A Real Woman? Defining Biblical Femininity

by D’Ann Davis, Director of Women’s Ministry, Living Hope Ministries

 

Femininity is a word that has varying definitions in our culture today.  From television shows to music to denominational differences, we see innumerable views on what makes a woman a woman.  Why is it important to define femininity?  Primarily it is important so that we might understand what our aim is as God’s daughters and what His intent is for our gender within His design.  We must understand our essence and His plan for us to further our understanding of His love for us and the value He has given us as women.  Secondly, as it relates to the ministry of Living Hope, in our basic understanding of the root issues of Same Gender Attractions (SGA), we typically see that women who classically struggle with lesbianism, as opposed to experimenting later in life, suffer from a detachment from their own God-given femininity.  To understand how that detachment might affect a woman, we must first understand what biblical femininity looks like.  Many in today’s culture view femininity as being personality-driven, as though being a shopaholic, a flirt, disinterested in sports, preoccupied by high heels and makeup, or loving interior design and baking is what determines a woman’s femininity. However, we do not see in Scripture that a woman’s personality, interests, hobbies, or what colors she prefers are indicative of her femininity.  As believers, we need to look deeper than surface level.  Femininity at its core is not about a personality.  A woman can love sports, hunting, fishing, and cars, and be just as feminine as the woman who loves interior design, shopping, and shoes.  Both personalities can fall within the vast spectrum of femininity.  Femininity is rooted in who God has created a woman to be through biological composition and inward spirit.  It is not dependent on interests, hobbies, or personality.  At Living Hope we focus on five main elements of biblical femininity.  These are not exhaustive or exclusive, but they are the areas we focus on when helping our women grow up in their biblical call of femininity.  The elements of biblical femininity we see are a relational capacity, nurturing nature, vulnerability, beauty, and responsiveness.

 

First, our relational capacity as women means we thrive when we have multiple relationships that have many layers, and we are most fulfilled when we are deeply connected with lots of people.  We see in Genesis 2:18-25 that we were created with the express purpose of providing relationship for another.  It is in our nature to want to connect. That is why girls love to talk for hours and do not need an activity to keep them busy while doing it like men might. We love to sit and tell everything about every situation and every feeling associated with it, and we long to feel heard and understood. That is why when a man interrupts us and says, “Let me tell you what you need to do,” we get frustrated because we do not primarily use language as a means for solution-finding as much as we do for relational connecting. Women also typically have a much easier time (if we are healthy) displaying affection and intimately connecting than the average male does.  Even in our curse in Genesis 3:16, we see that all the woman’s curses are related to her relationships: her spouse and children.

 

As women we blossom in relationship and can provide a relational environment that nurtures others so they feel at home in our presence.  In our brokenness though, we can use that same relational influence to hurt those we love.  Proverbs 25:24, 14:1, 21:19, 19:13, 27:15-16, and chapter 7 are not written to mock women or put us down but instead reveal the relational power we possess and how destructive we can be when we abuse that power and wield it wrongly.  Proverbs 31, however, paints a different picture of a woman who brings honor to her household through her character.  It says that a woman with this type of character is hard to find, but her worth is far above jewels.  It says in verses 11-12, “The heart of her husband trusts in her, and he will have no lack of gain.  She does him good and not evil all the days of her life.”  In reference to this godly, relational woman, the chapter reads, “Her children rise up and bless her, her husband also, and he praises her, saying: ‘Many daughters have done nobly, but you excel them all’” (verse28-29).  This model of a godly woman is one who is deeply relational and blesses those in her life so much so that they rise up and bless her.

 

Another element of femininity on which I have briefly touched already is that we are nurturers by nature.  We see this even in our physical form as we have breasts to nurture a newborn.  We have a uterus to nurture a fetus.  Our very composition is that which breeds and nurtures life.  There are many women who sadly deal with infertility or are simply in a season of singleness.  These women still possess the nurturing elements of their body in their biological composition.  A woman is not less feminine if she is single or if she is married and unable to bear children.  She is just as womanly in form and spirit as the woman who has twenty children.  She still has the hard-wired design of a nurturing creature, whether or not God chooses to use those bodily tools to produce offspring.  She is a nurturer, and it serves her well to operate out of that role, whether or not that includes a husband or biological children.  We see in Isaiah the nurturing nature of God, and how we as women reflect that image.  In Isaiah 49:15-16 it states, “Can a woman forget her nursing child and have no compassion on the son of her womb?  Even these may forget, but I will not forget you.  Behold I have inscribed you on the palms of My hands; your walls are continually before Me.”  As women we reflect this heart of God in a way that men cannot necessarily do as well because they cannot be mothers.

 

A part of this nurturing is a sense of being.  As mentioned earlier, women have the ability to be a home for others where they can feel safe and at rest.  In the story of Mary and Martha, Jesus praised Mary for simply being with Him as opposed to doing something for Him. Mary was applauded for her ability to be, rest, and believe in the Lord, as opposed to being stressfully driven to perform for Jesus’ approval.  She thrived in their sense of being.

 

We see Psalm 131:2, Isaiah 66:13, and 1 Thessalonians 2:7, all paint pictures of the nurturing capacities of women and how these reflect the nurturing heart of the Lord.  As a single woman, I can nurture those in my life through love, affection, softness, and care in a way that a man might not be able to do.  As a woman I am no greater than men, I just fill a different role and can operate in that role in a way that both flourishes me in my own femininity and nourishes him in his masculinity.  I can also nurture women in a way that pushes them to Christ and helps them blossom in their femininity in a Titus 2:3-5 way.

 

A third element of femininity is vulnerability.  As women, we have an incredible ability to be soft, sensitive, and vulnerable, coupled with the emotional fortitude to overcome the assaults against that vulnerability that we will inevitably face.  First Peter 3:7 exhorts men to love their wives in “an understanding way, as with someone weaker, since she is a woman; and show her honor as a fellow heir of the grace of life, so that your prayers will not be hindered.”  This is not suggesting that women are pathetic or measly; it means that we are more delicate and should be treated as such.  In fact in 2 Corinthians 12 it speaks of how Christ’s power is perfected in our weakness and when we are weak, then we are strong.  While this particular passage is applicable to both men and women, it paints a picture of the beauty of being able to be soft and vulnerable.  Women are worthy of protection and those who can overcome trials and tribulation and still be soft, gentle creatures excel in this area of strength in weakness.

 

As women when we operate out of the curse and fill our lives with worry, anxiety, and walls we build around our hearts, we miss out on the blessing of being an oasis for others and being vulnerable in relationship.  We also live out the folly of Proverbs 14:1, “The wise woman builds her house, but the foolish tears it down with her own hands.”  When we wall up our hearts because our vulnerability has been used against us in some way (i.e. abuse, abandonment, insult, rejection), we are not free to live out the gospel in our lives to others.  Proverbs 18:19 reads, “A brother offended is harder to be won than a strong city, and contentions are like the bars of a citadel.”  When we women wall up our hearts to prevent any possibility of being hurt, victimized, or wounded, we unknowingly keep out the good things in our lives and lock the pain inside of our hearts.   We may choose to wall up through being defensive, being sexually promiscuous to control men, taking on a false masculine in dress or action, we may try to eliminate the need for men in our lives, operate out of our curse and rule over men, defensively detach from people so they can never get in to reject us, avoid relationship altogether, or simply operate in a manipulative way to try to control our relationships (i.e. nagging, putting down others, being passive aggressive, gossiping, slandering, busy-bodying, etc.).  Scripture does exhort us to guard our hearts, but that is different than making our hearts off-limits to others to prevent anyone from becoming intimate enough with us to be able to hurt us.  As women we must entrust our hearts to the Father and know that there is no hurt that cannot be overcome with Him.  Often we think that if we appear tough and strong and unable to be hurt that makes us strong. What that actually means is that we are weak — so weak that we have to mask all of our feelings and keep everyone out because we are so terrified of being hurt. The truly feminine woman can receive, feel, express feelings in healthy ways, and have strength in that weakness, as opposed to a façade of strength.

 

The next element of femininity is the desire to be beautiful.  This is not predicated on outward appearance but is not to the exclusion of it.  Being outwardly attractive is not nearly as important as being inwardly beautiful.  Even the most masculine lesbian woman who has shed all outward forms of femininity, in her heart of hearts, longs for another woman to see her and her heart and to think that is beautiful.  She might not want anyone else to see it and will often go to great lengths to prevent that from happening, but in the end, she really does long to be seen.   There is a weight in the word “beautiful” that speaks to an inward quality far beyond a woman’s physical appearance.  First Peter 3:3-5 reads, “Your adornment must not be merely external—braiding the hair, and wearing gold jewelry, or putting on dresses; but let it be the hidden person of the heart, with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God.  For in this way in former times the holy women also, who hoped in God, used to adorn themselves, being submissive to their own husbands; just as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord, and you have become her children if you do what is right without being frightened by any fear.”  Notably it does not suggest that a woman should not be outwardly beautiful, but that she should be concerned with a beauty that runs deeper than outward appearance.  Proverbs 31:30 tells us, “Charm is deceitful and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord, she shall be praised.”  This woman has the imperishable quality of beauty that does not fade because it is rooted in her gentle and quiet spirit.  It does not require of women a gentle and quiet personality, but a gentle and quiet spirit.  A woman does not have to be mousy, insecure and shy to possess this imperishable quality, and in that case she is arguably operating out of brokenness as opposed to embracing femininity.  A woman can be bold, strong-willed, and full of life and laughter, all the while having a gentle and quiet spirit that is submissive to the Lord and respectful of others in her life.

 

Women can fall off two sides of the horse with brokenness when it comes to beauty.  We can make beauty only about outward appearance, or we can dismiss the outward in an attempt to avoid vulnerability.  On the first hand, a woman can focus only on the outwardly fading qualities and not use her appearance in a God-honoring way.  We see 1 Timothy 2:9-10 instruct against this when it says, “Likewise, I want women to adorn themselves with proper clothing, modestly and discreetly, not with braided hair and gold or pearls or costly garments, but rather by means of good works, as is proper for women making a claim to godliness.”  In Scripture, we see beauty as a good thing, even physical beauty, but we also see that it is sinful for a woman to work on her outward qualities to the neglect of her inward qualities and to use her appearance as a means to cause men to stumble.  In a very materialistic city like Dallas, there are many women who focus solely on looking good and have little to no interest in godliness.  This issue extends beyond the lost world and into the church.  There are many of us who are more concerned with our pant size and our hair than we are with the heart of our Lord and where our hearts might be in relation to Him.  Many of us spend hours investing in our physical appearance to make sure that others are impressed, but we find it difficult to spend a few minutes in the word of God or in prayer for others.  We have no time to evangelize because we are lost in our mirrors gazing at our own “beauty.”  To the Lord, who looks at the heart even though man looks at the appearance, a heart primarily focused on this is not pleasing to Him.  He cares about our inward beauty far more than about how our makeup looks.  And if that is the Lord’s perspective on things, then we must adjust our lens to His.

 

The second broken way a woman can view beauty is to view outward beauty as disdainful or unholy in some way.  When Paul speaks of not adorning one’s self outwardly in the Timothy passage above, he is not saying that women should be unattractive.  We see the lover in Song of Solomon tell his bride repeatedly how beautiful she is.  We see women in Scripture like Sarah, Bathsheba, Rachel, Esther, and Rebekah described as beautiful women.  This is not mentioned as a mark against them, but as a kind description of them.  It is not wrong to be beautiful or to want to look attractive.  We see the Proverbs 31 woman as one who “girds herself with strength and makes her arms strong” (verse 17).  She dresses nicely.  Verse 22 explains, “She makes coverings for herself; her clothing is fine linen and purple.”  In Peter’s text mentioned earlier it does not say not to adorn one’s self outwardly, but to not merely do so.  God is frequently described as beautiful in the Bible, so to dismiss beauty as being ungodly is misguided.  Lots of women who have detached from their femininity will make the argument that it is not all about looks.  While that is true, if we do not take care of ourselves, are unhygienic, dress only in clothes that hide our feminine appearance, gain significant amounts of weight purposefully to hide our feminine form, detest makeup or shave our heads for fear of change or out of laziness, then we are really neglecting a part of our womanhood: our beauty.  Many detach from femininity as a means to embrace a false masculine.  In this case, doing so sinful.  To purposefully not embrace one’s own gender outwardly is not honoring to God.  Some make no physical effort because they are actually just terrified at the thought of trying to look beautiful and no one acknowledging it or worse yet, being mocked.  This decision is fear-based and not a legitimate desire for godliness.  As women, we must look like women.  We must embrace this aspect of our personhood and celebrate it.  We must not use a façade of holiness to avoid feeling vulnerable or to mask our laziness.  For many, as children, their beauty was used against them as a means of abuse, so it is difficult to invest in their outward display of their inward femininity.  This again however, is fueled by a fear of man and not a fear of God.  Women do not have to be supermodels to embrace their God-given femininity.  But they do have to be women.  The outward is merely a manifestation of what is going on inwardly with a woman, and thus she should make sure that on all counts she is pursuing godliness in her gender.

 

The last element of femininity is being responsive, and by that I mean that we were originally created as a helper for the male.  We see in Genesis 2 that there was not a suitable helper found for the man, so out of man, God made woman.  Her very design was to be a suitable helper for the man whom God had already created.  Adam was still given the authority over creation and their relationship, and we see throughout the Old and New Testament church the idea of male headship and authority.  We see in Titus 2:5 and Ephesians 5:21-33 that women are to submit to their husbands in a reflection of their submission to the Lord.  Scripture does not teach that we should be subservient or that we are lesser than men, it just teaches that within God’s original design, we are to be responsive to the male headship He places over us, beginning with our fathers, extending to our spouses, and beyond that into the male headship governing the church.  As women we can thrive by following men in a way we would be incapable of doing were we to try to rule over our husbands or men in the church.  This is not to say women are incapable of quality leadership or that we cannot lead in any capacity.  I am saying we should only lead within the bounds of what we see is acceptable in Scripture.  This does not reflect a lack of competence on the part of women, merely the beauty of the created order.  It should be noted that responsiveness in women does not mean that all women must or should submit to all men.  There are godless men who have no authority and are ineligible to lead others.  The call for submission in women is appropriate only within the specific contexts laid out in Scripture (marriage, male headship/eldership in the church body, etc.).

 

Complementarity works because in relationship with men, we can be soft, tender, and the more delicate vessel. We can stand under their protection and follow their leadership.  In a romantic relationship with a man, we can be pursued, wooed, loved, and treasured. We can respect men and look to them to initiate and lead.  We have the honor of taking care of and nurturing the men in our lives (in relation to the varying capacities of their roles in our lives) in their masculinity that they might be better equipped to be men of God.  First Corinthians 11:7 explains that woman is “the glory of man.”  Titus 2:3-5 paints a picture of women who love their husbands and teach other women to do the same.  This is a key role for a wife in Scripture.  We see not differing value in men and women, merely different roles.  In our overly feminized culture today women are instructed that to be a helper (God’s original intent for us) is somehow to be pathetic, weak, and worthless.  This is not God’s opinion on the matter however, as we are told that in the kingdom the first are last and the last are first.  We see in the Trinity the Holy Spirit is described as a helper or comforter.  Are we, as women, of greater value than God the Spirit?  Is operating out of a role that reflects one in which He Himself operates beneath us?  Maybe in our zeal to be “empowered” we have lost sight of the reality that our greatest value rests in Him, not in our broken, self-centered “strength.”

 

In a society where the family unit is decreasing in its stability, we need women who will forsake worldly definitions of what a woman is and embrace the glorious identity God has bestowed upon us… His daughters.  As women of God we need to operate out of our femininity and embrace all the facets of it.  Being relational, nurturing, vulnerable/soft, beautiful, and responsive are wonderful qualities that God Himself has bestowed upon us and we can bear His image rightly as we function in them.  We can walk with men in a way that honors them and nurtures their masculinity.  We can submit to God and His design for us and find the joy that comes from obedience and embracing who we really are.  We are His daughters, and thus we should define ourselves as He does and not as the world, television, pop music, feminism, and pornography do.  As in all things, we look to Him, and it is there that we might find rest as women.  So let us move forward as biblical women who are honoring God in our essence and action.  Let us be feminine women.