Recently a well known Christian blogger, Rachel Held Evans, offered some thoughts on concepts of biblical womanhood and beauty, responding in part to comments from Mark Driscoll and to books by Martha Peace and Dorothy Patterson. Evans alleges that there is a fairly common de facto teaching in Christian circles that “is as clear as it is ominous: Stay beautiful or your husband might leave you. And if he does, it’s partially your fault” (the bold type is hers). This message inspired Rachel “to devote the entire month of February to studying everything the Bible says about women and beauty.” (Wow!) At the end of her study, she concludes: “I’ve found nothing in the Bible to suggest that God requires women to be beautiful.” Instead, the Bible affirms what women everywhere know and experience: That bodies change (1) as they get older, (2) when they bear children, (3) when they get sick, and (4) as they experience joy, pain, life, death (certainly that!), victory, heartache and time.
Evangelical megablogger Tim Challies, not without trepidation, responded. He agrees with the contention that the Bible does not require physical beauty of women. “The beauty the Bible commends is a beauty of character more than a beauty of appearance.” That said, however, the outer beauty of a wife reflects inner beauty to a certain limited extent, insofar as it expresses her desire to care for the “Temple” God has given her (her body) and her desire to respect and please her husband by keeping herself appealing. While what is considered “outer beauty” is culturally relative, and Challies makes clear that he is not speaking of a Hollywood-starlet conception of beauty, what is not culturally relative is that spouses (and Challies makes the same charge for men) ought (within reason) to do those things they know bring happiness and contentment to one another.
The conversation has continued. Evans appreciates the “caution” with which Challies approached the issue, but is “disappointed to see him return to the familiar refrain that ‘outer beauty reflects inner beauty’ and that a good wife will keep up appearances for her husband.” It would take too long to recap the rest, so let me get straight to my suggestions. To some extent, this seems to be a classic case of two people arguing the opposite sides of the same coin — From “Yes X, but Y” to “Yes Y, but X,” where each is actually granting the other side but emphasizing their own side. First, some points regarding Rachel Held Evans’ argument:
1. Evans is coming at these questions from the standpoint of an observant woman who has seen far too often how devastating and oppressive societal standards of female beauty can be. She is absolutely right that American culture (and, frankly, most cultures) establishes an impossible-to-achieve standard, legislates that standard across the board for all women of all kinds, and then ruthlessly mocks and demeans those who fail to meet the standard. Let’s call this The Law of Beauty: you must be tall, large-breasted, slim-waisted, luminous-skinned, and utterly free of fat, wrinkles or gray hairs, or else you are not beautiful and therefore not attractive, not worthy, not valuable. The Christian Church needs to make a special effort to distance itself, radically distance itself, from this conception of beauty and from burdening its daughters with it.
2. No wife should be made to feel that unless she maintains a certain standard of beauty — especially when the only definition of ‘beauty’ countless women know is Vogue/Cosmo definition — then she will displease God and either lose her husband or cause his infidelity. When men warn ominously that they might be inclined to stray if their wives don’t work a little harder to satisfy the Law of Beauty, they ought to be ashamed of themselves. Is it true that men are, to some extent, influenced in their thoughts and behaviors by the extent to which their wives maintain a pleasant appearance? Let’s be honest: of course it’s true. But it is only a minor influence in a major sin, where men retain complete agency and complete responsibility for their actions. The smell of cake might tempt me to eat more than I ought, but only a child would blame the smell or even blame the cook. Precipitating factors are not causal determinants, and men need to take full responsibility when they stray. “You let yourself go” is never a legitimate excuse, or even a partial excuse, for infidelity.
3. I also agree with Evans that there is no biblical injunction for women to be beautiful or retain certain standards of beauty. Actually, this has nothing to do with beauty and it has nothing to do with womanhood, either. It has to do with the consideration that two loving spouses ought to show each other. Anything that pertains to women here also pertains to men. Thus, framing this as a matter of “biblical womanhood” is, in my view, misleading. It’s not a matter of biblical womanhood so much as the love for which all humans are created. To the extent that men have used the language of “biblical womanhood” to enforce culturally-relative standards of beauty, and to force women to be more pleasing to them, they have sinned.
I actually don’t think that Tim Challies (though I could be wrong) would disagree with any of the above. Here are some points in regard to Challies’ argument.
1. I believe that Tim Challies is coming to the conversation from the perspective of a man who has seen the following story time and again. Be forewarned: this is not pretty, and not prescriptive. I am not saying this is right; I am saying that it happens. Evans writes, “I have never in my life met a woman who did not want to be beautiful for her husband.” To which I say: yes and no. As a general rule, wives would prefer to be beautiful for their husbands. But wanting to do something, and taking the effort or being willing to take the effort to make sure it happens, are two different things. In any case, I have seen this happen — right or not — many times, and often hear it discussed by Christian men:
It may take two years, or ten years, or twenty, and it may take two children or four or none, but eventually the wife (in this story) no longer cares to look good for her husband. As soon as she comes home, she puts on the old pajama pants and shapeless sweat shirt. She may dress up for outings with their friends, but if it’s only a date for the two of them then she wears jeans and a t-shirt and no makeup. In fact, over time, she might leave her legs and armpits unshaven, at least for long periods of time, stop bothering to make her hair, and so forth. (None of which is sinful in itself, of course, but stay with me.)
How does this make the husband feel? Neglected. Disrespected, if she does not make herself presentable in front of others. But most of all, he feels taken for granted. The wife knows that he cannot morally satisfy his God-given sexual desires anywhere else but in their marriage, knows that hers is the only beauty he can enjoy in the most intimate way. But she (in this case) no longer seeks to satisfy him. He always understood that her physical beauty would change and fade; what irks him is not that her beauty is fading but that she is still beautiful but is doing nothing to show that beauty, nothing to give that beauty to him as a gift. He may even wonder if just a little less security, a little less assurance that he will not stray, would cause her to try to please him again. Or he starts to think that he can justify his flirtations with others, or even his adultery, by pointing to how little effort she seems to be putting into the physical/sexual/romantic (they’re all one and the same for the fellas) part of their relationship. Ultimately, the husband feels physically rejected, sexually frustrated, and taken for granted. Again, I’m not saying this is right. I’m saying it happens.
It’s very important to emphasize that the basic moral imperative here has nothing to do with gender. If it’s emphasized only or primarily from men to women, then it starts implicitly to give pseudo-biblical and -ecclesial sanction to the Law of Beauty. This should not be a matter of what wives do for husbands. It’s a matter of what people who love each other do for one another. It’s a matter of spouses understanding what brings joy and passion and fulfillment to one another, and giving that to one another as a gift.
There’s no biblical injunction to be beautiful — and baptizing The Law of Beauty is indeed sinful and oppressive. It fills the hearts of women with shame and resentment and insecurity. But there is a biblical injunction for spouses to give themselves to one another.
3. Finally, while Evans objects to the inner-outer beauty meme, I think Challies’ point is merely that the inner beauty of a woman, her wisdom and generosity and love, will tend to express itself in caring to please her husband, in the same way that what is beautiful within the soul of a husband should express itself in caring to please his wife.
Challies points to 1 Corinthians 6, which refers to our bodies as temples, and Evans objects that this “says nothing about women maintaining a certain level of beauty.” But that’s precisely the point. Challies is not really talking about maintaining a certain level of beauty. He’s talking about taking care of your body. Tending to it for the glory of God. But what Challies might have pointed to (and Evans seems to think he was pointing to) is 1 Corinthians 7, where couples are encouraged not to deny each other intimacy because each belongs to the other. As Paul writes in 1 Cor 7:4, “The wife does not have authority over her own body but yields it to her husband. In the same way, the husband does not have authority over his own body but yields it to his wife.” Your body is a gift of God to your spouse, and if it pleases the spouse then perhaps you can, out of love, out of gratitude, out of a desire to fulfill your partner, offer that gift in a way that pleases him or pleases her. This is what Challies means by “availability” (although I’m not a fan of the word here).
You might respond: 1 Corinthians 7 is about sex, not about dress or appearance. Again: Yes and No. It is about giving oneself fully to another, and it applies to sex as well as other parts of the relationship. Rightly understood, taking care of your body may well be a part of “yielding” your body to your spouse out of love.
Men need to be careful that they do not manipulate the scripture in order to guilt their wives into different behaviors. Men need to be very careful that they do not blame women and the natural aging process for their own declining libido and for the loss of a sex life that they had imagined for themselves. Men cannot force their wives to want to please them sexually. Ideally, each member of the relationship will be fully giving the self to the other in a way (within biblical bounds, of course) that pleases and fulfills the other. If one member of the relationship feels that the other is not sufficiently giving, then that one member should give more, and by love bring love out of the other. The beauty, the power, even the sacral significance of sex and marriage itself is found in this self-yielding, and apart from it sex and marriage lose their spiritually creative power. The best that men can do, I believe, is model the sacrificial love that Christ showed for the church.
And here is where we circle back to Evans’ point, and the desperate need for a radical Christian critique of the modern western concept of beauty. Christ, I have to believe, would want his bride to be free of a Law of Beauty that places a yoke of shame of disappointment upon his Bride’s shoulders. If there is anywhere where a woman should feel free from the oppressive Law of Beauty, it’s in the sanctum of marriage. If there’s anywhere where a woman should feel utterly secure and utterly loved regardless of her appearance, it’s in marriage. Women need that haven from worldly pressures.
So men should be careful that, no matter what they are saying, women might be hearing them differently. The word “beauty” has been twisted beyond recognition in our culture. It may not be helpful here. The men might only be saying that they would appreciate it if their wife still showed that they still cared to please their husbands’ senses. Yet women might be hearing that they must fight the aging process, that they must lose weight, that they must look like her, or that they are no longer desirable. Christ would not want that for his Bride.
Christ died for his Bride and gave her freedom. If the Bride seeks to please him, it’s only because he gave himself for her fully even while she was rejecting him. Christ loved forth the love of his bride. In that way he is our savior, and in that way he is our example.