“The most influential women’s leader at your church may be someone who has never stepped inside its sanctuary.”
So writes Kate Shellnutt in her article examining the changing face of women’s ministry. In an era of blogs, social media, and live-streamed events, Christian women are no longer limited to discipleship relationships in the local church. Instead, teaching and mentoring is increasingly outsourced to the leaders standing on national platforms.
Women still crave intimate, informal discipleship with a mentor. But the internet has made it possible for every woman to feel she has that kind of relationship with well-known speakers and authors. “Literally, you are inviting this woman leader into your kitchen via your phone or your laptop,” says Hannah Anderson, co-host of the Persuasion podcast.
Even while “doing life together” remains an aspirational buzzphrase, women like Beth Moore, Ann Voskamp, and Jen Hatmaker—whom most of us will never meet face-to-face—have already filled the position of role model and spiritual mentor for thousands of Christian women.
Warm Cup of Tea
Into this cultural context, Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth’s new book arrives like a cup of tea from the hand of a friend—real, warm, brisk, and very welcome. Wolgemuth is herself a national leader (her Revive Our Hearts radio broadcast gets 1 million listeners), but Adorned: Living Out the Beauty of the Gospel Together focuses all its attention on the biblical mandates for its readers’ real lives.
Following the text of Titus 2, especially verses 3 to 5, Wolgemuth gives practical exhortation for ongoing, face-to-face relationships among godly women. She wants her readers to embrace “the biblical model of older women living out the gospel and training younger women to do the same [and] of younger women recognizing the value of older women in their lives” (20).
At more than 300 pages Adorned isn’t a quick read, but its 14 chapters don’t feel overly wordy. Wolgemuth begins by laying out the Titus 2 pattern of older women well versed in sound doctrine, marked by reverent behavior, and willing to give themselves for the good of younger women. And lest younger women think this has nothing to do with them, she repeatedly encourages them to practice now the godly habits they hope to someday display as older women.
Doctrine for the Heart
I especially appreciate Wolgemuth’s emphasis on the importance of sound doctrine: “The soil of doctrine in which we are planted can make us beautiful and help us point others to the beauty of Christ and his gospel. But only if it’s the right doctrine” (33). Part of the problem with outsourcing discipleship to national figures is the lack of accountability when those women make theological missteps. Jen Hatmaker’s recent comments about homosexual marriage, for example, highlight the dangers of lone role models with outsized influence [read Rosaria Butterfield’s response]. A blogosphere mentor isn’t simply far away from a woman she disciples, but she’s also disconnected from the ordinary ministry—and accountability—of the woman’s church. And women need mentors with healthy doctrine.
Right doctrine, of course, is found only in God’s Word. Even a wise older woman and discerning younger woman in a real-life relationship can quickly go astray if their discussions are not grounded in the Scriptures. Though Wolgemuth doesn’t direct her readers here, Deuteronomy 6:7 provides a vital pattern for mentoring: “You shall teach [the Scriptures] diligently to your children, and shall talk of them when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise.” Both biological and spiritual mothers take the content of their instruction from God’s infallible, authoritative, and sufficient Word.
Building on her emphasis on right doctrine—“the what that leads to our now what” (39)—Wolgemuth proceeds to address the specific commands Paul gives women. Part Two (“A Woman Under Control”) deals with slander, addiction, self-control, and purity. Part Three (“A Woman Under Her Roof”) explores at-home-work, marriage, submission, motherhood, and kindness.
These aren’t easy topics, but Wolgemuth applies them to the heart with challenging precision and warm encouragement. For each chapter, Wolgemuth also includes a set of reflection questions for older women and a set for younger women. (Though, as a 38-year-old I was unsure which category applied to me.)
Living Life in the Local Body
One inevitable consequence of today’s remote teaching model is that Christian women follow leaders who seem nearly perfect. Their teaching sessions are researched and edited, resulting in witty and insightful 25-minute video segments. Every time we see them, they’re dressed and ready for the public eye. Even their private lives—glimpsed via social media—are subject to a level of curation impossible in real-time relationships. They may confess past failings, but we never actually get to see them fail, repent, and repeat.
All of this can leave ordinary women feeling highly unsuited to lead other women. I’m thankful, then, that Wolgemuth takes the time to address older women weighed down by regret and shame for sins committed over a lifetime:
We can’t afford to allow past (or current) failures and foolishness to deprive us of the blessings God inevitably multiplies when women come together to draw from one another’s wisdom and experience. This is where God makes valuable use of the things we’ve learned to help others avoid mistakes we have made and to encourage each other to become faithful, fruitful followers of Christ. (80)
Another consequence of outsourcing our female role models is that their ministry—in front of hundreds of listeners or thousands of social media followers—can seem more important than a simple partnership between one older woman and one younger woman. Here, too, Adorned brings a much-needed corrective:
Older woman, you may never be asked to stand on a platform to speak or teach from behind a mic on a national radio broadcast. . . . But never underestimate the impact your life can have on other women—life-to-life, adorning the gospel, wherever he may have planted you. (87)
My one slight reservation about this otherwise excellent book is that it sometimes seems to overstate the importance of mentoring partnerships. When quoting testimonies like “‘No one ever taught me about Jesus or took time to show me God’s love [until I had a mentor]’” (85), I wish the book had taken care to put mentoring in perspective. One-to-one discipleship is important to spiritual development, but—as the weight of Paul’s teaching shows—the public preaching of the Word and the corporate life of Christ’s body should receive even greater priority.
In its final chapter, Adorned encourages us that our woman-to-woman interactions have implications for the reputation of the gospel. In fact, as Titus 2 tells us, these mentoring relationships will earn the respect of outsiders (vv. 5, 8) and will make God’s Word attractive to those around us.
In a culture of distance and fame, Wolgemuth has done a wonderful job reminding us that face-to-face, life-on-life, moment-by-moment relationships are something precious indeed.