Be a first rate version of yourself, not a second rate version of someone else.
I cut my teeth on evangelical doctrine. I grew up in an Assembly of God church. I attended Bible college for a semester or two. I was no doubt churched from the moment I drew my first breath. I can sing myriad classic Sunday School songs, complete with cute hand motions. I can easily recall the self-defeating lyrics of worship songs which were popular through the 1980s, 1990s, and well into the 2000s. While I may be a little rusty in my apologetics, I was once a proud owner of Josh McDowell’s “Evidence That Demands a Verdict,” a handy resource for any evangelical teenager who needed to present conclusive proof for the creation story during Biology 101. I can effectively argue for causes I stopped believing in long ago, simply because I became so familiar with the terminology, flawed logic, and out-of-context scripture used to bolster the claims. My grandparents were pastors. My parents have served in various ministries over the years. I have served in ministries here and there.
My point in saying all of this is simply that I have been well churched, and I know whereof I speak when I address issues regarding my evangelical upbringing.
I stopped attending church regularly some time ago. Over the years, I became disillusioned with church as a whole, and specific doctrine became points of contention with me to such a degree that I couldn’t continue attending and feel right about it. My son attends with my parents, and while I shudder to think what he may be learning there, it is something he enjoys and I’m not going to take it from him simply because it doesn’t gel with my particular beliefs. I believe in grace, and I believe that love covers a multitude of sins, even the sins unintentionally committed when false doctrine is peddled as truth.
Which brings me to my next point.
I left the church for a multitude of reasons, not the least of which being the general perception the church-at-large seems to have of women, and the teachings in presents regarding what a “Godly woman” is supposed to be. This has been something I have struggled with for as long as I can remember, and it reached a point where I concluded that there is really no place in the church as a whole where I fit.
When I was a child, I felt like the oddball all the time. I didn’t like the frilly, pretty, delicate things that a lot of girls liked. My mom still teases me from time to time about the doll I liked best when I was a toddler. Of all the pretty dolls my mom gave me, the one I preferred wasn’t dressed in pink and lace, with a face softened into a sweet, cherubic smile, as most baby dolls are. The doll I carried with me everywhere was dressed in yellow and had a face agape with a full yawn, mouth slightly twisted by the effort, eyes closed tight. It may seem strange, but I vividly remember always being drawn to the toys that I knew most other people might find ugly or undesirable. I remember feeling bad for those toys and wanting to play with them more just so their feelings wouldn’t be hurt.
In any case, my tendency toward being different was in no way averted through the Christian Charm Course I was subjected to when I was only a year or two older than Jaden. If anything, it became apparent that my charms were few, as I was too loud, too silly, and didn’t like to be still. I didn’t get a certificate of completion for my tour of duty through Christian Charm Course, I can tell you that.
I had never been drawn to the softer ideas of womanhood. I didn’t dream of someday being one of the Disney princesses, and found Snow White particularly grating. I didn’t have my wedding planned by the age of 12, with all details in place except for the final ingredient, the groom. I could wear pretty dresses and such, but being a delicate flower was never my thing.
As I got older and the teachings for boys and girls became more bifurcated, I was encouraged to cultivate my identity as a Godly woman by learning such skills as cooking and other homemaking necessities, how to become and stay pretty even on a budget, and, perhaps most important, how to develop a gentle and quiet spirit.
I think it was the gentle and quiet spirit part that made me begin to question if this Godly woman gig was really for me. When the pressure was turned up by the introduction of “the Proverbs 31 woman,” I knew I was toast.
As I haven’t been part of a church for awhile, I can only hazard a guess as to whether or not the specter of the Proverbs 31 woman is still raised as an ideal for all women. When I was in my teens and twenties, though, she was all the rage. At the time, there were stacks and stacks of books being written about her. Popular Christian artists like DC Talk were singing songs in which she was heralded as the kind of woman they hoped to marry one day. This amazing woman could not only cook and clean, but she could run a profitable business, give help to the poor, sew her own clothes, and, I’m only guessing here, her excrement probably had no odor.
It was an impossible standard to reach, but it was one every woman seemed to be striving for and every man seemed to think a more than reasonable expectation.
Over the years, this notion of women being gentle and quiet Suzy Homemakers has become so abrasive to me, I cringe at the thought of it. I am not opposed to women being homemakers. I think it’s an honorable and praiseworthy role, and it is one which requires skill, intelligence, forethought, planning, multitasking, and a host of other abilities which are not often given nearly the recognition they deserve. I do not think a woman who chooses to be a homemaker is in any way less liberated or capable than a woman who chooses a career. What concerns me is the idea that this is the sum total of a woman’s usefulness to her family, her community, and her world.
I have to admit, when I hear terms such as “women’s Bible study” or “Christian women’s retreat,” I cringe. I envision an hour or two of talking around issues, or entire weekend doused in floral arrangements and talks given on “Better Ways to Serve Your Family Through The Efficient Crocheting of Doilies.” It has been my experience over the years that evangelical teachings aimed at women are forged with the notion that women are intellectually weak, fragile, too delicate to wrestle with the bigger questions the Bible presents, and are best purposed as sex robots, vessels for bringing life into the world, and absolute wizards when it comes to cooking and cleaning.
In short, the whole “Godly woman” thing, as it was presented by the evangelical circles I traveled in, was not for me.
I can be very gentle. I can be quiet, though that is much more difficult for me to do most of the time. I can cook, if I am so inclined, which I rarely am. I keep a clean (enough) house. I have had a baby, so that qualifies me for some sort of recognition, doesn’t it? However, I am a single mother, which indicates I failed in my marriage. I am not a fan of floral prints, unless you mean the garish sort that were popular in the 1960s and 1970s, which I love for their hideous irony and have been known to wear from time to time. I am oddly attracted to ugly clothing and décor. I do not generally like soft and delicate things, can do easily without a stitch of Victorian lace anywhere in my house, I have no use for “Women’s Daily…” anything when it comes to reading material, and I have short hair and intend to keep it that way. I admire the kick-ass ways of Katniss Everdeen of “The Hunger Games” and Legertha, shield maiden and wife of Ragnar Lodbrok, of “Vikings” far more than I admire any of the gentler characters portrayed by women. In so very many ways, I do not fit the mold of what is presented, across the board, as the expectations for a “Godly woman.”
This is why it has been a breath of fresh air to discover that I am by no means the only woman who has felt this frustration, and my heart dances with joy every time I remember this. It has been my absolute delight to begin discovering a small army of women who have also had enough of the patriarchy, and aren’t keeping silent about it.
I am currently reading “A Year of Biblical Womanhood” by Rachel Held Evans. I adore her. I recently finished her book “Evolving in Monkey Town,” and as I read through her books, I find myself thinking, “YES! Exactly what I think! You get it!” It has been a rare experience for me to read the words of other Jesus-following women and find anything that resonates with me. Most of the time, it’s like reading a foreign language or an encrypted message from a club that I don’t belong to. However, Rachel Held Evans had me at “I used to be a fundamentalist.”
This morning I read the chapter in “Biblical Womanhood” about Rachel’s own attempts to fulfill the high calling of the Proverbs 31 woman. In truth, if we were to take the passage literally, it is an impossible standard to meet. If there is any woman on the face of the planet who is able to do all the things, every day, that the Proverbs 31 woman does, she has my respect and, honestly, I detest her just a little for proving it really can be done and making the rest of us look bad.
However, the passage was never meant to be a job description, as Rachel Held Evans so gently and quietly explains in her book. No, the passage was intended to be memorized by men for recitation on the Sabbath as a means of honoring their wives, acknowledging that everything she does, she does with valor
The Proverbs 31 woman is described succinctly in verse 10 as either a “virtuous woman,” “a wife of noble character,” “a worthy woman,” “a capable wife,” or myriad other descriptors which indicate a woman capable of virtuously wife-ing. It depends on which translation you read. That being said, it was to my great delight to read that most Hebrew scholars believe eshet chayil is most accurately translated as “woman of valor.”
Can you imagine how our small worlds would change, thus changing the world as a whole, if women were perceived as deserving of such honor? Regardless of whether a woman fulfilled the job description which was never meant to be a job description, the intention of Proverbs 31 was to bestow upon women the honor due to them simply by virtue of the energy and creativity they contribute to their families, their community, and their world by doing all that they do with valor. It wasn’t an honor that had to be earned. It was an honor already due them.
We live in a world that is never in short supply of ways to shame women. Either we’re not enough or we’re too much. We may do well at our careers, but have a dirty house. Shame! We may have a clean house and well groomed children, but no college degree. Shame! We may have a college degree and be well on our way to a future we’ve worked hard to attain, but we can’t cook. Shame! All around us, there are voices telling us we’re not enough.
Yet, at least for evangelical women, the standard we are most often compared to is no standard at all, but a call to hold women in a place of honor, recognizing us as women of valor for getting the kids fed, dressed, and to school on time every morning, no matter how we feel, or getting a promotion at work, or a woman having the courage to publish her first book, or choosing to do less for everyone else so she can do more for herself (believe me, that takes valor!), or a host of other actions, big and small, earth shaking or homemaking, that women take every day which are done with valor. There is no checklist of standards that must be met before a woman can be called a woman of valor. The woman who actively fights human trafficking for the most at-risk citizens of the world and the woman who wakes up every morning to a long day of motherhood are both women of valor, and the spectrum stretches much further and is far more encompassing than anything I can write.
I don’t see myself heading back to church on a regular basis any time soon, but I am finding some comfort in knowing that there are voices of many women of valor being raised to claim a new day for women, a better day. I won’t be returning to my evangelical roots, but I am no longer opposed to the idea of church altogether. If there are women out there who think like Rachel Held Evans, Sarah Bessey, Nadia Bolz-Weber, Elizabeth Esther, and no doubt many others, there is hope. When women are being restored to their rightful place of honor at the table, however small the steps may be, there is hope.
For all the moms who got up this morning and chugged coffee so they could get the kids out the door and off to school not only on time, but clean, fed, and clothed…Eshet chayil!
For women who are building a career in a world that is increasingly competitive and demanding world…Eshet chayil!
For women who cradle the babies who do not have mothers of their own, who bind the wounds of those broken in spirit and those broken in body, who speak words of encouragement when all other words have failed…Eshet chayil!
For all the women out there, doing what you do, doing it as only you can, choosing to be your very best you…Eshet chayil!