This is the last installment of our Summer Sampler series, revisiting some of our favorite posts from past years. This article was originally published in 2011. Enjoy! And please feel free to forward to a friend.
by Dr. Alice Mathews
Excerpted from A Woman God Can Use, by Alice Mathews
These are not easy years in which to be a Christian woman. We can make choices that were not options for women in other times. The years ahead of us can be exciting. Or they can be terrifying.
We can choose, but every choice we make brings risk. The Greek word that literally means a choice is hairesis. It is also the word translated a tenet or heresy. We cannot make our choices lightly. A choice can lead us into heresy. Our only sure anchor is the Bible, God’s infallible Word. As Christian women we want to be sure we understand what the Bible says about our choices.
As women, we live today in what historians call a “paradigm shift”— a time when old beliefs and old attitudes are being forcibly challenged by new beliefs and new attitudes. Which of these beliefs and attitudes are firmly anchored in the Word of God, and which are merely products of our traditions?
As we struggle to find our footing as Christian women in the shifting sand of today’s expectations and opportunities, we may think that our times are unique. Not so. A hundred years ago women were going through a paradigm shift every bit as dramatic as we face today.
Victorian women lived within the paradigm Barbara Welter has called “the cult of true womanhood.” Inside that paradigm women became the guardians of purity and gentility for the nation. That had not been the case before. Now they were given responsibility to promote godliness in their homes. The true woman was pious, pure, domestic, and submissive.
A woman’s sphere was the home. It was taboo for her to venture into the public arena. During the nineteenth century women were not allowed to vote, could not enter most colleges and universities, and were barred from most professions. Women, the politicians said, were to use their purity, virtue, and morality to lift men up. They were to remain “above the political collusion of this world.” That translated into no real citizenship, no right to own property, and no vote. That was the paradigm in the nineteenth century.
However, godly evangelical women began Sunday schools for poor children to teach them to read. They established maternal associations to teach Christian mothers how to nurture their children. Then came efforts to wipe out prostitution and to enforce premarital chastity. From there women began crusading against alcohol abuse and against slavery. It wasn’t long before women’s colleges sprang up.
While many of these changes were carried out within the Victorian paradigm of the virtuous “true woman,” women at the end of the nineteenth century found themselves caught in the cross-currents of new freedoms, new opportunities, new possibilities.
Today we stand on their shoulders. We take for granted their hard-won victories — the right to vote, to earn college degrees, to enter any profession, to own property. We forget — or we never knew — the agony many of these women experienced as they struggled to find God’s will for their lives. They, too, had to turn to the Scriptures again and again.
But that period a hundred years ago was not the first time women had to learn to live within limitations or find ways to do God’s will and widen their spheres. From the beginning of recorded time women have struggled with tough choices. They have lived out their lives balancing their understanding of God’s will for them against the demands others made upon them. Some lived lives of quiet desperation. Others found strength and comfort in their relationship to the living God.
Some made wise decisions. Others made destructive choices. Eve reached for a piece of fruit — just a piece of fruit — and brought upon herself and upon all her sisters since that time the devastating consequences of the Fall. Miriam — a prophetess through whom God spoke — chose to rebel against her brother’s leadership and became leprous. Esther chose to risk her life for her captive people, and she saved a nation. Rahab chose to hide the Israelite spies and became an ancestress of the Messiah.
Choices. Life is full of them. We have to make them. So how do we make them well? Like our Victorian sisters a hundred years ago, we can turn to the Word of God, the Bible, for help in wise decision-making. There we can learn by precept and by example.
One last word. When we talk about the freedom to make choices, we discover there are two kinds of women. Some want freedom to choose. Others want freedom from choice. The Scriptures provide examples of both. In the Bible we find a wider scope for choice than many women realize is there. At the same time, we find biblical fences that keep our choices from becoming heresy. To choose wisely we must know God’s Word and apply it well. As we do that, we can become women of worth, wise women, women whom God can use.
Dr. Alice Mathews spent 23 years teaching the Scriptures on the daily Bible study program, Discover the Word. In 2014 she brought to an end public speaking that required long-distance travel, but continues public speaking locally. Her 20 years of teaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary included several years of leading the school’s Doctor of Ministry program (1997-1999), then six years as a distinguished professor on the faculty (1999-2005), then a two-year stint as dean (2007-2009). She has continued leading Doctor of Ministry cohorts in women in ministry, but ended the classroom part of that in June 2017. She still has five women writing dissertations that she hopes to see graduate before she leaves this earth. Alice and her husband moved from the Boston area to the Chicago area at the end of 2017 and now they live in Lake Zurich, IL. Alice is also a prolific author. Her many excellent books can be found at Amazon.com.