Sunday, May 14, 2006

is the Bible patriarchal or feminist?

It was Mothers Day today and I decided to preach on Proverbs 31, that entrepreneurial women tucked in the back of Proverbs. By Thursday I was having serious doubts about the wisdom of the choice. She felt like Super-woman. I asked a young mother, a working woman and a grandmother to help me process the text. It was so helpful to talk it through with them. And then to think about what it might mean for men (especially religious men).

In the end, I felt the Bible looked quite radically feminist and empowering to woman. Is it? If so, why do so many women find churches oppressive? Or am I just looking for the passages that suit and twisting them to be “culturally relevant”? How do you handle the place of women in society?

Today is Mothers Day. And it can be a day of mixed emotions.
We all have a mum. For some of us, Mothers Day means good memories and there’s a sense of joy. For others of us, Mothers Day means hard memories and there’s a sense of sadness.

This Mothers Day we come to a Scripture that when it was first written would’ve caused quite a stir.

If there had been Babylonian National Business Review they would have applauded this Scripture because it encouraged women as business entrepreneurs; to make money, run businesses and own property in their own name.

If there had been the equivalent of The Press Weekender, they might’ve noted the radical social nature of this Scripture. Suggested that this passage was totally unique, nothing quite like it in all the writing of that day. The Press Weekender would’ve marveled at the role and influence that this Scripture gives to women in society.

The Jewish Family News, Beyond Rubies, would’ve highlighted how this Scripture celebrates caring for the family and completing home crafts. They would’ve suggested that this text be read every week at the family table, just before Sabbath, celebrating the work of woman in the family and the home.

In a moment I’m going to ask Jean to read this Scripture that would’ve caused such a stir. But before I do, I want to show you a diagram. Download diagram. A diagram with 3 circles; God spirituality circle (yellow) in the middle Home circle (blue); And the Community (green circle).

As we listen to this Scripture that would’ve caused such a stir to the first hearers; You might also want to think about which circle this Scripture fits into.
And perhaps into which circle your mother might fit today.

Reading Proverbs 31:10-31.

So, in the centre, the God spirituality (yellow) circle. And it’s quite subtle, but note how this Scripture integrates this mother with a God spirituality. It starts with her character in v. 10 A good woman is hard to find, Her husband trusts her without reserve

And it ends with her character, integrated with God. v.31 This woman is to be admired and praised, Is the woman who lives in the Fear-of-God

And so this woman is to be celebrated for her God spirituality.

And it does’t come through in The Message, but in the Revised Standard Version, v. 17 – this woman “girds herself with strength”, and those words are exactly the same words that are used to describe God in Psalm 93:1.

And so the way this woman acts is integrated with the way that God acts.
Her character and behaviour are linked with her God spirituality. That’s the yellow circle.

Then there’s home, the blue circle. In what ways does this woman connect with the home circle?
15She’s up before dawn, preparing breakfast for her family and organizing her day.
19She’s skilled in the crafts of home and hearth, diligent in homemaking.
21She doesn’t worry about her family when it snows;
their winter clothes are all mended and ready to wear.
27She keeps an eye on everyone in her household, and keeps them all busy and productive.
28Her children respect and bless her; her husband joins in with words of praise:
And so this woman, this mother, is celebrated for her home life, for the love and care and preparation and energy she invests in the home circle.

Then there’s the community, the green circle? In what ways does this woman, this mother connect with life outside her home?

She’s a trader
13She shops around for the best yarns and cottons, and enjoys knitting and sewing.
14She’s like a trading ship that sails to faraway places and brings back exotic surprises.

She’s an entreprenuer
16She looks over a field and buys it, then, with money she’s put aside, plants a garden.
24She designs gowns and sells them, brings the sweaters she knits to the dress shops.

She’s a community worker
20She’s quick to assist anyone in need, reaches out to help the poor.

And so it’s no wonder that this Scripture passage caused such a stir in the Babylonian National Business Review. This Scripture is quite radical in the freedom it celebrates for woman; a business woman, buying a field, starting a vineyard,

Look at the use of the word “hers” in v. 21 and v. 27 – the household is “hers” – not “his” or “theirs”. This is a Scripture that celebrates a woman with a life of her own, with gifts of her own, with role of her own.

One approach to this text is to use it as a measure. To consider ourselves in comparison to this woman. And then to feel exhausted. To feel inadequate alongside this Superwoman. And so to avoid this Scripture, or place it in the too hard basket.

And so this week I rang at Opawa a young mum and a grandmother and a working woman and asked them to help me with this sermon. Asked for their input.

And they told me that rather than compare themselves with this Superwoman,
rather than feel inadequate and exhausted, they just really appreciate how this woman is so diverse, how she invests in such a broad range of life activities.

Every woman, every mother, is made unique and this woman encourages them to grow and develop in a their unique gifts.

And they loved the balance. They loved the fact that this woman invests in her spirituality and her home and her community.

And so they don’t measure themselves by this woman or by what they achieve or by how many hours they work each day. Instead they are inspired to invest uniquely in their yellow and blue and green areas; inspired to invest in their spirituality and their home and their community.

And we talked together about how the Scripture offers guidance to so many women at so many stages of their life.

If you are a 15 year old teenage girl, you might be intrigued by the fact that at no point does this Scripture mention outward beauty. No mention of makeup or body shape or cell-phone accessories.

Instead we see a celebration of inner beauty, a character that is
Gracious and generous (v. 12)
Creative and hardworking (13-15)
Strong (17)
Satisfied at tasks done well (18)
Generous (20)
Prepared (21)
Well-dressed (22)
Sense of humour (25)
Wise (26)

If you are a young mum and this is your first Mothers Day, you probably relate in a whole new way to v. 15; “She gets up before dawn,”

And yet you might be intrigued by the fact that this woman is not totally absorbed with her children. That alongside her relationship to her kids, this woman is still investing in her relationship with her husband, which means that when children eventually grow up and head off to school or to university, the home and the marriage will feel less empty.

If you’re a working woman, you might totally relate to v. 17; “dressing for work, rolling up your sleeves, sensing the worth of your work, in no hurry to call it quits.”

And yet you might be intrigued by the home life of v. 19 “crafts of home and hearth.” And you might wonder about the balance that scrap booking or quilt making or a good book might add to your life. And you might ponder the web of relationships that this woman invests in.

If you’re retired, you might be intrigued by the fact that this Scripture is written in the present tense. There’s no sense of a woman resting on her laurels. Oh, I’ve done the children thing, oh, I’ve done the community thing. And you might wonder what the present tense balance is for you; What might you still be able to invest in those yellow and blue and green areas; in your spirituality and their home and their community?

And if you are a man, sitting there today thinking how irrelevant this sermon is to you, you might want to consider the three most important woman in your life today.

And you might ponder that wise saying that behind every good woman is a great man.

And you might want to ask yourself the question; this Mothers Day; What am I doing, to help the most important women in my life become Proverbs 31 women? What am I doing to encourage them to have their own lives, develop their own unique gifts? What habits might I have to change? What meals might I have to cook?

I got sent an email this week. The email had nothing to do with me. It was for Lynne. And it was in relation to her work. And I was quite happy to forward the email on to Lynne, but I suspect that the writer of the email is probably struggling to see Lynne as her own person. Lynne is not only wife of Steve, she’s also a person with her own gifts, her own unique contribution.

And what habits do us as men need to change, in order for the women we love to grow as this Proverbs 31 woman is.

And so we as men, need to be challenged by Proverbs 31, challenged by this women who buys fields and develop vineyards, in her own right, with her own gifts. And to see that, not as radical feminism, but as faithfulness to Proverbs 31.

This is Mothers Day. Everyone one of us has a mother. Every one of us relates to women. Proverbs 31 is not intended to make women feel inadequate.

Instead, it’s written as a celebration. Of woman and their uniqueness and their diversity. It’s written as a challenge, to women to invest in their spirituality and their home and their community. A challenge to men, what can we do, to appreciate unique skills, and unique abilities, to be glad of the gifts of women, in our homes and in our communities and in our nations.

Thanks be to God for women, this mothers day.

I’d like us to finish be reading the Scripture again. I want to invite all of us to read it. To celebrate woman, and to pray, that we as men will do our part in the lives of the woman we love.

Posted by steve at 05:02 PM


  1. Personally, I think the Community of Christ has been hamstrung for years by effectively sidelining half (probably more) of the Body from certain parts of the “playing field”, exiling so many woman from using God-given gifts to edify His Kingdom. When read contextually as an wholistic narrative, I think the Bible clearly elevates the status/position of women, taking it as a “given” that women are to be huge players in the Kingdom. We honored Mothers Day at Nelson Citychurch, in part, by referring to a great section from the animated picture The Incredibles where the Mom had to take charge of both the situation and the kids when the Dad was held hostage. Beyond the smiles, its not too bad as a metaphor either, seeing that we Dad’s are often “held hostage” by our own limiting theologies re:women:-).

    Comment by Jim — May 15, 2006 @ 7:06 am

  2. The Proverbs 31 woman has sometimes come across as “more than a mere mortal.” Some men, even in the church, continue to see women as “less than” (a normal mortal.) I really appreciate your perspective and your treatment of this passage. I hadn’t thought of the spirtual area and parallels in language that you mention. Thank you for helping all of us (men and women) to celebrate woman and encourage women to continue to invest in these three areas.

    Comment by Jennifer — May 15, 2006 @ 7:09 am

  3. Thanks for this Steve. We need to hear more of tis kind of blananced approach, especially from men!

    Thanks for your blogging, I really appreciate it.

    Comment by Graham Doel — May 15, 2006 @ 3:34 pm

  4. Today — Mothers’ Day — the preacher (that would be me) and the liturgist were both women. I preached about women (Lydia – Acts 16). There were men in leadership but they weren’t visible. Our music leaders are men but they are up in the balcony.
    When this kind of thing happens, I often feel like I’m being exclusive, that men will come out feeling like it was “women’s worship” today. For generations, worship has been led by men, men, men, but now that I lead and other women are leading, sometimes several on the same Sunday, I feel like there were so many decades of “men only” worship leadership that I shouldn’t worry about it, but I do.

    Comment by Jan — May 15, 2006 @ 3:55 pm

  5. Well organized, I appreciate your words. It brought to mind another perspective I once read about the P31 woman, by Lisa Welchel. Funny and interesting, if you’d like to read it, here’s the link:

    Click on the date 04/12/04

    Comment by Leslie — May 19, 2006 @ 5:37 am

  6. I teach an adult SS class at my church (Methodist) and the lesson this Sunday (May 28) is from Proverbs 31. I came across your truly wonderful and insightful sermon as I was preparing the lesson. May I have your permission to use some of your thoughts this Sunday? I will certainly give you the credit for any material I use.
    Peace and Joy,

    Comment by Helen Weathers — May 25, 2006 @ 2:53 pm

  7. Sure Helen. Thanks for asking. Really appreciateda and I trust the class runs well. Would love to hear any new insights your group might add.

    peace, steve

    Comment by steve — May 25, 2006 @ 3:01 pm

  8. Also Methodist and will be teaching a class of older women this Sunday – probably from the same lesson plan as Helen
    I am the youngest member of my class at age 53 – the oldest just turned 89. They are such a spiritually inspiring group and continue to give so much to their families, church and community.
    Your message was beautiful and I also want to use some of it in my lesson.
    Thank you for your insight!

    Comment by Nellie Owen — May 27, 2006 @ 2:59 am

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