The Proverbs 31 Woman, Theology, and Me: Part 3

In Part 1, I talked about my early understandings (and misunderstandings) of the Proverbs 31 Woman. In Part 2, I shared some of the things I have learned about the theology underlying Proverbs 31. And in Part 3, I’m going to make my point (I promise).

First of all, to wrap up my previous posts, I think most of our modern studies on Proverbs 31 miss the point. The woman of Proverbs 31 is the capstone of the book of Proverbs, a literary device that pulls the whole teaching of Proverbs together. She is NOT a real person (we all know that, right?)–she is, as Bartholomew said, a paradigm of a wise person–a person who fears the Lord. As such, she is an example for everyone–women and men.

We’ve tended to break down Proverbs 31 and turn it into a to-do list for Christian women. But to do so not only takes the passage out of its context, it completely misses the point. The point is NOT that Godly women should rise before dawn, or purchase property, or run cottage industries, or make attractive clothes and furnishings for her family (though there is nothing inherently wrong with those things). The point is that those who live wisely, in the fear of the Lord, will enjoy a life of abundant peace (although that is never guaranteed, as other wisdom literature points out).

Now, MY point, but first, a question. Why didn’t someone tell me this when I was a young mother crushed under expectations I couldn’t attain?

The answer: the women who were teaching me DIDN’T KNOW.

Let’s be honest for a minute. Most popular Christian books for women don’t have a lot of theological meat on the bone. Most female Bible teachers don’t have much, if any, theological education. Most of our Bible studies are topical, about issues we consider “relevant”; we study books ABOUT the Bible (again, usually by people with little to no theological training) instead of digging into the Bible to see what it says.

And that stinks.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not knocking topical studies (which I love) or under-educated Sunday School teachers (which I am!). I’m not saying that a person needs an MDiv to to present God’s word faithfully–far from it!

What DOES bother me is all the passionate, gifted female teachers who have never had a chance to follow their God-given passions and go deeper in their study of the Word, so they can communicate it to others. Seminary is expensive, and the employment outlook for female grads is still pretty dismal.

What DOES bother me is how hard it is for these gifted women to find mentors who can help them learn on their own, because most people with a theological education are men. We women can teach each other how to be good housekeepers–but can we teach each other Hebrew?

What DOES bother me is that we’re trying to feed ourselves off the theological crumbs of what the Bible has to say about women,  when there’s a feast of sufficiency spread out on the table that we can’t seem to locate.

What DOES bother me is that many of us are starving, trying to clothe ourselves in shards of scripture that we sense, but don’t want to admit, are insufficient. Or at least our understanding of them is insufficient.

The new findings from Barna, that women, as a group, are leaving the church FASTER THAN MEN, bothers me too.

Do you think there’s a correlation?

I do.

We could blame a (negative) cultural shift for why women–most of whom still self-identify as born again Christians–are giving up on church attendance. Or, we could take a good, hard look inward and ask ourselves what we’re going to do about it.

Simple faith is a beautiful thing, but simple explanations just aren’t washing anymore. Nor should they. God has more for Christian women than most of our books express. He expects more from Christian women than most of our churches teach. God is not holding a checklist of things Christian women should do, or a ten-point manifesto of what women should be and believe. No, God wants nothing less than for us to love him with all of our HEART, SOUL, MIND, and STRENGTH, to take up our cross and follow him daily, wherever he leads.

That might look different from our traditional, culturally-informed version of Christian womanhood.

And perhaps, if we want to reach our changing world with the good news Jesus Christ brought for both men AND women, it had better.

So what to do?

Excellent question.

What do you think?

9 Responses to The Proverbs 31 Woman, Theology, and Me: Part 3

  1. DA Luick August 9, 2011 at 1:32 am #

    Great post. I appreciate your hermeneutics, and your honesty! Thanks.

  2. Jenny Rae Armstrong August 9, 2011 at 2:16 am #

    Thank you. That means a lot! :-)

  3. llword August 9, 2011 at 2:24 am #

    Jenny, I LOVE this. At New Moon, we always talked about how the cultural image of girls (boy-crazy, obsessed with shopping, preoccupied with appearances, etc.) was not WRONG, but that it was incomplete. YES, that is part of being a girl (for some girls much more than others), but there's no girl for whom that is the WHOLE reality, which is what our culture often reduces it to. From your post, I get that "women's" Bible studies or a "Christian" portrait of women do a similar disservice — not of upholding a "wrong" image of womanhood, but a vastly incomplete one. I've found similar frustrations on the "other side" of women's Bible studies, and that's that, although they were called "women's" Bible study, they were really "wives and mothers" Bible studies, which fixated on the issues you bring up here: homemaking, being a good wife, being a good mother — with no conception of the fact that Christian womanhood does and should exist *beyond* those roles, even when one particular woman's life does encompass those roles.

    Anyway, I want this to get wide reception! I hope you have some thoughts of places to submit it for publication. :)

  4. Jenny Rae Armstrong August 9, 2011 at 3:07 am #

    Thanks Lacey! Between school, work, and kids, I've been nervous about taking on too many magazine assignments, but who knows–maybe this would make a good guest post on a bigger blog? We'll see!

    What you said about "women's" Bible studies actually being "wives and mother's" Bible studies is SO true. On FB, the conversation turned to the isolation women in churches experience, ESPECIALLY when they don't fit into either of those roles. :-/ It's absolutely heartbreaking, and just another reason why we should be focusing on Jesus, not our own personal roles.

  5. Karen Hinz August 9, 2011 at 1:17 pm #

    Jenny, Thank you for the good work on Proverbs 31. I intend to pass it along. As a female Covenant pastor, I share your frustration with substituting gaining homemaking skills for our deep development as disciples. Great food for thought.

  6. Anonymous August 9, 2011 at 3:05 pm #

    It was a very interesting and insightful!

  7. Jenny Rae Armstrong August 10, 2011 at 12:39 am #

    Thanks so much, Karen and anonymous! Karen, thanks for what YOU do!!!

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Why You Should Quit Talking About Your “Beautiful Wife” | Jenny Rae Armstrong - October 13, 2011

    [...] Rachel Held Evans has written a lot about how her Year of Biblical Womanhood Project has revolutionized the way she views Proverbs 31. We tend to view the Proverbs 31 Woman as a hard-working, well-dressed, prim-and-proper housewife–Donna Reed in a purple dress. But in fact, she is described as an eschet chayil, a woman of valor–heroic language usually used to describe God. Jewish husbands would read Proverbs 31 to their wives as a compliment, praising her resourcefulness, affirming her hard work, and complimenting her character. (I wrote in depth about Proverbs 31, and my ambiguous relationship with the passage, in The Proverbs 31 Woman, Theology, and Me, parts one, two, and three.) [...]

  2. killing the Proverbs 31 woman…and other impossible standards | Jessica Clemmer - September 6, 2013

    [...] rather than reinvent the wheel, you can check out the theology of that here and here.  (I love how Jenny Rae Armstrong addresses this whole topic…thanks for doing that work for [...]

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