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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  • Gregory Du Bois

    This goes too far in the other direction by exalting women as faithful and men as failures. I note that among the disciples who sought advancement in the kingdom, James & John’s mother got into the act! I note that even Jesus’ mother at one point was concerned about the sanity of her son. I note that it was Peter who first said, “You are the Christ! the Son of the living God!” John also stayed that cross. The women were free to go to the tomb because they were not as in danger of being arrested as were the men. I am in favor of supporting a fairer view of women in ministry, but not of a loaded argument such as this one. My wife was similarly upset by this article as I shared it with her. She’s had enough of this pitting one against the other when we are all supposed to be together as one. Stop the fighting. Stop the one upmanship. Stop seeking advancement in the kingdom! May we all be more humble, loving, and kind to one another, speaking the truth in love without going over board.

  • Kelly

    My initial reaction is similar to Gregory. Where is the mention of the men who carried Jesus’ body to the tomb or other examples of their faithfulness? The article does seem lopsided. However I think it is important to recognize what is being said, namely that the role of the men–especially the twelve–is often seen only through a positive lense while the role of women is ignored or even dismissed. I hope we can strive for more balance here without swinging so far to the opposite direction.

  • Patrick

    Overall Mimi has a reasonable point. Not every example is appropriate.

    However, the point is very well taken with me. In the OT, females were 2cd class citizens in the ancient patriarchal society and Yahweh allowed this to continue as the cultural rule of the day UNTIL He came into the world and brought His kingdom to earth. So, Jesus upends that and has lots of females as His “highliners” so to speak.

    Mary of Bethany anoints Him for His death, what an honor and Jesus went out of His way to tell us even today to recall her faith until He comes again, so I am particularly pleased to.

    Martha of Bethany has her own famous declaration of faith. Mary of Magdala has the high honor of being the first eyewitness to the empty grave AND to the resurrected Christ.

    As Mimi points out, the Syro-Phoenician woman’s faith&understanding brings great excitement to Jesus, but, so does the faith of the Roman soldier, in both cases Jesus makes positive reference to their faith compared to what He is finding among His own people.

    Several of these women travelled with The Lord and since 1 was the wife of one of Herod’s servants, I assume she was a lady of some means and committment. If that guess is right, she probably financed Jesus’ travels to an extent.

    The truth is God’s people are all of us equally, all colors, all languages, all sexes, good and bad, civilized or not and we’re all in this deal because of Christ who transcends such earthly problems and disagreements.

  • I don’t see Mimi’s article as going to far to the other extreme, but as pointing out that which has been overlooked or marginalized for much of church history. The focus is on the question, “Is God Male?”, and we need to read this portion of the series in that light. So she chose to highlight the many examples where it was the women who were brave, who were leaders, who had great insight, etc. To take this as an argument that men are being put down is to put words in her mouth and to assign motives which those who have read her writings over the years would object to in no uncertain terms.

  • She highlights women (perhaps) for the very reason that they are so often NOT the stories we hear in church. I know growing up in the church I NEVER or RARELY heard stories about these women. As Scot says in Blue Parakeet, perhaps we should be asking “What DID women do in scripture?” I’m reading scripture very differently after reading that book. I’m so grateful for Mimi’s scholarship and work with CBE and for Scot highlighting it. I feel less alone. I feel less crazy. Thank you!

  • Patrick

    Specifically to the question, is Yahweh a man?

    Maybe, maybe not.

    In the OT text, there is a series of events where Yahweh is said to be a man. There are 2 Yahweh’s in the OT text, ancient Jews knew this and stopped with that after Christ. “2 powers in heaven” is a scholarly work about this issue.

    One is visible, one is invisible. Ignoring all the various “male oriented” theophanies of the visible Yahweh relating to Abraham, Issac and Jacob, other areas are of interest here.

    When Jewish prophets got their commissions and they were taken into the heavens to have a big meet up with Yahweh. Ezekiel chapter 1: 26-28 is one of these. Ezekiel reports seeing the visible Yahweh and he looks like a man with the glory of God. Are we to take this seriously?

    It’s according to how you view these texts I guess. I think Ezekiel could have been using the term ADAM for mankind there or for a man . Maybe that passage should say “with the likeness of mankind instead of a man”??

    So, maybe, maybe not.

  • Greg, I think I see your POV because this article appears disconnected from the context in which it was written in response. However, rather than flipping over into defensive mode where it’s easy to read “negative-male” when encountering “positive-female”, let’s celebrate that Jesus did, in deeds, interactions and words, upend the hierarchy and call us all to serve one another as God in Christ has served us. It was a given that the women were servants, then, and are expected to be now, too, in most of the world’s cultures. (All, imho, because Gen 3 still rules in the “kingdoms of this world”.) Perhaps you weren’t familiar w/ what John Piper said about Christianity appropriately being “masculine” in feel. CBE and Haddad are responding to that by highlighting faithful women to whom Jesus responded with affirmation and encouragement, using them as examples. Piper was severely off base, in our opinions, and this is a corrective series of posts. To point out, as Mimi Haddad and Daniel Kirk (Fuller NT Professor) have, that women were among the faithful & servant-leaders among the followers of Christ is not to say there were not men among the faithful servant-leaders. Rather, the latter had been asserted as normative to omit women followers; the corrective needed to be given.

  • DRT

    As a former catholic (born and raised a catholic, which makes me a catholic for life), I want to comment on this:

    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 is very interesting. While I agree with what is said here, I want to ask if the protestants use this as part of the reason they stopped venerating Mary.

    To me, this actually brings to the forefront the reason why we should bless and venerate Mary. For in the Magnificat, we have exactly the model of someone who "hears the word of God and obey's it". In other words, Jesus is not saying to that the woman should not bless his mother, he is saying that you should do it for the right reason.

  • DRT

    Now general comments.

    This is an incredible post that I appreciate. Ironically, since I left the RCC because of the treatment of women, I have ended up in churches and a society that seems to devalue women even more than the RCC. I am slowly learning that the problem has been that I lived in a bubble that valued women and had people valuing progress toward equality, but that bubble is not really the way the world is. A hard lesson to learn in ones 40’s.

    Baptism vis a vis circumcision as a mark of the faith and its significance because it can now include women is something I never thought of before. Thank you so much for that. Of course, it seems obvious to me now, but it clearly moved the church from one of male centeredness to gender neutrality. How brilliant.

    To argue that Christianity has “a masculine feel” is to fail exactly where the twelve failed.

    If one reads the new testament with this lens, it easily makes you think that this was one of the controlling themes of the writing. But just imagine if it was more overt, like Paul saying there is no male and female, that would overshadow the dialog.

    This post has illuminated another dimension that I did not fully appreciate and, it seems to me, I will get a lot of milage about considering the connections this starts to make. Wow, I really like this.

  • Patrick


    I’ve never really discussed as a lifetime prot why we don’t venerate Mary like RCC do. I can give you my personal view.

    She does deserve extremely high honoring, like Mary of Bethany or Peter or Paul. Not more.

    Beyond this, there is simply no information we have from any ancient source we could consider canonical or even to the level of some of the apochryphal works as source material that teach us to see Mary as a permanent virgin or the eventual queen of heaven.

    I’ve read it was a document in the 2cd century that began this view. That won’t work for me. Canonicity is either from eyewitnesses to the resurrection or input from them with me.

    Besides, right here an Orthodox gentleman vociferously argued she was a perpetual virgin based on her womb having been the “temporary temple of God” and that He would never allow sex to “go there”. I was quite impressed by his work, but, it falls short.

    God allows us in marriage to have sex, no, He in fact encourages us to in Corinthians. We’re God’s current active Temple. Sex isn’t so bad now for God’s current temple, is it?
    Further, the old stone temple was His temple and twice He allowed, in fact empowered pagan armies to flatten the Temple and Jerusalem because He had left it.

    I could go on. The doctrine just doesn’t make sense to me and I do respect Catholics a lot, just have some disagreements is all.

  • Dianne P

    Thank you Mimi.

    I totally agree with Paula. Well said.

    It’s sad that to look at Jesus’ relationship with women and provide specific examples is somehow (mis-) interpreted to be any type of attack on men.

    We need to understand what Jesus did in light of both a patriarchal AND Jewish culture. What would a Jewish man of that time think of Jesus? A Jewish woman? A gentile?

    Mimi, you did a great job. Please do not be discouraged by criticisms that you have “gone too far”. I don’t even know what that means… Sigh. In many ways, did Jesus go too far? You bet!

    Peace and good!

  • Bev Murrill

    Mimi, thanks for a balanced and succinct point of view which I heartily endorse. I appreciate the thoughts you expressed regarding the Jewishness of the disciples. Your article in no way denigrated men, simply expressed some of the arguments that have had little airing in general over the last 1800 years… I say 1800 because the early disciples got Jesus’ point.. it took time for gender bias to return in the following centuries.

  • Philip Wilson

    Yes, women are described in very powerful terms in reference to their faith in Christ in the gospels, and often are stronger than the male disciples. Jesus may have elevated the role of women in the way he treated his female disciples. However, when Jesus chose the leaders of his church, 12 out of 12 were still male, and I’m afraid that nothing you’ve said removes that fact. Sorry, Jesus wasn’t an egalitarian in terms of leadership.

  • Susie Aasen

    It saddens me when otherwise excellent articles are marred by misstatements of what Scripture says, or extrapolations about which there may be disagreement that are presented as established fact.

    Although the women came prepared with spices on the THIRD day, the Gospel writers clearly and unequivocally state that it was Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus who prepared Jesus’ body for burial, even giving a precise accounting of the spices used.

    depending on which translation and which Gospel you look at, Jesus declared Mary’s anointing to be a preparation for His burial, or that the perfume was to be kept for His burial. NONE of them state that Mary specifically knew Jesus was going to die on the cross.

    Accuracy matters. If we cannot be trusted to get simple, clear foundational facts right, then we risk the credibility of our reasoning based on them.

    Again, I believe the article to be excellent in its general premise and conclusion, but these two erroneous points would have been better left out.

  • Paul

    You obviously missed the part where she talks about how they were all Jews. I guess that means the majority of the world’s population can’t be pastors.