Women in Early Christianity

Women in Early Christianity June 2, 2012

This post is by Mimi Haddad.
Is God Male? Part 4

Over the past three weeks I have been challenging the idea that there is a “masculine feel” to Christianity based upon the nature of God, our language for God, and Scripture’s explanation of male-female relationships. Today we will tackle another factor contributing to the mistaken idea of a “masculine Christianity”—the perception that only males held positions of prominence and leadership in Scripture.

Some Christians point to the twelve male disciples as evidence that church leadership is limited to men only. At face value this may sound compelling. However, the twelve were not only male, they were also Jewish. In reality, it is much more important to consider the ethnicity of the twelve. Apart from this, their gender is insignificant. Why?

The twelve represent the reconstitution of the twelve tribes of Israel into the New Covenant, as God had promised. These tribes are organized by male clan leaders, as was the custom in a patriarchal culture. Hence, to make gender a prerequisite for leadership, while ignoring what these twelve represent, is to sanctify the patriarchy of the ancient world, missing the point entirely! The point of the twelve was to celebrate God’s faithfulness to Israel, which the twelve symbolize. After all, it is on the Jews that Christ centers much of his attention, especially through the twelve male disciples.

As Daniel Kirk observed during CBE’s Houston conference, the twelve men represent an expansion of Christ’s work on earth as they heal, preach, and depose demons (Mark 6:8-12, 30-31). Even so, they are continually slow to grasp Christ’s mission and message. For example, when confronted with 5,000 hungry people, the twelve ask to send the crowd away. Jesus has to tell them, “You give them something to eat! Yet, one chapter later we meet an outcast, a Syro-Phoenician woman, whose faith far overshadows that of the twelve. This marginalized woman tells Jesus that she will be nourished even by the crumbs scattered on the floor (Mark 7:24-30). We must recognize Christ’s engagement with the marginalized, particularly the women sidelined by a patriarchal culture. These women, interestingly, exhibit the greatest faith in Jesus—a faith that puts the twelve to shame! If the example of the twelve disciples teaches us anything, it demonstrates how easy it is to overlook what God is doing right in front of our noses. The example of the twelve often teaches us what NOT to do.

Scripture boldly compares the failures of the twelve to the courageous faith of women. The twelve grasp for power; they want to sit at Christ’s right and left hand (Mark 10:37); they forbid even children to approach Jesus (Mark 10:13); they are outraged and humiliated when Christ speaks with women openly (John 4:27); and one even betrays Christ. When he is arrested and crucified, the twelve disperse, one denies Christ openly, and others hole up behind locked doors.

Yet, the women remain brave-hearted and faithful throughout. They understand that Christ’s mission will end on the cross, and they tenderly prepare his body for death. They remain with Christ during his crucifixion, and wrap his body in grave clothes. Outside the tomb, they wait faithfully—a vigilance that Christ rewards. A woman—Mary—is the first to meet the risen Lord. Christ tells her to go to his disciples with the good news! Do they believe her? Did they believe Christ? Even as Jesus appears to them, Thomas asks to touch his wounds just to be sure it is Christ.

Though they were marginalized by their culture because of their gender, poverty, ethnicity, ritual uncleanliness, and even because some worked as prostitutes, women teach us more about discipleship than the twelve disciples do. The Bible juxtaposes the women’s faith with the twelve’s failures. What is more, Jesus unhesitatingly engages women as if to challenge their devaluation. He expects them to respond not as a distinct class, but as people, disciples, and heirs of God’s kingdom. Jesus broke social and religious taboos related to gender, and he consistently challenged the patriarchal devaluation of women. We see this when Christ heals a hemorrhaging woman in public (Luke 8:40-49). It was assumed that if he touched her, he too would be unclean, a belief he overturns by allowing her to touch him in public, with many witnesses, declaring that she had been healed of her disease.

Jesus then allows Mary to anoint his feet with oil and dry them with her hair (John 12:3) as a priest might anoint a king in the Old Testament. When Judas complains about the expensive oil she uses, Jesus rebukes him. Mary realizes Jesus must face the cross and she prepares him for death. She understood that this king must die—a realization that came too slowly to the twelve.

It was to a woman that Jesus declared his Messianic identity in one of the lengthiest dialogues recorded in the Gospels—an encounter that displeases the disciples (John 4:5-30). Yet, Jesus is distinctly unlike the other rabbis of his day. He allows women to sit at his feet and study his teachings (Luke 10:38-42)—preparing them for service as disciples, evangelists, and teachers. In all ways, the equality and full humanity of women was self-evident, implicit, and consistently part of Christ’s teachings and practice. Through his practices and teachings, Jesus opposes patriarchy.

When a woman called out to Jesus, saying, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you,” Jesus responded, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it” (Luke 11:27-28). For Jesus, a woman’s value resides not in her gender roles, but in her response to God’s revelation. This becomes the standard for every member of Christ’s New Covenant—male and female. Women are now daughters of Abraham (Luke 13:16), a phrase first used by Jesus to welcome God’s daughters as heirs and full members of Christ’s body, the church.

Women are also prominent at Pentecost—the birth of the church. Men and women of all tribes prophesy and declare the truth of God authoritatively, through the power of the Holy Spirit showing that access to God is no longer mediated through an elite group of Jewish males, but through God’s Spirit poured out on many tribes and nations, on both men and women. There is no gender, ethnic, or age preference noted in the birth of the church, or the gifts expressed at Pentecost.

Similarly, baptism welcomes not only the marginalized, but especially women, because baptism replaces circumcision as the outer expression of our inclusion in God’s Covenant people. Whereas circumcision was for Jewish men alone, baptism is for all people, male or female, Jew or Greek, slave or free. The inclusivity of Christian baptism is emphasized by Paul in Galatians 3:28, a verse inscribed on many early Christian baptismal fonts. To be united with Christ not only realigns our identity and status with respect to God, but our union with Christ also redefines our relationships to one another. Just as Christ established peace and reconciliation between sinners and God, our rebirth in Christ also inaugurates harmony and mutuality between the members of His body—the church. As Gordon Fee notes, to be in Christ is never simply a statement about our redemption but salvation directly influences our relationships with one another, as members of Christ’s body.

Paul boldly states in Galatians 3:28-29 that Jews and Greeks, slaves and free, male and female are all one in Christ and therefore heirs of God’s kingdom. He offered these words to a world in which women and nearly half of the general population were slaves. In a profound way, Galatians 3:28 is a radical social statements because one’s identity, dignity and sphere of influence was, in the ancient world, largely determined by one’s ethnicity, gender and class. Yet, Paul tells believers in Galatia that to be clothed in Christ is to be heirs of Christ’s kingdom, suggesting that what we inherit through our earthly parents cannot compare to our heritage through Christ. In reflecting on his own inheritance Paul said that “whatever gains I had, these I have come to regard as loss because of Christ” (Phil. 3:7).

To argue that Christianity has “a masculine feel” is to fail exactly where the twelve failed. They, too, were slow to see how Christ’s victory ushers in a new creation, as Kirk observes. To focus exclusively on the gender of the twelve as the unassailable quality of leadership while overlooking the receptive faith and courage offered by the women—whom Christ treated as equal members of the New Covenant community—is to confuse the patriarchy of first-century culture with the teachings of Scripture—that through Christ the outsiders are now insiders, the weak are made strong, and the strong of this world are weak in their own might. The portal to leadership is not gender but newness of life in Christ!

We noted an error in last week’s column entitled “Is God Male: Part 3.” To see a corrected version of this article, click here.

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