I thank God for The Gospel Coalition’s consistent support and enthusiasm for women in the church—and for the privilege of being part of that support and enthusiasm from TGC’s early years. I’m glad to respond to a request for a piece on my new book, Women and God: Hard Questions, Beautiful Truth; you always learn a lot looking back over a writing project, once you have a little distance.
With my tongue partly in cheek, and with only thankfulness in my heart, I’ve aimed to put into words some of the questions that have swirled in my mind as I’ve considered the project of this particular book. Here, then, are five reasons I might wish I’d never written it.
1. Because People Should Read the Bible Instead
The only way to get at the heart of a subject like “women and God” is to trace its trajectory from beginning to end in Scripture. And the way to do that is to read the book God breathed out—to journey through it from beginning to end. My book is like a travel report with personal commentary. But of course it’s better if people travel themselves.
And yet I know there’s a place for travel guides. Years ago I used a delightful literary guide to the British Isles, which pointed me to landmarks associated with writers wherever I went. A friend of mine uses archeological guides. My book helps readers trace God’s goodness to his female image bearers through the Bible, pointing out landmarks to notice all the way through.
If people read and study the Bible more or perhaps for the first time, even just to check out or argue with what I’ve written, then I certainly won’t wish I hadn’t written it.
2. Because the Battles Are Hot
Any gender-related topic gives off heat these days, inside and outside the church. As I write, thousands of women are marching in cities all over the United States, and they’re marching as women, because of issues that specifically concern women. Issues of gender identity are being debated on every side. Today on the radio I heard first about the growing number of sexual assaults in the military, and second about a doctor who molested more than 150 girl athletes. We human beings are living out our maleness and femaleness amid sin and pain and ongoing battles.
When The Good Book Company graciously asked me to write this book, the safety-loving person inside me advised against it. I’m not a fighter by nature. But I quickly reminded myself that we’re all on the battlefield, whether we like it or not. Conflict isn’t just out there; it’s raging in our hearts, ever since Adam and Eve. Gender issues are most intimately related to who we are and how God created his world to work. We don’t live too many years before discovering that how we humans relate as male and female brings not only some of life’s greatest joy but also some of the deepest grief.
We believers must be ready to speak into these things, out of a deep saturation in God’s Word, the joy of knowing God himself, and the shared pain of the fall. We need to speak clearly to the next generations, to those who suffer, and to those who don’t know Christ. We have not arguments to win but good news of a Savior to share. And according to his Word, that Savior redeems every part of our human existence. As the Heidelberg Catechism says, “I am not my own, but belong—body and soul, in life and in death—to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ.”
3. Because It Might End Up on the ‘Marriage Shelf’
I don’t blame single women for not wanting to read many books about women and God. Sometimes such books are mostly about marriage, or they’re about marriage in a way that applies only to married women—which doesn’t have to be the case. (There are a lot of wonderful books about marriage that are about a lot more than marriage.)
Women and God isn’t a book about marriage. It’s about women. It’s about women and our bodies, women and our gifts, women and our sorrows—things all women know and to which Scripture speaks. It certainly includes the topic of marriage, but it aims to address that topic from a biblical perspective: as a temporary reflection of an eternal reality that affects every single believer in Christ. The eternal reality is the union of Christ and his church—the ultimate marriage the Bible’s story reaches for, from Genesis on. Celebrating our part in Christ’s body is the calling of every one of us.
One of the chapters I most enjoyed working on is titled “Women’s Bodies.” My starting question was this: “How can we speak biblically about women’s bodies in a way that addresses God’s design for childbearing and that applies profoundly to every woman whether or not she bears children?” There’s no question that the “equipment” related to childbearing is a deep part of every woman’s identity: that equipment is forever pestering us with reminders of its existence, in one way or another. What does this mean? Is there meaningful connection between physical and spiritual reality, specifically in relation to our female bodies? Yes—in fact, I want to say our female bodies are preaching the Bible’s story to all of us, all the time.
4. Because It’s Hard to ‘Stay on the Line’
One of the instructions for biblical exposition used by The Charles Simeon Trust is to “stay on the line.” That is, we don’t want to add to what the Bible says, and we don’t want to take away. We want to understand and communicate clearly the meaning God intended. We want to tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth.
I wonder if there’s anyone reading this who hasn’t felt great need for this instruction particularly in discussions of what Scripture says about women and men. Whole books have been written on 1 Timothy 2:12, partly because of the complexity of the original text, but surely also because of the huge temptation to remove or add just a little to strengthen one’s interpretation. As we critique others’ dealings with Scripture, the arguments grow more and more complex.
I wrote this book trying to cling to the line—and found it to be a lifeline.
But we mustn’t become paralyzed, casual, or angry. We know we can’t get it all right. Yet as believers we know that God’s Word is breathed out by him, with meaning we can receive with his help. We receive that meaning not perfectly but more and more clearly as we pray and study and worship and seek the wisdom of others. Ultimately our confidence (and joy) is in God and his Word. I wrote Women and God trying to cling to the line—and found it to be a lifeline.
5. Because This Topic Matters (but Must Not Define Us)
The topic of women and God is crucial. We absolutely need to talk about it. But it must not become an all-defining grid through which I as a woman interpret everything else. There’s no gospel of biblical womanhood. There’s only the one gospel—of the Lord Jesus Christ who died bearing our sin and rose victorious from the grave. Women (and men) need regularly to study not topics but the Scriptures—and not just for the purpose of clarifying topics, but for the purpose of knowing Christ.
So I don’t wish I’d never written this book. In fact, I’m delighted to have written it, because in delving into this topic I came face to face again and again with Christ and his love for the women and men he came to redeem.
It’s easy to argue over issues and texts without personally confronting the reality of Jesus. As believers we affirm that reality, and yet we too often are not consciously celebrating the presence of our exalted, risen, reigning Lord Jesus. He is at God’s right hand right now, in all his glory; he is with us and in us through his powerful Spirit; and he will burst onto our vision soon, with all his glory uncovered. Those facts should loom large in our life together. And yet I know I’m capable of arguing about Jesus and forgetting he’s right here. I’m capable of asking if God is good while looking right past his goodness poured out to us in his Son.
It’s God himself—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—who creates and then restores the unity of male and female in fellowship and worship. The Bible’s story is about God. God alone defines every topic. And every topic must find its center in the Lord Jesus—including topics relating to women.
Editors’ note: Order a copy of Kathleen Nielson’s new book, Women and God: Hard Questions, Beautiful Truth (The Good Book Company, 2018).