A few years ago, a friend in the process of divorce encouraged me to write on the topic of pariahs in the church. These are the believing women around us whose life circumstances make us uncomfortable—the Ruths and Naomis in our culture. Maybe they lost a child to death or are estranged from one in rebellion. Maybe they could never get pregnant in the first place. Perhaps their husband left them for another woman, or maybe their husband died. Perhaps they never got married and are heavily involved in their career.
Whatever their life story, the thing that makes them feel like a pariah to others is that they don't want a pariah's life circumstances as their own. Perhaps their story plays to our fears for our own, and therefore we reject or avoid them. Of course, few would use the word pariah to describe someone in circumstances that we don't want for ourselves, yet the larger church often treats women like they are outcasts if their life story doesn't match the norm.
Unspoken fears play out in real ways:
“If we embrace this divorced woman in our church, won't other young women think divorce is an option when their marriage gets hard?”
“If we embrace this single working mom, won't other young moms be tempted away from raising their children at home?”
“I don't want to enter into this widow's suffering, because I don't want to consider the possibility that one day I might face my own similar loss.”
In contrast, I've found deep comfort watching the overcoming faith of my limping friends enduring seasons of brokenness or loss. And I admit that I, too, have circumstances in my life that others may find uncomfortable, causing them to want to distance themselves from me. Whatever the loss, these struggles are not denials of God's good plan for women!
Any of us in such circumstances did not fall off the bandwagon of biblical womanhood. Instead, the purity of God's good plan for women becomes clearer as we hold on to faith in the midst of our losses. The enduring faith of “pariahs” motivates me when my own fears become my reality and I am faced with my own unique set of circumstances that test my own faith.
Our understanding of biblical womanhood has to include such women. The divorced. The widow. The single mom. The working single mom. The single woman with no kids. Ruth and Naomi were as much God's daughters created for His purposes when they were widowed without children as when they were married with them, right?
Carolyn McCulley says in her new book, The Measure of Success: Uncovering the Biblical Perspective on Women, Work and the Home, concerning her view of herself as a single woman in the church, “I had been deriving more identity from an adjective (“single”) than a noun (“woman”), which was not the emphasis I saw in the Bible.”
Carolyn Custis James, in her book Half the Church, reminds us that most women in Third World countries, where the majority of modern Christians now live, would find our American, evangelical stereotype of biblical womanhood completely foreign and often simply physically impossible. Whatever the Bible says to women, it should be as relevant to the single mom in an African hut as to a middle-class American woman with a spouse who provides for her and her kids.
All of Scripture speaks to women, right? But it's good to also think through specific parts of Scripture that speak particularly of women. Genesis 1-2 speak of the woman created in the image of God as a strong helper after His example. Proverbs 31 gives wisdom about a woman in a very different context from our First World American one. Ephesians 5 gives a vision of womanhood empowered by the gospel to reclaim the image of God as He intended in perfection. How do these apply to any woman with any adjective? Single woman. Married woman. Divorced woman. Widowed woman. Woman with kids. Woman without kids. Working woman. Stay-at-home woman.
When we remove all of the adjectives, God says something about us made in His image that transcends all the specific things that define us individually. Some of those individual characteristics give us status. Some of those characteristics make us feel like outcasts. Yet God's image in us transcends all of those adjectives.
I am thinking today that biblical womanhood is best understood when we understand it in our worst-case scenarios. When we boil it down to what God most wants any of us to reflect about Himself regardless of the adjective in front of woman and then expand that back out to the specific circumstances in which we find ourselves, we are much better equipped to endure the waves of life that come at us at each stage as a woman after God's own heart.
Adapted from Wendy Alsup's blog, theologyforwomen.org. Wendy has authored three books including By His Wounds You are Healed: How the Message of Ephesians Transforms a Woman's Identity. She is also a wife, mom and college math teacher who loves ministering to women.