Elisabeth Elliot – to what extent was she defined by her sex?

Elisabeth Elliot was a spokesperson for a definite view of gender. Her book Let Me Be a Woman (1976) was a traditionalist – some would say “complementarian” – blueprint for women in the home: assertive women are missing out on God’s plan and divine joy, and they should not seek to be equal to men, beyond the fact that we are all sinners in need of God’s grace. “Why subject women to purely masculine criteria? Women can and ought to be judged by the criteria of femininity, for it is in their femininity that they participate in the human race.” I’m summarizing of course, and leaving a lot out, but that is much of her point.

On the other hand: Elisabeth Elliot also demonstrated by her actions, words, writings, that a woman in Christ can be every much the mighty warrior that a man in Christ can be; that the Holy Spirit has been poured out on both “sons and daughters”, leading us to rethink what is men’s and women’s work; that a woman can take a degree in Greek and work cross-linguistically (in Spanish, Quechua – she co-authored a Bible translation – and Waorani), and cross-culturally both without a husband (she was married to Jim Elliott after they had both gone to Ecuador as single missionaries), with a husband, as a widow and single mother; that a woman can in our collective memory outshine three husbands – even the martyred first one – in her faithful and determined labor.

On the back cover of her book for men, The Mark of a Man, it reads: “The world cries for men who are strong: strong in conviction, strong to lead, to stand, to suffer…glad to shoulder the burden of manliness.”

No argument here, that we need strong, godly men. But Elisabeth Elliot showed that you could swap out “men” for “women” in that blurb, and in the New Covenant it makes perfect sense for the sisters as well. Not feminism; not pc; just the gospel.

Many Christian women have been blessed by her teachings about the woman’s role, but I hope we can also – principally – remember her as a model to all women and men to take God’s call seriously. This is how I will remember her and try to honor her memory.

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Elisabeth Elliot – 1926-2015

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  1. I didn’t know Elisabeth had died until now. Very sorry to hear that. I met her a couple of times back in the 90s, at book signings after her lectures.

    I remember that in one of her lectures she talked about traditional roles for women—and in the Q&A afterward someone challenged her about that, asking about her assertive professional life that was anything but traditional. Can’t remember her response, but I’m sure she was ready for it.

    Gary, I found your blog several weeks ago from googling “sin as missing the mark.” I had heard that description a few times and didn’t think it was very good—it encourages unnecessary guilt, and/or works-righteousness, as well as diminishing the concept of sin. Glad to read what you had to say about it and where the idea came from.

    • Hi Ted, and thanks for checking in! Yes, my guess is that she heard that question a lot!

  2. I adamantly reject any teaching that women cannot minister in church. The epistles are not law; that specific letter was written to a specific congregation under circumstances unique to them. We cannot blindly apply that to our own lives at all.

    Deborah, Esther……

    Men cannot be mothers, which, as a man, I regard as the highest calling. I have more respect for a mother pouring herself out in raising a child for our Lord than one forsaking her children while battling her way up the corporate ladder.

    • Thanks for commenting!

      While I view motherhood as a high calling, to me the highest calling is whatever calling God has for us. For women that might be motherhood, but it might be something else equally valuable, perhaps even more valuable than their being mothers.

      I do not believe that mothers – or fathers – should forsake their children in favor of career advancement.

  3. Well, like I said, my knowledge of what all she did is very limited. I was commenting w/r/t the examples you gave — Bible translation, etc. If she held the position of preaching in the church, then, no, of course she would not be considered “complementarian.” Complementarianism recognizes a distinction between the roles of the sexes w/r/t the home and the church. Sounds like she was mixed! (up? 🙂 )

    • Far be it from me ever to say that Elisabeth Elliot was mixed up!

      My point is that maybe God was working through her in ways which, according to one complementarian model – and she was a real traditionalist – would seem puzzling.

      • “Puzzling” — that’s much nicer. 🙂

  4. Gary, I’m not sure why you would call this “stepping out on a limb” — who could disagree? Your implication seems, however, to be that Elizabeth Elliot’s actions went beyond what she believed appropriate for a woman. I doubt that would be the case. No informed complementarian would deny anything you’ve said here. Elliot’s “complementarianism” is found in her relationship *to her husband* and in her church — complementarianism says nothing about whether a woman can translate a Bible or whatever. Elizabeth Elliot would likely be very comfortable with the “complementarian” label you suggest here, but it is doubtful that she would be so comfortable with an implication that her activity was, instead, egalitarian.
    In my mind — and to my limited knowledge of her — she was a wonderful model of a complementarian woman who, in her relationship with her husband, recognized a biblical ordering of the home, yet at the same time, as the Prov.31 woman, was wonderfully productive in many areas. She “took God’s call seriously” in her home as well as in her work.
    In short, Elizabeth Elliot is no poster girl for egalitarianism, no matter how you slice it. Certainly she wouldn’t think so. Nor would any (informed) complementarian.

    • Hi Fred!

      No, she would never be happy with even the implication that she was not fully complementarian.

      I don’t think I have ever met a complementarian who regarded that model as limited to the husband-wife relationship or to life in the church.

      She taught men all her life, preached (or whatever – when I heard her speak, she told us what the Bible was about), planted a church. I doubt her conscience troubled her, but her wide-ranging ministry is atypical for a complementarian, isn’t it?


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