My Review of True Woman 101

From youth, I have had a pet peeve around the particular issue of groups saying that they are “biblical” when their teaching doesn’t stand up against a study of the Word. That started in high school when I read Scripture in my own daily Bible reading that contradicted my fundamentalist pastor’s biases he presented as biblical truth. I was deeply disturbed with his misuse of Scripture, all while loudly claiming to be biblical, for a very long time. But I must also admit that I have at times not met my own standard. When I first started teaching material for The Gospel-Centered Woman, a friend at church came up to me and gently questioned me, pointing out Scripture I wasn’t considering. That gentle rebuke was good and right (and has happened to me many times before and after). I am hopeful that in this review I can similarly offer correction that will bless, not harm, as we seek to understand gender from Scripture.

The particular teaching I would like to draw attention to and correct from Scripture involves the Week Two and Week Three chapter descriptions from the 8 week study on Biblical Womanhood from True Woman 101.  The study is subtitled Divine Design: an 8-week study on biblical womanhood.

Week Two: God created men to image the relationship of Christ to the church and this has significant implications for male-female relationships. 

Week Three: God created woman to image the relationship of the church to Christ, and this has significant implications for male-female relationships.

If you study Scripture carefully, I believe you will see that this is not how God speaks of what He created men and women to image.

The study’s emphasis on Ephesians 5 as the standard on gender, as the starting point for the image we were created to present, is one with which I am well familiar. It certainly dominated my understanding of gender while under the teaching of leaders at Mars Hill. But how does Ephesians 5 mesh with God’s words in Genesis 1 and 2 creating man and woman in the image of God? Which is it? At least the man gets associated with parts of the Trinity in both Genesis and Ephesians. But what about the woman? Is she more associated with God or with the Church? Those are two very different things!

Which came first? Which vision should dominate? It’s not a hard question to answer. Note that one of these visions is the essence of manhood and womanhood while the other is a metaphor. Man and woman ARE image bearers of God. And, interestingly, both woman AND MAN are also the Church. In the metaphor of husbands leading their homes as Jesus leads the Church, husbands aren’t actually Jesus. Furthermore, man, in essence, actually is part of the Church. We need to start with essence. Metaphor is then helpful to flesh out how that looks at times. But metaphor has to submit to essence.

I want to use caution in how I word this, for there is much of beauty (and truth) in Paul’s likening of husbands to Jesus and wives to the Church in Ephesians 5. I have been blessed by studying this passage. On the subject of submission in marriage, it’s helpful to note that while Paul in Ephesians 5 likens wives to the Church with respect to submission, Peter in I Peter 2-3 calls wives to reflect the example of Jesus when submitting to their husbands. It’s a longer passage, but if you follow the flow of thought, it’s clear that when Peter says “Likewise, wives be subject to your own husbands” in I Peter 3:1, he’s refering back to his description of Christ’s example in I Peter 2:21. It’s not that Scripture is schizophrenic on this subject but that different writers use different metaphors and examples to flesh out God’s instructions on this particular issue of submission.

The foundation of all other teaching in Scripture on gender is Genesis 1 and 2. Paul gets this in Ephesians. He didn’t write Ephesians 5 in a vacuum. He was writing in the context of a larger story. After fleshing out the creation/fall/redemption narrative and all Christ has accomplished for us on the cross in Ephesians 1-4, Paul opens Ephesians 5 with the incredible words, “Therefore, be imitators of God.” In Christ, we are equipped to once again image God as He created us to do in perfection. This is incredible and amazing for both man and woman.

Let’s go back now to the problem with the language True Woman 101 uses to discuss the essence of gender. My correction is that God didn’t create women to image the Church. He created women to image Himself. In the particular relationship of Christian marriage, the submission of the Church to Christ is a helpful metaphor for understanding submission between husbands and wives. It inspires us to live out our own metaphor in marriage, a noble testimony of the gospel.  But, and this is a very big but, women are also called to be like Christ in this very same issue of submission to their husbands (I Peter 2-3). And, furthermore, while man is to be like Jesus in his love and service to his Bride, man in essence actually is the Bride, the Church. The husband’s example for his love for his wife is Christ’s love for the husband.

The Ephesians 5 metaphor is helpful for understanding roles in Christian marriage, but True Woman 101 sets it up instead as the essence of gender, and that is not consistent with Scripture in my opinion. Our essence, male and female, is that we were both created in the image of God. Our essence, also, is that both male and female are in reality the Church. Neither of us are in essence Jesus; we are both in essence the Church. And both of us were created to image God.  We can not zoom in on Ephesians 5 and treat it as the whole on gender. We can not treat it as the context for all other discussion on gender. God sets the context in Genesis 1-2, a context in which Paul writes the whole of Ephesians.

I have other issues with the True Woman 101 study. It sets up good ideas as ultimate ideas, repeatedly using the phrase “… is at the core of what it means to be a man (or woman)” in ways that the Bible doesn’t. It applies Scripture on husbands and wives across the board to all men and all women regardless of marital status. And it presents the issues of Genesis 3:16 in ways I disagree, which any long term reader here is already familiar with.

But in this review, the main thing I want to call us to is precision in how we word what we teach women as the essence of their womanhood. Paul looked at our image bearing creation in Genesis as essence when he wrote Ephesians 5. Just look at verse 1, “Therefore, be imitators of God.” And we too should be careful to use language that does the same.

Rachel Held Evan’s A Year of Biblical Womanhood tore down a biblical womanhood I didn’t recognize. But it also raised my awareness that the adjective biblical, like the noun gospel, often gets used without precision. If we are going to use the word biblical in our titles and descriptions, we have set for ourselves a noble but high standard. It is the best of standards, but it is one we need to steward with extreme care and precision. With a love for the adjective biblical and a desire for its precise stewardship, I hope this discussion is helpful, not harmful, causing us to think about and steward truth, not question it.

29 Responses to My Review of True Woman 101

  1. Irene Sun March 15, 2015 at 3:51 am #

    Dear Wendy, I had a strange ache in my heart as I was reading your words. I grew up in Malaysia, and I grew up watching my parents serve together and pour their lives out together for the sake of the Gospel. They taught me everything I knew about “Biblical” manhood and womanhood. I was not exposed to the literature about “Biblical Manhood and Womanhood” until I was an adult here in the States. And I am often left confused and wanting whenever I hear conversations about how manhood and womanhood are to be lived out in this cultural context. I think you untangle one of the knots in my head in your article. I am very grateful to have you as a teacher. Thank you, Wendy. Praise be to God.

  2. Wendy March 15, 2015 at 5:53 am #

    Thank you, Irene, for that encouragement! That blesses me greatly.

  3. Wendy March 15, 2015 at 5:59 am #

    I didn't take time in the above article to discuss the problems with the way this wrong theological emphasis plays out practically. There are big issues practically around whether woman was created to image the Church or whether wives are to reflect the Church's submission to Christ in marriage. These are 2 very different things. Possible practical problems include a woman believing submission to men in general is her created purpose. Another that a man is the head over women in general by creation, not his wife in particular as an example of Christ and the Church. We set up women for failure when we de-emphasize the ways they were created to image God. That's their essence. That's their North Star. Everything gets out of order for a woman when we emphasize metaphor over essence.

  4. Jennifer at Purposeful Nutrition March 15, 2015 at 12:34 pm #

    Great article. I so appreciate your blog. I think you would find the book The Trinity and Subordinationism by Kevin Giles of great interest. He roots much of the suppression of women in the Arian hereasy.

  5. Lauren March 15, 2015 at 1:43 pm #

    We've been reviewing this study to offer in our church this summer. Thank you for this timely review.

  6. Anonymous March 15, 2015 at 2:56 pm #

    “men and women are both in essence the Church”

    we are members of the Church- Eph 5:30 members of His body

    and since the body is not one member, but many individual members one of another, and as all the members do not have the same function in one body in Christ, may the Lord bless us with the power of His Spirit, as individual image bearers, to yield to the proper functioning of the body prescribed by the Lord, even through marriages

  7. Sergius Martin-George March 15, 2015 at 5:00 pm #

    One of my MacArthurite friends was asked a question on Facebook about whether it's okay for a woman to pursue a man. I didn't mind the question so much, but one of the commenters wrote: “Christ pursued the Church, not the other way around.” Ugh.

  8. Michele Morin March 15, 2015 at 6:48 pm #

    Thanks for you review of a book that is on its way to me in the mail! Nice to get a heads up before I dive in! Always good to hear from you.

  9. Wenatchee the Hatchet March 15, 2015 at 7:20 pm #

    Out of curiosity, where does the study go with the Genesis 1 statement that male and female He created them and that both bear the divine image? Polemics and teaching about gender roles understandably have often pitched tent in Genesis 2 and this isn't too difficult to appreciate. One of the problems with egalitarian readings of Genesis 2 that I've seen so far is that they basically read an egalitarian prelapsarian ideal on to the text that isn't stated by the text and isn't even implied by it.

    When Paul Heger published his survey of rabbinic and Qumran discussions of gender status and role his conclusion was that one could not infer or assert an ontologically inferior role for women through the Gen 1 or Gen 2 narratives but that Gen 2 established via the rib narrative a subordinate role for wives as having legal rights based on being wives. The subordination was considered reflected within the creation order. Conversely, Heger pointed out that rabbis came to agree that any woman could reject any suitor or potential spouse categorically–historically the solution the parents came up with to work around this was to pledge/betroth daughters at such a young age they would never be allowed to dissent from the husbands chosen for them!

    Which pretty directly gets to one of the problems in how Americans, egalitarian or complementarian, can tend to read the ethical instructions in the NT–we're so tuned into contemporary mating customs that it doesn't cross our minds that many of the married people who received apostolic instruction may not have had much agency in whether they were married to begin with. Easy though it is to disdain ethical instructions that presupposed that slaves were slaves and masters were masters a lot of the ethical instructions in the NT can take on a different meaning if we keep in mind the recipients were frequently in hierarchies over which they were not necessarily in control. Americans seem to believe in a social mobility that always focuses on moving up rather than down and ignores that you may basically stay in the status or strata you were born into.

    Per the opening sentences, I think so much emphasis has been placed on the Gen 2 narrative (a far more anthropocentric narrative than Gen 1) that Gen 1's statement about humanity collectively bearing the image of God gets short-changed.

  10. Persis March 15, 2015 at 7:52 pm #

    Thanks for this very valid critique, Wendy.

    In Australia there is currently much discussion among evangelicals on how the misuse of headship and submission relates to domestic abuse. I wish this dialogue would occur in the States because this is another area directly impacted by our understanding of gender. IMO, over emphasis of metaphor apart from the whole of scripture has not helped the victims. Marriage isn't just an object lesson. Real lives are at stake.

  11. Anonymous March 15, 2015 at 7:57 pm #

    Thank you for this: “My correction is that God didn't create women to image the Church. He created women to image Himself.” I wonder how much of True Woman has absorbed the often repeated refrain, “Women/wives are to play the role of the Church; men/husbands play the role of Christ.”

    Wendy: “In the metaphor of husbands leading their homes as Jesus leads the Church…”

    The metaphor is of head-body, e.g. husband-wife, and a husband loving his wife, no?

    Wendy: “The Ephesians 5 metaphor is helpful for understanding roles in Christian marriage,..”

    This may be true, but is the metaphor most helpful for understanding the mystery of Christ and the Church, the oneness of Christ and his Body, of which Paul seems to say in the end is his point?

    Thank you for hosting such a gracious conversation.


  12. Wendy March 15, 2015 at 8:46 pm #

    Right, WtH. Genesis 2 zooms in on the woman's creation as image bearer in particular, and I believe it's important there to emphasize how ezer is much more an OT description of God than woman, which plays perfectly into woman created in the image of God.

    Downton Abbey has a similar non-American context. You are the state in which you were born, and few expected to transition between stratas. It's interesting to approach it from that perspective.

  13. Wendy March 15, 2015 at 8:47 pm #

    I should note that True Woman 101 does spend a few paragraphs talking about the woman as ezer. It's interesting that they note it, but don't emphasize it as foundational to women.

  14. Wendy March 15, 2015 at 8:50 pm #

    You're right, Angie. The metaphor is head/body, husband/wife, with the specific emphasis on sacrificial love. I think because the words head and submit are used as well, you can infer the concept of leading. But I know others disagree.

  15. Anonymous March 15, 2015 at 9:31 pm #

    Thank you, Wendy. I read True Woman 101 recently and was surprised by much of what it contains. You've hit on many of the concerns I had. So many people seem to have no problem at all with the book or what it teaches.

    One of my big concerns with the book (and elsewhere in their website articles) is their view of how men and women reflect the image of God. They lay out a parallel between men/women and God the Father/God the Son and say that just as there is a authority/submission structure in the Godhead so also there is an essential authority/submission structure in the creation of man/woman. I don't deny that husbands are to be spiritual leaders and that wives are to submit to their husbands. But it's something different to say being made in the image of God means that we reflect the authority/submission of the Godhead.

    I was also concerned about their teaching that men were created to glorify God, and women were created to help men do that. Isn't all humanity meant to glorify God?

  16. Alistair Robertson March 16, 2015 at 9:47 am #

    Wendy, I think this sort of push back you give is essential to coming to a healthy understanding of the “Biblical” teaching on gender. Just to add my own little observation… Nowhere in your post did you discuss the comments Paul makes about gender in 1 Cor 11. Was this intentional?

  17. Wendy March 16, 2015 at 2:28 pm #

    I don't see I Cor 11 as something that contributes an understanding of the particular issue of essence of creation and image bearing intent. It seems more focused on the idea of headship when it comes to gender, which wasn't the focus here.

  18. Alistair Robertson March 16, 2015 at 8:26 pm #

    Can you unpack that a little? As far as I can see, even if you take a cultural view of headcoverings, Paul is drawing on those two very things. He roots his teaching in the created purpose of each gender, illustrated through the order of creation (head/helper), and highlights a differentiation between the way man is the image of God and implicitly the way the woman is the image of God. Don't these truths contribute to the issue of essence of ceation and image bearing intent?

  19. Alistair Robertson March 16, 2015 at 9:51 pm #

    Having said that, I recognise that 1 Cor 11 isn't necessary to make your point that women are made in the image of God, not just as a reflection of the church end of the relationship between Christ and the church.

  20. Wendy March 16, 2015 at 10:19 pm #

    That's my feeling. And there is a limit to how much information or how many vpassages to explore in a single blog post.

  21. Alistair Robertson March 16, 2015 at 10:47 pm #

    Fair enough.

  22. Anonymous March 16, 2015 at 11:12 pm #

    I'm somewhat skeptical about people who add the word “biblical” to whatever it is they're doing, as if that made it somewhat more “kosher”. I can think of one fire and brimstone preacher who opposed “sensuality” to “biblical beauty”, whatever that is. As if you can't just follow the lead of the biblical authors and use the word “beauty” on its own, without a qualifier to sanctify it.
    It's not always the case, but it often contains a slight dig at other Christian groups, who are assumed to not be so concerned/ adept at handling the Bible. I feel that's a fairly arrogant and therefore ignorant position: how can they possibly know how well all other Christian groups are at handling the Bible? I'm slightly scared of “Grace” Baptist churches in the UK. It feels like the label's been slapped on to render any further work on their own graciousness unnecessary.
    having said that, your general point about needing to go back to the creatiion accounts for the foundational revelation on men and women's identity/ roles, is something I've also felt, and am glad to see articulated convicingly here! Thanks, and do keep up this work of testing popular teaching against Scripture!!!

  23. Amber Rynerson March 19, 2015 at 3:08 pm #

    This is where learning the WS Catechism with my kids has helped me recover from what I believed “Biblical” womanhood was. Q: Why did God make you? A: I was made to glorify God and enjoy Him forever.

    Had I known and understood this, I never would have bought or read Created to Be His Help Meet (because I wasn't) and I would have been able to spot the heresy in teachings like what DeMoss and Kassian are presenting. This is just one more reason women need good theology.

  24. Dianne Plourde March 23, 2015 at 12:57 pm #

    Thank you for this discussion, Wendy. I am fairly new to your blog and find it not only interesting, but very helpful. At a later stage in life I am newly dealing with the idea of male and female roles, in and out of the Church – and submission. I haven't much to say, as I am still thinking about all of this. I appreciate your thoroughness & gentle approach to all subjects. Thank you.

  25. mrs.lmnop March 24, 2015 at 10:16 pm #

    I am still aching and battered from having read Created to Be His Help Meet. Here's to glorifying God and enjoying Him forever!

  26. Barbara Roberts April 20, 2015 at 3:17 am #

    Lauren, I have never had time to publish a review of True Woman 101, but I watch the series and I believe it is unsound, and more significantly, it is dangerous and unhelpful to any woman who is being abused by her husband. ANY teaching on male and female issues which does not clearly address red flags for abuse, how to discerrn abuse, the godliness of refusing to comply with abuse ‚ and the dangers when one does not comply — is a teaching that falls short of duty of care for the congregation. In my opinion. If you want to learn more about domestic abuse, I encourage you to visit A Cry For Justice
    cryingoutforjustice dot com

    Wendy, it's up to you whether you wish to delete that link… 🙂 i'ts your blog 🙂

  27. Barbara Roberts April 20, 2015 at 3:20 am #

    Here is an Australian facebook page which is keeping this discussion alive

  28. Barbara Roberts April 20, 2015 at 3:29 am #

    Headcoverings: I believe it is pointless to address that issue unless one has read the book by Dr Bruce Winter “Roman Wives Roman Women”. Winter used to be a Tyndale Scholar for many years and is one of the world's experts on Corinthians.

    His book explains the complex cultural context that impinged on the church in Corinth and the Roman Empire of the day — and as part of that, he discusses what head coverings did and did not signify in that culture.

    In modern day Christendom, there is immense ignorance about this cultural background to 1&2 Conrinthians. In my view this ignorance leads to most discussions about headcovering being virtually useless.

  29. Anita October 31, 2016 at 8:19 am #

    Just happened upon this via quite a round-about way (looking at emails that I’ve needed to delete for eight years (no, that’s not a typo), clicking on an “unschooling” link and then a FB link and then your link when I saw “True Woman” and remembered my own experience with a True Woman conference where I spoke personally with Nancy Leigh DeMoss… etc., etc.)

    I’ve merely skimmed your post, but I appreciate you pointing out the fallacy, not only in True Woman 101 but also admitting (“owning up to”) your own “mistakes.”

    May we be as shrewd as serpents, as Jesus said in Matthew 10:16.