, dress etc."

    This is so true and I agree that worrying about this stuff doesn't do us any good – it IS about more what pleases God and being truly like Jesus. I grew up attending a C of E church and having gone over to evangelical charismatic churches in my late teens i still find it interesting (albeit sometimes bizarre) the very different standards to which different groups of Christians hold. I have friends who have told me of not being allowed to wear black as a teenager, of not being allowed to watch any kids' TV shows or films that contained "magic"…you know what it's like. I remember being surprised when I met Christians at uni who didn't think you should be close friends with "unbelievers". The way we tie ourselves up in knots over these things!

  • http://www.beccabyass.blogspot.com Beccabumps

    …"You are loved! You are free to explore your gifts and talents. You are free to love those around you…"
    We've done training days trying to explore this asking:
    What would a church made up of people who believed they were loved, gifted and appreciated look like?
    What would the symptoms be?
    If everyone was accepted, not tolerated *shudders*, but accepted as they are, right in that moment, how would people look at each other, treat each other, and deal with conflict and disagreement?
    What would the training/development/discipleship be structured like in a church that promoted acceptance?

    I find accepting that others are different incredibly hard. I want everyone to agree with me and struggle against taking it personally when they don’t. At time I can barely tolerate my own incompleteness, let alone others’. I have to ferociously battle with suspicion and jealousy of women doing things differently to me or, heaven forbid, better than me. I have had the language of “should” firmly cemented in my head about how people “should” be, how they “should” behave, how they “should” treat me…my expectations allow me to prepare for situations that make me scared but, more often than not, cause me to feel angry that those same expectations are not fulfilled. I end up feeling it is my right an obligation to help ‘improve’ people and find their way back to the right behaviour, personality, appearance.

    That is not having ‘life in all its glory’, warped by anger, anxiety or suspicion and it makes me bloody insufferable.

    *groans* Just imagine if Proverbs 31 was used as the template, the model from we’d be endlessly fall short, scrambling to catch up with those we perceived to be ahead of us and smugly looking down on those behind. With such pressure, would be able to celebrate in others’ successes and offer support at times of difficulty? You see this with mums at baby and toddler groups, battling to have the best baby, be the best dressed, doing the most extracurricular activities whilst also being the most doting. It risks women dropping away from their support groups, unable to compete thus increasing the risk of post-natal depression. Or Christians being the most devout, most read, the longest prayer…only to drop away in times of difficulty because their projected image is tarnished or dimmed.

    You mentioned kindness previously, women towards other women…as long as there are models we must fit in, the word “should” inherent in our expectations, kindness becomes a chore or obligation rather than a symptom of a loving relationship.

    There is no “should” about being a woman or man. There are likelihoods, stereotypes form for a reason, friends in the police find profiling very helpful to do their job….but there is not rule book that defines what mould a person must fit in to.

    ……..except maybe one, that image of who you were perfectly designed to be. The image of a perfect God deep within the human soul capable of so much love, strength, creativity, graciousness, kindness, gentleness, wisdom; the person who has all the family traits of the Father who beseechingly calls you to come home, join the family business and inherit His Kingdom with all the inherent acceptance, forgiveness and love that comes with it.

    I'll take that mould thanyouverymuch.

  • http://thingsfindothinks.com AndrewFinden

    I don't want to take away from what you've written (I particularly liked " I’m increasingly wary of cultural standards being syncretisticly co-opted by the church and then rehashed in a rather oppressive way."!)

    Do you think that within the reaction to this there is a creeping danger of likewise judging those women who do fall into the 'traditional' mold (and willingly so) as somehow letting the team down or not really being who they should be?

    • http://www.ontoberlin.blogspot.com Hannah Mudge

      Andrew, I see what you mean, but certainly when i have read books and attended seminars on this topic, that attitude has definitely been absent. The emphasis I have always seen is being free to be who you really are, whether that conforms to a traditional mode of femininity or not. What I DO see though, is some women who fit the 'traditional' mold (usually stay-at-home mothers, not interested in working, live according to specific gender roles etc) do often seem to interpret a focus on diversity and equality as a personal attack on their lives and choices. Of course this is never the case and I wish it didn't happen, but it's really hard not to offend people when it comes to such a sensitive topic.

  • @tim_hutchings

    What do you mean by "the church"? How does "the church" tell you these things?

    All the churches I've been involved with have lots of voices in them, saying lots of different things about gender and roles and expectations. Who speaks for "the church", and why are you listening to them?

    I know you flagged this up as a strawman argument – but I'm still curious about where you found your strawman…

  • http://ordinarilyextraordinary.com/ Amy Nabors

    For me the latest issue that has me frustrated is other Christian women judging you because you don’t agree or fit into their idea of what a Christian woman should be. For example just because I don’t define or myself or find my ultimate fulfillment or purpose solely as a wife and mom does not mean I am not content or at peace in Christ. Just because I seek how God wants to use my natural gifts with my spiritual gifts does not mean I am neglecting my family. He made each of us unique so why should we all have to fulfill our purpose or roles in the exact same way.

  • http://www.ilovecats.org.tw/forum2/index.php?action=profile;u=101787 Nathan Duling

    I was going through the google and came across this blog. There are so many people here sharing helpful comments and other good information. thanks so much for sharing!

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  • http://twitter.com/mvahowe @mvahowe

    What I never get in this sort of argument is why saying

    "So when “there is neither jew nor greek, slave nor free, male nor female,” was that a paint by numbers, choose your own adventure scenario?"

    immediately followed by

    "I think there is a sense in which there’s great power in women being aware of her significance and singularity as a woman."

    isn't trying to have your cake and eat it. If "neither male nor female" really settles every gender issue (which is certainly how this verse is used, overused and misused), there is no significance in womanhood, because in Christ it is mere personhood.

    Or, if that's not what Paul is saying (as many other pauline verses suggest), there may well be something significant and significant about womanhood, but at that point we have conceded that it is indeed meaningful to make statements about women as a group that describe how they are different to men as a group.

    So which is it? Promoting a uniquely female Christian perspective that in Christ there is neither male nor female feels like sawing off the branch you want to sit on…

    • http://goannatree.blogspot.com Goannatree

      Firstly, a call for equality is not a call that we are all "exactly the same." I think your selectivity is intruiging. The quote "
      "I think there is a sense in which there’s great power in women being aware of her significance and singularity as a woman." does not immediately follow my quotation of Galations 3:28 – in fact there was a large amount of text in between that provided context and it was also given with a qualification that socially defined gender roles that the church may have coopted are not necessarily consistent with the liberation I see of women in the New Testament. I think you've either represented my post unfairly or you really don't get it. So, why don't you tell me….what do you think it means to be a christian woman?

  • http://twitter.com/mvahowe @mvahowe

    If I misrepresented your view here, I think honours are equal after your very selective editing of my post in your new blog entry. I didn't "declare" anything (even though that's what men are supposed to do when staying within stereotype). I asked a question. And you missed the bit of your own blog that I quoted where you describe Galatians 3:28 as a "choose your own adventure scenario". If everyone chooses their own adventure (and if doing that is what the Christian life is all about), I really do see little room for the singularity of men, women or any other group. If it's all about chasing the dream then, as the theologian Lloyd Webber puts it, any dream will do.

    The whole issue with Galatians if obviously in what respect there is no longer male nor female. I would argue, from what precedes and follows that statement, that Paul is talking, primarily, about rights before God. We are all sons of God which, in that cultural context, means that the best God has to offer is for all of us. In the First Century in the mouth of a Jewish teacher, this was radical feminism.

    But the same Paul writes a lot about different roles for men and women. Yes, he had female co-workers – in fact it seems to me that he does rather better than Jesus appointing twelve male apostles to lead the church, if organisational status is what matters here. But Paul stil writes what he writes about husbands and wives, about behaviour in church, etc. And it seems to me that if we are going to dismiss those statements out ot hand, we ought to dismiss Galatians 3:28 too. Cherry-picking the statements we like is not a good way to engage with any text, whatever our motivation.

    I would argue that, to a large extent, Paul is suggesting a pragmatic way for Christians to behave given the constraints and assumptions of their society. So, yes, I think that gives us licence to do likewise in our own, different culture. But here's the rub. By taking this pragmatic approach, Paul demonstrates the importance of culture, and of sometimes submitting to culture. We see him doing likewise when he circumcises Timothy despite articulating a theology that says there is no point in circumcision. (Incidentally, I don't recall Paul physically mutilating any women for the sake of the gospel.)

    The Christian life is not about following the dream. It's about living in a distinctive but connected way within the society in which we find ourselves. Yes, there are sometimes opportunities for reform. But there were few such opportunities in the First Century, and with the passing of Christendom there will be less such opportunities in our century.

    We don't choose the canvas, or the palette of colours. We don't pick the adventure. For male or female, one of Paul's favourite analogies is "bond slave". We're slaves to the gospel, but we're also slaves given to a particular society. It's not about our right to do whatever we fancy, it's about our duty to do what needs to be done, whatever the cost. I can see why centuries of prejudice and injustice would make that sound like another attempt to legitimate the status quo. But it's still the heart of the gospel. Once we make actualisation the centre of our faith, each of us – Jew or Greek, male or female, slave or free – has only bad adventures to choose.

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