Rethinking Biblical Womanhood

Imagine a woman who rules over an entire nation. From her position of authority she carries out her duties as a spiritual leader, an interpersonal mediator, and a military strategist. Her proficient exercise of power has earned her the respect of the entire nation. The commanders who take orders from her trust in her discernment and rely on her strength. She’s bold, decisive, and fearless—a true no-nonsense, take-charge sort of lady.

Now let me ask you a question: Based on this brief description, would you consider this leader to be a faithful example of “biblical womanhood”?

For anyone whose understanding of “biblical womanhood” is inextricably linked with ideas of submission, domesticity, and quietude—an understanding fairly common in many evangelical circles—it would be hard to answer that question in the affirmative. As gifted and competent as she may be, it’s difficult to see her as a model of the ideal biblical woman. She just doesn’t fit the mold. A true biblical woman doesn’t have authority over men. She doesn’t rule over nations. And she certainly doesn’t have a platform of spiritual guidance. This female ruler may be savvy and strong in a secular sense. She may be winsome and wise by worldly standards. But a biblical woman she is not.

The problem, however, is that the woman described above is a biblical woman. Literally. Her name is Deborah, and the story of her distinguished leadership is recorded in Judges 4. She lived during a transitional time in the history of Israel, serving as a prophetess and a judge (kind of like an ancient mix between a modern-day pastor, president, and army commander). Her leadership skills were used by God to deliver Israel from a menacing enemy and to point the nation’s attention back to their great Redeemer—at least for awhile.

Deborah was a biblical woman who apparently missed the memo about what biblical womanhood is supposed to be.

Which makes me wonder: What actually is biblical womanhood?

A few weeks ago I wrapped up a two-month teaching series in our church family that focused on several different women whose stories are told in the Old Testament, the aforementioned Deborah being one of them. As I worked my way through some of these texts and the fascinating women they introduce, I made some interesting discoveries.

One of those discoveries is simply that I’ve not been exposed to very much teaching in a local church context that draws upon the female perspective embedded within our Scriptures. I’ve heard (and preached!) plenty of sermons about Abraham, Joseph, Moses, Daniel, David, Peter, and Paul. But apparently the stories of female characters like Naomi, Tamar, and Abigail are all just relegated to the ladies’ Bible study group—or left out of the church’s syllabus altogether. It’s concerning how insufficiently my theological framework has been shaped by these heroines of faith.

But there’s another realization I had in preparing these messages week after week. See, I’ve long been immersed in traditional, conservative, complementarian theological circles (I went to seminary at the epicenter of one of these circles—a seminary that hosts the offices of the Council on Biblical Manhood and Womanhood). But the more I have studied women’s stories in Scripture, the more I have come to see that the particular understanding of biblical womanhood I’ve most often been exposed to turns out to be … well … not nearly biblical enough. To be sure, there are certainly biblical elements to it. But as far as giving us a comprehensive portrait of what the Bible has to say about femininity? Not so much.

It’s no secret that there are some strong passages of Scripture that speak about women learning in silence (1 Tim. 2:11-15), about wives submitting to their husbands (Eph. 5:22-24), or about ladies in church showing outward signs of submission (1 Cor. 11:5-16). These are tough passages that require careful analysis and nuanced interpretation. But they’re there nonetheless, and it’s no surprise that the biblical womanhood movement has latched on to them.

The problem of, course, is that they’re not the only passages in the Bible. There are also passages that speak of gender differences being swallowed up in Christ (Gal. 3:28). And passages that speak about how all followers of Jesus are called to submit to one another (Eph. 5:21). And passages that affirm women in their enjoyment of mutuality in marriage (1 Cor. 7:2-5).

And then, of course, there is all the biographical evidence—texts that introduce us to real, historical women who have taken part in God’s ongoing redemptive story. In those texts, strong and subversive women like Shiphrah and Puah are commended for their civil disobedience. Broken and marginalized women like Rahab are celebrated for their unconventional faith. Opportunistic and sensual women like Esther and Ruth are rewarded for their precarious risk-taking. Committed and trustworthy women like Mary Magdalene enjoy a special place in Jesus’ community—including having the honor of preaching the very first Easter sermon. Gifted and important women like deaconess Phoebe and (apostle?) Junia labor valiantly on behalf of the church. And then, of course, there are leading women like Deborah, who are anything but quiet or submissive.

Digging into the full range of Scripture’s testimony concerning women, I can’t help but feel as though traditional biblical womanhood ends up being only biblical in a selective sense. Yes, it draws from biblical passages that need to be taken into consideration. But it seemingly leaves aside plenty of other passages that might provide a needed corrective to some of the easy interpretations the entire project of biblical womanhood depends upon.

This is one of the demanding—yet beautiful—aspects of wrestling with Scripture. This sacred book that shapes the people of God is anything but simplistic. Here there are no ready-made answers or one-dimensional dogmas. Instead there is endless texture. And paradox. And challenge.

If we’re going to have a truly biblical view of anything, we’ll need to immerse ourselves in a vast corpus of literature where diverse texts constantly intersect one another at unexpected angles. And when it comes to understanding the nature of biblical womanhood, we’re going to have to be more fully biblical than we may be used to. We can’t settle for prooftexting the specific passages that appear to reinforce whatever prejudices and assumptions we already happen to have about gender roles. We need to engage the Bible holistically, embracing its complexity.

How do we do that? What conclusions will we be led to? What does it look like to honor the diverse array of biblical data concerning women? Those are important questions, and they need to be asked. But it would undermine my entire point to try and answer them here. After all, what we need is more wrestling, more questioning, more rethinking the status quo. Trading in one set of easy answers for a new one hardly helps us do that.

If we really want to understand what the Bible has to say about womanhood (or manhood for that matter), we need to be prepared for something terrifically complicated. Divinely inspired though they are, the texts in question were written during periods of history when women were often viewed as inferior and treated as little more than property. So to understand how God has sought to bring his kingdom values to bear on the disordered reality of this historically misogynistic world, we’re going to need humility, patience, and a healthy dose of sanctified imagination.

That’s not to say that it’s impossible. Or that Scripture is somehow deficient. But we’re imperfect interpreters working within the limitations of a sin-cursed world, and any honest project of biblical inquiry isn’t going to be easy.

I believe, however, that the challenge is worth it in the end. Working out a fuller picture of biblical womanhood is an invaluable project that’s about so much more than simply getting a little bit of theology right. It’s about allowing our sisters to flourish as the treasured and gifted image bearers that they are. It’s about allowing our brothers to appreciate and make space for the full scope of female contributions. And it’s about allowing the church—and the world as a whole—to enjoy the full blessing of an unleashed biblical womanhood as it is actually meant to be.

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