Reading a book on theology by a woman for women? Cavman, are you getting in touch with your feminine side? Well, the last time I tried that, it slapped me.
More seriously, our women’s ministry is considering The Gospel Centered Woman: Understanding Biblical Womanhood through the Lens of the Gospel by Wendy Alsup for the summer and asked me to take a look at it. Wanting the women to get a healthy diet, I read the book. (It looks like this was self-published, but you can find her book Practical Theology for Woman: How Knowing God Makes a Difference in Our Daily Lives at WTS Books).
I’ve generally found that books written by women, particularly theology books, have a very different feel than those written by men. That is not good or bad, just different. I guess if you are a woman reading it, it is good. That is to say that I’m trying to evaluate it on its own merit, recognizing she won’t write like Sinclair Ferguson (for instance).
The subtitle is important here. She is writing about biblical womanhood, and is a complementarian. Some people miss the main point about complementarianism- it is not about who cooks, cleans or mows the lawn. It is not about who is smarter or wiser.
This is not a defense of complementarianism. It is rather assumed. He goal, the subtitle again, it to view this through the lens of the gospel. She wants women to understand who they are on account of the gospel, and how that fleshes itself out in daily life.
“It is the gospel alone that equips us to bridge the gap between God’s good plan for His daughters and the fallen reality in which we all live.”
Alsup writes with a gentle spirit. No one should feel chastised, but rather encouraged. She draws on her own struggles and how she found the gospel sufficient to meet her in those struggles. At times she also notes that she writes from a historical and cultural context that is not shared by all women. In other words, she is NOT being oppressed. The church and government are not sanctioning such oppression, but many women suffer greatly in just those conditions. There are also discussion questions for each chapter (at the back of the book instead of the end of each chapter) to help women talk it out.
She begins with women (like men) being made in the image of God. She draws some good application in that we are to reflect him. God used many women in the Bible, like Ruth, but they are their ultimate goal. They are being conformed to the image of Jesus, not Ruth, Sarah or Mary.
She returns to creation to see how being a helper is a glorious thing. Egalitarians are right in seeing the greatness of this word. But (I think) they take it to unbiblical places. God often reveals Himself to us using the same word. He is our Helper. So helper does not imply 2nd class person. All people were made to need community (that may include marriage but not necessarily).
“Do not despair over respecting, submitting to, or helping a wounded husband. … If your husband is struggling, it is for this very moment that God intended you to come alongside in quiet strength to support, uphold, and encourage.”
Sin curves all of us inward, as Luther noted. Women can act on that basis, thinking of their needs, their longings and their desires. Like men, they can do this selfishly. She is encouraging women that they were made to give: to think of others’ needs, longings and desires in addition to their own (Philippians 2:4). The struggles of those you love are an opportunity to fulfill your calling in this world.
She moves there into the Fall. In talking about the curse, she addresses the word “desire”. She ties into with a gender specific form of idolatry- looking the men in their lives (or man) to meet all their needs. In other words, looking to hubby instead of Jesus as a functional savior.
“Apart from Christ, our tendency after the fall is to aim our desire toward men and set them up as being able to meet needs in our lives that only God can meet, and there is no limit to how desperate a woman can become to get a man to meet that need.”
Of course her answer is not to hate men for failing to come through for her. Or to say that men are therefore unnecessary and to be avoided. The answer is the gospel- that God does meet those needs (though often thru other people including but not exclusively men). And so she moves on to how, thru redemption in Christ, women are restored to reflect God’s image again.
She has a very good chapter on godliness with contentment. I was a bit confused by “I had baggage from my conservative Christian upbringing.” Perhaps she meant Fundamentalist because she certainly writes as a conservative Christian (as well as recommending books by conservatives is a member of a PCA church). But obviously no church is perfect, and the church of her youth was less than perfect. One aspect of that baggage was the idea that content was an obligation. She focuses on 1 Timothy 6, noting that one can be godly (devoted to God) but not content. We all struggle with contentment precisely because we see evidence of the fall (sin & suffering) all around us. Are we supposed to be content with that?
Here she brings in the already/not yet realities of the gospel. We already have many of God’s promises fulfilled (regeneration, justification, initial sanctification, adoption etc.) while others are not yet fulfilled (glorification, the resurrection etc.). And God is progressively sanctifying us. In light of this she brings in the meaning of contentment, that of sufficiency. God does provide us with the help we need though our circumstances are not what we’d like. The gospel is what produces contentment in us rather than contentment being something we manufacture.
“He has done something through Christ that sufficiently equips you and I so that we are abundantly supplied for every good work.”
She talks about God being our sanctuary from both our sin and the sin of others. Christ has given us access to God thru the Spirit (Eph. 2). We are invited to come to the Father in prayer, finding refuge.
She moves into the reality of forgiveness and how God makes us forgiving people. The gospel changes our relationship to sin and guilt. Justification means we can be honest about our sin instead of trying to cover it up. It helps us face our sin. And it helps us forgive the sin of others so we don’t live in bitterness and perpetual conflict. Instead we are able to move forward, deepening those relationships.
She then talks about union with Christ. Our relationship with God is rooted in our union with Christ, not our performance. She wants women to be encourage and become more stable instead of rising and falling emotionally based on performance.
She moves from there to talk about wisdom, distinguishing it from law. In this section she denies the historical distinction between the moral, ceremonial and civil law. She doesn’t really get into why (New Covenant Theology? Dispensationalism?). Fortunately it doesn’t seem to significantly affect what she says. Wisdom is the application of knowledge to circumstances. Much about being a woman is wisdom, not law. Who makes dinner (pays the bills, shovels snow) is about wisdom, not law. But people often confuse the 2 and create problems. She handles the Proverbs 31 woman in the context of wisdom (it is a wisdom book) instead of law. She keeps it within the context of what has gone before it in the book. The virtuous (or valiant) woman is a helper to her family because she trusts in God. The woman is managing the home, not doing everything in the home (she had servants!). She engaged in commerce (not always barefoot and pregnant). The idea is a husband and wife working together to efficiently manage a home to enable ministry to others as well as one another.
“The virtuous wife is not a stumbling block to her husband. She does not set up her husband for failure.”
She moves into Ephesians 5 to talk about submission. For her it is about mission. Couples are working together to fulfill mission. Keep in mind, she is not sitting at home doing chores all day and waiting on her husband hand and foot. She’s involved at her church and enjoys a growing ministry to women. But she says this:
“When I submit to my husband, I get on board with his mission. … When there is conflict in our missions, God’s instruction is that I bring my mission under that of my husband.”
So, she’s saying that her mission is not greater than his. She seeks to help him in his mission, making it hers too (as much as she can). Then she invests in what she believes is God’s mission is for her.
“A godly wife’s respect for her husband despite his fallen nature and tendency toward sin is a powerful tool of God to minister grace to her husband.”
She also talks about respect. It is not about how respectable one’s husband is. After all, every husband is a sinner and actually sins. There are places in their lives that are not respectable. Just as husbands are not to wait until their wives are loveable, wives are not to wait until their husbands are respectable. Again, only the gospel enables people to do that!
Lastly she reminds women that their context matters. They, like the women in the Bible, are to live out their faith in their context (married or single, divorced or widowed, children or childless, well-connected or estranged). Christ enables women to move forward, living godly lives, in less than perfect circumstances. Jesus doesn’t wave a magic wand to make their lives “perfect” but uses imperfect lives to create (eventually) perfect people.
So… this is a very good book. It doesn’t (and can’t) say everything there is to say about being a woman. It doesn’t give a 7 step plan or a model so much as God’s big picture (conformed to Christ), God enablement in Christ, and the call to wisdom in the circumstances of life. I’m glad the women in our church will be reading it. I think they will be encouraged to fulfill their calling as women.