At a Campus Crusade for Christ retreat eight years ago, I sat with 50 other young women at a Young Life camp in Goshen, Va., listening to a female speaker give a lecture about marriage. The topic was "being faithful while we wait."
What I remember most from the event is not what it took to be a good Christian wife. It is what my male friend told me about what the guys learned during their session: how to follow the spirit’s calling toward their specific, unique ministries.
That was the first time I felt outrage over how my future was being handled, compared to that of the guys. It was suddenly clear to me: Men were free to be discipled without the constraints of gender, while women, like me, remained shackled to a gendered role.
At the time, I wanted to question this difference in teaching, but I didn’t know how. If this discipleship was what "biblical womanhood" looked like, how could I question what God had deemed my proper station?
But I knew I wanted something more.
I knew I wanted to learn how to follow Christ, because I was in love with Jesus and his message. This was what I thought discipleship was, but the retreat was sending a different message: As a woman, the only way I could follow Christ and learn about God’s plans for me was through the lenses of marriage and motherhood.
I am not the first nor the only woman let down by "female discipleship." Most evangelical Christian literature caters toward marriage and parenthood for women, instead of discipleship and spiritual engagement. There is, even today, a dearth of guidance for when we feel called beyond those spheres.
But women are called to bear the fruits of the spirit, not to "biblical womanhood." Our calling is to bear the fruits of self-control, faithfulness, and love, wherever they find expression, not to specifically, or only, cultivate the fruits of purity, marriage, and motherhood.
The spirit-filled fruits, not the cultural norms atop false pedestals, are the true measures of Christian discipleship. It is crucial that we reorient our teaching, to girls and boys alike, toward these three biblical fruits.
1. Self-control, instead of purity
A central tenet of evangelical discipleship for women is the concept of "purity." While purity can mean holy living, historically it has been socially constructed to shame women, urging them to “maintain” themselves as the “pure property” of their husbands.
Many young evangelical women, out of a sense of conviction over this aspect of their discipleship, sign virginity pledges vowing to not have sexual intercourse until their wedding night. While purity culture is preached to women and men alike, an inordinate burden is placed on the woman, to “uphold” their virtue in the face of “normal" male sexual appetite. The social consequences for sex outside marriage likewise fall heavily on the woman, not the man.
While there is nothing wrong with a woman's decision to abstain from sexual activity until marriage, the shame with which evangelicals inundate Christian women who consider otherwise is despicable. Pastors still compare women who engage in premarital sex to chewed gum, used tape, licked lollipops, and crumbled flowers, linking their self-worth to their sexual activity.
Thankfully, where shame damages, the fruit of self-control can heal. Self-control empowers women to pursue God in healthy boundaries, instead of shaming them when they fall short of patriarchal standards of “purity."
Self-control focuses on and develops a Christian’s gifts to grow closer to God and neighbor, and to help the Kingdom of God come on earth as it is in heaven. Concerning sexuality, self-control empowers women and men alike to understand their own needs and desires, and use their autonomy and empathy to engage in them. In the act of harvesting the fruit of self-control, women may choose to be abstinent or sexually active, both out of conviction guided by the Holy Spirit.
2. Faithfulness, instead of marriage
The desire to put marriage on a divine pedestal excludes the 42 percent of evangelicals who have never married or are widowed, divorced, or separated. This divining of marriage also ignores the biblical and historical examples of Christians who did not marry. If marriage is intended to be such a significant part of Christian women’s discipleship, then the apostle Junia, the deaconess Phoebe, Julian of Norwich, Mother Theresa, and every nun in history could not be considered true disciples.
In contrast, the fruit of faithfulness emphasizes faithfulness to God’s calling, whether it manifests in marriage and motherhood, service and ministry, or any combination thereof. The fruit of faithfulness empowers women to embrace their holy vocations in any stage of life.
When a Christian cultivates the fruit of faithfulness, the focus shifts from a spouse, potential or actual, to God's will. This breaks the confines of the marital realm and makes discipleship accessible to every person, married or single. Discipling women in faithfulness invests in the growth of a woman's gifts and into her God-given self as she is, not until she is married or as she "waits."
3. Love, instead of motherhood
When motherhood is an elevated trait of discipleship, it excludes the women who make the conscious decision to not have children, and those who struggle with infertility. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that nearly 19 percent of women live with some degree of infertility. And many more women make the conscious decision to not have children at all. Nearly 50 percent of women ages 25-29 do not have children, as do nearly 29 percent of women ages 30-34, due to a variety of external factors and personal choices.
There is no biblical evidence to suggest motherhood is a prerequisite to a woman's relationship with God. We do not know if Miriam, Deborah, Huldah, or Anna, all prophetesses, had children, and God's interactions with these women changed the world. Female mystics and monastics, who did not marry or bear children, wrote intimate accounts of God's interactions.
Instead of the fruit of the womb, these and other women bore the spiritual fruit of love. Women who raise this fruit show care to all in Christ’s family, which surpasses the physical bonds of biological parent and child. This love shows compassion for the children of injustice around us, from DREAMers to CHIP recipients, from children threatened by law enforcement to families broken apart by corrupt justice systems, from moms demanding action for common-sense gun laws to nuns caring for the poor and sick.
Eight years separate me from that fateful Cru retreat, and if I could go back in time with the voice I have found, I would ask the leader to instruct us in how to be disciples of Christ not for the sake of an imaginary spouse, but for the sake of the Gospel.
I would ask her to please help us understand our own bodies, so we may make wise decisions with them for our sake, to help us become more faithful to God's calling when our faith is shaken, and to learn to love God's most vulnerable people.
Women are called to bear the fruit of the spirit. Evangelical leaders must honor this calling — as they honored it in my brothers all those years ago.