Do you wonder why the words and deeds of Christ are not given more attention in the current gender debate? If all of scripture points to Jesus, and if Jesus’ treatment of women was radically different from his culture, even his religious culture, how do the life and words of Christ inform us today? For clearly Christ not only opposed abuse and patriarchy—the devaluation of women—he also found opportunities to promote women’s ultimate destiny as bearers of God’s image and joint-heirs of God’s eternal kingdom. Perhaps that is one reason women were so drawn to Jesus. Here is one example, though there are many more.
The religious taboos of Christ’s culture viewed female bodies as impure and inferior. This worked to exclude women from spiritual service and support—a practice Jesus opposed. By allowing an “unclean” hemorrhaging woman to touch him—which according to Jewish tradition made Jesus unclean as well—Christ brought physical as well as spiritual healing! By announcing that this hemorrhaging woman was ill, not unclean, Christ welcomed regular contact with women and made it possible for them to share in his work along with his disciples (Mark 5:25-34). As John Dehousaye observed in the Spring 2006 issue of Mutuality, Jesus made it clear that it is not what the body touches or what comes out of the body that makes us unclean (Mark 7:8). Rather it is what abides in our hearts: “evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit…” (Mark 7: 10-21). Religious taboos may have an appearance of righteousness, but, as Christ suggested, these taboos comprise vain worship because it overlooks the commands of God by holding to human traditions (Mark 7:7-8).
Human tradition, in nearly every culture, taught that women were, by virtue of their gender, less rational, less morally pure, less intelligent, and therefore ill-equipped not only for leadership, but also for equal partnership with men. Jesus breaks company not only with the patriarchy of Plato and Aristotle, but also with his own Jewish religious traditions which often excluded women from most service in the synagogues. Jesus engaged women theologically and expected women to respond not as a separate class, but as people, as disciples. Jesus ignored holiness taboos, and Paul did the same. Like Jesus, women were among Paul’s closest coworkers—those who labored beside him in the gospel. Jesus treated women as he did the male disciples; he encouraged them to learn at his feet rather than insisting they return to their gendered spheres of work.
What would happen if all churches treated women as Jesus did—as disciples and as authentic heirs of all God’s kingdom?
Mimi Haddad is the president of Christians for Biblical Equality.