I’ve never been as welcomed at a church as when I was pregnant.
At the time I was pregnant with my first child, we were looking for a church home in Dayton, Ohio. When my husband and I would approach a church building, visiting for the first time, doors would rush open and joyous faces would greet us as I waddled in.
It was startling to me. I had visited churches before, but most of the time my husband and I just blended into the crowd, sometimes so much so that no one even noticed we were visitors. But when I was eight or nine months pregnant, there was no blending in; my body was very much on display.
When I look back on those experiences now, I realize something perhaps more women are realizing as of late: female bodies are regularly seen as a visible measure of faith, of “Christian-ness,” not only for girls and women, but also for people attached to them — fathers and husbands.
In 21st century, predominantly white Protestant churches, my pregnant body accompanied by my husband was an advertisement that we were “good” Christians. This advertisement was clearer than anything I could have said or done — and it perhaps mitigated the fact that I was a New Testament professor at a local seminary. Such an occupation is usually a plus for my male colleagues, but it marks me and other female professors as potentially “dangerous” and unladylike. My pregnancy shouted that I was safe. And as a safe woman, wife and mother, I was welcome in church.
“My pregnancy shouted that I was safe. And as a safe woman, wife and mother, I was welcome in church.”
I’m writing this as yet another Mother’s Day approaches. A day when Protestant churches celebrate women in their midst who are visible and, largely, biological mothers. Even while pregnant, I was inaugurated into these celebrations; trotted up to the front of the sanctuary and given a flower or potted plant to mark my status. While they are meant to be joyous, these occasions often left me feeling hollow — why should pregnancy or birthing or motherhood be celebrated in this way at church?
The question nagged me even more so since I know so many friends and family members who had suffered visible and invisible child loss — unseen and unspoken miscarriages, unconcealable still births or inexplicable infertility — not to mention friends who are childless by choice. Indeed, some of these women (and their partners) do not attend church on Mother’s Day to avoid the painful focus on mothers — a club that explicitly leaves these women out.
The focus on women becoming mothers is, of course, not new. In fact, this purposing of femaleness was the intense focus of many Hellenistic and Roman-era physicians, philosophers and politicians. When writing my book Blessed Among Women? Mothers and Motherhood in the New Testament, I discovered ancient physicians had a lot to say about how and why women should be mothers.
Hippocratic doctors claimed a healthy woman was often a pregnant one, and Galen quipped women made up for being female by birthing children. Like Aristotle before him, Galen agreed that women were incomplete people — that is, they weren’t male. However, rather than a flaw in nature, women’s female incompleteness made possible the reproduction of males who would become men. Becoming a mother (especially of sons) allowed a woman to justify her existence. As my late grandfather told me shortly before his death: “Well, at least you had sons.”
“Becoming a mother (especially of sons) allowed a woman to justify her existence.”
I, like my ancient sisters, have fulfilled my purpose.
Motherhood was so important to Emperor Augustus and his successors that they enacted laws honoring women who birthed three or four living children, granting them freedom from all male guardianship. In becoming emperor, Augustus sought to calm the Roman populace that he wasn’t upsetting the natural order (which previously had known only Rome as a republic). So, like a Roman Dan Quayle, James Dobson or Donald Trump, Augustus ran a “family values campaign,” arguing his policies promoted real Roman families: a woman in the house, tending her loom, surrounded by her children.
As historian Kristina Milnor notes, these “old-fashioned values” actually were quite new. Augustus’ rules about who could marry whom, requirements for divorce and honors for women birthing living children made women more visible. The laws gave them standing in courtrooms, and statues honored their matronly virtues in the forum.
In all his rush to promote families, Augustus simultaneously gave women a legitimate space in the public square. Augustus made women’s bodies — pregnant and maternal — the measure of “Romanness.” This measure certainly was for the women involved, but it also was for their male relatives, especially husbands and fathers.
Christian focus on motherhood relatively new
When we celebrate motherhood the way we often do in churches today, I wonder, are we acting more like Christ or more like Romans?
I ask this question because the focus on motherhood, especially among Protestant Christians, is a relatively new thing. For Christian women, motherhood was not always the sign of godliness.
Jesus, for example, did not teach that all women should be mothers as an expression of their faithfulness. Instead, when a woman indirectly praised Jesus’s mother by crying out, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you!” in Luke 11:27, Jesus responded, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!”
“Jesus did not teach that all women should be mothers as an expression of their faithfulness.”
While such obedience could be motherhood (it definitely was for Mary back in Luke 1:38, although her pregnancy wouldn’t have showcased godliness for Joseph), Jesus is here saying that isn’t always the case. Instead, women are called to be disciples. A scandalous claim in Jesus’ Roman world.
And as we keep reading the New Testament, we are hard-pressed to find women explicitly praised for becoming mothers. Only 1 Timothy 2:15 stands out in this regard: “Yet she (the wife) will be saved through childbearing, provided they continue in faith and love and holiness, with modesty.” Without jumping headlong into the debates around this verse (and they are many), I suggest that 1 Timothy (like the other pastoral letters and later New Testament letters) are written as Christians are trying to figure out how to live within the Roman world rather than expecting Jesus’ swift return to take them from it.
In other words, these letters encourage Christians to act more Roman, at least in the ways our writers felt they could do so without compromising the core of their faith in Christ. These Christian “women” (meaning, those who were free-born or freed and legally married), were increasingly non-Jewish, and the advice they were given was to be like other Roman “women”: be dutiful wives and, therefore, mothers. Not participating in Roman cults and confessing Jesus as Lord (rather than Caesar) was dangerous enough. Rome didn’t often care which gods were worshipped, so long as Rome was honored above all. Claiming Jesus as “Lord,” however, put early Christians at odds with some Roman authorities, especially since Jesus died at the hands of Rome. How could Christians still claim he lived?
What is our excuse today?
But what can we say is our excuse today? We don’t live in a Roman world. Whose values are we replicating and why?
Please hear me, I am not disparaging mothers or motherhood. I am a mom to two wonderful boys, and I would have it no other way. I am blessed by them. But they are not the totality of my blessedness, nor are they the embodiment of my faithfulness or my husband’s (and certainly not my grandfather’s).
It turns out, faithfulness (or “blessedness” to use Jesus’ word) isn’t about becoming a mother. Those of us fortunate enough to have birthed living children with few complications haven’t passed some sort of Christian achievement test. And those of us who cannot, or choose not to, have children do not have an insurmountable obstacle blocking our path following Christ. Instead, Jesus tells us we all have the same calling: “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!” We are all called to be disciples.
“Those of us fortunate enough to have birthed living children with few complications haven’t passed some sort of Christian achievement test.”
As Mother’s Day approaches again, and churches around the nation recognize the mothers in their midst, I ask that we reflect on what is actually motivating our actions. Who are we recognizing, and why? Who are we excluding, even to the extent that they avoid churches on that day?
It is not that mothers — and I mean, all mothers (biological, adoptive, stepmothers and church-mothers, married and unmarried, those with living children and those who have suffered loss, as well as and all those unofficial mothers who have helped to raise us and our children) — should be honored but not as though this is the total measure of their lives of faith.
It’s time for us to ask ourselves, who we count as “blessed” and why. Is the recognition of certain women in this way and in worship services at church a Christ-like activity? Or is it a Roman one?
Alicia D. Myers is associate professor of New Testament and Greek at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, N.C. She is author of Blessed Among Women? Mothers and Motherhood in the New Testament as well as Reading John, and 1, 2, and 3 John, and An Introduction to the Gospels and Acts.
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