THE HEART OF FEMININITY
The Only Thing That Wasn’t Good
When God looked out on everything that he had made, there was only one thing about which he said, “Not good.” That one thing was the absence of a woman (Gen. 2:18). With all that we know about God, that verse alone should be enough to show us how glorious the feminine calling is. Because of sin, however, we will have to say much more than that, as we did with the masculine calling for men.
For starters, we should note that the denigration of femininity is nothing new. Since shortly after the creation of the first woman, men and women both have rebelled against God’s design and demeaned women in the process. Men do this when they treat women like inferiors or accessories or anything other than what they are: a literal Godsend. Women demean themselves when they reject their God-designed differences from men and aim to create a world where women and men are identical. Ironically, that vision for a unisex world is the same state of life that first led God to say, “Not good.”
So you might say that both feminism and male chauvinism are tragic examples of what happens when sinful people ignore God’s wise design. For when God said that it was “not good” for man to be alone without a corresponding helper, it’s foolish to think God resolved that dilemma with a person exactly like the man. “And behold, God saw that the man was alone, without a helper corresponding to him, so he created another person to be exactly like the first one.”
Different by Design
What we are saying is not just that men and women are different—which everyone already knew, unless they were duped by that freshman course on human sexuality. No, we are saying that men and women are different on purpose as part of God’s glorious design. As we explore God’s design, we’ll see that the heart of femininity is joyful submission to and support of their husband’s Christ-like leadership. As women embrace this calling, they will find fulfillment and joy.
This is another way of saying that all women are female, but not all women are feminine. That’s because “female” is a biological term, while “feminine” is a relational and vocational term. A women’s ‘femaleness’ is automatic and unchanging. She is genetically a woman by birth, so she will always be female. But a woman’s femininity is not automatic or unchanging; femininity is a calling that must be embraced and developed.
Two Ditches, Revisited
As with masculinity, talk of femininity today almost always veers off the road into one of two ditches. These ditches are so normalized by sin that people have made their homes in them and given them proper names as if they were great paths that will take us someplace wonderful. In reality, these ditches only lead to confusion, frustration, depression, and spiritual death (Prov. 16:25).
The name of the first deadly ditch is Egalitarianism, which technically means “equal-ism,” but actually means “sameness-ism.” True equality is wonderful, and those who oppose equality are opposing God himself (Rom. 2:11; James 2:1,9). But being equal does not mean being the same. Your left and right shoes are equal in size, color, and importance, but they are not reversible because they are not the same. Knives and forks are equally needed when cutting meat, but they have differing parts to play. The needle and the thread are equally important when sewing, but they differ by design. In each of these cases—whether shoes or silverware or sewing—a pair of objects possess equal dignity despite their differing designs. Egalitarianism is confused about this point because it (wrongly) thinks that differences in function or role mean a difference in value or importance or worth.
Women who believe the gospel know that their value and worth come from who they are in Christ, not from anything they do. Thus Christian women are free to delight in the feminine calling to submit and support—and they can do this without seeing it as a “lesser calling,” as egalitarianism says, because they know their worth, value, significance, importance is not found in their role but in their redemption.
The name of the second deadly ditch is Chauvinism, which comes in both male and female varieties. Chauvinism is sexism, or the belief that one of the sexes is better than the other. Ironically, chauvinism has the same starting place as egalitarianism, believing that equality means sameness. The difference between them is this: chauvinism concludes that differences between men and women mean that one of the sexes truly is more valuable, more important, and more worthy of honor, whereas egalitarianism tries to ignore or downplay the differences between men and women altogether. Chauvinism leads to death just as easily as egalitarianism, though, because it locks men and women in an eternal battle-of-the-sexes to determine who is better, instead of appreciating the differences between men and women as gifts from God.
Christian women reject chauvinism for the same reason they reject egalitarianism, for they know that men are not more valuable or worthy because of the calling they have been given, nor are women more valuable or worthy for the calling they have been given. Both are equally loved, equally valued, and equally part of God’s glorious design for the sexes.
It’s very important to see that we live in a society that only ever warns about one of the ditches, and so that means that we have made our home in the other ditch. That is why our culture quickly points the finger at chauvinism but almost never recognizes the evil of egalitarianism. So when we embrace God’s design for femininity, it will seem to people infected with egalitarian ideas (as so many are) that we are drifting into the other ditch. We are not! For when you are stuck in a ditch on the left, you have to move right in order to get out of there. But that doesn’t mean that you have to fall into the ditch on the right side of the road, either.
Once again, the heart of femininity is joyful submission to and support of their husband’s Christ-like leadership. (This still applies to women who do not yet have a husband in the same way that the masculine calling applies to single men. For example, a single lady should seek to become the kind of woman who would respond with submission and support to the Christ-like leadership of her future husband.)
Words like “submission” or “submit” aren’t popular, but they are the words that God uses. That means there is no rebelling against these words, since to do so would be to rebel against God himself. He says:
“Wives, submit yourselves to your on husbands as you do to the Lord” (Eph. 5:22). God also calls wives to follow the example of the holy women of the Scriptures “by submitting to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham” (1 Pet. 3:5-6). And this does not come naturally to us, but is something that God says older women to teach younger women how to do: “Train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled and pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, so that no one will malign the word of God” (Titus 2:4-5).
So there can be no doubt that submission is at the heart of the feminine calling. But what does it mean to submit? Based on how it is used throughout the Bible, we know that the word “submit” means to arrange oneself under the leadership of another, to respect them, to yield to them, even to obey them (1 Pet. 3:6).
The most significant example of femininity is found in the fifth chapter of Ephesians. God says there that men are to love their wives as Christ loved the church. In response, women are called to respect their husbands and to follow their Christ-like leadership (Eph. 5:22-24, 33). Because Jesus and the church can never switch roles, neither can the husband and the wife. Each steps into the role God has given them, receiving them for what they are: a calling from God intended to bless us.
The church’s submission to Jesus paints a picture that touches upon both a woman’s attitude and her actions. A submissive attitude is the respectful recognition of the masculine calling to accept sacrificial responsibility with a posture that leans in the direction of readiness to follow her husband’s lead and willingness to support his initiative. It says, “I respect the responsibility that you accept for our family, and I delight when you take the initiative and serve with sacrificial love. I flourish in the relationship when you take the lead.”
But submission is not just an attitude that stays stillborn in the heart; it is an attitude that gives way to action. Submission is therefore not just the willingness to trust and follow their husband, but the actual doing of those things, too. Submission says, as Jesus did, “Not what I want, but what you want. Not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).
What Submission Is Not
1. Submission does not mean following your husband into sin.
Husbands are not in authority full stop. Husbands are men in authority who are also under authority. They are accountable to Jesus for how they lead their wives and children. So while they have been given the authority and responsibility to oversee the wellbeing of their family, God says this is an “authority that the Lord gave for building you up and not for destroying you” (2 Cor. 10:8). That is why the heart of femininity is the joyful submission to… their husband’s Christ-like leadership, not submission to some sinful dictatorship.
2. Submission is not permission for abuse.
God’s strongest punishments in the Scriptures are reserved for those who harm others that were entrusted to their care. Since wives are entrusted to husbands for their care, these biblical warning extend to them. God takes abuse very seriously. It is punished in one of two ways: the death of Jesus for sins or hell.
3. Submission is not a way of saying the husband is always right.
Nor is submission a way of saying that the husband is just fine the way he is and nothing about him needs to change. We know this because God tells us that husbands do need to change—and amazingly, counter-intuitively—God uses the submission of a Christian wife to change her husband (1 Pet. 3:1-2).
The very first thing we learn about men in the Scriptures is that God designed them with a job in mind, and that job was to provide and protect (Gen. 2:15). Just a few verses later, we are introduced to the first woman and told about God’s design for her, too:
“For Adam no suitable helper was found. So the Lord God caused the man to fall into a deep sleep; and while Adam was sleeping, God took one of his ribs and closed up the place with flesh. Then the Lord God made a woman from the rib he had taken out of the man, and he brought her to the man” (Gen. 2:20-22).
Thus men were designed to provide and protect, and women were designed as a “suitable helper” for them. The word suitable refers to the woman’s complementary strengths. Women are strong in some areas where men are weak, and vice versa. This is not an accident. God didn’t call men to carry heavy things because they have broader shoulders; God gave men broader shoulders so that they could carry heavy things. In the same way, God didn’t “accidentally” give women a body that can support and nurture life. It’s the other way around: God bestows the ability to have children upon women precisely because he designed them with nurturing and supporting in mind.
In fact, every act of sexual intimacy between a husband and a wife put their differences on display. The design of our sexual anatomy guarantees that there is always an initiator or giver (husbands) and a responder or receiver (wives). These bodily differences are not arbitrary; they mirror the design of our souls and our respective callings from God that correspond to how he has made us.
Now the word helper is not a denigrating term like sidekick. Rather, the word helper is used to describe God in some places, and Jesus even gives the third member of the Trinity, the Holy Spirit, the official name of “Helper” (John 14:16). This means the kind of help that God designed women to give is a necessary help. It was “not good” for the man to be alone, remember? So God fixed this ‘not good’ with something very good: the creation of women with gifts and a calling to complement the gifts and the calling of men.
Practically speaking, the calling to submit to her husband’s Christ-like leadership means that wives delight for their husbands to take the initiative, and they look for ways to support him in this with the kind of strength that helps them succeed together. This is why God says that women must pursue the “unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit” (1 Pet. 3:4). This is not a quietness that results from being told to “shut up and learn their place” (an idiotic saying if ever there was one). Instead, this gentleness and quietness is the result of women have been set free by the gospel so they no longer feel like they have to justify themselves or prove their strength. They already know they are precious to the Lord, and so they demonstrate their faith by rejoicing in the calling that God designed them to fulfill.
The Path to Joy
God did not create differences between men and women so that we would argue about which is better. For that would be like asking which is better: water or sunlight? We need them both, but we need them both to be what they are. We need water to act like water and sunlight to act like sunlight. They are equally needed for life, but they only bring life when they function in the roles God has given them.
In the same way, God created men and women so that we could thrive together. Because God created both, we know that he loves both. It may sound strange to say it, but this means God likes masculinity and femininity. He likes it when men and women act like the people he created us to be. We might even say that God celebrates the distinctness of males and females by honoring each with unique and irreversible roles. And when we embrace his design with the eyes of faith, then we find we are met with all the grace and strength we need to fulfill the callings God has given to us.
And as we said of men, the gospel frees women to receive these truths with joy because they accept them with the eyes of faith. They believe that God is good to the core, that he loves us, and that he has given us all things so that we might be conformed to the image of his Son (Rom. 8:29). That “all things” includes femininity and the roles God attached to it, and the woman who embraces God’s design with faith will find that what the world says is the path to death is actually the path to a joyful life.
Update: Women (or men) looking to clear up any remaining confusion about God’s design for femininity and masculinity should listen to this sermon from Remnant Church. To read more about how egalitarianism and feminism have demeaned and confused women, checkout Radical Womanhood: Feminine Faith in a Feminist World. Finally, moms who want encouragement and guidance should read Loving the Little Years and Fit to Burst, both by Rachel Jankovic. They are amazingly helpful and mercifully short!
Doug Ponder is one of the founding pastors of Remnant Church in Richmond, VA, where he serves in many of the church’s teaching ministries. He has contributed to several published works and is the author of Rethink Marriage & Family. His interests include the intersection of theology, ethics, and the Christian life. Follow him on Facebook or Twitter.