What it Means to be a Woman

Series: Window on the World

by Phil Ryken May 9, 1999

Since it is Mother’s Day, this seems like a good time to remember what the Bible says about what it means to be a woman, especially since we live in a culture that seems in danger of forgetting.

Christians usually blame feminism for this confusion, but remember that feminism arose because men tend not to treat women very well. They haven’t treated them well since Adam ate the forbidden fruit (see Gen. 3:16). Men try to dominate women, or even abuse them. (Incidentally, women don’t always treat men very well, either. Sin is an equal opportunity employer. At the same time that men try to dominate women, women try to manipulate men. This is God’s curse against our sin.)

What was right about the old feminism is that men and women are equal. The Bible is one document which has never needed an “Equal Rights Amendment.” The fundamental equality of males and females is established within its first couple of pages, where it says that the woman was taken out of the man (Gen. 2:21-22). This is to show that we are all made of the same stuff.

Furthermore, the Bible says that God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them (Gen. 1:27). This is to show that the woman, like the man, expresses the very image of God.

Although men and women are equal, they are not identical. This was the main problem with the old feminism, which seemed at times to want to turn women into men. This is exactly the mistake the new feminists are trying to avoid. “Why would we want to be men?” they ask. “We are females, and the last thing we should do is fall into the same bad habits as the average male.”

This new attitude, which has been termed “femaleism” [see Barbara Ehrenreich, “The Real Truth about the Female,” TIME, 1999], emphasizes that there are fundamental differences between men and women. Gender is not merely a social construct (as anyone who has ever tried to raise boys and girls in the same household can tell you). Being a male or a female is part of what it means to be a human being, physically, emotionally, and spiritually.

Recognizing that there are differences between men and women is obviously a big improvement. The problem, however, is that femaleism views women as superior to men. Witness this month’s hot new book: The First Sex: The Natural Talents of Women and How They Will Change the World [written by Helen Fisher; New York: Random House, 1999]. As wrong as it is to consider men superior to women, it is equally wrong to commit the same error in the opposite direction.

The Bible is not a handbook on gender, but it does have something to say about what makes a female a woman. The first thing the Bible says about the woman is that she is a “helper;” specifically a helper suitable for the man (Gen. 2:18). This must be a high and noble calling, for the Old Testament ordinarily uses the word “helper” to describe Almighty God. In the same way that God’s help is necessary for the well-being of his people, so the help of the woman is essential to order in the home, the church, and the society.

What other gifts belong especially to women? Different women have many different gifts (e.g. Prov. 31), nearly all of which are also available to men. Still, it may be useful to answer this question: What gifts does the Bible especially associate with women?

One of them seems to be wisdom. In the Bible, Wisdom is ordinarily characterized as a woman (Prov. 3:13-18; 4:1-9; 8:1–9:6). This may suggest that women have special insight into the life of the soul. But this should not be pushed too far since Folly is also characterized as a woman (Prov. 9:13-18). When women give counsel they need to depend on God and not on themselves for wisdom.

Another gift which seems to belong to women in a special way is lamentation. According to the prophet Jeremiah, women are especially equipped to grieve (Jer. 9:17-20). Not surprisingly, new research shows that women devote more regions of their brains to sadness than do men [see Ehrenreich]. Although this gift may sometimes seem unwelcome, it is a gift. God often gives women a unique capacity to show compassion by mourning over the suffering of others.

The Bible also shows that women provide nurture. Moses described God carrying his people the way a nurse holds a child to her bosom (Num. 11:12). In fact, on the rare occasions when the Bible compares God to a woman, it almost always has something to do with his motherly care. Listen to me… you whom I have upheld since you were conceived, and have carried since your birth (Isa. 46:3). As a mother comforts her child, so will I comfort you; and you will be comforted over Jerusalem” (Isa. 66:13; cf. Ps. 131:2).

These verses tell us something about God, of course, but they also tell us something about what it means to be a woman. Women are gifted to provide nourishment, comfort, protection, and intimacy, especially for children. I observed this difference when my wife and I visited newborn twins at the hospital. I was happy enough to see the babies, but not the way Lisa was. She went over to them immediately and began to laugh and coo at them. This capacity for nurture is not an accident of biology, it is a divine calling.

It should be emphasized that the joy of caring is not just for mothers. God often fulfills a woman’s desire to nurture through her ministry to other people’s children. This is especially true within the family of God, where we all have a responsibility to care for all God’s children.

Furthermore, children are not the only ones who need womanly care. The gift of nurture–like the gift of help, wisdom, lamentation, or any other divine gift God gives to women–is intended to benefit everyone in God’s family.

[Helpful suggestions were made by Dot Boersma, Susan Lucasse, and Lisa Ryken, who may or may not agree with everything in this Window on the World]

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