Sammie, a regular attendee at the women’s Bible study I led, invited me to lunch. I had wanted to get to know her better, and I was looking forward to our time. When the waitress arrived, Sammie didn’t order anything, which seemed a little odd, since she had issued the invite. It should have tipped me off to what was coming.
We exchanged small talk until my salad arrived, but as I took my first bite, she spoke in a serious tone: “I’ve been wanting to talk to you about the group.” She then abruptly launched into a litany of accusations. In summary, according to Sammie, I was authoritarian in my leadership, I had steered group discussions away from her attempts to be “real,” and I was “stealing women’s voices.” I was crushed.
Kelly Valen, in her compelling 2010 study of female relationships, Twisted Sisterhood, discovered through a poll that 97 percent of women “believe it is crucial that we improve the female culture in this country.” My story with Sammie, among too many others, leads me to agree.
Why do women treat other women so harshly, and what can be done to improve female culture? When we think about what happened to women in the fall, broken sisterhood makes more sense. Since Adam and Eve sinned, all women live under the effects of the fall. According to Genesis 3, these effects show themselves in at least these ways:
- We know we are naked.
- We feel shame.
- We want to hide.
- We often blame others, including God, for our sin and sorrow.
- We feel pain in childbirth.
- We inherited from Eve a desire to dominate men, or to desire men so desperately we’ll do anything to get and keep them.
- We demand control over our worlds.
These sinful tendencies play out in women’s relationships with other women. Female aggression, as sociologists call it, begins with young girls and continues well into adulthood.
Mean Girls, a 2004 comedy, satirized the cliques and bullying that are commonplace occurrences in high schools. Any woman who has suffered being shunned on a playground as a child or being cyber-bullied as a teen knows that the dark terror and shame of female bullying isn’t funny.
The culture of female aggression does not end when we grow up, though — new studies find women sabotaging other women in every arena of life:
- In the workplace, women may deliberately make a co-worker look incompetent.
- In the area of motherhood, the phrase “mommy wars” has been coined to describe the friction between moms who stay-at-home full-time and those who work full-time.
- In the competition for scarce resources of “good” available men, women demean and manipulate other women.
Sadly, the fallen reality of women’s relationships is not limited to the broader culture but plays out regularly among Christians as well. The Bible recounts the earliest true and tragic stories of female aggression:
- Sarah, the mother of all nations, abuses her slave Hagar — and Hagar shows contempt for Sarah in return.
- Rachel and Leah are the first “sister-wives” vying for a man who isn’t the catch he might have seemed to be.
- Martha complains to no less than the Savior himself about her sister’s laziness.
If competition, condemnation, and irritation exist in women’s relationships in the Bible, it should come as no surprise that these and other sins continue to affect Christian women’s community:
- Moms beat one another up emotionally over things like feeding babies, educating children, and growing obedient children.
- Destructive gossip is veiled as prayer requests or “concern.”
- Worst of all, cliquishness still exists, and some women feel more isolated or rejected at church than they ever did in a high school cafeteria.
With the apostle Paul, we may be tempted to cry out, “Who can rescue us from the body of sin and death?” (Romans 7: 24) The good news of the gospel is that Christ can and indeed, has. Christ has come that we may be reconciled to God and to one another. Consider these four characteristics cultivated by the gospel and how they nurture true sisterhood:
- Gospel-cultivated humility: Approved in Christ, we will set aside our craving for control and attention. Instead of trying to capture the seat closest to the guest speaker at the ministry team luncheon, I may take the lower place, serving my sister in Christ who is eager to meet with the guest.
- Gospel-cultivated vulnerability. Women accustomed to covering and hiding shame are beckoned by Christ to come out of hiding, to “let our light shine.” When we live authentically before one another, relationships deepen, and sisterhood flourishes.
- Gospel-cultivated giftedness. In Christ, we become new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17), diverse women with different stories, unified by our belief in Christ as Savior. As we understand this truth deeply, we live differently. We set aside the cruel competition and comparison that destroys sisterhood and thank God for how he uses our differences to grow his kingdom.
- Gospel-cultivated forgiveness. Forgiven much, we love much. Conflict does not have to destroy our relationships. As sisters in Christ, we can confess our sin with the hope of forgiveness and confront another’s sin with the hope of restoration and reconciliation. We forgive and seek forgiveness.
The infamous lunch with Sammie took place almost 20 years ago. Sadly, our relationship was never really restored. I had a lot left to understand about gospel-cultivated female relationships and still do. Still, that story stands as a redemption story in my mind because of what happened after Sammie left. Let me tell you the rest of the story.
I got in my car and burst into tears. After a few minutes, I called a friend. A longtime sister in Christ, my friend listened to my pain and humiliation, then spoke soft words. She reminded me that leadership requires humility and that Christ was humiliated far worse than I had been. She reminded me that Christ covered my shame and encouraged me to continue risking. She reminded me of my giftedness as a leader and Bible study teacher and pointed out how Sammie might have felt intimidated and insecure.
We discussed what redemptive conflict would look like with someone like Sammie. She encouraged me to begin the process of forgiveness.
This story of sorrow and redemption reveals two powerful realities about women’s relationships: we can be cruelest saboteurs or faithful supporters for one another. In the gospel, there is not only hope for a sisterhood of sinner-saints, but a calling. Christ has redeemed us as a chosen people and a holy nation (1 Peter 2:9). Let us begin living the true sisterhood Christ created.