Oh, no, not a woman!

Our gender is a gift of love from God and need not be an obstacle to our fulfillment.

Elizabeth Ostring is a physician at Tsuen Wan Adventist Hospital, Hong Kong.

The professor of anatomy was a big, impressive man; very impressive. He had iron-gray hair and steel-blue eyes that cut you through to the soul faster than any surgeon's scalpel. I was trembling slightly. It was not just the raw chill of the lowering south New Zealand day, nor the fact that I was there with my father to ask for Sabbath privileges from the man who had op posed such nonsense for years. Rather, it was the man himself.

He listened politely as my father re quested that a young man and I be allowed to miss classes on Saturday. He assured us that this boon had already been granted, and that we should have no problem. He smiled magnanimously, slapped the young man's shoulder, and said, "Welcome to medical school, fellow!" My father hastened to put the record right. "Professor, my daughter has also been accepted into the school," he said proudly.

The professor stopped, and his smile vanished.

He lifted his hand distractedly to his immense brow and almost roared, "Oh, no! Not a woman! Not another woman!"

I blushed scarlet, the young man smiled, and my father looked hurt. Some how we got ourselves outside the room without any further assistance from the professor.

That happened 27 years ago. The professor's outburst certainly dampened the pride in my 18-year-old heart. But as time healed the embarrassment I came to thank the gentleman (in my heart, that is; I would never have found the courage to face him!) for teaching me a very valuable lesson: that before I became a doctor, a typist, a teacher, or anything, I already was a woman.

In the beginning God created the human race in His own image, male and female created He them (see Gen. 1:27). Gender is one of those rare and beautiful things that comes to us direct from Eden. God could have made us like worms, hermaphrodite, self-sufficient, and monotonously equal. But He didn't. He chose to make us interdependent and excitingly unequal (or, if you prefer, different).

Perhaps the clue to the reason for this difference is found in the declaration that God created the human in His own image. Our God is a trinity, whose oneness of purpose is expressed in a diversity of function. Thus the short but dramatic earthly role of Jesus the Son is neither inferior nor superior to the more gentle wooing and enabling role of God the Holy Spirit. But they are certainly not the same, nor are they interchangeable. Thus in creating humankind God shared not only His image with us, not just His reasoning power, not just His freedom, but also His plurality. It seems, then, that our gender is something we should greatly treasure, it being an image of something mysteriously divine.

Gender—a gift of love

If gender is a gift of love from God, it is important that we understand how God intends this gift to be used and developed. We often mention that marriage and the Sabbath are the only "institutions" that came to us from Eden, and this is true. Sometimes it seems, however, that when recognizing the divine origin of marriage as a perfect fulfillment of God's plans for us, we fail to realize that marriage is based on the previous gift of gender, and that it is possible to fulfill God's purpose without being married. Jesus never married, yet He was a perfect man, which suggests to me that it is possible to develop one's masculinity or femininity in the ways God intended without necessarily being married. What I would like to explore is whether there is a real theology of gender difference.

Many Christian women, and I among them, can testify that by accepting whole-heartedly their husband's leadership in their marriage they have increased their own happiness, and that of their families. This acceptance is not easy, and most wives succumb all too often to the temptation to take the reins themselves, with resulting distress. Should one conclude from this that women are simply less capable than men, or that men are incurably chauvinistic? Or is there some deep spiritual truth involved that can be applied to all women, married or not?

The fact that God created Eve from a rib of Adam suggests that she was his equal in value, but does not prove she was his equal in function. We know she was specifically created to be a "helper fit for" Adam (Gen. 2:18),* but in what way was she to help him? Unfortunately, we have no clue as to the exact Edenic role. Once sin entered, Eve was primarily concerned with the bearing and care of children, while Adam had the more aggressive work of wrestling with his environment to provide for his family.

That being so, is child care the only work suitable for the feminine role, or is it perhaps the clearest expression of that role, a supreme example? What does Paul mean when in 1 Timothy 2:15 he declares that a woman "will be saved through bearing children, if she continues in faith and love and holiness, with modesty?" Is he suggesting that women must bear children to be saved? To imply this makes nonsense of the apostle's strong and frequent assertions that salvation is only through faith in Jesus Christ. In stead, he is suggesting that child care is a superior expression of femininity to two other ways mentioned in the contextual passage of 1 Timothy 2:9-15.

The first of these other ways is in outward adornment. Obviously the fashion industry was as active in Paul's day as in ours, and he admonishes that "women should adorn themselves modestly and sensibly in seemly apparel, not with braided hair or gold or pearls or costly attire" (verse 9). We find similar advice in 1 Peter 3:3. Presenting oneself attractively is a common feminine impulse.

Many great women of the Bible were beautiful. Even as an elderly lady, Sarah was attractive enough to cause trouble for her husband. Esther won a beauty con test, and Rebekah and Rachel were both fair to look upon. Enhancement of physical beauty, therefore, is appropriate for a Christian woman, but it is not the main purpose of her gender.

The second feminine expression Paul is concerned with is found in verses 11, 12: "Let a woman learn in silence with all submissiveness. I permit no woman to teach or have authority over men; she is to keep silent." These words cause an increase in heart rate and a rise in blood pressure in even the mildest of women. There are some sincere Christian groups that take this passage very literally. But what is the complete biblical picture? Consider the prophetess Anna. In Luke 2:38 we read, "And coming up at that very hour she gave thanks to God, and spoke of him to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem." The previous verse indicates that she did not depart from the Temple. Obviously, then, she did her speaking there, and it quite clearly seems to be of a teaching nature.

What did Paul mean, then, by saying that women should be silent? The apostle explains himself further by discussing Adam and Eve. Eve's sin did not condemn her to silence, but at that time it was emphasized that she must recognize the authority of Adam. Thus the real thrust of Paul's message seems not that women become mute, but that they recognize the God-ordained authority of men. What authority does a man have over a woman? The same type of authority Jesus has over the church: a beautiful, caring, self-sacrificing, and leading authority (see Eph. 5:22-28).

Child bearing and caring

But some women may wonder why Paul mentions child bearing and caring as supreme expressions of the feminine role.

The Incarnation may provide us some light. When the fullness of time was come and God sent forth His Son, He could have organized His arrival on this earth by all sorts of spectacular methods. One method (which He had already used, and which would have emphasized the subordinate, inferior role of women once and for all) would have been to choose a man, anaesthetize him and remove a rib, and then prepare around it a perfect body for the Son of God. But no, God chose to perform the miracle in the body of a young woman, demonstrating that He still honored her special feminine work. At the same time God honored the masculine role by providing Mary with a husband, one she did not need in the biological sense, but who was nevertheless entrusted with her care, and who was given authority to make decisions for her; for example, in the need for the flight to Egypt. It was to Joseph, not Mary, God sent an angel with the message to flee.

So what was Mary's work? God entrusted to her the development of His Son now in human form. In a special sense she made it possible for Jesus to do His work; she enabled God to declare Himself to the world.

Again, consider other great women in the Bible and see in their lives this special work of enabling, this ministry that allows them to develop their God-given potential. Look at Miriam. By her care and prudence she saved the life of God's chosen leader. Later we find her singing on the banks of the Red Sea a hymn of triumph that enabled the Israelites to understand more fully all that God had done for them. However, dissatisfied with her role, she aspired to leadership, but God swiftly declared this to be wrong.

Deborah was both a prophetess and a judge. She lived in very bad times when Israel was under Canaanite oppression. God enabled her to judge Israel and make His people understand right from wrong. When war broke out, she called upon Barak to take the lead. However, at his request, she continued her encouraging role by going with him to the battlefield. She could have exercised leadership alone; instead, she worked with a man.

Rahab's courage and quick thinking permitted the spies of Israel to return safely and also ensured the preservation of her family. Ruth's love and devotion enabled Naomi and the women of Bethlehem to preserve the line of Judah in which Jesus was born. Jehosheba's courage rescued the boy King Joash, while Esther's saved a whole nation.

Proverbs 31 gives a profound description of the ideal woman—energetic, dynamic, caring, and responsible both within the community and her family. She enables her family to be well cared for, her husband to be a leader among the elders, her servants to work well, and her children to love her. And "she opens her mouth with wisdom, and the teaching of kindness is on her tongue" (verse 26). Was not Ellen White that kind of woman—enabling the development of a special people preparing for Christ's second coming? Her role perhaps was never administrative, but it was decisive and prominent.

The enabling ministry

This ministry of enabling does not mean that it is of lesser value or of lower dignity. I refer again to the working of the Godhead. The Holy Spirit is a comforter and a counselor. He glorifies Jesus. He convicts the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment. He enables us to live victorious and productive lives. Does this enabling ministry of the Holy Spirit in any way lessen the equality and dignity of the person of the Holy Spirit within the Trinity?

When women accept their enabling ministry, they bring new dignity and courage to their work. They know they are fulfilling God's plan for them in enabling their husbands and children to fulfill their full potential. How much better the world would be if they would spend time listening to their children, and talking with them to guide and encourage?

However, marriage and family are not essential prerequisites for full feminine development. Indeed, if we could see the full import of women's enabling role, much argument and rancor would disappear in the discussion of precisely what they should or should not do. Enlightened and empowered by the Holy Spirit, a teacher will see herself as developing her pupils' potential. A director of nursing will not consider herself a manager of the nursing staff, but rather an enabler of ward nurses to function efficiently in patient care.

What about ordination? A woman need not lobby to be ordained as a minister because she sees herself capable of expounding the Scriptures as any man. Nor is ordination per se essential for feminine fulfillment. However, there may be special circumstances when tremblingly and reluctantly, like Moses, Isaiah, or Jeremiah, a woman may recognize the need for formal ordination. Such situations could be in places such as China, where few men can enter the gospel ministry. Or perhaps a woman called to prison ministry may find herself required by government authorities to have full ministerial credentials. Ordination for her would simply show that others recognize her enabling ministry in jails.

Two women have greatly inspired me. Both of them unmarried, and both of them from India: Ida Scudder of Christian Medical College, Vellore; and Mother Teresa of Calcutta. Dr. Scudder became a medical practitioner to serve the women of south India; cultural barriers disallowed a male doctor from ministering to them. Not only did she help her immediate patients, but her vision of a medical school enabled thousands of young men and women to enter the healing ministry. She was a truly feminine person.

Mother Teresa, originally a teaching nun from Yugoslavia, heard the call of God to work with the destitute of Calcutta. Listen to her vision of fulfillment: "If you really belong to the work that has been entrusted to you, then you must do it with your whole heart. And you can bring salvation only by being honest and by really working with God. It is not how much we are doing but how much love, how much honesty, how much faith, is put into doing it. It makes no difference what we are doing. What you are doing, I cannot do, and what I am doing, you cannot do. But all of us are doing what God has given us to do. Only sometimes we forget and we spend more time looking at somebody else and wishing we were doing something else. We waste our time thinking of tomorrow, and today we let the day pass and yesterday is gone."1

*All Bible passages in this article are from the Revised Standard Version.

1. Desmond Doig, Mother Teresa, Her Work and Her People (Glasgow: Collins, 1980), p. 138


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Elizabeth Ostring is a physician at Tsuen Wan Adventist Hospital, Hong Kong.

March 1992

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