Wendy Alsup. The Gospel Centered Woman: Understanding Biblical Womanhood through the Lens of the Gospel. CreateSpace, 2013. 154 pp. $7.28.
Two thumbs up. Author and blogger Wendy Alsup has done what many others have overlooked. In writing for Christian women, most err in one of two ways. Some describe discipleship of women in a way that’s undifferentiated from men. Others only address the specific roles of wife, mom, homemaker, single, career woman, and so forth in a way that neglects the larger issues of discipleship that actually empower their performance of those roles from a gospel perspective. Roles that require submitting and helping aren’t fueled by the commands themselves. These actions witness to something that has preceded. Many people get this wrong, and droves of women spend fruitless hours trying to be the perfect person their study books describe. They end up on the hamster wheel of performance and appearance, never progressing beyond comparison with their contemporaries—who serve as their measure of success.
Alsup “gets it” that Christian women are, first and foremost, simply Christians. She makes it clear that Jesus—not Ruth or Esther or even the Proverbs 31 woman—is our primary identity. Why do most books for Christian women focus more on the externals of femaleness than on the heart of discipleship?
Not Embarrassed to Help
Few appreciate what being a “helper” really is. I’ve often found that women, after learning the real meaning, are greatly encouraged about that role. The scriptural song “O God Our Help in Ages Past” reminds us God isn’t embarrassed to be a helper. And Jesus speaks of the Holy Spirit who will come as our Helper. What Christian wouldn’t be thrilled to be summoned to the same role God the Father and God the Spirit perform for our sake? And what Christian could ever again denigrate being called to submit after seeing our great Savior, God the Son, submit for our salvation? How could we ever match the humility of Jesus, serving without sin unto death? We can’t, of course, but the gospel inspires us to want to.
For women, much of our pain arises from unsatisfied desires for good things. For instance, a single woman may yearn for a husband, a married woman feel despondent about not having children, or a woman with children feel tortured by their rebellion. To be clear, we may righteously desire that God has called good, including a husband, children, and godly offspring. But when unfulfilled these things can cause significant pain and suffering in this life and represent some of the major issues with which believing women struggle. How can it be that something God has called good would be withheld from his children?
Those can be hard providences, to be sure, but rightly surrendered to God, they turn the satisfaction of our longings from humans to him. These lessons are hard but necessary, since life is only truly good when God is the chief object of our desires. Time and again we seek to get our needs met through people, putting them in the place of God, only to be hurt and disappointed. We must be trained anew to run to the Lover of our souls, where real security and happiness can be found.
There is one section in Alsup’s excellent chapter on godliness and contentment that I found a bit problematic. She describes Christ’s obedience as resources stored in a bank account from which we can draw for our spiritual needs. To me, that point unintentionally hints of the Catholic doctrine of the Treasury of Merits in which believers borrow from the stored-up good works of Christ and the saints. Even if it is Christ alone (sans saints) whose deeds are stored, there’s still something about the judicial nature of imputed righteousness I fear isn’t portrayed clearly enough in that example. We need to know Jesus has already forgiven us because his righteousness has already been imputed to us. I know it’s a fine line, but I think it’s worth the discussion.
Perhaps an example will help express my concern. A mother of a 2-year-old is driving with her child properly buckled into his car seat. She glances in the rearview mirror and notices the little guy has gotten out of the straps, so she reaches back to put them in place. As a result, her car runs into the one in front of her and kills the child. When my pastor was asked about the most important thing that mother could be told, he said, “Tell her she’s already forgiven. People will tell her she has to forgive herself, but that will only lead to an endless cycle of trying to convince herself she’s forgiven, a feeling that will vary daily as her emotions ebb and flow. She cannot forgive herself because she isn’t her own High Priestess. Christ is her priest, and he has already forgiven her.” There are times when we can’t even reach for the bank of Jesus’ good works because of devastation. But we have a Savior who has already forgiven us and has reached down for us. I trust Alsup woudn’t disagree with this.
Equipped and Content
On the whole, Alsup’s points are well taken and routinely on the mark. How can you be content when right things go wrong? God has supplied and equipped us through the gospel to do good in the face of evil. The gospel doesn’t obligate you to contentment; it equips you for contentment.
I think my favorite part of Alsup’s book was her discussion of the Proverbs 31 woman. Just think of all the ways this example has been used, supposedly to encourage women toward godliness, when in reality it holds up an unattainable standard. She admonishes us not to be indicted by the ways our lives don’t fit Proverbs 31. For example, “You cannot rise up and call yourself blessed if God has not given you children.” Additionally, she observes:
The heart of your husband cannot safely trust in you if God has not brought a husband into your life. Or maybe you have a husband and children, but the gulf between the virtuous wife of Proverbs 31 and your reality threatens to swallow you up in hopelessness.
There are many people who have trained up their children in the way they should go, yet when they are old they have departed. Proverbs aren’t promises. They are wonderful counsel, personified in Christ, who is himself the wisdom of God.
Alsup ends with a sensitive word to the unmarried. Many of the women in Scripture were most vividly remembered for their faithfulness when they were unmarried and childless. Esther, Ruth, Naomi, Mary and Martha, Many Magdalene, the woman at the well, Rahab, Lydia, and Deborah all address the redemption offered to women of every cultural context and stage of life. Alsup did a masterful job of encouraging me with this particular cloud of witnesses in The Gospel Centered Woman.
As I said at outset, two thumbs up. I warmly commend this important book.
Donna Dobbs is the director of Christian education at First Presbyterian Church in Jackson, Mississippi.