“Who can find a virtuous woman? For her price is far above rubies.” Proverbs 31:10 NKJV
Who defines what a good woman is? Many regard Proverbs 31 as the outline of the ideal. And, as with any outline, it begs to be filled in. Over millennia, countless people have taken it upon themselves to provide the details.
Helping women learn who they “should” be is an unsurprisingly lucrative business. Preying on women’s insecurities and convincing them that their worth can be found by conforming to a pre-set mold is a tried and true money-making strategy. But those women who don’t want to pay a premium to hear this wisdom needn't worry – plenty of folks are all too happy to dispense this advice for free! The world is replete with websites, social media groups and shows dedicated to telling women what they ought to be like. Because I don’t want to give these productions any further traction, I won’t share the names or links to their sites. However, the frequency with which these types of sources are shared, especially within Christian circles, is quite alarming. Recently I’ve seen one call-in show rise in popularity online. The entire conceit of the show is that the host rates women seeking relationships. He advises them to lower their standards if he doesn’t deem their superficial qualities to be sufficient enough to attract “high value” men. Lest anyone think men are the only purveyors of these toxic attitudes, there are a number of women who style themselves as both examples and guides towards wifehood “worthiness.” Usually their advice revolves around being subservient and demure. Some of these gurus on womanhood are secular, but a disturbing number label their spiel as being “Christian.” Most egregious are when these attitudes are repeated from the pulpit. In a now viral sermon clip, a preacher chastised women for not being trophy wives. And it is not coincidental that almost all of these self-proclaimed experts promote a woman’s relationship with men as the sole metric of her value. For them, the ultimate goal for a woman is to be a good wife. Other facets of her life outside of servicing that objective are incidental at best and distractions at worst.
Some may point out that no one is mandated to consume what these people produce: simply don’t watch their shows, read their blogs, visit their sites or listen to their sermons. But in reality we all know that media helps to shape our environment. I certainly don’t actively seek out any of this drivel. Yet it is so ubiquitous on various platforms that it’s all but impossible to ignore. Individuals who I thought would know better have liked, shared and quoted excerpts of some of this virulent content. Those of us who attempt to dismiss and intentionally disregard these noxious tropes still have to interact with others who genuinely believe and regurgitate them. Much like the effects of shock jocks who specialize in other flavors of discrimination, this rhetoric impacts us all.
So what is a better alternative to just trying your best to ignore harmful teachings? If there’s any lesson history should teach us, it’s that ignoring misguided ideologies does not eliminate them. Left unchecked, they fester, gain footholds and infect all parts of society. Instead, the best way to combat misinformation is to make sure there isn’t a vacuum for it to occupy. If our minds are fortified with truth, it becomes easier to recognize and reject nonsense. Sadly, not only has the institutional Church been derelict in its duty to provide truthful information about women’s value, it has often been complicit in broadcasting dangerous stereotypes of womanhood.
We need to acknowledge that the Bible contains multifaceted portraits of women! There are wives and mothers, yes. But there are plenty of women who demonstrate interesting traits beyond having identities tied to a husband or children. Sure, there are pictures of homemakers in the Bible. But women in Scripture are also businesswomen, prophets, rulers, warriors, preachers and church administrators. Far from the notion that godly women are required to remain silent and in the background, there are many women in the Word who are outspoken, bold, cunning and daring.
A great many of the stories of women in Scripture are ignored completely. Instead, the well-worn narratives of Esther, Ruth, Mary, and a smattering of others, are repeated constantly. While the aforementioned women deserve to be honored, several others are almost entirely left out of sermons and Bible studies altogether. And even when talking about the most popular ladies of Scripture, they are likely to be presented in ways that are not entirely accurate. The woman at the well, Mary Magdalene, and Vashti, often get the short shrift in this regard. As they are described through preaching and devotionals, Biblical women are regularly either made into caricatures or one-note personalities, as opposed to the dynamic and deeply layered women they were. Their stories aren’t told in verity because it’s more convenient to employ them solely to reinforce pre-existing notions of womanhood.
Every March in the United States is Women’s History Month. I implore us all to delve into the Biblical stories of women you don’t ordinarily read or hear about. I ask anyone who will be preaching to study and teach on women beyond the standard few. I encourage everyone to abandon your preconceived ideas about the stories you’ve heard a million times before; see the ladies of Scripture with fresh eyes. Don’t just look at them as illustrations for a point. Truly examine their lives, circumstances, motivations and actions. May we all recognize that there are numerous presentations of women throughout the Word and there are limitless ways to be a woman of God today.
Courtney Ray, MDiv, PhD is an ordained minister of the Seventh-day Adventist Church and President of the Society for Black Neuropsychology.
Previous Spectrum columns by Courtney Ray can be found at:
Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons
We invite you to join our community through conversation by commenting below. We ask that you engage in courteous and respectful discourse. You can view our full commenting policy by clicking here.