Assertive Women in the Bible

Many ME/CFS sufferers are female. This is because some illnesses disproportionately affect one sex more than the other. Sadly, though, ME is sometimes viewed as yet another "female problem". There are, of course, plenty of men and boys with ME and, in fact, they are often in a worse situation than women and girls, since the disease cruelly undermines macho values which many men are manipulated (by the media) into respecting. Machismo, however, is a "false god" which cannot deliver one in a crisis like ME/CFS and needs to be "ditched" in ME/CFS.

The problem of low self esteem is often a feminine problem. There are few women with ME who do not have low self- esteem. Having a serious hidden disability, which affects one's appearance, energy and vitality does nothing for one's sense of worth and self-confidence. It is known that being "walked all over", lacking control, internalising the aggression of others, seriously depletes the immune system. It is important that ME sufferers learn their own worth, reclaim and defend their boundaries and learn how to properly handle aggression from others.

Many women refuse to stand up for themselves and think they have no right to any kind of self-defence. This may be due to false notion that in Christianity one "takes aggression into oneself", neutralises and forgives it. But God does not do that with our attacks, rebellions and betrayals. It costs him dear but he also requires real contrition from us in order to forgive us. Jesus Christ took violence and aggression into himself on the Cross (he "carried" it as well as our sicknesses), but this was a special act of redemption.

Women are taught, in male-dominated societies, to submit to men and to be "ruled". However, this view of womanhood is at odds with teaching of Jesus Christ, part of whose ministry was specifically devoted to dignifying, strengthening, calling, reaching out to and emboldening vulnerable and exploited women. He did this as a sign of who He was, to reverse what is called "the curse" on womankind in Genesis.

Jesus himself, knew how to be highly assertive and forthright in chosen situations (see Film link below) . When he tells someone to "turn the other cheek", it is an act of taking control from a position of moral strength and love, not out of passivity, helplessness and submission. The point of "turning the other cheek" is not to internalise aggression but to actively pour "burning coals" on the conscience of the aggressor! We learn from him that we must be gentle and humble as a rule and that vengeance belongs to God alone. But Jesus knew how to defend himself against aggressors. His favourite ploy was to deflect the attack with a well-aimed disorientating "power question" (see page on Assertiveness). So he calls women (and gentle, sensitive men) to their full dignity as assertive people, to nullify the effects of the godless on their lives. Jesus does not command women (or sensitive men) to put up with any ongoing psychological and physical abuse that has made them ill and is preventing them getting better. Indeed, he strongly defended them against such actions, and from "assaults on female dignity and worth" by his own disciples.

"Assertive" is not the same as "feminist". For a start, the word can apply to either sex. It is not gender-biased. But since women are often the more vulnerable in society, it is usually applied to women. Of course, some naturally sensitive, gentle-spirited men lack assertiveness and can be bullied by both men and powerful women. Christianity only rejects the assertiveness of the rebellious heart, those who rebel against God's authority in their lives, whatever their temperament or gender. It encourages men and women of faith.

donne.jpgThe Bible presents us with many pictures of women thinking and acting for themselves, but always commends only those who act within the framework of a living faith in a personal God. These women do not gain identity or power from acting outside that context: they are given it by acting within it. The Book of Proverbs commends a businesswoman of faith. She is not only a wonderful wife and mother but is also a highly successful entrepreneur. But she is not commended for her independence or success, but for her faith, love and charity.

In the Bible, some women positively astonish us with their assertive behaviours. Some of them are heroines who save their people. Beautiful Esther saves a nation, Naomi saves her daughter-in-law and her family line (the family of Jesus) and Ruth takes the sexual initiative. Faith gives to their character a grace, influence and power that exploited and abused women have lacked in all generations. Faith dignifies traits that have been always undervalued.

(Photo :5th century Byzantine mosaic, Porec (Parenzo) Croatia showing twelve Roman women saints to match the twelve Apostles and Christ above them)

Surprisingly, in what was a male-dominated Middle East, the Bible often places women at the centre of the most important events that have changed the world. The faith of women is pivotal in Christianity. Sarah, Rebecca, Hannah, Mary, Elizabeth, Naomi, Ruth, Esther, Mary Magdalene and Priscilla each have their place in history. "Tabitha", the little girl that Jesus lovingly raised from the dead, to prove his credentials to Gentiles, was treated by Him not as a Gentile but as a princess. Women were often able to intuitively discern truth, sometimes better than the educated men around them.

Assertiveness has been a central concept in the women's movement. Sadly, this has not always been the same assertiveness as that of biblical women. Stridency, power-seeking, dominance, bullying, coarseness, over-sexualised personae and now "laddishness" are not the ambitions of women of faith. Their style is different: it is the quiet assertiveness of those who feel loved by God, who know that their true value as human beings and their fullness as women. It comes from being in a personal relationship with God. This is not the assertiveness of women who feel alienated and unloved (and therefore without worth) and fill that inner vacuum by playing at being men, seeking power over others and taking revenge for the pain of living within male dominance. Satisfaction, beauty and calmness of spirit always eludes them, as they willfully sever themselves from God. Their end is desolation, self-destruction and God's justice.

Women of faith know, love and serve God. In doing so, they further His Kingdom in a way that sets them free from their own inner corruption and desires within their time and culture. This can be defined as a form of self-expression enhancing both individual freedom and social responsibility. Christian assertiveness is not self-centered, dominant, ranting or belligerent. Christian assertiveness is standing up for dignity, self worth, service and true spiritual values in the face of a warped, immoral, manipulating, self-seeking system of non-values. It is refusing to be to be walked all over, or to be a "Christian doormat" because there is great work to accomplish, for God and for mankind, in the faltering world.

Women as Saviours

The Bible refers to some human beings as "saviours", even though most Jews and Christians associate "saviour" exclusively with God or the God-man. Genesis refers to Eve as "the helper" of man, the word reserved for God himself. Moses himself was saved as a baby by the bravery of midwives. Miriam, Esther and Deborah are identified as among those who liberated their people. Women were, and still are, at times, God's agents for delivering the Israelites from perils that could have destroyed their community. God's "grace" is often mediated through women.

Women as Ruthless Power-seekers and Leaders

Assertiveness is not a good thing in itself. Its "virtue" depends on the character of the person being assertive, the purity of their heart and motives and their objectives. If their goal is genuinely the glory of God, then assertiveness is likely to be universally valued. On the other hand, a serial murderer would rank highly on determination, but would be judged a lost and criminal psychopath. An adulterous, assertive, "social psychopathic", a woman who has wrecked the lives of her husband, family and ultimately herself in order to "find herself, assert her identity" or worse still for personal financial gain is not someone one admires for being "strong". Disloyal actions which strike at the root of the holy bonds of family are not "assertive" actions but unholy ones. Assertive feminists seeking autonomy in the face of these "bonds" are currently eroding the social bedrock created and sustained by womanhood and, thereby, destroying the lives of other women, including their daughters. The stories of Jezebel, Athaliah, and Herodias, all royal women, display various ways in which boldness, power, selfishness and wickedness have been combined. To be a "strong" is not in itself a good, productive or attractive thing: yet few have the courage to challenge the excessive side of feminism, particularly in women who manipulate or operate under the cloak of high office. Compare this with the Bible which unequivocally condemns wicked Queen Jezebel's brand of power seeking, who was eaten by dogs as a punishment for her idolatry, lust for power and murder of the priests of Yahweh. The Bible is completely unsentimental about women, however talented and attractive they are, who rebel against the living God and fully condemns them (along with rebellious men).

Women in the Gospels

Few stories have more of a genuine flavour than those about the interaction of women with Jesus. There is little in the society or environment of the generations immediately before or after Christ to explain why anyone would have wanted to invent these stories. From assertive Anna, who prophesies at the presentation of the infant Jesus in the Temple to the courageous, faithful women who attend to his burial, male-female relationships in the gospels transcend the patriarchy. No woman named in the gospels ever stood against Jesus, except Herodias (indirectly). Several, encouraged by him, became carriers of his message and missionaries. Later many were martyred and Roman women saints were regarded by the early Roman church as the counterparts of the apostles (see photo above).

Four women are remembered in the tradition of the early church for their assertiveness in encounters with Jesus. Two are not identified by name, and two share the common name of Mary. Each displays qualities that are valued by Jesus yet unappreciated by other people in his society. It is to honour his beloved women followers that Jesus appeared first to the women who had stood at the Cross. All the men, except the Apostle John, had failed that great test.

Women and St Paul, the Apostle

Through most of Christian history, it has been assumed that the apostle Paul could not bear assertive women, let alone "women". George Bernard Shaw thought Paul deserved to be called "the eternal enemy of woman", a misogynist, because he placed her in a servile role. Elizabeth Davis has written that "Paul, the first spokesman for the Christian Church" was "bred in the Hebraic tradition that women were of no account and existed solely to serve men." Davis maintains that Paul continues to stress woman's inferiority in his writings.

The belief that Paul excluded women from leadership roles is based largely on a judgement expressed in one of his Letters. To Christians in Corinth, he writes: "Women should be silent in the churches." Following Catholic medieval tradition, Pope Paul VI cited that statement to add authority for this declaration in 1970: "Woman is not meant to have hierarchical functions of teaching and ministry in the Church."

Extreme Protestants, like some strands of the Brethren, usually take a similar position because they are certain that Paul would not have permitted the ordination of women to church offices. This is certainly a wrong impression. Paul was a follower of Jesus Christ, "the first feminist" and, as such, could not have but supported the full inclusion of women as equal recipients of redemption, grace and the Holy Spirit. Jesus even told Martha to "come out of the kitchen", encouraged her not to indulge in the self-dignifying one-upmanship afforded by "doing everything for others" but to sit alongside men, learning.

St. Paul wrote the revolutionary statement that everyone - whether a women or man, slave or free - is equal "in Christ" i.e. of equal status and worth as another believer. Women are full members of the "the royal priesthood" appointed by the New Testament. It is, therefore, not at all surprising that the early church (which St Paul founded) was known by the Roman world as producing women of such calibre of deed and word, as had never been seen before in the history of the world. The Romans themselves were astonished by them and honoured them in their mosaics (see photo above).

Christian Women in History

Assertive Christian women in all generations have changed the course of history, from the first women martyrs thrown to the lions while singing hymns, to St Agnes, erudite St Hilda, many royal Christian women, Christian women reformers, writers, poets, writers, artists, leaders and even matryred women preachers in the Reformation. Add to them the countless loving Christan mothers, wives and single women who have faithfully served God down the ages, doing unrecorded uncelebrated deeds of sustenance, goodness, sacrifice, service and kindness. The assertive influence of Christian wives and mothers on atheist sons (for example, St Monica, the mother of St Augustine) and in the conversion of their husbands can never be over-estimated. This is still how many, if not most men come to faith. Praying, courageous Christian women have civilised the Western world and have set a "gold standard" which modern Christian women need to emulate.

Christian woman can walk tall. If they are seeking the glory of God, they can remember that in both sickness and in health they have a place, purpose, a call, a dignity and a role. They can recall that Jesus, fully human because he was born of a human woman (as well as fully God), continues to act and pray on their behalf. They are never abandoned or "second-class" in the Church or world, even when apparently "abandoned" in chronic illness.

In whatever situation, the female followers of Jesus call themselves "Daughters of a King".