I should have seen it coming.
A new friend asked me if I would be willing to help a woman at one of the churches we have been visiting to start up a new “Mothers” Bible study. They will be meeting in my neighborhood, so how could I say no?
“You don’t need to lead it, just support and encourage her as she leads it for this group of young mothers in the church and neighborhood.”
On one level that sounded great: no responsibility, no preparation, just encouragement.
And then she gave me the book that she wants to use with these new mothers. More on that in a moment.
I should pause and say that one of my favorite parts of my job as a pastor was leading and participating in Bible study with other women. Single generation, intergenerational, mothers, widows, wives, stay at home moms, retired saints of the congregation - these all describe the different women and groups with which I was privileged to study scripture at one time or another during ten years of pastoral ministry.
Over the course of so many years, it was inevitable that we used some books and curriculum that I was less than excited about, and even some that I regret using. But we all tried to keep the long view of study, remembering that this is a lifelong endeavor. We also tried to become more comfortable disagreeing in love with any given author/scholar, and with each other.
But the curriculum (written to be used by groups of women) that I had just agreed to be encouraging of is a few ticks past where I would typically draw the line. Admittedly I have not read it cover to cover, but I did spend one evening reading the notes of inspiration that the author had placed in the margins. They included advice about reclaiming one’s virginal purity, making sure to let the guy make the first move in a relationship, and tackling the important work of submitting to my husband’s authority.
It was this one, though, that made me question the whole concept of gender oriented/segregated study of scripture:
“You are accepted as the beautiful, attractive love of Jesus’ life! Nothing can separate you from that love!”
What? I had never considered being frumpy as something that might jeopardize my relationship with Jesus.
I am not sure this is what Paul had in mind when he wrote the passage that the author is alluding to:
Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.’
No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:35-39)
Paul was writing to a Christian community who were literally being killed and persecuted for their declaration of faith. Paul seeks to assure them that even in death God’s love for them in Christ remains complete and unending.
I am assuming that the author of this Bible study is writing to women who are being told by the culture around them that they are not attractive and desirable enough. She seeks to assure them that Jesus finds even unattractive women desirable. Don’t worry if your husband or boyfriend doesn’t find you appealing - Jesus will always be attracted to you!
I am willing to concede that Jesus loves me, that Jesus’ desire is to love me, and that Jesus wants me to feel comforted and good about that. I am not sure how I feel about using the words “attractive” and “desirable” when I talk about my relationship with Jesus, given what they imply in my culture about the worth of women. I am absolutely not comfortable taking a passage that is in no way related to gender issues and using it to teach women a “truth” about their gender.
In the face of this and other similarly problematic studies, books and resources that are marketed towards women who want to study the Bible, I am left asking what is the intrinsic value in this kind of gender-segregated way of studying the Bible in groups.
Why do we study the Bible as women together?
There are a lot of very good reasons for women to study the Bible together, or for women to include, in their times of fellowship and service in the Christian community, time to study scripture together. Women’s Bible study allows women to share personally with each other on how and why the Bible speaks to them as women, as well as how the Bible challenges or conflicts them as women. Women’s Bible study gives women a chance to be introduced or reintroduced to the female characters of the Bible, some of whom are role models and some of whom provide cautionary tales.
Women’s Bible study provides a space to grieve the stories of violence against women in the Bible and to reflect on how scripture guides our lives as women today.
Unfortunately, in some instances women’s Bible study can also be a tool to reinforce cultural stereotypes of women, to tell women that they are not made in the image of God, that they cannot provide spiritual leadership in their homes, and that they are only good enough if a man tells them that they are - even if that man turns out to be Jesus.
Fortunately for me, the women’s Bible studies that I have been part of were mostly about laughter and companionship on the journey of faith and about acknowledging that we are all struggling to do better and to be better, not really as women but as humans. In these study groups, while we spent our fair share of time walking with the women of scripture, we also studied many different biblical books that never led us to conversations about how they inform our identity as women.
What happens in Men’s Bible Study?
I asked my husband (a former pastor and now New Testament professor) how much of a gender focus there has been in the men’s Bible studies he has been a part of. Do they spend a lot of time talking about their roles as men, their connection to men in scripture, and in personal reflection about how they as men see themselves reflected in the Bible?
I assume that in men’s Bible studies too there are many moments of fellowship and a sense of companionship on the journey of faith. I am confident that in these groups men struggle with the meaning and purpose of scripture and the ways that the Bible shapes how we live as Christians in the world. I know that there is a sense of commitment to the lifelong study of scripture that brings men back again and again to reading the Bible together.
What I don’t know is what happens in a men’s Bible study when they come upon the pieces of scripture that are so ubiquitous in your average women’s Bible study. What do they think of the complicated relationships between women in scripture - between Sarah and Hagar, Rachel and Leah, Ruth and Naomi? How do they experience the stories of infertility, and of rape? I assume that they talk about them in their studies. Do they ever wonder what we are experiencing as well?
What happens when men and women study the Bible together?
I have also had the privilege of studying scripture, and specifically these gender-related portions, with teenagers. In each instance we studied them together as young men and women. (We also, incidentally, provided sex education opportunities for our youth, all of which were also done in “mixed company.”) The reason behind not separating the boys from the girls in these instances was the value that we placed on teaching them to talk to each other about these issues and about these parts of scripture.
While there are plenty of opportunities for men and women to study the Bible together in congregational settings, I am pretty sure that in my congregation it would have been like pulling teeth to get adult women and men to sit in a room together and study the story of the Rape of Tamar (2 Samuel 13). But for these teenagers the story resonated with their experiences, and it was important that they hear from each other about their views on sexual violence. It was helpful for the boys to hear the girls’ reaction to the ways that Tamar is put off in her grief by the very people who should have protected her. It is helpful for the girls to hear from the boys, and to hear the message we conveyed to the boys about their role in helping to prevent violence against women.
I am in no way arguing that we should not continue the long tradition of men’s and women’s Bible studies in our congregations. But what if every so often there were some more intentional moments when men and women could experience and study scripture together, focusing more deliberately on sharing with each other the things that we in the past have reserved for our separate groups?
Just as I attend a women’s Bible study so I can hear from women whose experiences are not my own - experiences with infertility or widowhood, the loss of a child, or even a relationship with a biological sister - I also want to hear from men who feel deeply the story of Abraham and Isaac walking up that mountain together. I want to hear not just how people relate to the relationship between Ruth and Naomi, but what it would mean for Boaz to risk his stability in the community to help these women in need. I want to hear not just from women about what a dog that King David was, but from men as well.
I think this is especially important when we consider the ubiquitous Mothers' Bible Study. Yes, it absolutely serves a need to gather together with Christian mothers for fellowship, prayer and study. I believe, though, that there is a similar need to be together as parents - men and women, young and old - if only to practice having the conversations that we all will inevitably need to have with our own children at some point.
Obviously we live in a culture that paints a picture of what it means to be a boy or girl, man or woman, that doesn’t reflect our image of and our hopes for our children most of the time. If I had a daughter of my own I would want to make sure that she was not hearing the message that she is an attractive and desirable child of God, but rather a beloved child of God.
In one mothers’ Bible study that I grudgingly participated in a couple of years ago, the author told of a church that held a princess and knight themed event for children. All of them could come dressed in their most glittered ball gown or brandishing their very own broadsword. I believe the event was intended to convey to the children that they were special and strong, beautiful and valiant in God’s eyes.
It left an incredibly bad taste in my mouth - but also made me wish that we had not just been a group of mothers that morning, but men and women together. As my husband and I attempt to raise a boy in this world, I want to hear as many voices as possible from men and fathers who have struggled with their identity as a Christian themselves. I would have asked them right there if imagining themselves as a knight has any bearing on their identity as a child of God. I hope that it wouldn’t and knew that this was not what it means for me to teach my son that he is created in the image of God.
Nothing can separate us from the love of God - neither poorly conceived Bible study materials nor the mistakes that we make as parents. Why not find more opportunities as men and women together to remind each other of that biblical truth?