In 1940 Carl Sandburg wrote what many believe to be the definitive biography of Abraham Lincoln, the sixteenth President of the United States. In that Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Sandburg referred to Lincoln as a man who was “velvet steel.” I remember reading that and being struck with the challenge to emulate such a quality: to be soft where I should be, while at the same time being rigid and unbending where I must be. But that is not a quality reserved only for leaders, nor is it exclusively for men. Rather, this is a quality to be sought by all of us.
As parents of daughters, my wife and I sought over the years to see this character quality developed in each of them. We desired to train strong-willed girls to be strong-willed (rather than self-willed) women. Our intentional desire was for our daughters to be soft yet steel-like. A husband needs this in his wife, children need this in their mother, a church need this in its female members and the world at large needs such blessed gifts.
The word “submission” has fallen on hard times and many see it as a euphemism for mealy-mouthed, subservient, weak-kneed capitulation to brow-beating men in a misogynistic culture. This is to be lamented, for in fact the biblical concept of submission is found in the metaphor “velvet steel.”
Biblically-informed and Scripturally-shaped women understand that they are to be feminine. That word may be hard for some to define but suffice to say that to be feminine at least means not to be masculine! Yes, there is a softness that Christ-honouring women are to develop and display. They are to have a “chaste and humble and meek spirit” (1 Peter 3:1-6). There is to be a “social softness” about them. This does not mean that they are called to spend their days merely sipping tea and looking pretty while minding their own business as some knuckle-headed chauvinists might advise. Rather they are to be approachable and genteel in their demeanour, while at the same time displaying the strength that comes from submission to God and His law-Word. They are to be complementarian in their relationships with males rather than egalitarian. That is, they are to recognise that they are different by design and that therein lies their glory (1 Corinthians 11:1-16).
In a day in which males have all too often succumbed to an egalitarian cream-puff, spineless masculinity, we now have the travesty of women serving in the armed forces—and especially difficult to accept is women serving as combatants. In such a culture, males have become crushed velvet and women have become the steel rods. Though Britain was once led (and in my opinion very competently) by the “Iron Lady,” a woman with the qualities of “velvet steel” would have served their needs better. But I digress.
Men and women are different by design and the expression of this God-intended differentiation is, in many settings, to be very different as well. What I am trying to say is that, in raising girls, we should be seeking to raise strong-willed, principled women. Our goal is to channel self-will into strong will: soft on the outside but strong as steel on the inside; strong on principles but soft in persona; strong in biblical conviction and tender in biblical submission; iron-like in carrying out biblical responsibilities and velvet like in their acceptance and embracing of God’s appointed gender roles. Let me illustrate.
I recently read a book by Kathy Keller called Jesus, Justice, and Gender Roles. This is a helpful work on the issue concerning the biblical prohibition on women holding the office of elder. Though I would disagree at some points, the book nevertheless is to be both commended and recommended.
Kathy Keller is a well-versed theologian who holds degrees in theology from reputable schools. She clearly knows the Scriptures and has a gifted ability to articulate their truths. She appears to be a skilled exegete and a good expositor and teacher of Scripture as well. She knows her stuff and is able to helpfully communicate what she knows. Further, it is easy to learn from her because of what I perceive is this quality of velvet steel.
She joyfully embraces her uniqueness as a woman while at the same time exercising her God-given opportunities, convictions and abilities as a Christian. She is unapologetic for speaking God’s mind (this is her “steeliness”) while at the same time humbly acknowledging God’s assigned roles to her (hence her “velvetiness”).
She is the wife of the well-known pastor-teacher, Tim Keller. As husband and wife they have laboured for many years to plant the now several-thousand-member Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City. With a steel-like conviction she has withstood the ridicule of women in that city who have denounced her view on submission in marriage and in the church. But equally she has stood with unbreakable determination to speak out against injustices towards women both in the world as well as within the church. Yet it appears to me that she has done so, and continues to do so, with the tenderness of velvet.
In her book she quotes from C. S. Lewis, who wrote a tract in 1948 titled “Priestesses in the Church” as an attempt to dissuade the Anglican Church from ordaining women into what we would term the pastorate.
Lewis made the observation that, because we live in a fallen world, there is a need for economic and legal equality. He argued that, since society is composed of sinners, women face the potential of being abused, in a variety of ways, and therefore we need laws such as those which ensure equal pay for equal work, and laws which guarantee no partiality in the courtroom. I agree. But I also agree with Lewis that, when it comes to the church, we can shed our obsessions with a zeal for equality. He wrote, “In the secular world, men and women can and must be treated as unisex, interchangeable neuters—citizens and workers. However, that is a fiction that we are allowed to shed when we return to the world of reality, God’s world. There we may resume our real identities as men and women.”
Lewis’ observation substantiates my assertion that though steely nerve is necessary for a woman to survive in this world of sin, yet the Lord also expects her to display a demeanour of velvet submission in the areas that He has prescribed. As the church continues to disciple women in this direction, families will be blessed, the church will be strengthened and the world be angered. But the world’s animosity will be no match for God’s velvet-dressed-daughters. After all, godly women, steel-like in conviction, are well prepared to stand their ground—beautifully.