To be honest, posting this terrifies me. But I feel the need to be vulnerable and honest here. This post is not meant to delve into the more complicated discussions of gender identity, sexuality, or gender roles in the church/family, but I merely speak from my experience and what I believe Scripture says about this issue.
Recently, among all the other stories that have captured Christians’ attention, there was a news story about an 8 year old girl in Virginia who was kicked out of her private Christian school because she didn’t meet the school’s standard of femininity. She has short hair, wears jeans and T-shirts, and enjoys a wide range of hobbies across the spectrum of what are considered “boy” interests and “girl” interests. The school claims there is more to the story, but has yet to say what.
Apparently, this girl is “not feminine enough” to fit the school’s interpretation of Scripture. In a letter to the girl’s guardians, the administration said that she could not return to school unless she and her family could “understand that God has made her female and her dress and behavior need to follow suit with her God-ordained identity.”
I got chills down my spine when I read this.
I was this girl.
I had short hair, hated “frilly” clothes, would rather explore in the woods with the boys than have tea parties with the girls, didn’t care at all about hair or makeup, and liked Legos just as much as Barbies. When my friends and I would “pretend,” I led the way in grand adventures and epic battles; we didn’t play house. Because in books and history– the worlds in which I lived as a kid– the boys had all the fun. I just wanted to be able to be part of the story.
Occasionally, someone would think I was a boy because of my appearance, and it hurt my feelings, but I didn’t fault them for it, because I didn’t care what I looked like. I cared what I felt like– and short hair and T-shirts felt good. But had someone told me that I was going against the Bible and disobeying Jesus with my tomboyishness, I would have been devastated.
I really want to cry for this girl. And selfishly, cry for myself. Because if this Christian subculture’s standard of proper femininity is also the biblical one, I don’t know that I’ll ever get it right.
Even though I grew out of a lot of these things once I discovered I’d like to be more than friends with a boy, I’ll admit that I’m still a tomboy in several ways. And anyone who knows me could tell you that, too. I still have an affinity for jeans and T-shirts, and I don’t really care about fashion or jewelry or flowers. I’d choose to watch college basketball or a war movie any day over America’s Next Top Model or The Bachelor. I’d rather play Ultimate Frisbee than get my nails done. And that’s just the beginning. Yes, I like some chick flicks, chocolate, desserts, chocolate desserts, and cute guys, but sometimes I feel like that isn’t enough.
You see, I’ve never really liked all the things I’m supposed to like as a girl, but that doesn’t mean I don’t want to be treated like and seen as a woman. I don’t think, practically, our Christian subculture’s view of what a woman should look like is far removed at all from society’s. Is our culture’s perception of womanhood what really counts? Because if it is, it’s the same culture that constantly objectifies women, that tells them they need a man to be complete, that lies to them about the perfect body image from the time they’re little girls, that abuses or rejects them at every turn. THIS is the culture from which we’re getting our definition of a woman?
My question is: what does the Bible really say about what makes a woman? Here are a few of the verses that help answer that question:
“Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear— but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious.” —1 Peter 3:3-4
This passage brings tears to my eyes. I don’t claim to have a very gentle or quiet spirit, but I see in these verses that my value as a woman in God’s eyes doesn’t depend on what I look like or what I put on my body– things I control, but it depends on things I know God can do in me. He can take my awkward and anxious spirit and turn into one of humble, loving, beautiful strength. And I think I’d rather focus on that than on looking and acting like what any culture deems outwardly “appropriate” for a woman.
I don’t believe these verses and others like them are directives for women not to braid their hair or wear gold jewelry. Instead, I think they’re saying, “Hey, this isn’t what defines you!”
“Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled.” —Titus 2:3-5
We can’t read verses like these without looking at both the textual and cultural context. First of all this passage speaks to discipleship. It’s not something reserved for pastors and their proteges. In the Church, we all have a call to be teachers and examples to those around us, especially those younger than us. And we have a call to listen to and learn from those older and more experienced than we are.
Second of all, these verses instruct women, old and young, to good works and respectable behavior. That’s all over Scripture. Good works are the proper outworking of real faith.
Third, we see a family context here. The instructions in these verses don’t only apply to married women, but they are specifically written to them, which we must keep in mind as we read. The New Testament makes it clear that there is no more honor in marriage than in singleness, and the same reverence, temperance, edification, self-control, purity, diligence, kindness, and submissiveness are just as relevant to any woman, no matter her circumstances. This passage says nothing of outward appearance, but of the kind of person these women are called to be.
“Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised. Give her of the fruit of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates.” —Proverbs 31:30-31
I think sometimes Proverbs 31 as a chapter is taken too far as the cookie cutter example of a perfect Christian woman. It describes an amazing woman, yes, but it also describes a specific woman. Not every woman’s life is going to look like the one in Proverbs 31.
I believe the message, though, is certainly summed up in these two verses. Charm and beauty– what culture sees as the distinctions of a praiseworthy woman– are empty and temporary. Fear of the Lord, however, is what is praiseworthy in the eyes of the Lord. Whatever that looks like in a woman’s life– how her love for and obedience towards the Lord manifests itself– that is what she should be known for. The imperishable fruit of her service to God, which flows out of her identity in God– that is what makes her distinct. And that is what we should teach little girls everywhere– this, not what she wears or looks like, makes them daughters of the King. These are the things that describe her femininity. These make up her God-ordained identity.
When I consider the women in my life that I admire– old and young– I don’t think about what they look like or even how they outwardly fit any cultural standard of femininity. I think about who they are and how they’ve influenced, helped, and loved me and others. I think about how they’ve overcome adversity and how they live out their love for God. I think about how they’ve cared for their families, their friends, their church family, the hurting, the marginalized, and the lost. I think about how beautiful they each are because of Who I can see in them. And I know that’s the kind of beautiful I want to be. That’s the kind of woman I want to be.