As I left the post office on a cold December day, the words on a car window decal in the parking lot grabbed my attention: “Well behaved women rarely make history.” I drove away, clicking through the questions that bounced around in my brain: Who said that? Is it true? Well-behaved by what standard? Is the goal of a Christian woman to be well-behaved? To be remembered as part of history?
I later googled the quote and found that it became a popular slogan for coffee mugs and bumper stickers because of its implicit message: Women must rebel in order to be remarkable and remembered. A woman must not be conventional, traditional, or (heaven forbid) biblical if she wants to make a difference in the world.
My google research also led me to discover that the earliest version of the quote is attributed to historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, who wrote that “well-behaved women *seldom* make history” in her 1976 article on Puritan funeral services. Interestingly enough, when Ulrich wrote those words, she was not implying that women should misbehave in order to be remembered. Rather, she was lamenting the fact that so many virtuous women, who have made necessary contributions to society, remain unknown.
This quote, with its various interpretations, fascinates me. It’s led me to think about the impact I want to have as a woman. More importantly, it’s led me to drill down deeper into the Scriptures, seeking to better understand God’s plan and purpose for women by examining those women in the biblical narrative who are commended by him.
As Christian women, what mark are we seeking to make on the world, and what behaviors are essential to our making that mark? Here are three truths I’ve gleaned:
Behavior is More than Just Behavior
Christian women can agree that God’s Word is the standard by which our behavior should be measured. The earliest chapters of the book of Genesis make it clear that the good Creator establishes the rules for his human creatures (Genesis 2:16-17). But while the standard is clear, the Scriptures are replete with teaching that 1.) humans consistently fail to meet God’s standard for our behavior and 2.) behavior is always more than just behavior.
Yes, God desires and requires righteous behavior from those made in his image, but his primary concern is the heart from which that behavior flows. Consider his words to Israel through the prophet Hosea: “For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. But…they dealt faithlessly with me” (Hosea 6:6-7). God is looking for more than external rule-keeping.
We see the truth that “behavior is more than just behavior” also exhibited in the fact that some of the most outwardly well-behaved people in the Bible are condemned , while some who break the external letter of the law in certain cases are commended. Consider the Pharisees of Jesus’ day, who scrupulously kept the law of God, yet who Jesus called “whitewashed tombs”–beautiful on the outside but dead in their uncleanliness on the inside. On the other hand, think of Rahab, a Canaanite woman and a prostitute, who lied to hide and protect the Israelite spies as they prepared to take the Promised Land (Joshua 2). Rahab’s behavior is praised by the author Hebrews. (Hebrews 11:31).
The Bible clearly does not prescribe lying, so why is Rahab described favorably, while the “well-behaved” Pharisees are described so unfavorably? The author of Hebrews gives us the answer when he writes, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen. For by it, the people of old received their commendation… And without faith, it is impossible to please [God]…” (Hebrews 11:1-2,6).
God Commends Women of Faith
God commends those who behave by faith in him (Hebrews 11). In other words, God is pleased by obedience that flows from belief in his word, hope in his promises, and love for him. The problem, though, is that all of us are naturally faithless.
From the very beginning, God’s enemy has been whispering the same poisonous lies to every human heart: You’ll be better off to distrust and disobey God than to believe and obey him. Rebellion is the ticket to the good life. These lies were first aimed at a woman, and, since her fall, the rest of us have come into this world with seeds of doubt growing in our sin-sick hearts: God doesn’t really love me, and he can’t be trusted to keep his promises.
As a result of our faithless hearts, we behave in one of two ways (or some combination of both). Either we break God’s rules in an attempt to gain freedom from (what we believe to be) his heavy-handedness, or we strive to keep all the rules in a desperate attempt to gain his favor. God commends neither of these behaviors because both flow from a faithless heart, and both ultimately lead to death. Yet, in spite of our faithlessness, God has never given up on his purpose and plans for women.
Even after the first woman rebelliously chose death, God made a merciful promise: The woman would still bear life, and, by her seed, God’s enemy would one day be defeated (Genesis 3:15)! In an act of faith, the man Adam called his wife “Eve”, which means “life giver” (Genesis 3:20). By belief in God’s Word and hope in his promised salvation, Eve and many women after her would wage war against the lying serpent and participate in God’s plan to bring eternal life to a world cursed by sin and death.
Consider biblical women like Sarah, Rahab, Ruth, Esther, Mary and others. None of these women always behaved perfectly. They were all sinners, but they bravely “hoped in God” (1 Peter 3:5-6), resting in his promises and looking forward to his coming salvation. These women courageously submitted themselves to God’s will, and through their imperfect but genuine faith, each played a vital part in God’s plan to bring to earth the One who would change the course of history.
Faith-filled Women Change the World
The Bible does not prescribe every behavior of the women commended within its pages, but it does prescribe their faith. As Christian women today, we are called to share their faith. But we see more than they saw! In the pages of Scripture, we see Jesus Christ–the incarnate Son of God– crucified for our faithlessness and raised for our justification.
The goal of a Christian woman is not to be remembered but to faithfully serve a Savior who will never be forgotten. By faith in the finished work of Christ, we are united to him, and through that union, all of our behavior has eternal significance. As we work to nurture both physical and spiritual life in a world where death still seems to reign, we wage war on the enemy. And our efforts are not in vain, even when we can’t yet see the fruit. So, we press on with our eyes set on the founder and perfecter of our faith (Hebrews 12:2) until that day when he returns and makes all things right and new, as he has promised to do.
We submit to those God has placed in authority over us by faith. We work our jobs by faith. We pray and serve within the body of Christ by faith. We feed, clothe, and teach the physical and spiritual children in our care by faith. Our names may not be in the history books, but through the work of radically submissive, courageous obedience to Christ, we participate in building a kingdom that cannot be shaken.
Well-behaved women may not make history, but the woman who hears the call of faith and responds, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let me be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38)…? That woman will change the world.