Thursday, February 13, 2014

Biblical Womanhood for Pariahs

pa·ri·ah 
1. an outcast. 
2. any person or animal that is generally despised or avoided. 
3. a member of a low caste in southern India and Burma. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/pariah
A few years ago, a friend in the process of divorce encouraged me to write on the topic of pariahs in the church. These are the believing women around us whose life circumstances make us uncomfortable – the Ruths and Naomis in our culture. Maybe they lost a child to death or are estranged from one in rebellion. Maybe they could never get pregnant in the first place. Perhaps their husband left them for another woman, or maybe their husband died. Perhaps they never got married and are heavily involved in their career. Whatever their life story, the thing that makes them feel like a pariah to others is that they don't want a pariah's life circumstances as their own. Perhaps their story plays to our fears for our own, and therefore we reject or avoid them. Of course, few would use the phrase pariah to describe someone in circumstances that we don't want for ourselves, yet the larger church often treats women like they are outcasts if their life story doesn't match the norm. Unspoken fears play out in real ways.

“If we embrace this divorced woman in our church, won't other young women think divorce is an option when their marriage gets hard?”

“If we embrace this single, working mom, won't other young moms be tempted away from raising their children at home?”

“I don't want to enter into this widow's suffering, because I don't want to consider the possibility that one day I might face my own similar loss.”

In contrast, I've found deep comfort watching the overcoming faith of my limping friends enduring seasons of brokenness or loss. And I admit that I too have circumstances in my life that others may find uncomfortable, causing them to want to distance themselves from me. Whatever the loss, these struggles are not denials of God's good plan for women! Any of us in such circumstances did not fall off the bandwagon of Biblical womanhood. Instead, the purity of God's good plan for women becomes clearer as we hold on to faith in the midst of our losses. The enduring faith of “pariahs” motivates me when my own fears become my reality, and I am faced with my own unique set of circumstances that test my own faith.

Our understanding of Biblical Womanhood has to include such women. The divorced. The widow. The single mom. The working single mom. The single woman with no kids. Ruth and Naomi were as much God's daughters created for His purposes when they were widowed without children as when they were married with them, right? Carolyn McCulley says in her new book, The Measure of Success: Uncovering the Biblical Perspective on Women, Work, and the Home, concerning her view of herself as a single woman in the church, “... I had been deriving more identity from an adjective (“single”) than a noun (“woman”), which was not the emphasis I saw in the Bible” (Preface, p. IX). Carolyn Custis James in her book, Half the Church, reminds us that most women in Third World countries where the majority of modern Christians now live would find our American, evangelical stereotype of Biblical womanhood completely foreign and often simply physically impossible. Whatever the Bible says to women, it should be as relevant to the single mom in an African hut as to a middle class American woman with a spouse who provides for her and her kids.

All of Scripture speaks to women, right?! But it's good to also think through specific parts of Scripture that speak particularly of women. Genesis 1 and 2 speak of the woman created in the image of God as a strong helper after His example. Proverbs 31 gives wisdom about a woman in a very different context from our First World American one. Ephesians 5 gives a vision of womanhood empowered by the gospel to reclaim the image of God as He intended in perfection. How do these apply to any woman with any adjective? Single woman. Married woman. Divorced woman. Widowed woman. Woman with kids. Woman without kids. Working woman. Stay at home woman. When we remove all of the adjectives, God says something about us made in His image that transcends all the specific things that define us individually. Some of those individual characteristics give us status. Some of those characteristics make us feel like outcasts. Yet, God's image in us transcends all of those adjectives. I am thinking today that Biblical womanhood is best understood when we understand it in our worst case scenarios. When we boil it down to what God most wants any of us to reflect about Himself regardless of the adjective in front of “woman” and then expand that back out to the specific circumstances in which we find ourselves, we are much better equipped to endure the waves of life that come at us at each stage as a woman after God's own heart.

39 comments:

  1. Hi Wendy,

    I really liked this post as much as I found it uncomfortable and saddening to read. I'm originally from the Middle East, currently living in London. My church is full of pariahs, me included, and no one expects the other to be the "norm" because life is too complicated. It seems that there are two categories of people in your churches and a bit of categorization and labeling (even if unspoken). I do appreciate your take a lot, but it is just sad that it is a finding or a revelation, if you know what I mean. I guess the more people are comfortable, the more out of touch they are with the hardship and reality of life. Everyone is a pariah in their own way and there isn't really a norm, at least not for long, unless someone wishes to put on an act for the world to see. If this is the case, then it's a really sad situation for the church. So I guess I agree with your observations, but feel saddened that they are a revelation/finding. I really enjoy your posts, thank you

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    1. Anonymous, it's a weird phenomenon. I do think we are made up more as a Church of pariahs than not. After all, God says explicitly He chooses the weak and despised of this world to confound the mighty. Yet, as we talk about life in GENERAL, we tend to speak of our best norms -- our goals and ideals. In those general discussions, our individual stories get lost in our larger general Christian ideals. It's just a weird phenomenon, and we need to recognize it in social media and public writing so that we better reflect the normal Christian experience of loss and suffering.

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  2. This was exactly what I needed to hear today. Thank you for posting. Though I am in a very loving church with wonderful brothers and sisters in Christ, my relationship with them seemed to change after my husband died. I feel as though some type of "distance" has been placed between myself and those who are "not" pariahs. Though, as you commented, there are more that make up the church than not. But when my husband first got cancer, things really began to change in the few short months that he had left. I know that the Lord Jesus Christ has me under the shadow of His wing and loves me and am secure with that. If I didn't have that to cling to, I would be more upset with the situation, I believe. But I can see it in the "married" women's eyes - they almost cling to their husbands and children more because of us pariahs. I even had a brother in Christ ask me how I was doing and then he asked, "Are you lonely?" And honestly, because of the Lord, I hadn't thought about being lonely. I miss my husband, but I'm not lonely. Then it hit me, that was probably how he would feel if his wife died. We (people in general) don't want to be in uncomfortable situations...at least in America, I suppose. And we don't want to be around those who make us uncomfortable. The price we pay for too much comfort for too long. If our country had more REAL suffering, we might not behave in this way, perhaps. But I do know that being a widow has opened my own eyes to the suffering of those around me. It has helped me to see that most people hold their suffering to themselves and a few close friends, quietly and privately. There are a few who are embraced because maybe their suffering is "accepted" and either very normal or so strange no one would consider the fact that they might suffer in that way, so it's ok to embrace it. Examples of whole families still intact, suffering from a strange disease that most would think they might never contract. But since the whole family is "intact" they are embraced. But when things could hit a little closer to home, like becoming a widow, there is definitely a gap that seemed to appear, from both men and women. This is not to say that my husband and I didn't do the same thing after we attended funerals of other friends, but now I'm on the other side of the situation. At any rate, I'm grateful that you posted this and pointed it out. Because I do believe that this is something that we all need to consider. On a lighter note (not really - I would like to do this) but I just might wear a sign that says, "Ruth" on Sunday morning. I wonder how people would react to that?

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    1. I have seen women in your situation (widows), and (dare I say?) it *angers* me, because it's not right, not in the Church. My parents got together a while back with their church "couple" friends that they've been hanging with for years, and Mom was telling me who was there. So I said, "What about Miriam?" "Well, no... uh, you know, Bob died...." I told her she might want to reconsider, because one day that will be HER. And the reality is, sadly, that not only does a woman lose her husband, but she loses her lifelong "couple" friends as well, and has to build new friendships from scratch, at a time when she most needs her friends. And this is in the CHURCH.
      I myself no longer attend Women's Fellowship gatherings, I skip Mother's Day Sunday, and will never again go on a Women's Retreat with my church. I don't know if this pariah mentality and the nasty comments are just in my particular, semi-rural church or what. I never experienced this sort of exclusion in the city where I grew up. Sadly, it seems to affect my view of myself and my personality, I tend to not be as outgoing as I naturally am when I am at church. So true, the suffering is kept close, "quietly and privately", when it comes to the church.
      But, there are those of us who do see you for the person that you are, and don't feel that you are any different because of any "label" or "status" that might somehow be attached to you. If you wore your "Ruth" sign, I think I would be jumping to ask if I could hang out with you! :)

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    2. Sounds like you need a different church. If it is that unsafe, I'd find somewhere else. I'd personally wither up and die if my church wasn't safe for me to struggle with my issues.

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    3. Probably true! But the choices are slim here. And I know God has His reasons for things....

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  3. Carolyn McCulley's insight that women can find their identity more in the adjective (single) than the noun (woman) really resonated. I had the same thought Wendy wrote later that any adjective could be used (wife, mother, widow) but I think it's deeper than a status issue, I think it is an identity issue. We can find our identities in our status as wife, mother, single, widow, working, home-schooler, etc. And we can believe those identities are paramount even if others don't think that way about us or treat us differently. So I think the application point is that if my identity isn't first and foremost daughter of the living God and forgiven and righteous in Christ, I'm going to have a problem no matter what the adjectives are that surround me on earth. Any perception of me and who I am outside of that identity is a result of sin in a fallen world. Jesus tells us we will be rejected (though it's usually by those outside of the church he refers to) it should be no surprise. I find this a helpful reminder to filter the status, labels, adjectives, etc. through the best reason for rejoicing; which is that by God's grace my name is written in the book of life (heaven). Luke 10:20

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    1. I talk about this a lot in The Gospel-Centered Woman. Hannah Anderson's new book is going to deal with this as well. Our first identity as women is via God Himself. The adjectives can't give us identity. Then they become idols, and that always ends badly.

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  4. I loved this post. OH, how I loved it.

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  5. I think of one particular season I was quite pariah-like. I could sense my heart becoming bitter toward those that were distancing themselves from me. I sensed the Lord speak into my spirit, "They don't know what to do with you." It was a balm in many ways. First, He cared enough to speak to me. Second, He was right in that their theology was primarily one of victorious-living Christianity and I certainly didn't fit the bill. Lastly, it opened my eyes to see the people He had given to walk with me and boy, I sure did grow in my appreciation of them. Happy Valentines Day!

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  6. Can't thank you enough for writing this post! It validated so many things going on in my head and heart, and challenged me as well.

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  7. Hey Wendy, I very much enjoy your blog & was heartened to read it this afternoon after a week of wrestling with frustration. I was checking out some Christian conference being held in America (I'm in Australia) and was discouraged to see the only women speaking were married women. As a 41 yo single woman in ministry FT I felt surprisingly frustrated. It seems to me that in our desire to uphold family & uphold complementarian theology that any woman other then a married woman ( & sometimes it seems a woman married to a minister) is the only one whose voice is worth hearing or has an avenue to be heard. Thank you for being a voice for all women. Your post today was really helpful in re-focusing my thinking. Thank you.

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  8. Thank you for bringing up this important issue. The only time I have encountered this personally was when we were first married. We attended a new home based church which was full of young families. I felt that only after we got pregnant, the other ladies started to be more friendly and interested in me. I hope never to put labels on women (single, divorced, widowed...) but to be loving enough to meet them as my sisters wherever they are in their journey.

    By the way, I have just been meditating on the fact that the model for living and being church needs to work in each and every culture. I hope to hear more of this, if you have time. Especially what it means for women.

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  9. Thank you...it was not by accident I came across this article,,,,Divine intervention. God is always working in my life. But it is not the Ruths or Naomis but the Rahabs and Tamars that that are the real outcasts in our churches, sometimes the parents of these women. This article just really made me think a little deeper. Thanks.

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    1. That's a good point, Melanie!

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    2. I was thinking the same thing - in my church, it's not the widows and single women who seem to be pariahs, it's the never-wed mothers, or (even more sadly) the women who are struggling to be faithful in a marriage to an unbelieving husband.

      Praying now about what I can do to reach out to these women - with young children of my own, it's a hard phase of life to serve others. But necessary!

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  10. Wendy,
    Thank you so much for writing this. While, for some reason, I hate the word pariah, I very much liked this post. I think if people in the church were completely honest, everyone would identify with the outcast on some level or other.
    My present church has the best male leadership hands down. It is an awesome place. But within the women's ministry, I've got to tell you, it is heartbreaking to me. I am not one of the young married moms and I am not one of the blue haired older women. I'm not married and I'm a middle aged working woman. The core network of women who support each other and have deep friendships are pretty clear that I'm not one of them. Every one of them have declined my Facebook friendship requests. At church social events, they are not open to or willing to offer me a seat at their tables.
    So, I feel deeply the hurt of the outcast socially within the church because of issues that have absolutely nothing to do with what the Bible says that we share in common.

    In fact, the very truth that I have been redeemed out of the world and into the church is a testimony to the Gospel and it is hard for me not to judge those women who reject me, as people who in a very real sense are rejecting our faith in Jesus Christ, His resurrection and promise of making all things new. I find myself doubting their salvation or at least their commitment and repentance. How can someone who is Christ not have more compassion and love toward other women?
    So, thank you for writing this. And Lord Jesus, heal my heart, too!

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    1. "someone who is *in* Christ"

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    2. I have found when I take my eyes off the cross and focus on my hurts I suffer more.As far as facebook, they are doing you a favor. How much time would you spend on watching them post things about their lives? Gospel Coalition posted an article about what we read matters. My favorite all time quote..."garbage in-garbage out". Pray for them, you can't change them only God can. I will pray for wisdom and God's direction for you.

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    3. A good word, Melanie. Thank you.

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    4. Wow. The denial of your Facebook requests -- that feels pretty blatant. I'm sorry, Anonymous. That stinks.

      I hope that over time the social barriers that feel segregating will break down in their minds and that you will find robust friendship that transcends season of life. Some of my most supportive friends when I had young kids were my single friends who loved on me and my boys when I was stretched thin. And friends embraced me that way when I was unmarried too. It should be the norm, not the exception.

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  11. I enjoyed this post from another perspective. I earned a Ph.D. in biology a few years ago, and my husband lost his last paying job (his career has been outsourced) during that process. We married late and are childless, but not really suffering from it. I teach in a small college, and taught before in middle school, so I've "mothered" over 1,000 people.
    In any church there are multiple strikes against me. The biology degree, the childlessness, being the sole income earner, my personal appearance (no makeup and simple hairstyle with no beauty salon required), no "fashion" but a basic work wardrobe- all these things make me a foreigner in the women's world at church. I don't do social media, so as not to experience the rejection.
    How do we try to build relationships across these lines? Mere "polite" social inclusion is often insincere and gets old fast. I often wind up befriending the working widow or the never-married older woman, or hanging out with my husband and the men, but there is a lot of social pressure in church to "fit in". What happens when you just can't do it?

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    1. When you just can't do it...you don't. Paul David Tripp wrote a book called "Forever" that teaches us to live with eternity in view. Are we trying to please man or God is the question to ask yourself. Seek first His Kingdom.....rejoice always. I am reminded of Paul who loved the Colossians, people he had never met. This is an example of the love of God that binds our hearts in Christin love. We are here on earth for so short a time.We are here to prepare for eternity. Chapter 8 of Forever..."suffering is harder when you have no forever".

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    2. Anonymous, that sounds hard but not unusual. I wonder if it would bless others if you initiated a Bible study that offered child care. Then though you are at a different stage of life, you are opening up an opportunity to those with or without kids to study together. I don't know if that would work in your circumstance, but I thought I'd throw it out. Another thing that naturally breaks down barriers are service opportunities -- like working together at a soup kitchen or ministering at a nursing home. Short term missions trips are good for this too -- anything that allows people of various life stages/circumstances to come together for a common purpose.

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    3. Those things do help, and I do participate in service when I can. I don't want to offer a Bible study, though, because most of the women I know are already stretched to their limits- and some well beyond- by the demands of children's ball games and lessons and social/service groups at church. Some women I know spend no evening of the week at home during sports seasons. I have to advise my female students who want to go to med school to cut back on the commitments at church/ in the college social community to have enough study time.
      It just takes a long time for me to find friends, and I have to be patient with the process. It is when being an intimate part of a church congregation is stressed as a salvation issue- as if being popular at church were somehow a measure of your spiritual maturity- that I have problems with the "pariah" status. When I focus on what God has given me to do and be, I'm quite busy enough to make up for the lack of social standing.

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  12. I have never replied to any blog post before, but today I am prompted to. I am so grateful to find this. I am a 48 yo divorced woman who, by necessity, has pursued a career and, by choice, has never had kids. I have compassion for kids and their parents, but I'm not that good around little ones, and do better with teens, just due to my personality. Like another poster here, my degree (psychology) is sometimes enough to get comments from other members of the Body of Christ, even though I counsel as a Christian. So, because I'm not that person who is all that interested being around little kids, and I'm not married or looking for a husband, and I love to camp alone and look a little granola-ish, I find it very hard to navigate many superficial female relationships in regular churches (despite having several good women friends outside of church). The retreats, Bible studies, and fellowship gatherings just never seem to fit. I have dealt with it by attending a wonderful house church: a formal professional pastor and his wife just have church in their living room, and a rag-tag bunch of us show up for Bible teaching, worship, and prayer support. There are no retreats, no smaller groups, no guilds or leagues. It is just worship, teaching, and support. Much of the world operates in house churches, and I sure find it to be a very real way to participate in the Body of Christ, without having to feel constantly like the "other." Thank you for this post.

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  13. This article evokes mixed feelings for me. I could not agree more strongly with the premise that we (the body of Christ) should not treat anyone as a "pariah" but there are times when the actions of another person are truly sinful and should not be condoned. In cases of serious sin, it may even be appropriate to exclude those involved from fellowship until there has been repentance. When those who have sinned repent, we should embrace them with love and forgiveness but we should not trivialize the sinful choices that were made. It may just be my misunderstanding but the author does not seem to make a distinction between those who have been hurt by circumstances they did not choose and those who whose sinful choices lead to the circumstances they are now in. Both groups need to be embraced by the church but only the former group can say that "they did not fall of the bandwagon of biblical womanhood." The latter group truly did fall of the bandwagon and it is the churches responsibility to help them get back on the bandwagon again.

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    1. Mike, if I may give a little push back, all of the rest of us interacting here have no problem understanding that distinction. In fact, I think that distinction is well understood in the larger Church. I disagree that a woman can fall off the bandwagon. In the analogy I'm using, we can always at any moment at any stage choose to live in light of what God has called us to. It may mean repentance. It may mean reconciling with one we have hurt. It may mean engaging anew as a strong helper in the image of God. I'm not saying we always do, but we always can. We are never at any stage or circumstance in life so far gone that God can't use us as He intended in the future. My point with the bandwagon analogy is that we sometimes project onto women (or they project onto themselves) that they have lost the opportunity to reflect God's image in themselves in the aftermath of certain life circumstances. That's simply not true.

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    2. Wendy, I agree that God can (and does) use our failures for his glory and a truly repentant heart will ALWAYS reflect God's image regardless of past failures, so in that respect I agree with you completely. I do believe you when you say that you understand that we need to make a distinction between those who are involved in sin and those who have been caught up in circumstances beyond their control (or those who have truly repented of past sin), but don’t think this distinction was communicated very well in your article.

      Using your example of divorce, we need to remember that at least one spouse (and often both) are involved in very serious sin or there would not be a divorce. When marriages are headed for divorce, the church should be calling the sinning spouse (or spouses) to repentance. When there is one spouse that is trying to honor God in this difficult circumstance, the church should come alongside them and give them the support they desperately need; they should not be treated as a “pariah.” At the same time, the church needs to be extremely careful not to legitimize the choices of a spouse who is in sin. We need to recognize that true repentance requires one to seek reconciliation, it is not simply an act of saying “I am sorry” and then moving forward with “your life” while abandoning the one you sinned against. While reconciliation is not always possible, because true reconciliation involves both parties, it should be pursued as far as it depends on you. Too often we are asking the wrong question about marriage and divorce, instead of asking “What does God WANT us to do?” we ask “What will God PERMIT us to do?” The former question often requires us to set aside our own desires in order to pursue God’s, the latter question reflects a heart attitude that is far from His.

      So yes, Wendy I agree that church should never treat as a “pariah” those who have been caught up in circumstances they did not choose or those have genuinely repented of their sin but the church also needs to encourage true repentance when there has been sin. We need to remember that when the church fails to confront sin, it has involved itself in that sin; it is just as unloving for the church to ignore sin in the life of a believer as it is for them to treat as a “pariah” those who are not involved in sin. At its core both are acts of selfishness on the part of the church because those within the church are seeking only their own comfort rather than demonstrating God’s love for their brothers and sisters in Christ. Sadly it is neither uncommon for a church to treat as a pariah those who are not sinning nor is it uncommon for one spouse to become involved in an adulterous relationship and leave one church to join another with the one with who they are committing adultery and then serve in the ministry of their new church, and even be married by a pastor of the new church, without ever being confronted about their sin. Where church discipline should have been exercised, too often acceptance of sin is practiced, and where acceptance should have been practiced, too often it is avoidance. Both are sinful choices made by those within the church.

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  14. Just noticed you made the Tim Challies Weekend A La Carte with this blog. Congrats!

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    1. And The Gospel Coalition's! I'm glad this topic is resonating. :-)

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  15. This is a great article; the topic needs attention. But you missed one very big reason/thought: "What if I say the wrong thing and make her feel worse?" Many people just don't know how to approach someone who is going through something difficult. So, sadly, they don't.

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    1. The nice thing is you don't have to say anything direct. You can just ask and listen to the answer. Then ask a follow up question to their answer. I learned that one the hard way.

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  16. Hi! Your post intrigued me and enlightened me after reading it. It's true that sometimes Christians don't willingly associate themselves to those who need grace and love the most.

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  17. As someone led to be a career woman (university professor) and now the primary bread-winner even though married with two children, I've always been out of step with most of the stay-home Moms in my pretty conservative church homes. This post was touching, both as a confirmation that, if I'm doing what God's led me to do, I need to not be affected by the opinions of other humans and as a reminder of how to look at and treat other women whose lives are not part of the "norm." So, thank you.

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  18. How is it, Wendy, that you consistently proclaim what my mind has mulled over for months and I have not had the time or energy to write coherently? I cannot agree with you more. I am blessed to be the "stay-at-home-homeschool-mom" that is typically lauded as the "Proverbs 31 model" yet I have become more and more disenfranchised with such labels. I know too many mature Christian women whose lives look NOTHING like mine to embrace such a stereotypical view of what God wants for women. And I've said for years that staying at home is absolutely impossible for a great majority of women in the world, and if that is true, then we should not be glorifying it as our God-ordained-for-all-women calling. Thank you for writing this. I will be sharing it!

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  19. Let me start off by saying that I have always loved most of your postings. I subscribe to your blog and will continue to do so.

    However, I am not sure how I feel about the use of your word “pariah” to describe the “outcasts” in the church. I am not sure if it feels more offensive to me due to the fact that my 13 year old daughter and I have been studying the caste system in India for the last few weeks for her home school history and the caste system is right at the forefront of brain.

    First of all, I think the comparison between the caste system in India and the proposed caste system in the church does not exist. There is no comparison. The caste system in India occurs due to the depravity of not knowing God for who He is. It exists due to the void of an entire people group void of Christ.

    The “caste system” in the church occurs because sometimes women in the church are so self involved that they cant or wont open up their eyes to the hurting women around them. Let’s not give them excuses here.

    Instead of having to point to out that women in extenuating circumstances have not fallen off the Biblical womanhood bandwagon, why not say that the women who think they have are probably not on the wagon themselves.

    I know all of my baggage, my past single parent-ness, my past divorced-ness, my re-married-ness, my home school mom-ness, my stay at home-ness,…..all of it….was and is under the Sovereign hand of God.

    I feel that this post hurts more than it helps due to it’s title. I feel that it creates legitimacy in justifying and labeling the life of a believing women who did not have an ideal life history by encouraging church women to see these women “pariah’s” as equals.

    I know the goal was to get church women to see hurting women as strong women who should be looked at for examples of strength but the title of this post irritated me to the point I could not fully appreciate the words of wisdom in this post.

    I’ve been a pariah my entire Christian life…but not because I wear my past struggles as a scarlet letter. No, I am a pariah simply because long standing church women have refused to engage with me. It has nothing to do with my past. They don’t even attempt to engage in a conversation with me long enough to find out I have a past.

    End of my rant. :-D
    Overall, I truly enjoy your post’s Wendy.

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  20. Excellent piece. There's a parallel problem for Christian men as well, perhaps not as felt deeply? where the only valid form of Biblical manhood on offer is married with a quiverful of children. My own situation (single male, never married, 51) is not what I would have wanted and certainly not what I was believe would happen. I have sometimes found it quite alienating to be in 'family' churches, and to have judgements passed on me as to why I am single; my eventual solution has been to settle in a church where there are lots of singles - and there I don't feel such a fish out of water. At least Bill Gothard is not known in my part of the world.

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    1. That's a good point, Anonymous. I'm glad you pointed that out before the comments closed.

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