In my teenage years, I came to the point in my life where I deliberately chose to commit to my Christian faith because of the peace, love and justice that I knew God intended for our world. At this time I was considerably ignorant to the sexism and inequality prevalent within many modern churches. As I attended church regularly, however, I began to notice that many of the wise, strong and capable women that filled the church community were notably absent from positions of leadership and authority. I would be lying if I said I hadn’t heard many variations of these responses when I questioned this: “Men and women were created differently by God, so of course they have different roles.” “We don’t permit women to teach or lead because that’s not what God assigned for them, that’s what God designed as the role for men.” These justifications would flow from the same lips that professed Jesus as hope for all people, and thus, I began to express within my faith the same exasperation that I had always felt at the injustice and inequality women face in the secular world.
As I delved into understanding the biblical interpretations that led to sexist, backwards views of women in the church, however, I began to realise how inconsistent they were with the good news of the gospel. The inclusivity of women is woven throughout the Bible, from the story of creation right through to Revelation, and it became clear that within all its complexity, Jesus’ life expresses a very different narrative concerning the nature and role of women. Focusing primarily on Jesus’ life is particularly pertinent and wide-ranging in its implications because we understand Jesus’ life as a lived example of the Kingdom of God. The Kingdom – God’s perfect and ideal foundation for the world – sets a standard for how Christians should pursue life and justice. Thus, our interpretation of how Jesus treated women within the patriarchal structures of the Greco Roman world develops our understanding of God’s intentions for our world, and how we should live out our lives in His Kingdom.
Imagine this: Mary and Martha, two women with very defined domestic roles and very limited public opportunities in the first century, welcome a Jewish Rabbi named Jesus into their home (Luke 10:38). Jesus accepts the invitation, and as per the expectations of women, Martha begins to prepare the food and home. Mary, however, completely defies her primary responsibility of domestic tasks and instead sits with Jesus as he teaches. Mary rebelled against cultural expectations for women, not only by failing to prepare the home but also by sitting amongst men and learning from a Rabbi, something that was highly restricted for women. A disgruntled Martha directly addresses Jesus, asking him to put Mary in her place and instruct her to come and share in the women’s work. However, rather than doing what would have been acceptable in asking Mary to fulfill her role in the home, Jesus responded to Martha: “You are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed – or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better and it will not be taken from her.”
Through Jesus’ words, we see a banner of emancipation flying high. It is a call that Jesus has made directly to a woman, in which he restructures the societal expectations of the time. He is saying to Mary that she needn’t worry about the restrictions placed on her; she is welcome to sit with men, as equals, and learn from him. She can set aside the socially constructed tasks assigned to her, because Jesus teachings aren’t restricted to men, but open for all – and so is the Kingdom of God.
Like Mary, there were many women affirmed through Jesus’ ministry, and further along in his travels Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman alone at a well (John 4:1). Jesus begins to engage with this woman by asking her for a drink from her vessel. As they converse, Jesus reveals that he knows her circumstances: she has had five husbands reject her, and is now with man she is not wed to. After her past has been revealed they delve deeper into a conversation about salvation. She acknowledges to him that a Messiah (the promised salvation for the Jewish nation) is coming, and Jesus replies: “I, who speak to you, am he.” This story is riddled with significance and through it we see Jesus empower and elevate not only the Samaritan women, but through her, all women. If Jesus had adhered to Jewish practice, he would not have addressed her. Not only was it taboo to talk directly to women in public, but she was also a Samaritan, and thus despised due to a 500-year racial feud. Jesus should not have asked her for water from her vessel, as it was considered unclean and it was certainly not expected that Jesus would humble himself by asking her to fulfil his needs. We know the woman was ostracised from her community, as she was not collecting water with the other women, and we also know she had faced great rejection, due to her marital history.
Despite all these racialised and gendered barriers, Jesus reveals to her more plainly than to anyone else prior that he is the Messiah and sends her off, imbuing her with the authority to teach both men and women the good news. This woman is taught by Jesus like a disciple; sent out by Jesus like an apostle; preaches to the men and women of Samaria. This woman becomes the first female Christian preacher and because of Jesus intentional interaction with her, he destroyed barriers to opportunity and equality among men and women.
In addition to these women’s stories, the Bible recounts many more instances in which God dismantles the gender inequalities of the time. It is disappointing, therefore, that we can see greater roles attributed to women in the Bible than in churches today. What is most discouraging, however, is that biblical representations of the Kingdom of God are misinterpreted and the role of women demeaned through these misinterpretations. If any Christian theology leads to sexism or inequality within the church or greater society, it is oppositional to the message of the Bible – this I can say unquestionably. Christians do not believe in a God who enforces structural inequality, or demeans and undermines women, instead we believe in a God of restoration and justice – this is ultimately what should be demonstrated by and in churches. Therefore we must extricate ourselves from the patriarchal lenses traditionally used to understand biblical texts, or else the Church will continue to be susceptible to injustices against women; inequalities that were never in line with Jesus teaching. So let’s use our bibles not as instruments of oppression, but as tools for emancipation.