Podcast: Womanhood and the Bible (Abigail Dodds)
This article is part of the The Crossway Podcast series.
What the Bible Says about Womanhood
In this episode of The Crossway Podcast, Abigail Dodds, author of (A)Typical Woman: Free, Whole, and Called in Christ takes a fresh look at what the Bible actually says about womanhood, discussing some of the differences and similarities between men and women, reflecting on the use of the term “complementarianism,” and encouraging us to show kindness and grace toward others when discussing these issues.
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Seeking to rediscover the full reality of what it means to be female, this book looks to God’s Word as the foundation to help Christian women to live out their callings as free and authentic members of Christ's mission.
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Abigail, thank you for joining us on The Crossway Podcast.
Thank you for having me!
Why a Book on Womanhood?
So in the introduction to your book, you note that you never really planned to write a book on womanhood. You actually ask rhetorically, kind of humorously, has ever a topic been so fixated on, so maligned, idolized, marginalized, criticized, and generally made a mess of? And the answer you give is of course, Yes. There are other difficult topics, but this is certainly one of them. And you’ve written a book on womanhood. So what is it that you are hoping to contribute to the conversation?
If I could put it into one word, I’m hoping to contribute Christ to the conversation around womanhood. I think there have been a lot of good and important things said, biblical things said, true things said about womanhood; but one thing that—at least in my exposure to what’s been written—I saw as lacking is grounding the idea of women in Christ. Not just pointing women to Christ, but grounding their identity and even their creation as from and through Christ. And so that was really what I was hoping to contribute because honestly, that was the thing that had made womanhood beautiful to me. It was the way I found my footing, as a woman, was to not just behold Christ—though that is of utmost importance—but to see myself as made through Christ and for Christ.
So that was the main reason. And the push, the impetus, the drive to write it was the hope to give women this hope and a foundation that I knew would never fail them; rather than mainly pointing to a portrait of ideal womanhood that can sometimes sound like it’s detached from Christ.
Dos and Don’ts of Womanhood
It seems like a lot of times our conversations about manhood and womanhood, but in particular womanhood, they focus on the things that women are not allowed to do. You know, it’s almost like that that becomes the locus of the attention. What do you think about that?
Well, I would not be critical of people who talk about that, because it’s a real issue, so to never talk about it doesn’t help anyone. Basically, you aren’t being intellectually honest if you don’t ever mention those things that are clearly in the Scriptures. But if it’s all you talk about, you also aren’t being as true to the Scriptures as you could be, because the emphasis of the Scriptures is of course Christ. It is his person and work. So my goal was not to write the manifesto on these are the things women can do and things are the things women can’t do and let’s parse out these particular texts to see if we can really nail this down.
That wasn’t my goal at all. It was so much more simple than that. It was just to say, What would it mean if we really started understanding ourselves as made through Christ and for Christ? Trying to do something simpler, really.
Grace-Filled Discussion among Christians
Yeah, it seems like you’re saying we’re often too quick to jump to What does a biblical man or a biblical woman do? What do they look like in our lives today? And we don’t take the time to really explore the question, what did God do when he made us? Laying that foundation, like you say, before we get too concerned with some of the practical outworkings of these things.
I want to take a little step back to the way that we have this conversation a lot. This is obviously, as you write in your book, a fraught issue, a fraught topic. But for Christians who do embrace the Bible as authoritative over their lives, as authoritative over this issue in particular, it seems like the question is not so much Do I believe that God has the right to speak to these issues? We would say he does, but maybe the question is more *What exactly is the Bible saying about these issues? How should we interpret what it's saying and then apply it after we’ve discerned what it’s saying. Assuming you agree with that, what impact should that have on how we go about discussing this issue in the church with other Christians?
Well it will make us a lot more gracious towards one another if we assume that people do want to honor God’s words in the Scripture. But I will make one caveat to that, and that is that: I say this from personal experience, I’m not trying to point my finger at people—but I do think we can absolutely believe that the Bible is God’s Word. We can absolutely believe that it’s authoritative and that we must submit to it. But we can believe all those things without liking it. So we can believe that yes, it’s my job as a wife to submit to my husband; and yet, I might not like that. And so basically what I’m doing at that point is I’m tolerating God. I’m tolerating his words because I know that I can’t change them. I know that I’m a created person. I know that he’s telling me what I'm supposed to do with my life. And yet, I can’t say with a clean and pure heart, This God, his way is perfect, with a sense of joy and gratitude that he did it this way. Not some other way. He did it this way. He made us male and female.
And so I do think there’s a conversation to be had, not around whether we all agree the Bible is true and authoritative because I think we mostly do in our circles; but on whether we can all say, with a happy heart, This God, his way is perfect. I don't just tolerate what he tells me. I love what he tells me. I love what his instructions are. And honestly, I think that's where the rub is. If we can get there, I think those other conversations will evaporate, all of them will get better. All of them will be easier and less fraught if we can love what he’s done. Because I don’t often think that the main problem is that we aren't interpreting things the same. Sometimes that is a real issue, like there's some interpretive differences. But most often what I hear is not that. It's an angst over Well, I see that’s what he did. But I’m not sure that I can sense that it’s good.
Taking God at His Word
What do you think are some of the reasons why people would struggle to believe that what God has said is ultimately good for us?
A part of that is absolutely not their fault always. Again, I’m not looking to point fingers at people and just say, Hey, get in line. Start loving what God said. Ultimately we do need to do that, but I will say that there are times and places and maybe some church cultures where the application of some of these principles has been done so poorly that there are women who legitimately feel the hurt of that. They legitimately feel the tension around even what God says and how it’s being applied. And they equate the application then with God’s words. Okay, so that’s a real thing.
But then there’s another real thing that happens, and that is that we women also would like to just be allowed to do whatever we want. And so that’s just a human problem that every human brings to the table because we’re sinners. And so when God does put a limit on us in some way or another, it is absolutely human nature to kick against that, especially in a culture when everything is competitive and everything is oriented toward I don’t just do what I do. I do what I do in light of what that person does.
Yeah, I want to come back to that category of women who have been hurt, genuinely hurt, by people who maybe claim to be representing what Scripture says about this topic, I want to come back to that in a minute. But turning more to conservative Christians, do you think there are ways that we have let culture, maybe a past era of American culture, over-influence how we go about thinking about gender and women in particular. Is that happening on the other side as well in some ways?
Yes. I do. When you go back and study 1950s ads or literature, things of that nature, it’s clearly not a Christian thing that's going on, per se. So we don’t want to root our ideas about what it means to be a Christian woman in that. And that’s one of the things that I wanted to be really clear about in the book is that if the roots of our ideals for Christian women can be traced to any secular ideal, any ideal that we find—even if it’s Lizzy Bennet in Pride and Prejudice—all these different ideas we get in our head about what it might look like to just kill it as a Christian woman, the fruit on our tree will be rotten if we start to make those our ideals. The only seed out of which a Christian woman can grow is the seed of Christ. And here’s the beautiful thing about that, is that that seed can grow in any culture, in any people group in the entire world. And so it’s so much more far reaching, so much more profound, absolutely influential in every possible way, so we don’t want to settle for these other ideals that the world sells us.
What do you think about the term complementarianism? Do you like it? Do you dislike it? Do you use it? Or do you have something else that you like to use when referring to what the Bible teaches about women and men’s relationships and roles?
Well, the reason that I would say I don’t like it is because it’s hard to say.
It is a mouthful.
It’s a mouthful.
Could we pick an easier word? Of course it isn’t perfect, and so we’re going to bring a lot of baggage with the term because it will have been misused. There will have been all kinds of things that are hard about it, and yet the men and women who labored to work on that term and what they meant by it, I want to honor. I want to honor those men and women because they did a very hard thing. And it was a needed thing. And whether the term gets dropped or not, godly principles and wisdom from God’s Word will never go out of style. I mean, it will never be in style with the world, but it will never, never run dry. And I think that’s what their goal was. To help us be godly Christian men and women in a way that glorifies God. And so I would never dishonor that in any way. I would say, Thank you. And, we’re messing it up. Yes. And the term has been misused. Yes. And will it last forever? I don’t really care, honestly. I am not bound to these words. There are two words that I won’t let go of and that is Christian and woman. Those are the words God has given me and I’m gonna hang onto those. I will fight tooth and nail to say that’s who I am. And so you know, biblical manhood and womanhood, complementarianism, it is right and good to strive to define what we mean and so I understand why those terms come about and I have complete respect for the people who came up with them and use them, but I’m not going to cry if they disappear. But I will never ever, ever, ever let go of the words God has called me to be, which is Christian and woman.
Addressing Sexism and Chauvinism
So maybe there’s someone listening to us talk right now and they have been hurt by people who maybe claimed the term complementarian or they claim to be speaking on behalf of the Bible with regard to gender roles. Maybe the person listening has faced overt sexism or chauvinism or maybe even abuse at the hands of someone like this. And so, understandably, they might be pretty hesitant to hear you say that this is a good thing. What would you say to that person?
Well first of all, I would say, “I’m sorry that has been your experience. The Lord sees what you have been through. He’s not ignorant of it and he can use that for the good of his church.” I don’t say that with triteness because these are deep pains that people carry, but I will say this: in Christ we have been equipped to not just try and achieve this ideal. We have been equipped to walk through every circumstance, most of which will not be what we hoped for. Most of the circumstances of our life are not the things that we expect to come. They’re not what we would have planned in our wisdom. They’re not in any way the ideal way to go about our life. And that is actually the exact place where God chooses to refine us, to shape us, to do his deepest work in us.
And so in the pain of those circumstances that maybe this woman has walked through, I would say first of all, don’t give up on the church. Don’t give up on the church. The church is still God’s best and only plan for us. It is the place where his people reside and you may need to find a new church. So don’t hear me say, “Stick around for a church who’s teaching the Bible horribly and treating its members with contempt.” That’s not what I’m saying. I do think leaving a church is a fairly big deal, so it needs to be done with care and thought and legitimate reasons, but don’t give up on the church. Don’t give up on your brothers. Your brothers in Christ are God's grace to you and you have maybe had some experiences with some men that were not God's grace to you. You may have been sinned against in significant ways. And yet I would say, do not give up on your brothers in Christ. These are your blood bought brothers. They belong to him and in as much as possible hope in God that he is at work in his people, sometimes very slowly. Recognize that God’s people are not God himself. We are supposed to be his ambassadors and his representatives, but God truly does love his daughters. And so don’t think that because one of his people got it wrong that God got it wrong. God never gets it wrong. And he didn’t get it wrong when he made you a woman. And he didn’t get it wrong when he gave the boundaries and instructions that he gave for women in his Word.
Personhood vs. Womanhood
In your book you quote Elisabeth Elliot, who wrote, “I don’t want anyone treating me as a person rather than as a woman. Our sexual differences are the terms of our life and to obscure them in any way is to weaken the fabric of life itself.” Unpack that a little bit. Why did you choose to include that in the book?
Well, first of all, nobody can say it like she can, can they? She just has this way of incisively saying the very thing that is true. And I think what she is saying there is not that women aren’t people, so that would be the wrong way to take that quote. That somehow she’s saying, Well, women aren’t people. So I don’t want anyone treating me like a person. What she’s really saying is that there are no generic people. There are men and women. That doesn’t mean it’s wrong to call someone a person. She’s not trying to be like the speech police on all of us. But what she’s saying is, “Don't treat me as a generic human when I've been made as a female. And to do that, to start seeing people as a generic form of humanity irrespective of their sex, is a category that doesn’t exist. And we shouldn’t act like it does exist. We should treat people as what they actually are, which is male and female. And so that’s why I think she says it weakens the fabric of life itself.
The Distinctiveness of Womanhood
But couldn’t someone listening say, I hear that, but the reality is that the inverse is often been true. Women have been treated merely as women and it’s been detached from what it means to be a man perhaps, and they’re treated almost as a separate category altogether. How would you respond to that?
Yes, so what I would say is not that they’ve been treated merely as a woman. I would say they have been treated merely as the distinctiveness of what it means to be a woman. There are things that overlap about men and women, but those things that overlap about men and women are not the category human. And then over here where things don’t overlap, that's female. And over here on the other side where things don’t overlap, that’s male. No. It’s just male and female, and they have things about them that overlap. What we tend to do though is talk about the overlapping part of those two realities as the human part. And that actually degrades male and female in a significant way because what it says is, “Oh, to be woman is to be this thing over here.” When it’s not. And we usually don’t talk about men that way, which is interesting. So I understand the impulse to make women feel good about themselves by saying, “You’re a human, not just a woman.” But do you see how that actually degrades the full reality of being a woman?
Are Generalities Helpful?
So I think that hits on an important part of this conversation because I think so often we do sort of assign qualities or attributes to men vs. women. And sometimes they’ll overlap, sometimes they don’t seem to overlap at least in the generalities. What do you think about that? Do we need to be careful about how we talk about the genders, to not make it seem like, men are going to prefer to doing things outdoors, they’re kind of outdoorsy, whereas women tend to be more indoorsy, etc.?
Right. I don’t love all the stereotypes, but certainly there are some that are there for a reason. Stereotypes don’t come out of nowhere, and so I also don’t want to be oversensitive to the stereotypes. You know, the stereotype of women talking more. Well, generally maybe that’s true. I haven't looked at the numbers or any research on that. I know that a number of friends I have their husbands actually will talk more than they do. And so I know that it may generally be true, but that doesn’t make it a universal truism. And so one thing to keep in mind as we mature as adults, is not to take every generality personally. We should be able to hear some generalities that don’t apply to us and say, “Oh, that one didn’t apply to me.”
Husbands Helping Wives to Flourish
Speaking to husbands right now. How can we do a better job loving and caring for our wives as women? What does it look like for a husband to help his wife flourish in the full way that you are laying out in your book?
Well I would first say I think what Peter says, “to live with your wife in an understanding way.” Also Paul says that you’re to “treat your wife as though she were part of your own body.” You know, you don’t despise your own body. These are some incredibly humble ways of treating another person. Peter also says that you’re supposed “to honor your wife as the weaker vessel.” So often we hear “weaker vessel” and we think, Well, that's degrading. And yet Peter’s whole point was, No, that makes her worthy of honor. So we often don’t think of it that way. So those are really important.
I would say one major thing that husbands could do for their wives, and maybe even just men in general for women, is to listen to them. Just be willing to listen to their thoughts, their perspectives, and take them seriously. That can go such a long way in building trust. And don’t do it just because it’s like, “Okay, I’ll put in my five minutes of listening so I can move on.” But listen with an attitude that says, “Maybe my mind will be changed. Maybe there’s something in here for me that I didn’t see before.” That is just massively helpful in how we relate to one another and in helping women participate in the life of the body. Because without that willingness to listen truly to the women around you, I think women just shut down. They won’t try and speak.
And then on the flip side of that maybe, would be for husbands in regard to their wives. I would say don’t be afraid of your wife. That sounds odd, but there are a lot of strong women out there. Women that are extremely articulate, that have no problem making sure that their husband listens to them and that their views get heard. And for that husband I would say, “Do your wife a service and love her enough to not be afraid of her.” So, when she’s saying something strongly that you just would rather not engage with this because, Whoa! She’s got a lot of opinions about this and I haven’t thought this through. Don’t shut down. Engage. Be willing to push back. If you think that there’s something that she has said that’s really wrong, not in line with the Scriptures, have the hard conversation. This is not only your wife, this is your sister in Christ. And so love her enough to have a hard conversation with her, to shepherd her along. Be the kind of man who can actually do that. Be the kind of man who knows God’s Word well enough to do that.
Advice to Pastors
What advice would you offer to pastors as conservative, Bible-believing Christians who affirm the differences in the genders, in the different roles that God has assigned to each gender, that spiritual leadership in the church is a role given exclusively to men, what can pastors do to give women a voice in the context of the local church and make sure that they are hearing them and hearing their perspectives and opinions and their insights into what God has said?
Well, something really novel. I mean, you could ask. You could just ask. You could set up a meeting. You could have a family over for dinner and just have a conversation. I think that’s the most . . . that’s the beauty of the local church is that we do not have to have formal committees to decide how to give women a voice. As a matter of fact, I think that’s not the most helpful way to go about it. But what would be so lovely and life giving and organic, for lack of a better word, is why not eat dinner together and just have a robust conversation in the safety of someone’s home, with the children running around?
One thing too that I think pastors could do that I think would be a huge gift to women is to be really honest about what you think. Be really honest, even if it’s not going to earn you points. And then see what happens. See what the push back is, if there is push back. Allow that for a private conversation, but private conversations are where these things have to happen, in my opinion. I don’t think the public world is able to have enough love that these conversations can move forward in a particularly healthy way. We can talk here on this podcast and we can give advice and advice is always really helpful and I hope people can take it to heart, especially if it’s good advice, but the work of it has to be done in relationships that actually exist and in conversations that actually happen. And I think the local church is where that has to happen. And don’t get too bogged down by what you see happening more publicly. Just keep your eyes on the ball where you’re at and try and cultivate something small and healthy.
Yeah, it seems like we can often be so focused on the bickering happening on Twitter or between blogs or on podcasts like this. And almost like that excuses us from the actual hard work of talking to our neighbor or our wife or someone in the church and actually working through real issues in that context.
Right. And that’s really where the impact of God’s kingdom comes, is in those nitty-gritty conversations and moments. Because that’s where we can make mistakes and then still go to that person and say, “I'm sorry. You know, we were having that conversation. You invited me to share my opinion and I vented.” Not that venting is always . . . well, we don’t want to give full vent to our wrath so I want to be careful how I talk about this but, you may have said some things that may have been a legitimate sin against your brother or sister in that conversation because these are personal things and we’re going to misspeak. We should just acknowledge that fact up front.
Matt Tully Yeah, that’s helpful almost to say that explicitly as we get into a conversation like, “We might step on each others toes here. We need to have some grace here.”
Right. And so when you have a conversation one of the really important things is to say, “There's going to be a follow up.” Or, “Let’s meet again in a month.” Because then what happens is you don’t have to cram it all into one. Because someone might be coming with ten years of experiences that they’re trying to sort through. One conversation isn’t going to get you too far down the road. And if you try and cram it all in, you will end up very much misspeaking because you’ll be so trying to force it all. And so, just knowing that, Wow, this is my brother or sister in Christ and we go to the same church, so this conversation can go on for the next ten or fifteen years. And we’re going to keep learning and keep walking and I'm going to apologize multiple times and that’s not going to ruin the relationship. It’s actually going to build trust in the relationship.
So often we think if we mess up, then the relationship is going to be spoiled, or we’re never going to talk about it again. When really, if we’re Christian people, what that does is it gives us an opportunity to let everyone rely on Christ. We are all now going to go to him for grace. We are going to go to him for forgiveness. And that’s where we’re going to get the grace we need to forgive our brother or sister and now we’re going to keep walking together in a way that’s edifying and where we actually know each other, which can be scary, but is good.
Well Abigail, thank you so much for joining us today on The Crossway Podcast and sharing wisdom from God’s Word and from your own experience, and helping us to navigate these issues. These fraught issues. But they’re good, and there is wisdom to be had from God’s Word as we talk together.
Thank you so much for having me.
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