This post comes to us from Kelsi Klembara.
The lights in the large auditorium dim as quiet worship music plays in the background and a hushed buzz spreads throughout the room full of women. I look hesitantly at the two women sitting next to me. The speaker has just told us since Christian sisterhood is all about authenticity, it’s time to spill our guts to a neighbor we’ve never met. I’ve been through this before: share your story, make sure to emphasize the sin that used to be in your life and the growing holiness that is taking it’s place. That’s encouragement, right? I guess only if you can prove it.
The women in front of me are both moms from a city on the opposite side of the state. They are quiet and sweet. They tell me they have recently started a ministry together for the homeless in their community. They are working on making it sustainable while raising their own families, keeping their houses clean and caring for their husbands. And yet, they don’t know if it is enough. It’s as if a physical weight rests on their shoulders (which are quite literally sagging) from the guilt that what they are not doing constantly outweighs everything else in life. They ask for prayer to be able to do more and be more.
This is the modern American Christian woman. She is “gifted” with this physical, emotional, and spiritual weight as she is told she isn’t giving, serving, authentic or loving enough. Simultaneously, she faces a constant barrage from check-out line magazine stands and social media that she’ll never amount to the world’s standards for success, beauty and happiness.
Research done a few years ago by Barna Group indicates that 59% of women are dissatisfied with their balance between work and home life, 8 in 10 moms feel overwhelmed by stress, and 7 in 10 moms (compared to 58% of all women) say they do not get enough rest. Yet these same women also say they want to improve their church life more than any other area in life.
Simultaneously, we are witnessing a historical shift as the gap between men and women not attending church has narrowed from 20 points to just 8 points in the last ten years. And as we continue to see the decline of Christianity in America, we fret over the source of discipleship for women, and the problems arising from a reliance, specifically for women, on para-church ministries (Christian ministries unaffiliated with a church) over that of their own church bodies when it comes to theological guidance. What are we to make of this — the level of anxiety and stress women face in their day to day lives, the gradual increase in unchurched women in America, and fears that messages from certain para-church ministries have more to do with feelings and experiences than they do the actual Bible?
It’s not women’s desire for spiritual growth or improvement that is lacking, but the absence of the proclamation of Christ crucified for us — both from churches and popular Christian speakers — that is the source of the burnout, weariness and lack of theological grounding so present today for the American Christian woman. Theological background, size of stage or audience, and thoughts on gender roles in the church simply don’t matter if the good news of the Gospel is not being preached.
When I say that the majority of women’s ministries — in or outside of the church — are lacking the Gospel, I don’t mean they are lacking discussions about spiritual growth or sanctification. Rather, the Gospel is simply the good news that God sent His son to earth to live a perfect life, die on a cross and be raised from the dead in order to credit His righteousness to you and to me in order that we may have everlasting life. The Gospel isn’t just the saving word you need to give to your neighbor, it is the saving word you (and me) need to hear over and over again.
We need to hear the Gospel on repeat because we are programmed to work for our righteousness and to compare our good works to those of our sisters. In turn, we are left either drowning in our failure or wrongly convinced we’re pulling it off on our own. The Gospel is the check and balance to whatever myth we may tell ourselves about our righteousness because it proclaims there is nothing we can do to earn our salvation. Our only righteousness is found in the sacrifice Christ made on the cross, and only through this assurance can we freely love our neighbor.
Yet for years, many women have heard nothing but the law from their churches and their pastors. God’s law is “holy, just and good” (Rm 7:12) — we do need to hear it preached. God gave us His law in Scripture as both a guideline for how to live and more importantly, as evidence for how impossible it is for us to live without Him. But here is where we humans tend to get it wrong over and over again: while the law tells us how to live, it lacks the power to fulfill that which it requires. The law commands, “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is Perfect,” (Matthew 5:48) without giving us the power to do so. If we have any chance at righteousness, someone must fulfill the law for us. All of it, in entirety (Matt. 5:17-20). Thankfully, the Bible tells us we have such a hope in the person of Jesus.
So while the call to deeper theological study and spiritual growth is not in and of itself a bad thing, apart from the Gospel, this call can, in fact, be quite damning. It leaves women with the sense that Jesus didn’t come to save them but rather to instruct them. And suddenly, what we hear is a call to turn inward for our goodness rather than fix our eyes on the one who has already made us righteous. The message implies that Jesus cares more about your holiness than He cares about his own sacrifice on the cross. Jesus doesn’t care about your self-proclaimed holiness — He cares about cloaking you in his own.
Rather than continuing to double down on the necessity for sanctification, spiritual growth and discipleship programs as a fix for our anxiety and apathy, many women are now attempting to flee the condemnation of this “instructor” Jesus. And in His place, they are preaching their own gospel, a gospel that may appear different, but is really only the law repurposed. This is the gospel of self-realization, self-worth and self-empowerment. It is a message that has re-defined the holy virtues of womanhood as authenticity, independence and acceptance in place of perfectionism, homemaker and purity. Now, rather than having a Jesus who demands our perfection, we have convinced ourselves we can achieve our own definition of perfection. And in turn the Jesus of the Bible — the Jesus who was crucified, buried and resurrected for you, is no longer a harsh instructor but rather a unicorn-esque figure whose power is resigned to cheer us on from the sidelines throughout our self-discovery process.
Neither of these images of Jesus reflect the true Gospel we so desperately need to hear. Both messages lead us to struggle in vain under whatever set of laws we believe will free us. I can’t help but wonder what would happen for the modern Christian woman if we stopped fixating so much on our actions and instead received the proclamation of the forgiveness of sins through Jesus.
Maybe nothing would change. But if Christian womanhood has more to do with the peace found in the fact that our salvation isn’t up to us and less to do with carefully measured self-improvement, maybe that would be okay.
Yet I think it’s more likely that if we centered the message of Christian womanhood on what Christ has done for you and for me instead of on what we are doing for Christ, it might just give us fresh eyes to study the Bible rather than search our emotions. Perhaps it would even allow us to graciously have conversations with each other about differences in belief. Or maybe we would be gifted with the ability to vulnerably share both our successes and our failures without fear of comparison or judgment.
We might just become more Christ-like after all.
The weary women I met and prayed with that day didn’t need to hear a laundry list of spiritual disciplines and how-tos for their family and themselves. What they needed to hear was the good news of the Gospel proclaimed for them. That’s what Christian sisterhood is really about.