Today’s post is by Rev Dr Judith Gretton-Dann. Judith is a priest in the Church of England, based in Oxford. She has a PhD in Physics and has previously been involved in science research. She is currently working on a Theology DPhil, looking at the technology and crafts of the Hebrew Bible. This involves seeing how the archaeological evidence and anthropological research into the technology of Bible times sheds light on metaphors, to help open up our understanding of the texts.
Judith is passionate about congregations engaging with scripture in its fullness. She believes that scripture is relevant and important for the whole of life, not just an interesting topic of conversation for Sundays.
Judith’s contact email is: firstname.lastname@example.org
Be Young and Beautiful?
Within certain strands of Evangelical teaching, a premium is placed on women’s looks, and an equivalence drawn between outward appearance and spiritual condition. One lengthy response to what is considered the rise of feminism within Evangelical churches is by a group called The Council for Biblical Manhood and Womanhood. Titled Recovering Biblical Manhood and Biblical Womanhood (RBMBW), the document seeks to make the expectations of behaviour for Christians bipartite, distinct and complementary, depending upon people’s gender (understood as being ‘male’ or ‘female’).
In the course of saying that, “God gave each of us a desire for beauty… it is part of our desire for him, who is loveliness incarnate,” it places the responsibility for creating beauty, both in their person and surroundings, on women.
Beauty is described by (mostly male) preachers as something that should be aimed for, cultivated and desired by women. Whilst the preachers quite often claim to be talking about spiritual beauty, in their admonitions to women, their understanding is that physical beauty is a proof of spiritual beauty, that men will judge your spirituality by how physically beautiful you are.
There is much advice about the right sort of clothing to wear – women must “dress attractively… but [not] dress to attract,” according to Joshua Harris. And in the book Quiverful, Katherine Joyce says that single women are told they must wear feminine clothes to prove to their fathers that they are virtuous women worthy of protection.
Harris suggests that beauty “will attract truly godly men to you,” which, in turn, feeds into the idea that to be acceptable to the church, young women should be aiming for marriage. The corollary of this is that women who do not attract godly men, have somehow failed, and that their beauty is a measure of their worth before God. Additionally, these messages carry on once a woman is married: if a man has an affair, it is suggested that it is the wife’s fault for not being alluring enough.
In Eve’s Revenge, Lilian Calles Barger talks about “the beauty cult”  and how the church has bought into this, telling women that “our duty as women is to show we care about our looks and to demonstrate this virtue by pursuing physical beauty.” She states, “we’ve been so busy serving the demands of the beauty cult, we’ve muffled our more profound spiritual need,” and goes on to make the important point that “how we view our bodies will affect what type of spirituality we will embrace.”
It is striking, however, how the messages about beauty, and the methods of teaching on it, are at odds with most of the rest of Evangelical methodology. Generally, there is a high regard given to Scripture and to teaching being rooted within Scripture: to the importance of understanding it, explaining it, and applying it to our lives today. Yet this is not the case with messages regarding beauty.
When it comes to female appearance, messages and injunctions about beauty are laid down as prescriptive without the same rigorous searching in or justification from Scripture. Instead, it is taken, too often, as a self-evident truth, which God would obviously ask of a woman.
The problem with this is that there are no biblical injunctions that someone should aim to be beautiful, and indeed, the Bible is ambivalent about beauty. In Proverbs, there are comparisons between beauty, wisdom and industry, with the latter two being praised as far more worthwhile. Throughout the Old Testament, it can be seen that the consequences of possessing beauty are not unequivocally positive.
Consider Tamar (2 Samuel 13) who is raped by her brother, and Sarai (Genesis 12 and 20), whose husband Abram is so scared for his safety on account of her desirability that he repeatedly lies and gives her away. Joseph’s beauty attracts the attention of a woman whose lies see him imprisoned (Genesis 39). Beauty cannot save Absalom (2 Samuel 14:25 and 18:14). Even David’s beauty doesn’t get him a free pass, or happy ending (from 2 Samuel 12).
The absence or presence of beauty in a person can lead to comparison, competition and division between women, rather than to building healthy relationships or community. With the story of Rachel and Leah (from Genesis 29), we see that the competition between two women, including on account of beauty, causes strife within a whole family, down the generations. The unbeautiful one is bundled off as worth less, needing to be married by trickery. Jacob cares less for Leah than he should, and shows favouritism and partiality towards Rachel, which leads to the women vying for Jacob’s attention, with more trickery and deceit, involving two more women, Bilhah and Zilpah, as slave-“wives”. The arrival of children brings more jostling for position, and the repetition of favouritism for a good-looking son, Joseph, creates yet more divisions.
In the New Testament, meanwhile, we see that Jesus makes it clear to the Pharisees that concentrating on the outer self without doing anything on the inside is like being a whitewashed tomb (Matthew 23:27), and Paul tells women to stop fussing about their outward adornment and concentrate on the inner self instead (1 Timothy 2:9-10).
Human beauty is not a virtue, it is a gift – and like other gifts, it can be used for good or ill, or result in good or ill consequences. It is not enough on its own and it is not the quality of greatest personal enrichment. Sometimes it is ephemeral; and, with its loss, all can be lost, if focus on beauty has been over-emphasized. There is nothing wrong with admiring or enjoying beauty – one’s own or that of others. But it should not be the reason for greater worth or privilege; it should not be regarded as a measure of inner qualities. Nor should its perceived lack become indicative of less worth, or of tardiness.
Such assessments, moreover, have no firm biblical basis at all. Beauty is acknowledged in the Bible as desirable and insufficient in and of itself.
The act of demanding that a woman aim to be beautiful to the exclusion or detriment of other qualities, constitutes an act of harm, even of violence, to her. Who is to decide whether any specific woman is beautiful, or beautiful enough? What are the consequences if she isn’t? What is neglected and lost when beauty becomes a preoccupation? If a woman’s social and spiritual standing, or her ethical goodness is judged by her appearance, she is set up to lose.
Because humans are embodied, and because we interact with God in, through, and with our bodies, what we believe we are supposed to do with our bodies is a key root to understanding how we are to live as people of God. If the messages about body are different for each gender, then we have different Christianities and differently embodied expectations. And this fragments the notion that all humans – irrespective of beauty – are in the image of God.
When the church decides that beauty is something to be considered as a goal, then extreme methods may be tried for achieving that goal, including such extreme methods as current technology will allow, without due consideration for the dangers and risks that might be involved.
Our worth before God is not dependent upon our genes, our gifts, or our looks. We are each equally worthwhile to God, and the church messages should reflect this, rather than gendering our teaching to make us do violence to ourselves, either physically or emotionally, to fit in with other people’s notions of what we are “supposed” to look like.
L. C. Barger. Eve’s Revenge: Women and a Spirituality of the Body. Brazos Press, 2003. ISBN 9781587430404.
J. Harris. Boy Meets Girl. Multnomah Publishers, 2005. ISBN 9781590521670.
K. Joyce. Quiverful: Inside the Christian Patriarchy Movement. Beacon Press, 2009. ISBN 9780807010709.
H. Peterson and D. McCormack, “Pat Robertson on cheating: Evangelist tells woman she should be grateful for husband.” Daily Mail Online, 2013. URL: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2325542/Pat-Robertson-cheating-Evangelist-tells-woman-grateful-husband.html (accessed 7 January 2021).
J. Piper and W. Grudem. RecoveringBiblical Manhood & Womanhood: A Response to EvangelicalFeminism.Crossway Books,  2006.
 “Keep Young and Beautiful” is a catchy song with lyrics by Al Dubin and music by Harry Warren, which was performed in the 1933 film “Roman Scandals” by Eddie Cantor. It was repopularised in recent years by Annie Lennox.
 Piper and Grudem, Recovering Biblical Manhood & Womanhood, p.22.
 Harris, Boy Meets Girl, p. 121.
 Peterson and McCormack, “Pat Robertson on cheating.”
 Barger, Eve’s Revenge, p.15.
 Ibid., 18.
 Ibid., 24.
 Ibid., 95.