Two single friends recently attended a teaching about an independent study of biblical femininity. Most of what they heard was fine, but the presenter was apparently so enthused about God's design for the female body that she elevated the roles of wife and mother beyond what was appropriate.
My single friends, one of whom is old enough that she will probably never marry and will definitely never have children, were shocked and angered. The over-enthusiasm for marriage and family meant that as single women, they both felt the shame of being "lesser-than."
I knew what they were experiencing. For many years, much of the teaching in the church has (unintentionally, I am sure) put an unbiblical spin on being a wife and mother as a woman's highest calling. I get that; being a wife and mother is a source of huge joy for me. And I get that some of the passion comes from trying to restore dignity to family relationships in the wake of cultural contempt, such as the well-known feminist aphorism, "A woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle."
We need to be careful, though, to keep things balanced in view of the significant shift concerning women's value and calling that we can see when we take the entire Bible into account.
In the Old Testament, we see the heartbreaking shame that engulfed barren women. In Genesis alone, we read of Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel, wives of the patriarchs, who all struggled with infertility. We find encouragement in the book of Psalms which says, "He places the lonely in families" (68:6). The importance of a woman's familial relationships is clearly covered in the Old Testament.
In the creation account of Genesis 1, Adam and Eve are commanded to be fruitful and multiply. But more revelation—and a new perspective—is given in the New Testament. We no longer see the emphasis on family and land that is threaded throughout the Old Testament; instead, the New Testament's emphasis is on the community of faith and the believer's relationship with God. The family of God instead of one's genetic family.
I had a major lightbulb moment recently in coming to see what a powerful shift this is, and also how easily we can miss it because of how we're used to thinking about women. I enjoy following the social media updates of Dallas Seminary student Kaitlyn Schiess (@KaitlynSchiess). I loved this thread of Twitter posts that I can't seem to get out of my head:
I recently read in a book (People of the Truth - A+ book) that Luke 11:27-28 is Jesus denying the cultural belief that a woman's worth lies solely in her children. I'd never heard that, so I went and studied it.
A woman praises Jesus' mother with the deeply entrenched cultural belief that a woman's greatest value lies in the accomplishments of her male children. ["Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts at which you nursed!"] Jesus responds, "Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it."
Sometimes I read stuff in the Bible that is so opposite of everything I was taught (implicitly or explicitly) in church growing up that I want to run around my seminary campus going - "Have y'all read this? Did you know this was in here? Why did no one tell me!?"
I keep being surprised, especially on behalf of my single women friends, at how much this touches me with Jesus' grace and sensitivity, not to mention how His response signaled a massive sea change in New Testament thinking about women in general. I see what looks like Him delighting in His friend Mary (Martha's and Lazarus's sister) sitting as His feet, soaking in His teaching instead of tending to the kitchen. (Apparently nobody told Jesus that women are for making babies and coffee. Or tea, if you live in Africa or Australia or England.) I see Him entrusting the most important news the world has ever heard—"The Lord is alive! I've seen Him!" (John 20)—to a single woman, Mary Magdalene. I see the apostle Paul esteeming and honoring the power couple Priscilla and Aquila (especially since Priscilla's name is usually found first) as they together disciple Apollos and use their gifts to lead a church. I see Paul calling older women to love and disciple younger women in Titus 2, spiritually mothering from the heart rather than the uterus.
If God has allowed us to be a wife and/or a mother, that is part of His calling for us. And it is glorious, no doubt about it, and we should seek to be faithful in that calling and glorify Him in it. But it's not all! He calls all of us Jesus-believers to be His disciples. He calls us to deny ourselves, take up our cross daily and follow Him. (Luke 9:23).
We can rejoice that there is no shame in being "lesser than" for lack of a husband or a child.