Saturday, November 7, 2009

What is a Woman's High Calling?

I've been reading some interesting stuff on the net lately about spouse roles. Only recently have I been struck by a disturbing theme that seems to be quite common. The theme has been there all along, I suppose. But only recently have I seen it as off-based. I'm not going to give a list of links and specific quotes because I don't want to seem like I'm picking on anyone, and it's quite a common assertion. I don't think it needs to be personal. Instead, I'll give a few general phrases that I see repeated in some form in many essays and articles, and interact with them. Again, these are not actual quotes of anyone, but only my rephrasing of what I've read and heard through the years. I'm sure they're familiar enough for most Christians to grasp my point.

1. "Motherhood is the woman's high calling."

2. "As a woman, my time, talent and ability couldn't be any better spent than keeping a home and taking care of children."

3. "It's God's design that, as women, we are all to be keepers of the home."

4. "We should be raising our daughters to be wives and mothers."

I could go on and on, but I think you get the picture. On the surface, these phrases seem to be counter-cultural and consistent with a biblical worldview. They're also pretty widely accepted in most conservative Christian circles. So what could I possibly pick apart in such assertions?

The primary problem I have is that, though they seem so conservative and hearken back to a golden age of Americana, they just don't jive so well with a gospel-centered worldview. Now that's strange to say, because I've actually seen these assertions defended as the most gospel-centered view of womanhood. But the folks making that claim don't usually go to the most gospel-centered texts to prove it. Instead, they go to texts dealing with the creation of Adam and Eve or Proverbs 31 or Titus 2 or 1 Timothy 2:15.

So what texts would I bring up to refute the above phrases? I'm only going to go in depth with one text. The most obvious one for me is 1 Corinthians 7.

1. Paul says that as a concession, he wishes that all people would be like Paul - single (7:7) But if people are going to burn with passion, then they should marry. Are women included in this text? Of course. Then how could a woman's high calling be motherhood if it's not even a woman's responsibility to get married?

2. Paul speaks so strongly about remaining single that he has to remind his readers that if they do actually marry they aren't sinning (7:28). Paul is so cautious about marriage because: "in view of the present distress it is good for a person to remain as he is" (7:26). Some think the distress is some local problem like persecution. That's possible, but it's just as likely that he's referring to the imminent return of Christ. Paul's gospel-centered, heavenly-minded focus is so intense that his readers are going to take him as anti-marriage. That's why he has to further explain his position. "The appointed time has grown very short. From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none.... For the present form of this world is passing away" (7:29, 31). "Yet those who marry will have worldly troubles, and I would spare you that" (7:28). In other words, the gospel is turning the world upside down, and there's not time to lose in our missional mandate. So it might not be the best thing for Christians to get bogged down with relationship burdens. No matter how noble we think marriage is, it's still just a form of this world that is passing away. That has to mean that no matter how high a calling we think motherhood is, it also is just a form of this world that is passing away. How can a woman be faulted for not being a mother when she's rarely encouraged in the New Testament to even get married?

3. Paul doesn't stop there. So people who get married are going to have "worldly troubles." Like what? What kind of "worldly troubles"? "I want you to be free from anxieties. The unmarried man is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to please the Lord. But the married man is anxious about worldly things, how to please his wife, and his interests are divided. And the unmarried or betrothed woman is anxious about the things of the Lord, how to be holy in body and spirit. But the married woman is anxious about worldly things, how to please her husband" (7:32-34). Paul clearly sees an advantage for the gospel in being unmarried. I wonder exactly what Paul had in mind when writing of divided interests in pleasing a spouse. Might he have been thinking about being tied down to a household chore list? A married person is simply not as free to follow the cause of the gospel wherever it leads as a single person. Now, I've seen it said that women should get married and have all sorts of kids so that they can then preach the gospel to them and the church will grow. There's simply no biblical command that comes close to justifying such a suggestion.

4. I can hear some of the complaints now. "Darby, are you saying you agree with the feminazis out there messing up the culture?" No, I'm not. "Are you saying that Paul thought women and men had the same roles?" No, I'm not. "Do you realize how chaotic and disorderly your version of this text would make things?" No, I don't. And neither does Paul. In fact, Paul is writing all this anti-marriage stuff, "not to lay any restraint upon you, but to promote good order and to secure your undivided devotion to the Lord" (7:35). This is so contrary to our conservative Christian - Focus on the Family - take back the culture sensibilities. We think we can practice good order by focusing on the family. And Paul says we can only have good order with undivided devotion to the Lord, whether we have a family or not.

5. One practical outcome of our modern "pro-family" rather than "pro-gospel" perspective is the difficulty in inspiring couples to be missionaries. Good Christians will say things like: "Well I'm not sure if God is calling me to go to Yemen, but I know he's calling me to be a good mother to my children. If I'd take them to Yemen, I'd put them in all sorts of dangers, so we're just going to stay right here in the suburbs and keep a clean house and a manicured lawn and healthy babies. That's my high calling after all."

I realize any post about such a big and important subject as this is going to be incomplete and open to disagreement. I've left a lot unsaid. But my goal is to stir up further thought on this rather than give an exhaustive explanation beyond refutation. So what do you think?