What defines a great woman, or at least a great Christian woman? I’ve been mulling over this question as I’ve recently been reading through Eric Metaxas’ Seven Women and the Secret of their Greatness. His choices of women for the mini-biography series intrigue me: Joan of Arc, Susanna Wesley, Hannah More, Saint Maria of Paris, Mother Teresa, Rosa Parks, and Corrie Ten Boom. Why them out of all of the women of history? What was it about their life and accomplishments that made the list?
The question harks back to a much deeper issue, one that we all wrestle—or will wrestle with–at some point in our journey of being a woman: what is our unique purpose? Logically, it would make sense that the woman who best fulfills her purpose would be the greatest.
The issue of the value and purpose of womanhood is all the more highlighted as we live in a society that projects a certain image of a great woman. Feminism has declared a scorched-earth policy on a woman’s sphere in the home and instead lifted up a career, education, involvement in social justice, body image, and an unnatural “toughness” as requirements for a great woman. It’s revealing that Forbes Magazine listed Angela Merkel (Chancellor of Germany), Christine Lagarde (president of the EU Central Bank), Kamala Harris, Ursula von der Leyen (president of the EU), and Melinda Gates as the top 5 of the 100 world’s most powerful women in 2020.
No doubt these women have power.
No doubt their accomplishments are remarkable.
No doubt they have achieved far more even than most men in our society.
But does that make them truly great?
In contrast, God’s picture of great womanhood is radical. It’s shocking to our society. And it requires far more inner strength, self sacrifice, and perseverance than making the Forbes’ list. Note the description in these verses.
“Let a widow be enrolled if she is not less than sixty years of age, having been the wife of one husband, and having a reputation for good works: if she has brought up children, has shown hospitality, has washed the feet of the saints, has cared for the afflicted, and has devoted herself to every good work” (1 Timothy 5:9-11).
“An excellent wife who can find?
She is far more precious than jewels.
The heart of her husband trusts in her,
and he will have no lack of gain.
She does him good, and not harm,
all the days of her life” (Proverbs 31:10-12)
“Older women likewise are to be reverent in behavior, not slanderers or slaves to much wine. They are to teach what is good, and so train the young women to love their husbands and children, to be self-controlled, pure, working at home, kind, and submissive to their own husbands, that the word of God may not be reviled … so that in everything they may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” (Titus 2:3-5,10).
“Let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious. For this is how the holy women who hoped in God used to adorn themselves, by submitting to their own husbands, as Sarah obeyed Abraham, calling him lord. And you are her children, if you do good and do not fear anything that is frightening” (1 Peter 3:4-6).
Step back and see the beauty of God’s picture for great womanhood—trustworthy, a lover of family and home, meek and quiet, and submissive. She’s not a doormat but rather the hidden wheel which makes the family and church body turn. She’s the one washing the saints’ feet, raising the next generation, helping her husband lead in a world desperate for strong men, and opening up her home for gospel-centered hospitality.
No one paints this portrait of the unsung woman than C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce. In his allegory, the main character takes a trip to heaven and hell, interacting with personalities from each side. At one point, he meets a woman in heaven named Sarah Smith:
“Is it? … is it?” I whispered to my guide.
“Not at all,” said he. “It’s someone ye’ll never have heard of. Her name on earth was Sarah Smith and she lived at Golden Green.”
“She seems to be… well, a person of particular importance?”
“Aye. She is one of the great ones. Ye have heard that fame in this country and fame on Earth are two quite different things.”
“And who are these gigantic people… look! They’re like emeralds… who are dancing and throwing flowers before her?”
“Haven’t ye read your Milton? A thousand liveried angels lackey her.”
“And who are all these young men and women on each side?”
“They are her sons and daughters.”
“She must have had a very large family, Sir.”
“Every young man or boy that met her became her son — even if it was only the boy that brought the meat to the back door. Every girl that met her was her daughter.”
“Isn’t that a bit hard on their own parents?”
“No. There are those that steal other people’s children. But her motherhood was of a different kind. Those on whom it fell went back to their natural parents loving them more. Few men looked on her without becoming, in a certain fashion, her lovers. But it was the kind of love that made them not less true, but truer, to their own wives.”
“And how… but hullo! What are all these animals? A cat — two cats — dozens of cats. And all those dogs… why I can’t count them. And the birds. And the horses.”
“They are her beasts.”
“Did she keep a sort of zoo? I mean, this is a bit too much.”
“Every beast and bird that came near her had its place in her love. In her they became themselves. And now the abundance of life she has in Christ from the Father flows over into them.”
I looked at my Teacher in amazement.
“Yes,” he said. “It is like when you throw a stone into a pool, and the concentric waves spread out further and further. Who knows where it will end? Redeemed humanity is still young, and it has hardly come to its full strength. But already there is joy enough in the little finger of a great saint such as yonder lady to waken all of the dead things of the universe into life.”
“Who is the greatest Christian woman alive today?” Someone once asked Edith Schaeffer, an author and wife of the renowned apologist and philosopher Francis Schaeffer. “We don’t know her name. She is dying of cancer somewhere in a hospital in India.”
“The greatest among you shall be your servant” (Matthew 23:11).