The stories of Jesus reveal many surprising truths about the way His interactions with women lifted them up to their proper place rather than keeping them under the heels of their brothers, husbands, and fathers.
Women played an important role in Jesus’ ministry and, in fact, were part of his inner circle. Wealthy women provided some portion—perhaps a substantial portion—of the monetary support for his itinerant ministry. There are no instances or examples found in the New Testament where Jesus marginalized women or treated them unfairly or with disrespect. Most of Jesus’ interactions with women were to teach, uplift, heal, deliver, and liberate them. In several of the gospels, we see Jesus speaking to women publicly (the Samaritan woman at the well, for example) or having interactions with women that the surrounding society—including some of his male followers—viewed as inappropriate (such as Mary Magdalene).
In many instances, Jesus went against what was customary or even lawful in his culture: he healed on the Sabbath; he touched lepers and the dead; and he taught and spoke to women. On one famous occasion, he publicly opposed the teachers of religious law and Pharisees who brought before him a woman caught in the act of adultery. Instead of condemning her, as would have been easy and popular, he said, “Let the one among you who is without sin cast the first stone.” And they all walked away, very quietly. As I read that story, I’ve always wondered: where was the man who was having sex with the woman? Wasn’t he just as guilty as she was? And yet, in the Jewish culture of first-century Palestine, the woman’s guilt seemed to be all that mattered to her accusers. But the woman, herself, was what mattered most to Jesus, it seems.
It’s also important to note that it was a group of women who stood at the foot of the cross, watching Jesus die and hearing his last words.
During the crucifixion, there were women who followed Jesus from Galilee after most of the men fled. Women were the first ones at the tomb after his resurrection and he appeared first to women after his resurrection: Matthew 28:9–10 describes how Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” were the first followers of Jesus to meet him after his resurrection.
It is clear that women played a full and vibrant role in the ministry of Jesus, both as examples within his teaching and as recipients of it. While this may seem absolutely right and proper in our twenty-first century context, we must remember how radical this was in first century Palestine. For example, in this society the word of women had less value than that of men. Women’s testimony was not admissible in the rabbinical courts, for example. It is therefore enormously important that the significant events of Jesus’ death and resurrection were first witnessed primarily by women.
Paul, one of the most important figures in the earliest days of the Church, also had some attitudes toward women that might be considered unusual for his day. For example, he wrote in a letter to the churches in Galatia (modern Turkey), “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.” A truly radical teaching for a society bound by gender, ethnicity, and class (wait a minute… that sounds like our society today!).
Paul also had women in his inner circle, notably Priscilla, the wife of Paul’s fellow tentmaker, Aquila. Priscilla is a dominant figure in Paul’s ministry, on one occasion assisting her husband in teaching the young evangelist Apollos some doctrinal matters that he apparently did not know (Acts 18:24).
The New Testament ascribes numerous roles to women in the early Church: teachers of theology, deacons, church leaders, and prophets. There is even a disputed reference to a female apostle called Junia.
While it is true to say that there are two particular passages in Paul’s writings that seem to go against all of this by commanding some women to be silent and forbidding others from teaching, these must be read and interpreted in their specific context. Paul also gives guidelines for women to use when they publicly prophesy and also affirms women who teach, like Priscilla.
In summary, I find it frustrating that many of the scriptures that are taken out of context are usually the ones used to marginalize or oppress someone’s race, status, or gender, while ignoring one of the greatest and clearest commandments: to love your neighbor as yourself. That is an ideal that anyone can espouse, no matter which religion he or she practices—even if none.