The Problem with Reformed Women’s Ministries and Resources

I know that calling this post “Problems with Reformed Women’s Ministries and Resources” is not completely fair. I have only been a part personally of a handful of reformed women’s ministries. And I certainly haven’t had a chance to explore all reformed women’s resources. I have read through some of the women’s books traditionally recommended in reformed circles. There are many other great ones that I have heard much about but not yet read. In this post, I am going to speak in very broad and not always specifically accurate generalities. I am burdened for a general idea to take hold in women’s ministries and not lobbying against any particular group, author, or book.

I have really appreciated Tim Keller’s focus on genuine gospel-centered preaching at the core of teaching on all topics. If you are going to teach on God’s view of sex, you found it on the gospel. If you are going to teach on God’s view of money, you found it on the gospel. If you are going to teach on God’s view of social justice, you found it on the gospel. My pastor interned under Tim Keller, and I don’t know if that affected anything about his preaching. But week in and week out, I too get to hear preaching through Scripture on a variety of Christian disciplines that are always founded upon our understanding of the gospel to ourselves and how that informs our relationships with others.

But I have NEVER heard teaching to women on women’s roles founded and empowered by the gospel (except in a small group class on Ephesians 5 given by my pastor and his wife). I have never READ gospel centered teaching on women’s roles. I have never LISTENED to gospel centered teaching on women’s roles in a downloaded sermon.

I just finished writing a manuscript on Ephesians geared toward women. It may or may not ever get published, but it transformed me, particularly on how I think about women’s issues in Christianity. Ephesians holds the most controversial words to women in all of Christianity. Submit. Respect. Painful, chafing words–at least when taken out of context of the GOSPEL that Paul spends chapter after chapter setting up for us in Ephesians before he ever utters those specific words to women. Paul is really clear in Ephesians (at least when you read it in context), that it is our adoption into God’s family and all the spiritual blessings on us in Christ that call all of us, both men and women, to mutual submission in the Body of Christ. He spends chapters 1-3 on our spiritual blessings in Christ, exploring the gospel in great detail. In chapter 4 he teaches that the way we walk worthy of the beauty of this gospel he has presented is in humble, forbearing love with one another. He opens Ephesians 5 reminding us that the point of what God is doing in us is rooting out our old selves and conforming ALL of us to the image of Christ. Christ IS our catechism. His life is the exact representation of all God is calling us to. Humble, sacrificial service. Loving forbearance. Grace. Philippians 2 is a good commentary on what it means when Paul calls us to be imitators of God in Ephesians 5:1.

Then in Ephesians 5:21, Paul summarizes what it looks like for all those living in light of the gospel to be imitators of God. We all submit one to another in reverence for Christ. That is the context for the next instructions to husbands, wives, children, parents, slaves, and masters. When Paul next tells wives to submit to and respect their husbands in the Lord, it is in the context of the spiritual inheritance we all have in Christ and what it looks like to be conformed to the image of the humble Christ specifically in the life of a wife. To be honest, teaching Ephesians 5:22 to the end of the chapter just sets women up for failure if it is taken out of context of the whole of Paul’s teaching in the book.

Do you know of good women’s resources that teach such things in context of the gospel–not just saying the word “gospel” periodically but really fleshing out what God has done for us in and through Christ as the empowerment and example for what He has called us to? If so, please tell me about it in the comment section. I would like to call on all of us to accept nothing less than gospel-centered teaching to women even on women’s issues. I am firmly convicted that teaching anything specifically to women (or children or husbands or whomever) without founding it concretely on all Christ has purchased for us on the cross sets us all up for failure.

35 Responses to The Problem with Reformed Women’s Ministries and Resources

  1. Nancy Guthrie July 22, 2009 at 5:45 pm #

    I look forward to reading what you're working on in terms of putting Paul's teaching on submission in context of all of Ephesians. I'm not sure I've ever heard it that way.

    In terms of gospel-centered teaching on this topic, I just haven't read much of what's out there, not because I don't care about this issue, but because I tire of this being the ONLY issue in some camps.

    I want to learn what it means, and more importantly I want to LIVE what it means to be a woman who gladly submits to my husband. But I am mystified that it sometimes seems that godly womanhood and submission is not just one of many topics focused on in many reformed women's ministries, but pretty much the only topic. It sometimes causes me to wonder if it has become an idol or another way we can try to work our way to God rather than trust in his adequate goodness to save us.

    I would also add that I love John Piper's little book, “What's the Difference?” in which he chooses his words so carefully. He writes: “Freedom does include doing what we want to do, But the mature and wise woman does not seek this freedom by bending reality to fit her desires. She seeks it by being transformed in the renewal of her desires to fit in with God's perfect will. The greatest freedom is found in being so changed by God's Spirit that you can do what you love to do and know that it conforms to the design of God and leads to life and glory.”

  2. Wendy July 22, 2009 at 7:42 pm #

    That's a good point. Thanks, Nancy. That's what I loved about studying ALL of Ephesians in light of what it taught me as a woman. The end of Ephesians 5 isn't the only part specifically for me. It ALL, from 1:1 to the end of chapter 6, teaches me what it means to be a godly woman conformed to the image of Christ.

    I'll add Piper's book to my list.

  3. kellycowan July 22, 2009 at 8:44 pm #

    you must have started your study of this when you helped lead the MH women's retreat a couple years ago. i remember us going through chapter by chapter in order and i remember that your emphasis was that each chapter added to the gospel and the blessings we have in christ and then culminated with our response to the gospel in the roles for each gender and age group. i don't have a great memory but i do remember that and i know it is a powerful way to read eph 5. thanks for your thoughts.

  4. arthurandtamie July 23, 2009 at 12:59 am #

    Hi Wendy

    This is Tamie – writing from Melbourne, Australia. I've been loving reading your blog!

    I share the frustration about a lack of women's teaching in the context of the gospel – I've found that women's ministries tend to tell women the gospel OR tell them how to live but often fail to put the two together. Actually, it was in my search to find someone doing both well that I found your blog and book!

    When I read your book, I was encouraged to see the gospel taught specifically for women. (I reviewed it here in case you're interested http://arthurandtamie.wordpress.com/2009/06/27/review-practical-theology-for-women/) As you say, the next step is to teach women's issues out of the gospel.

    Will your Ephesians manuscript be published? Perhaps there's another book on the way? I would love to see what you come up with!

  5. Anonymous July 23, 2009 at 4:37 pm #

    I feel like much of the resources that Susan Hunt have put out on biblical womanhood are Gospel centered.

    Also, Nancy Leigh Demoss has put out many things that are gospel centered for women.

    Amanda

  6. Jennifer July 23, 2009 at 4:38 pm #

    This is insightful. What would you say is the hallmark of non-reformed women's resources?

    For so long I couldn't tolerate anything that had the label of “Women's Ministry” because to me, that was synonomous with shallow theology – women's resources that embrace the practical teachings of Titus 2 and other “women's issues” have been refreshing to me personally – as a newly “reformed” individual.

    But that doesn't mean that women who aren't afraid to deal with the deep and difficult doctrines of submission and headship are also well versed in the gospel. . . interesting.

    Are Reformed Women's Ministries just getting stuck in the backlash against the egalitarian attitudes of the evangelical church as a whole? If that's the case, what will it take to push us on to something else? And how long will it take before we need to refocus again because we've “forgotten” the important truths that we've turned into a hobby horse?

    I have been reading Ephesians for a few weeks and I just reread the whole thing after reading your post – it was really a sweet thing. Your thoughts helped me break through a few barriers.

  7. Anonymous July 23, 2009 at 5:56 pm #

    I would recommend the book God's design for women by Sharon James. It is the best resource I know on this topic. Three years ago Sharon was the speaker at a one day conference for women organised by the evangelical church I go to, and I was very impressed that all she said was based solidly on the Bible. It also has an excellent recommended reading list.

    I look forward to reading the posts you write in the future as you explore this topic further.

  8. Cathy McKay July 23, 2009 at 7:21 pm #

    Hi Wendy,

    I am refreshed by your concern.

    I have been blessed by the gospel centred and expository teaching of Sydney conservative evangelicals. I am extremely grateful for it.

    Our problem is, the gospel planted exegesis often stops short of real application – especially in the political territory of men and women!

    A couple of women who are working hard to think about (and do) “Biblical womanhood” in a gospel centred, gospel planted and gospel saturated way can be found at…

    http://168hrs.blogspot.com/

    http://jeaninallhonesty.blogspot.com/

    Thanks for raising the question!

  9. Wendy July 23, 2009 at 7:25 pm #

    Thanks for the many good comments. I was hopeful this would strike a nerve and start a conversation, and it looks like it has.

    Amanda, I had forgotten about Susan Hunt. I remember enjoying her book on Spiritual Mothering.

    Also, I should point to Elisabeth Elliott. She rarely writes on traditional “women's issues”, and yet everything she writes seems to hit me right at the places I struggle particularly as a woman, and she always does it in light of all we have in Christ.

  10. Wendy July 23, 2009 at 7:26 pm #

    Cathy,

    I get a lot of hits from both of those blogs but I haven't yet taken the time to read them thoroughly. I hope ladies will check them out.

    Wendy

  11. Wendy July 23, 2009 at 7:43 pm #

    Jennifer, I think your analysis is likely correct–especially when it comes to a backlash that must protect itself from becoming just a different kind of idolatry.

  12. Bina July 24, 2009 at 12:12 am #

    I love this blog post. Thanks, Wendy. I think John Piper's book, “This Momentary Marriage- A Parable of Permanence” is a tremendous gospel-centered resource on marriage. I have written a few blog posts about it here: http://abranchinthevine.blogspot.com/search/label/This%20Momentary%20Marriage%3A%20A%20Parable%20of%20Permanence

    I am currently reading “Love That Lasts: When Marriage Meets Grace” by Gary and Betsy Riccuci, and I am loving it as a gospel-centered book on marriage. It is more practical and anecdotal than Piper's book, which is more theological.

    I also found Bruce Ware's book, “Father, Son and Holy Spirit: Roles, Relationship, and Relevance” profoundly impactful in opening my eyes to the ways we image God in marriage.

    Man, I wish I had seen marriage like this in the beginning of my marriage–or actually before I got married. What a difference it would have made! God has been graciously patient with me (and so has my husband).

    I am SO looking forward to reading more from your Ephesians commentary!

  13. KARMINA July 24, 2009 at 12:55 pm #

    I recently came accross your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I dont know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.

    Susan

    http://ovarianpain.net

  14. Anonymous July 24, 2009 at 1:55 pm #

    I don't remember where I first encountered the idea, but I know it was from a study resource on Ephesians: The wife is a picture of Christ's life, the husband a picture of his death. The wife portrays Christ's total submission in selfless service, the husband His sacrificial love. Problem is, our “flesh” tends to want the opposite. As I wife, I'm quite pleased with myself to make the “big” sacrifices, but chafe under the day to day. My husband works faithfully day in, day out, but doesn't like having to sacrifice “his” time.
    My favorite book on women's roles is “Stepping Heavenward” It is the novel of one woman's journey toward godliness written just after the civil war. Don't hesistate because it's a novel…this is not the modern fluffy Harlequin re-writes. I believe Elisabeth Elliot highly recommends this work as well. It's available though CBD for about $5.00

  15. karin July 24, 2009 at 10:45 pm #

    hi wendy.
    a friend just sent the book “because he loves me” by elyse fitzpatrick. i've been completely amazed that the main premise of the book is essentially a continuation of our conversation on the gospel … that as christians the gospel must be in our everyday and not abandoned at our first introductions with Christ. here is a quote that i read today …
    “our problem is that if we don't continually remind ourselves of how he has chosen, renamed, and remade us, the struggle to grow in Christian character will become nothing more than another attempt at self-improvement, and self-improvement always results in self-loathing or pride. our savior has declared that we are completely dependent upon him and what he accomplished for us, but in overconfidence we hastily run past his accomplishments and seek rest in our own.”

  16. Wendy July 24, 2009 at 10:48 pm #

    Karin, can I borrow yours when you're done? That sounds GREAT!

  17. Marlo July 25, 2009 at 7:05 am #

    I just found your blog and wanted to second (third?) the suggestion of Susan Hunt for good doctrinal views on the complementarian theology. Her book “By Design” is an excellent resource. She and Ligon Duncan have a great book out on women's ministry in the church as well. I grew up hearing a much different theology on women's roles than the beautiful truths behind complementarianism. These truths have been life transforming for me. I'm bookmarking your blog to come back for more!

  18. limpdance July 27, 2009 at 10:15 am #

    Tim Keller and his wife Kathy have a sermon series on gender roles on the Redeemer website; And they have a paper, 'Women and ministry' available here: http://www.upc-orlando.com/resources/written/doctrines/doctrine06.html

  19. Wendy July 27, 2009 at 3:40 pm #

    I haven't heard their sermon series, but I did read and link to that paper on this blog. It was one of the best summaries straight from Scripture I'd ever read on the topic.

  20. Jean August 2, 2009 at 5:15 am #

    Great point, Wendy. Like others who've written comments, I'd say that anything by Piper on womanhood is thoroughly and wonderfully founded in the gospel.

  21. karim October 15, 2009 at 4:48 am #

    An insightfull post. Will definitely help.

    Thanks,
    Karim – Positive thinking

  22. Anonymous October 26, 2009 at 8:19 pm #

    I would like to mention Barbara and Bill Mouser's THE FIVE ASPECTS OF WOMAN studies. It's very gospel centered. (They're from Dallas Theological Seminary, however.) And I agree with the one who mentioned John Piper's MAN ,WOMAN. WHAT'S THE DIFFERENCE? I refer to that one a lot.

  23. Anonymous March 15, 2010 at 10:34 am #

    I just stumbled upon your blog and likes what I read. I response to your question, I was going to give the same answer as the last comment did. I highly recommend the “Five aspects of woman” course” (http://www.fiveaspects.org/) It is SO Gopel-centered and deeply biblical. Each of the aspects is developed in three chapters -how woman was created in her the sinless state, how sin affected her aspect, and how Christ redeems her in that aspect. I would be interested in knowing what you think of it. It is honestly the most indeapth, complete and biblical study I have ever seen on womanhood (there are many other wonderful books on the subject, but I haven't seen any that covers it in such a complete way).

  24. Kristin March 30, 2010 at 5:50 pm #

    I just came across your blog today and have enjoyed reading through a few of your posts. When I came across this particular one, I realized that I am very fortunate to have gospel-centered teaching at my church, especially in our women's ministry. Thank you for helping me realize what a blessing this is!

    I don't know if you are familiar with the Girltalk blog written by Carolyn Mahaney and her daughters, but they address all kinds of women's issues in a gospel-centered manner. It can be found at http://www.girltalkhome.com/. The posts are short and vary in topic, but many are great food for thought. Also, they have a resource page on their blog with book recommendations and sermon downloads you may find encouraging.

    Thank you for your desire to glorify Christ in all of your life, especially in your relation to women.

  25. Anonymous May 9, 2010 at 8:24 am #

    I recently came across a review in the complegalitarian blog that is critical of Reformed ministries for women as well. It's written by Susan Hunt.

    http://complegalitarian.blogspot.com/2008/11/book-review-womens-ministry-in-local.html

    Here are some of my favorite quotes:

    “The church needs to be careful that it does not respond to extreme feminism with equally extreme male chauvinism.”

    “What is repugnant to every human being is to be reckoned always as a member of a class and not as an individual person.”

    “…the word “feminine” carries many connotations and whose ideas of “feminine” are promoted can mean the difference between biblical women's ministry and a ministry that is legalistic and judgmental of women who don't fit the accepted mold.”

    “Let us rather cultivate godly women who are passionate about living for the glory of God – who behold the Savior in every line of Scripture, who seek to mortify their own sin, who encourage others in godliness, who evangelize the lost and who clothe their defense of the truth with humility. “

  26. Anonymous July 12, 2010 at 3:39 pm #

    I realise I'm coming to the table a little late – I just found your blog and was poking around and found this article – which intrigued me simply because it is also a pet peeve of mine (we're always looking for others to echo our own thoughts-aren't we?:)

    My husband and I have talked about this issue a lot and I think a lot of the problem is that we are looking WAY to narrowly at theological study. Our obedience as wives, mothers, daughters, sisters, looks very different from life to life, but principally is identical to my fellow sisters in Christ AND to my brothers in Christ. This is why most of the Bible is not specifically focused on one particular group – but to all Christians of all time. While there is a place for specific teaching, we learn the most and are stretched the most when dealing with universal principals carefully and accurately taught, then honestly assessing our own situation and specific needs and applying those truths. Walter Chantry's “In the Shadow of the Cross” then becomes an amazing marriage manual, “The Godly Man's Picture” becomes a remarkably insightful book on parenting, though written by Thomas Watson two hundred years ago. The Westminster Confession of faith is a life-manual addresing all areas of our world and experience. This is simply because they are expounding truths about God and man which can be universally applied. When a woman's group studies these books together we obviously will and must apply them specifically to our own lives, but we are, by necessity, going to grow more – mentally and spiritually than if we chose a book dealing narrowly with “Titus Two and your Supper Table” (or something).

    Essentially, I would argue that we need to stop thinking that a woman's study must be on a book written by a woman, with “women's issues” in the title and specifically addressing menopause, homemaking and mothering. As an amazing by product, those women who don't fit into the traditional boxes of women's experience will not feel as alienated and will be able to contribute and profit from all studies we do as a church family – just as God has intended.

  27. Cathy July 12, 2010 at 10:57 pm #

    Hi Anonymous,
    I wonder if this problem (of women feeling they need resources written by women, for women) is a contextual one.

    In Reformed/conservative evangelical circles in Australia, there norm is to use things NOT specific to women. Which is what you are suggesting, and it is great. (I'm currently studying Calvin's Institutes with a group of women).

    The great things about the Puritans (And other old folk) was the way they applied to multiple types of people simultaneously – on the level of spiritual conditions (regenerate, unregenerate, the drifting etc) – rather than life stages. So everyone was covered.

    The problem I find in the Aus context is that people are addressed as neutered Christians.

    This means the concrete detail of following Jesus as a Christian woman (because I don't get to stop being a woman!) is not talked about very well…

    which means a culture of theologically savvy women whose womanhood is shaped more by secularist Sydney that Jesus…

    which impacts everyone in churches and our witness for Jesus.

    So, I agree with you about using all sorts of resources. But in some places, the woman stuff still needs addressing at some point – in light of what the whole Bible has to say to our whole selves.

    I'm glad you made the point!

  28. Anonymous October 26, 2010 at 2:21 am #

    This is/was a great discussion. One thing I noticed though is the passage never says Eve or Adam are cursed only the serpent and the ground are actually cursed. It stands to reason, that our Loving Creator would not curse what He considers worthy enough to sacrifice His Son for. There are consequences/results but they are loving discipline NOT curses. I don't know if this is still an active conversation but I would love to “hear” any comments.

  29. Anonymous October 26, 2010 at 2:25 am #

    Oops I meant to comment on the Genesis passage conversation titled “Her Desire Shall be for Her Husband”.

  30. Cathy October 26, 2010 at 3:50 am #

    Gal 3:10 ff? Christs redeemed us from the curse of the law, by becoming a curse for us…

    Even back in Genesis 3, apart from using (or not using) the word “curse”, the entire created order, men and women included, is brought into death, decay and hostility. There is enmity between man and woman, creature and mankind, mankind and God. This is not only discilpline at this stage in the Bible's story, it is judgement.

    The discilpine rather than judgement position is true for people who are IN Christ, on the other side of the cross. But until we are in Christs, we are dead in our sins and objects of God's wrath.

    God didn't send his Son to die for us because we were worth it. He sent Jesus to die for us while we were still his enemies (Romans 5). God justifies the wicked who he brings to have faith in Jesus (Romans 4), to show his extraordinary kindness, mercy and grace. god shows his own worth, not ours, in Jesus' death.

    God

  31. Cathy October 26, 2010 at 3:57 am #

    I would also add that, Jesus' death doesn't just save sinners. He reconciled all things to himself in the cross. Jesus is bringing a whole new creation. Every effect of the Fall will be reversed and restored, not just people. Colossians 1

    Can't remember how this fits into the original post though! I'll have to go back and look 😉

  32. Anonymous December 13, 2010 at 12:29 am #

    1. what is “reconcilitaion”?
    2. how does “reconciliation”, beyond salvation, reorder our thinking and our lives as females?
    3. how does “reconciliation” reorder our behavioral package with men?
    4. does “reconciliation” change our commissioned roles while we are living in the world's culture and in the church's culture?
    5. Who are we, if we are reformed and conformed to a new way of thinking?
    6. Why are women confused about roles? Status? Position? Apppearance? etc.?
    7. How did the confusion begin, and who controlled the strings?

  33. Dolores Kimball August 5, 2012 at 12:00 am #

    Amen, Sister. My own book, 'Freeing Tangled Hearts' now in the publishing process with Evangelical Press (EP Books), addresses the things that Christian women struggle with – fears, doubts, guilt – and points them to the only answer: the finished work of Christ on the cross and its impact in our lives. My publisher's review says, in part, ‘Sane, strong biblical advice, with a good emphasis on the sovereignty of God. A sympathetic manuscript, with helpful anecdotes and applications. There is also a gospel emphasis for non-Christian readers’. I pray that will be the case.
    As for Ephesians 5, see my article on the brilliance of the plan of submission at http://www.blogos.org/churchandministry/bible-verses-women.html.

    Also, if you are looking for an editor for your mss, I do freelance book editing. Feel free to contact me at kimballs2@comcast.net. Blessings to you!

  34. Katherine December 6, 2012 at 9:33 pm #

    Someone please reply, my husband is abusive and uses Ephesians verse on wives submission to control me according to his own will, not God's. He is self-centered and quotes scripture never truly submitting to Christ. Why do some people skip the verse that proceeds, saying to submit all one to another. Also in Phil. 2, let each esteem the other better than himself. We have a counselor from a reformed theological seminary. I'm afraid he will side with my husband. Can someone tell me what influence a “reformed counselor” might have.

  35. Patricia Hickman January 15, 2013 at 8:44 pm #

    Since I did not grow up in the Reformed faith, but was drawn to it, I quite naturally was drawn to the books that helped me, yes, but truly convicted me rather than condemned. I didn't often find a connection with certain evangelical Christian living books aimed at women. Perhaps, as a writer, I thought that if I had to write that kind of book to find publication, I chose to write fiction. But the fact that I was drawn to John Piper, D.A. Carson, David Wells, and Spurgeon's sermons/writings are what drew me to the Reformed faith. I was not drawn through a figure in the pulpit, but through books. I noticed the difference, not only in specific language, but the writing itself was concise and irrefutable. Who are these people and where might I go and grow with people of their ilk? I asked myself. I read each book within the context, not of being a woman, but of that of a believer desperate for grace and truth. Do I see the need for more women writers who write with both efficiency, clarity, and zeal, yes. I think that the fact that these discussions are underway could be indicative of the Spirit's guidance for those of us who both write and communicate biblical truth. And thanks for the recommend about the novel. You don't have to apologize for reading fiction, at least with me. I just recommended a Nancy Guthrie book, BTW, and was surprised to see her her present in this discussion. Interesting the way God's Spirit intersects our lives.