Despite widespread perception, deeply embedded associations and centuries of conditioning, these two words are not mutually exclusive. Rather, they are but two sides of the same coin.
Fierce: bold, ardent, passionate, powerful, relentless, strong.
A force to be reckoned with.
When I think of the women I know, those who walk through life with me, side-by-side, heart-to-heart, this is the most prominent descriptor that comes to mind. Loving, loyal, caring, courageous, beautiful, thoughtful, articulate, immeasurably wise, gentle even, yes, certainly, they are all of these and more, but fierce is not least among them. In fact, put the adverb fiercely in front of any of the above adjectives, and it only serves to make the statement more accurately telling of their character.
I grew up in a loving, supportive Christian family, the oldest of four daughters. Make no mistake about it, I have always known I was deeply loved and valued. And still, our home was one structured around patriarchal thought, though as a child I was hardly aware there was any formal name for it.
But I can tell you this…
I have always felt it, felt the weight of it.
Growing up I was taught, both directly and peripherally, that a man is to be the “head of the household,” and as such, at the end of the day, the husband’s and/or father’s word was to be final, and ultimately should always be regarded as “right” and of the highest standard. A woman was to submit to this authority over her and such a posture should be honored in the home and church. But if I am to square with you, this arrangement has never set well with me. Something deep in my bones has always been distinctly at odds with this model. And yet, for a significant portion of my life, I couldn’t have told you why.
Rewind with me, if you will, roughly 10 years: I was a teenager when my well-meaning mother first tried to coax [or coerce rather], me into learning how to cook. She attempted [unsuccessfully I might add] to require I prepare dinner for the family at least once a week so that I might “hone this skill set necessary for a woman.” I can specifically recall her saying in exasperation, “how do you ever expect to find a husband if you can’t cook?” I resented her use of what I considered to be severely insensitive, ignorant words. Quick on the trigger, I wasted no time spewing back careless words of my own regarding my independence and rejection of the notion that I should “need a man to take care of me.” If my ability to slave away in the kitchen was a contingency for marriage, I would just soon never marry, or would simply find a man capable of feeding himself. Certainly such a one must exist.
I knew these words served as daggers in my poor mothers heart, and I regret that. I was not skilled in the art of arguing well at 15. And yet, at a very young age I knew that what I had to bring to the table as a woman, and someday as a wife in the context of marriage, greatly exceeded the simplistic assumption of what I might be capable of setting on one.
We laugh about it now, especially considering that today I love the art and process of cooking. However, I learned to love it of my own accord and volition, not by force or out of duty. All the better then.
Fast forward to college. I can still remember my father making the following statement upon having heard I’d started dating someone: “well good, at least we’re getting our money’s worth.” Now, I wholeheartedly acknowledge that this playful comment was never intended to be condescending or demeaning. I certainly don’t hold it against him. And yet, it’s important to acknowledge that the underlying message in statements such as these is this: the most productive, valuable thing to gain, as a woman, from a college education, is a husband. Someone to lift the burden of care from the shoulders of parents. As women, we are not inherently enough on our own, not complete without a man to “take care of us.”
And while in retrospect I can see the fingerprints of such perspectives smeared all about the surfaces of my life, because patriarchy is a very subtle creature in our western culture, it has really only been in the last few years that I have truly been able to wrap words around it, speak its effects into some degree of intelligibility and to identify the threads as they have woven themselves so slyly, albeit fastidiously, throughout the pages of my story. And as I begin to peel back the layers, I’m discovering a distinct framework that is helping me bring to light something I have always deeply known:
I am a woman.
I am not weak, not a commodity, and I am not to blame for human depravity.
I have a mind; it is critical thinking. I have a voice; it is worth hearing.
I was not created to fit a restrictive mold; I was created for Kingdom work.
I bear the mark of my Creator in my femininity, not in spite of it.
I am of no lesser value than any one of my brothers.
I, on my own, and by the power of the Spirit in me, am enough.
Now in an effort to derail any misconception that I might be attempting to shake a fist at men and their brute insensitivity, please hear me out when I assure you this is in fact not the case. Rather, one of the more profound and challenging realities this revelation has brought to light is this: while this same liberating truth is wholly worth celebrating, it simultaneously prohibits me from playing the blame game. I am responsible for my own actions, my attitude, my heart and my sin. It is my responsibility to take all of these things to the foot of the cross. No one stands as mediary between myself and the blood of Jesus. Period. Furthermore, this reality goes a step further by lifting the burden of responsibility from the shoulders of men. My husband [assuming I marry] will never be held accountable for the cultivation or current standing of my relationship with the Lord. He does not bear the burden to “lead” in this way as those fluent in Christianese [of which I am one] might compel you to believe.
I am already lead by the Spirit.
I don’t need another leader, I need a partner. This is both liberating and sobering.
Now, none of this ought to be extrapolated, for even a moment, to assume that we don’t need our brothers at all. On the contrary, we need them very, very much.
A few Sundays back, I sat, tears brimming, in the pews during service while one of our pastors seized a most unexpected, beautiful opportunity to speak out into the congregation words of acknowledgement for the indispensable nature of every woman in the crowd. He reminded us of the revolutionary actions Jesus took to bestow great dignity upon women in a culture committed to disparaging them. He thanked us for our contributions and our voices. He thanked us for our support and our leadership. And in that very moment, it was his voice that was so very needed. So incredibly valuable. You see, words have this funny habit of meaning things. They have the ability to breathe tremendous life into places and spaces where perhaps it had been lacking previously [and likewise can have the opposite effect]. And on this particular evening, it was the voice of my brother that broke chains and brought down walls.
The fact of the matter is this: we women are fighting fierce battles alongside our brothers on behalf of the Kingdom in our city and our world every.single.day. And it pains me that the voices of more than half the Church so often go unnoticed and unheard; they get forgotten about, silenced even, or not taken seriously while their oppression is casually dismissed as a “secondary or third-tier issue” within the body. This ought not be so! May we seriously contemplate the weight of Paul’s words as he addressed the churches in Galatia:
There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus [Galations 3:28]
In a culture that boasts great freedoms, it’s easy to overlook and dismiss oppressive forces like patriarchy as non-issues, or at best, “second or third-tier issues.” But they aren’t second or third tier issues if you’re a woman. They aren’t second or third-tier issues to our Father who designed us in the Imago Dei. Neither should they be second or third-tier issues to those of us who are charged to be his hands and feet. We so desperately need to be equipping all the saints to bring Kingdom here on earth in a holistic manner, side-by-side, as a full representation of the body of Christ. Both sets of voices are equally necessary if we are to effectively push back the stifling confines of patriarchy.
A few weeks ago I was out to dinner with a group of friends. As the evening unfolded I got into a great conversation with one of my girlfriends who was sitting next to me. She is an incredibly bright, gifted and wildly vibrant woman. Spend five minutes in her company and her indubitable strengths are made self-evident: she is a born leader. I admire her strength, passion and lively spirit, and on this particular evening, I happened to tell her so.
Immediately her demeanor changed. Her shoulders slumped and the light in her eyes dimmed. She looked at me ashamed, “I know, I hate that about myself!”
“What?! What are you talking about? You’re amazing!”
“But women aren’t supposed to be like me, they are supposed to be soft and submissive. I need to be more like that…”
The kiss of death for a strong spirited woman.
Such are the concepts, along with all the implicit connotations therein, that are being communicated to the hearts of women, reinforced in the minds of men, and perpetuated throughout the church today. And this is what I mean when I say the grip of patriarchy is far reaching and elusive. It’s difficult to pin down, not nearly as obvious and forthright as we expect it to be. Rarely is the message of oppression communicated through candid words, black and white rules or blatant subjugation. No, more likely we learn its lessons passively, by way of a dangerous undercurrent, and in all that goes unsaid we are conditioned to buy into the lie, and eventually, if we’re not careful, become complicit in the crime of perpetuation.
Soft: often confused with feminine.
But we were not called to be soft, oh daughters. Au contraire… we are image bearers of the risen Lord called to bring about Kingdom in partnership with the Spirit, our brothers beside us. We are far from soft, we are fiercely feminine. And that is no small thing to celebrate.