The Gospel-Centered Woman is Wendy Alsup’s third book (first, second) and a return to practical theology. How does theology get behind the polite smiles and Conservative Christian Values to hurt, brokenness and depravity? Wendy’s contention is that it is the gospel alone that equips us to bridge this gap. The truths of the gospel are a comfort to men as well but ‘there is also a particular balm to women that meets us in the woundings tied specifically to our gender.’
Part One: God’s design
Right out of the blocks, Wendy heads off any nonsense about a woman’s primary identity being as a passive receiver. Women are to be strong, she says, strong helpers. The term ‘helper’ is much maligned, partly because she appears to be a largely defunct counterpart to ‘Joe Christian Dude, pastor dad, leading his family from a position of strength and power, constant in character in the marathon Christian walk.’ Wendy calls this man a myth, and argues that ‘helper’ is not a role for a man’s inadequacies so much as a reflection of God’s image. What follows is a wonderful word study of what it means to be a helper like God, including a number of passages that use battle imagery. A wife helps, sustains, strengthens and nourishes her husband, because this is what God does for her.
Now, you’ll notice that this discussion of women’s primary identity is played out in marriage. However, Wendy contents that ‘when the light of the gospel shines on Scripture’s teaching on the role of women… it should resonate as well with the single woman watching her biological clock ticking away without a date in ten years, as the wife and mom to runs her home like the virtuous wife of Proverbs 31.’ At each point of her discussion, she considers how this identity plays out for women who aren’t married. I appreciated these applications because they broadened the exploration of what it is to be a gospel-centred woman but I’d be keen to hear how those of you who are single/divorced/widowed found them.
Part Two: Redemption
This section deals with issues like contentment, prayer, forgiveness and idolatry: surefire topics to induce guilt in any woman! Except they shouldn’t, if the gospel of grace is brought to bear on them, and that’s exactly what Wendy does.
A highlight for me was the section on contentment: ‘It is one thing to be content with your bank account or your clothing options. But how do you reconcile godliness with contentment when your parents divorce, your church splits, your husband leaves or your child rebels? How do you reconcile it when none of them ever show up in your life in the first place? Are we really supposed to be content in the midst of these things in our lives that do not yet reflect God’s kingdom and God’s goodness?’
Wendy takes contentment to be more about sufficiency than about happiness. That means you can be angry about a situation, and should be – it is not the fullness of God’s kingdom come! But contentment is about knowing Christ’s equipping to face those struggles. Theologically, it is Christ’s righteous life, not just his death, which gives us the resources to do so. This is a full-orbed gospel, one that takes into account the empowering work of the Spirit: ‘godliness with contentment does not mean pulling yourself up by your bootstraps. If the phrase fills you with guilt, you are missing the entire point. The gospel does not obligate you to contentment. It equips you for contentment.‘
Part Three: Wisdom
When it comes to wisdom, it’s all too easy for practical ‘advice’, biblical or not, to be taken as law. This can lead some women to become swallowed up in hopelessness when they compare the virtuous wife of Proverbs 31 with their own reality, for example. Wendy argues that understanding the genre and application of wisdom literature cuts against this tendency. The Proverbs 31 woman is about one woman in a particular situation – not yours! (But notice that this paragon of womanhood has people work in her house!) I’d argue that understanding the genre and application of Old Testament law would also help women who feel burdened by legalism.
Wendy’s hermeneutical principle that ‘the Bible is the best commentary on itself’ rightly gets us to take the whole counsel of scripture into account. So, in the discussion on marriage, for example, ‘submission’ must be congruent with being a ‘strong helper’. However, the problem with what is ‘clear’ interpreting what is ‘unclear’ is that different things appear un/clear to different cultures! Wendy does acknowledge the cultural boundedness of her study of the gospel-centered woman. In my opinion, this is a strength of the book: she consistently points her reader to the Bible and encourages them to read, ponder and apply it.
We need more books like this: accessible, with thoughtful pastoral insights and sound theology. This is theology for real women who believe in a risen Lord Jesus while they live in a broken world. It’s dripping with grace and models the wisdom it encourages.
Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.