I have a confession to make. Despite being a pastor’s wife, women’s Bible study leader, blogger, and author, I rarely visit Christian bookstores. In fact, I can count on one hand the number of times that I’ve been to one in the last two years. One reason I don’t frequent Christian bookstores is that I rarely find things in the “Women’s Section” that I want to read. This is ironic given the fact that women make up the majority of church attendees and are the primary consumers in the faith-based market. Yet if you head toward the “Women’s Section” of your local Christian bookstore, you won’t find many books on theology or Bible study; what you will find are Christian romances, companion books for the latest Christian movie or TV show, and books with hyper-feminized topics, covers, and titles.
Now, I don’t have issues with reading novels or with “putting the cookies on the bottom shelf” (i.e. writing and teaching that makes doctrinal truth accessible to a lay audience), but I can’t help but wonder if we’re selling women short. Do we not think that women are capable of more than emotionalism and trendy packaging? Do we not believe that we were made for more?
To be fair, this “Christianity Lite” approach to women’s spiritual growth is not limited to bookstores. Churches and ministries are regularly just as guilty of promoting a one-dimensional approach to discipling women. Part of the reason for this is that we often make “womanhood” the focus of our growth rather than Christ.
As the gender wars have raged in surrounding culture, many churches have responded by putting special emphasis on teaching “biblical manhood and womanhood.” But something unexpected has happened in the process. As we have talked more and more about “womanhood,” we have talked less and less about other equally vital doctrines. As we have focused on Titus 2, we have overlooked Titus 1 and 3. In order to home in on Ephesians 5 to teach how wives submit to husbands as the Church submits to Christ, we’ve jumped over the first chapters of Ephesians that explain how Christ sacrificed to make us His Bride in the first place!
The result is an approach to discipling women that speaks to women primarily in terms of their womanhood and the roles they play in the family, such as being a wife and mother.* And yet, I will never be the wife and mother that God has called me to be if I am not first the person He has called me to be. I will never be the wife and mother God has called me to be if I am not first transformed into His image by loving Him with all my heart, soul, body, and mind.
Women in the Image of God
As with most things, the answer to the dilemma of discipling women is to start at the very beginning. In order for women to be transformed into the image of Christ, we must first know what it means to be an image bearer. And we learn this in Genesis 1 when God said,
“Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” So God created man in his own image, in the image of God created he him; male and female created he them.
The most fundamental thing about each one of us is not our gender or our race or our family roles or even our sinfulness—the most fundamental thing about each of us is that we were made to reflect the glory and greatness of God. This happens through our relationship with Him, our relationships with each other, and as stewards of His creation.
But the story doesn’t end in Genesis 1. Despite being made in God’s image, the man and woman refused to honor God and turned from Him to pursue knowledge apart from His nature—just like each of us do today. And when the image bearers turned from the source of life and light, they were plunged into darkness—just like each of us is today. But God would not leave His image bearers helpless so He promised to one day send the perfect Image Bearer, the perfect God-Man, who would restore us to what we were always intended to be—people who reflect the greatness and glory of God Himself. He promised that we would not continue in our brokenness but that we would be re-created through the very same power that made us image bearers in the first place.
For Christian women, this means understanding that Christ is actively transforming everything about us from the inside out. He is reforming us just like He first formed us at the dawn of creation. This will include our womanhood, to be sure, but it cannot be reduced to our womanhood. Everything about our identity is being renewed—from our hearts to our minds to our spirits. And our discipleship paradigms must reflect this.
So what does this mean for discipling women? First, it means that we must learn to read the Bible better. Like I mentioned earlier, it is not uncommon for women to approach Bible study looking for “pink passages”—texts that have specific relevance to our experience as women. The danger of this is that we can end up ignoring the larger frame of Scripture; and when we do, we can’t understand what these “pink passages” mean. They will become nothing more than spiritual “to do” lists. Suddenly, the Proverbs 31 woman is not wise because she fears the Lord but because of the things that she is doing. Instead of seeing her good works as the result of a heart pursuing the Lord, we interpret them as the source of her wisdom. And then we judge ourselves—and others—by them. Instead, we must learn to see every verse as a “pink passage” because every verse reveals something about the God in whose image we are made.
Second, we must learn to rely on Christ for our sanctification, not our womanhood. When womanhood takes a central focus in our discipleship, we can begin to believe that the goal of our lives is to reflect a certain type of femininity. But as anyone knows who has ever survived junior high, you will never be able to do this. Compared to other women, I will never be feminine enough. I will never be pretty enough. I will never be motherly enough. I will never be enough. But when Christ’s eternal nature becomes the focus and the source of my sanctification—when maturity means looking like Him—I will suddenly blossom into the unique woman He has created me to be—a woman whose life overflows with the abundant fruit of His Spirit.
In the end, women need the same things that men need. They need to be transformed to the likeness of their glorious Savior. This can only happen as women are taught to gaze into the mirror of His word and allow His Spirit to transform them from the inside out. But when we do, we will be restored to the image bearers that we were first created to be, and when we are, we will finally know what it means to live in the abundant life that Christ has promised.
* This approach also sets up an unnecessary tension for women who are not called to traditional spheres of feminine influence—who are not yet nor ever will be, a wife or mother.