I’m sure you’re probably familiar with the sermon illustration of the Sunday School teacher who wanted to talk about squirrels. I have no idea who wrote it originally, but here’s the version of it I found on several sites. If you know the original author, leave a comment, and I’ll update the reference.
A Sunday School teacher wanted to use squirrels as an example of prepared workers. She started the lesson by saying, ”I’m going to describe something, and I want you to raise your hand when you know what it is.” The children were excited to show her what they knew and leaned forward eagerly. “I’m thinking of something that lives in trees and eats nuts …” No hands went up. “It can be gray or brown and it has a long bushy tail …” The children looked around the room at each other, but still no one raised a hand. “It chatters and sometimes it flips its tail when it’s excited …” Finally one little boy shyly raised his hand. The teacher breathed a sigh of relief and said, “Okay, Michael. What do you think it is?” “Well,” said the boy, “it sure sounds like a squirrel, but I guess the answer’s supposed to be Jesus.”
It’s a funny story, and it could very well be true. All too often we teach our kids that the right answers in studying the Bible are either Moses or Jesus (Moses for OT, Jesus for NT). There are a couple of pitfalls in teaching kids that we can fall into, “All Answers Must Be Jesus” or we’re tempted to reduce all lessons to “Dare to be a Daniel.” Of course, all of our study of the Word should ultimately point to Jesus, but you get my point.
Moving away from children’s ministry and on to women’s Bible study, I’m concerned that we’re in danger of falling into a new trap where the punchline would be “it sure sounds like a squirrel, but I guess the answer’s supposed to be Biblical Womanhood.” Yes, I know that our modern culture is woefully deficient on a Biblical understanding of sexuality, gender, marriage, submission, etc. But surely this is not the only topic we need to discuss in women’s Bible studies. I’m not even sure that it’s the most pressing topic we should be discussing.
Like a person who enjoys lifting weights, but keeps skipping “leg day,” I’m afraid we’re so hyper focused on the topic of Biblical womanhood that we’re creating a generation of Biblically lopsided women. Hannah Anderson, in her book Made for More, talks about limiting women to the “pink” passages of the Bible:
Too often as women, we have restricted ourselves to the “pink” parts of the Bible. … And we forget that these “pink passages” were never intended to be sufficient by themselves. (105)
Women need to know ALL of the Bible and to know that ALL of the Bible is “profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16, NASB). All of the passages addressed to believers are meant for both men AND women. Specific passages to husbands, fathers, pastors, etc. may not apply particularly to women, but the majority of the biblical guidelines for living as believers applies both to men and women.
There is a great need in our churches today for women with a strong foundation in Biblical orthodoxy. If we’ve learned anything from the Trinity debate last year, it’s that so much of what is marketed to women is at best weak and at worst heretical. And it’s everywhere. As Aimee Byrd warns in her book, No Little Women, the greatest danger for women today is likely coming from books and materials marketed for women by Christian publishers and authors.
In many cases, women’s ministry becomes a back door for bad doctrine to seep into the church. Why are there still so many gullible women? … Why is it that so many women sit under good preaching and have all the best intentions, yet fall prey to the latest book marketed to them that is full of poor theology? And why do so many women in the church fail to see that theology has any practical impact on their everyday lives? (22)
We should not be afraid to delve into the Scriptures and even to teach women doctrine. I’m sure that some churches and leaders may be hesitant to take this approach with women’s Bible studies. But according to recent articles and studies, the people in the pews are hungry for the Word. And, yes, it may be a stretch for some women who are used to the popular book studies with floral artwork and script fonts and pastel colors that let women know they’re “safe” to read. Women are regularly challenged by popular culture to try new things that might seem difficult or different to begin with. We all know the hardest days of diet and exercise are the early days before we develop new good habits.
In the same way, switching from a diet of fluffy books to more challenging material will be an adjustment but so worth it. And in studying the Word, going through books of the Bible, there will be opportunities to address topics of gender, sexuality, morality. But the opportunities will be organic and not forced. Although we should be careful not to focus our studies of the Word so that all roads still lead to Biblical womanhood.
Which leads to my other concern: What exactly is being taught under the heading of “Biblical womanhood?” From my reading of numerous books and articles on the subject, I’m becoming more and more convinced that much of what is being taught as Biblical womanhood is actually middle/upper-class Victorian ideals that owe more to the ancient Greeks and Romans than to Scripture.
For example, the discussion of the domestic and public spheres of dominion comes not from Scripture, but from secular culture. The concept of men and women occupying separate spheres goes back to the ancient Greeks and Aristotle, but it gained popularity during the Industrial Revolution and Victorian Era.
The idea is that men inhabit the public sphere which includes government, business, etc. and that women inhabit the domestic sphere of child-rearing, housekeeping, and education. A popular Victorian Era poem called “The Angel in the House” exemplified the ideal Victorian woman, and the image of the wife and mother who was pious and submissive came to be referred to as “the angel in the house.”
Unfortunately, this has next to nothing to do with the Bible. Aristotle’s idea, which carried over into the Victorian Era, and into modern Biblical Patriarchy, was that women are by nature inferior to men. However, even these Victorian/Greek ideals only ever applied to the rich and powerful. Women slaves and servants were necessary to keep the system running, and these women were not afforded the same protections or respect. They were not held up as examples of womanhood.
The same is true today. Women who work outside the home to help provide for their families are shamed for not living up to the impossible standards set by those who have the time and money to write books about what Biblical womanhood looks like.
Our study of the Bible and our application of it should be timeless and cross-cultural. A young Christian woman in the US should realize that she has more in common with an elderly Christian man in Asia than she does with the non-Christian women in her neighborhood. And the only way she’s going to recognize that is if she is steeped in the Word.
What if what we’re teaching women under the heading of “Biblical womanhood” isn’t substantially different from what they could get from other religions? For example, here are some quotes from Helen Andelin’s book, Fascinating Womanhood. It is extremely popular in certain circles. It attempts to teach women how to be good wives. The catch is that Andelin is Mormon. Do any of these quotes sound familiar?
The masculine and feminine roles, clearly defined above, are not merely a result of custom or tradition, but are of divine origin. It was God who placed the man at the head of the family when he told Eve, “Thy desire shall be unto thy husband, and he shall rule over thee.” The man was also designed to be the protector, since he was given stronger muscles, greater physical endurance, and manly courage. In addition, God commanded him to earn the living when he said, “In the sweat of thy face shall thou eat bread, till thou return to the ground.” This instruction was given to the man, not to the woman. (p. 124).
The woman was given a different assignment, that of helpmeet, mother, homemaker. (p. 124).
Her homemaking role is assumed: She must nurture her young and run the household, to free her husband to function as the provider. (Gen. 2: 18) (pp. 124-125).
The masculine and feminine roles are different in function but equal in importance. … They are complementary. (p. 125).
Contrary to much of what is taught as “Biblical womanhood” the greatest problem for women is not that they don’t submit. According to the Bible, the greatest problem for women is that we are sinners and that apart from Christ we are separated from God and have earned eternal punishment for our sins. That is our fundamental problem.
And the solution isn’t that if women submit then there will be peace on Earth. The solution is found in salvation in Christ alone, by grace alone, by faith alone. This is of first importance. As Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians:
Now I make known to you, brethren, the gospel which I preached to you, which also you received, in which also you stand, by which also you are saved, if you hold fast the word which I preached to you, unless you believed in vain. For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received, that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, and that He was buried, and that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures (1 Cor. 15:1-4, NASB).
I’m concerned that our focus on Biblical womanhood in women’s Bible studies has put us in danger of forgetting the gospel. We are saved by the blood of Christ, not by adherence to a standard of womanhood that may or may not be Biblical. If we are not teaching Christ, crucified and resurrected, we are not helping the women in our churches. I’m not saying we shouldn’t teach on topics related to sexuality, gender, morality, marriage, but maybe we should watch what percentage of our time is devoted to these versus the rest of Scripture.
I am very concerned for the women in our churches. They need to be taught the full counsel of God. They need to know the Word of God fully. They need more than a truncated version of the gospel that focuses mainly on “Biblical womanhood.” Let’s teach women to study the Word, to love the Word, and to apply the Word. All of the Word.
I’m thankful to be in a church where the women study the Word faithfully and the leaders of the church encourage it. I wish that all churches were this way.