71lEtGg0KcLOftentimes evangelicalism, from the average parishioner’s perspective, is not so much a steady worldview as a collection of silently predetermined ideas. One of the more pernicious assumptions that many (though certainly not all) evangelicals share is that women are…limited? It’s really tough to nail down, partly because it is not universal. My first thought is Mark Gungor’s obnoxious video series Laugh Your Way to a Better Marriage, in which he ascribes disproportionate men in leadership positions to women’s “spaghetti brains” and uses a high-pitched whine to portray the female side of a conversation. Or the offhand references to Love and Respect, which posits that all women must treat men deferentially because the bible. Or the pastor’s exasperated claim that Ephesians is harder on the men because it is more difficult to love sacrificially than to submit to a spouse’s authority (never supposing that marriage necessarily involves both parties taking both roles at appropriate seasons of life). All this—the fact that an alarming proportion of evangelical women are taught and often believe themselves to be weaker and less capable than men—drove my interest in reading Katelyn Beaty’s excellent book, A Woman’s Place.

Beaty is a pioneer in her own right: she currently serves as the youngest and first female editor of the print Christianity Today edition. To develop the book’s content, she spoke to a variety of women in focus groups in order to determine their challenges and triumphs at home and the workplace. These discussions inform the book’s argument, much of which is concerned with calmly dismantling the gendered treatment of work (in contrast to the home) in the general culture and, more specifically, in the evangelical church.

Beaty’s book is primarily a personal development resource rather than an academic or theological argument. She does argue, forcefully, that artificial and theological barriers to women’s desires to work should be cleared away from society at large and the church in particular. Societal barriers include an astonishingly bad maternity/paternity leave system in the United States, and those specific to evangelicalism comprise the aforementioned assumption of women as the weaker sex (a Pauline expression that seems more descriptive of the culture than prescriptive of women for all times and places).

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Part of the novelty in Beaty’s argument lies in her use of a theology that supports women finding meaningful work while avoiding many of the deficiencies in business-centered models of female leadership. Her analysis of Sheryl Sandberg’s Lean In model addresses one of the main objections I’ve always had to self-help and personal development literature:

Sandberg seems to imply that if any of us follows her advice, we can enjoy as much success as she has. But that assumes a whole lot about her audience members and their own place in life. She never acknowledges that to advocate for a pay raise or to speak up in meetings is privileged, for it assumes the protections of white-collar culture. It goes without saying that the choice to hire a nanny or a chef is available to very few people….

Outside questions of privilege, most of us have inherited a flawed view of why women or men work at all. According to the mainstream secular narrative in the West, work is fundamentally about what it can give you rather than what you can give it…. [Security, affirmation, and power] become bad—that is, idols—when we try to wrest from them our work rather than resting in God’s perfect provision of all three….

None of these [secular] thought leaders examine closely enough the underlying values of the modern workplace—in large part because they have enjoyed to some degree the wealth and status that come with mastering it. Instead of questioning the world that privileged men in the West have created—a world in which career advancement is the highest goal, we women are simply being helped to acclimate to it….

Beaty locates the main blindspot of business, self-help, and personal development literature: the limitations that people will face regardless of their tenacity and drive. She then hones in on the particular limitations that women face in work and at the church, e.g., pregnancy and child-rearing (and the physical toll of both), and woman-to-woman socialization during work hours. She argues that women won’t, as a population, find fulfillment simply by choosing the work or family spheres (an artificial and fairly recent concept). She advises women to integrate their work and family lives as much as possible and society—and the church—to support this integration via changed policy and culture. Interestingly, the endpoint of Beaty’s argument is not a Christian feminist utopia. Rather, she makes the case for a certain kind of ambition that both men and women can take hold of without shame:

[Jesus] had a pure and powerful inward will: to preach the gospel of salvation, to heal the sick, to raise the dead, to be a stumbling block to the haughty and powerful, and to take up the cross in all its crushing weight to accomplish his most important work of atoning for the sins of the world.

This is the type of ambition that we Christians are to have, by God’s grace, no matter our stage of life or spheres of influence. Oriented toward God, ambition is the setting of the will to accomplish the desire of the heart. It is the motor that keeps us pressing for shalom, for hints of his kingdom to appear in our offices and schools and city halls and homes.

Much of the law permeating Beaty’s above comment is likely owing to her intended audience, ie, evangelical women who read personal development books–that, and the fact that the realm of ambition is inextricably the realm of the law. Still, evangelical women want to find a meaningful calling, and many of them are prevented from pursuing that calling outside the home; in the same way, professional women who are evangelicals are shamed or excluded from full integration into church life (eg, demands for volunteering that occupy periods of rest, women’s events scheduled during the day, focus on femininity within marriage and motherhood). Women who work exclusively in the home can experience shame and rejection from other women who are employed outside the home and a lack of support from their husbands, who may receive advice from the church almost solely for the work sphere of life (this latter point is explored in a lively section that explores the unfortunate disparity in expectations, both in the church and general culture, between mothers and fathers). Beaty is telling women with ambition that they may work outside (with/without children) or in the home and should be fully supported in either endeavor by their churches and society at large.

81bRagCjQRLMoreover, “by God’s grace” is an important qualification, because part of dying to the self and embracing the cross is recognizing our inability to perfectly understand the will of God. Beaty’s book covers most of the pursuits of American evangelical women, and she argues that all can and should be considered holy. She suggests that women should always and everywhere, regardless of their culture or socioeconomic condition or church’s belief statement on women’s ordination, be given the grace to hone and direct their flawed but ultimately holy ambition.

Importantly, Beaty is not directly trying to contradict the sizeable subset of evangelicals who restrict or ban a female pastorate. There are some challenges to the effects of these beliefs, but she sincerely denies any desire to change a local church’s statement of belief. Beaty’s argument is based on human frailty, not endless possibility.

A Woman’s Place caused an unusual incidence of abreaction for me, because Beaty never downplayed my importance as a man in her project to encourage women to recognize their inheritance in Christ. The artistic summary of A Woman’s Place might be “She Used to Be Mine,” a song by Sara Bareilles from the Broadway musical Waitress:

It’s [pregnancy] not what I asked for
Sometimes life just slips in through a back door
And carves out a person and makes you believe it’s all true
And now I’ve got you
And you’re not what I asked for
If I’m honest, I know I would give it all back
For a chance to start over and rewrite an ending or two
For the girl that I knew

Who’ll be reckless, just enough
Who’ll get hurt, but who learns how to toughen up
When she’s bruised and gets used by a man who can’t love
And then she’ll get stuck
And be scared of the life that’s inside her
Growing stronger each day ’til it finally reminds her
To fight just a little, to bring back the fire in her eyes
That’s been gone, but used to be mine
Used to be mine

She is messy, but she’s kind
She is lonely most of the time
She is all of this mixed up and baked in a beautiful pie
She is gone, but she used to be mine

Barreilles creates a woman who experiences grace via an unplanned pregnancy in an abusive marriage; her past and her current position in life no longer doom her to poverty and loneliness. Fighting here connotes surrender to the upcoming pregnancy and a feeling of inner grace for her past mistakes and misdirections. She is no longer bound by the men around her (who are a proxy for broader cultural forces) or the past that has kept her restrained and unhappy. Like Barreilles in “She Used to Be Mine,” Beaty in A Woman’s Place offers women comfort in God’s provision here and now. God’s grace, in this view, is not a one-and-done event. Rather, God’s grace is active, giving women the help they need within and through their womanhood, not despite it.

Featured image by El Conde de lo Trágico